Wednesday 7 April 2010
[Christopher Fraser in the Chair]
House of Commons (Effectiveness)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)
To misquote one of my contemporary political heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), whom I have come to regard as a friend as well as a colleague, this will be the last speech that I shall ever make as a Member of this House of Commons. It comes at the end of what some have called the Manure Parliament, at a time when the stench of corruption and personal greed has overwhelmed the good that we try to do and the reasons why the vast majority of us come to this place. In my last contribution I want to mount a staunch defence of politics and politicians: not as an apologist for the status quo—because I have always been on what one could call the Hezbollah wing of the reform movement—but because I believe passionately that a precondition for the survival of a healthy democracy is the holding of regular elections, and that for those elections to function there must be candidates. Those candidates who eventually succeed in securing the approval of the electors will, whether they like it or not, grow up to become politicians, just as night follows day.
Yet, if we follow the subtext of much of the media coverage of our politics—and it long predates last spring’s expenses scandal—things would be so much better if somehow we could have politics without politicians and clear out the whole political class. All the ills of the world are easily solved, all problems are simple, and politicians—us lot—only make matters worse. Then, by adding a dose of xenophobia and a dollop of snobbery with some implied racism mixed in from time to time, we have the gospel according to Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Richard Littlejohn and a dozen other commentators of the fourth estate, who know it all. Well, anyone can write about what other people should be doing. I have spent a quarter of a century of my life as a public representative, often listening to other people telling me what I should be doing. I only wish I had spent half as long hearing people ask how they, too, could come forward and serve their communities assiduously, as the best of us here and in councils and assemblies the length and breadth of this land try to do.
I want to quote—more accurately—another of my contemporary heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who gave the 2009 lecture for The Political Quarterly, which I commend to hon. Members. That provided much of the inspiration for this debate. He said of politicians:
“You see someone has to do it—someone has to take responsibility. As politicians we give voice to the hopes of the people and inevitably we will also feed their disappointments.”
Those are wise words and they apply as much to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as to Tony Blair or Winston Churchill.
We should not apologise for coming together to form political parties. It is what the public want us to do. They want us to forge alliances based on common programmes and principles. The notion of a House of Commons filled with 650 Independents, unable to agree on a single thing, has never appealed to the electorate, although it is in their gift to deliver it. At its best this place is the cockpit of our democracy, where the battle of ideas is fought out, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who sent us here receive expression and are sometimes realised. At its worst the Commons can be a craven institution, in thrall to either the Executive or party advantage, and pandering to the baser parts of the media. The day we finally subcontract our law-making to the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch will be the day on which representative democracy dies. Collectively we will have lost the moral authority that we have left.
We have gone far too far down that road already, giving too much power, without accountability, to unelected press barons who draw their political lineage and set their moral compasses from such repulsive headlines as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the Daily Mail of 15 January 1934; I think that it has become more extreme over the years. Who will ever forget the famous headline in The Sun of 9 November 1998: “Are we being run by a gay mafia?” It was particularly demeaning to see the former leader of my party attempting to formulate child protection policy on the basis of a News of the World witch hunt that led to a mob attack on the home of a paediatrician, rather than by listening to the sensible, informed opinions of senior police officials and experts from organisations such as Barnardo’s and Save the Children, who know a thing or two about managing paeodphiles released from prison. We have yet to find out what price Mr. Murdoch has extracted from the Leader of the Opposition in return for the political endorsement of The Sun. I worry that we may see the break-up of the BBC and certainly a diminution in the regulatory powers of Ofcom.
This debate almost never happened. My original intention, shared with the Leader of the House, was that the debate should be entitled “In Praise of Politics”. The Clerks ruled that out of order. I then compromised with “In Praise of Parliament”. That was also the subject of a banning order from the men in wigs. We eventually settled on today’s somewhat obtuse title. There we have it: as politicians we cannot hold a debate about politics and as parliamentarians we cannot praise Parliament. There clearly remains much to reform about this place, including the arcane rules that govern our proceedings and the regime that so delights in enforcing them.
Some 13 years ago I made my maiden speech on the case for reform of the House of Commons, calling for nothing less than a new politics for a new century, and a political system that would connect with the public and their aspirations. In the intervening period I have done my level best to put as much of the reform agenda as I could into practice, but collectively we have fallen disappointingly short of those worthy objectives, which seemed so achievable in those far-off days of hope in the summer of 1997.
Anyone who served with good intent on the Modernisation Committee or, more recently, on the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, knows through long and bitter experience how intensely conservative this institution is—how resistance to change has been elevated to an art form and how achieving radical reform is as difficult as nailing blancmange to a wall. Just look at the inordinate length of time it took to allow the citizens of tomorrow, in the shape of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, to hold their annual meeting in the House of Commons. It took five years from the publication in 2004 of the modernisation report, which I helped to draft, for us belatedly to follow in the footsteps of that great reforming body, the House of Lords, and allow the unelected bottoms of the UKYP to sit on those green Benches and participate in what proved to be a lively and articulate debate, which showcased the best of our young people, and hopefully launched a political career or two. I suppose that it was better late than never; but why such fuss and delay?
Of course, there is a powerful case for further reforms—for permanent, if not incremental, revolution. I have argued before for ending moonlighting and paying MPs properly. It is a full-time job and we should work full-time hours. I would provide proper resources to meet the increasing demands of our constituents. They are not the same from constituency from constituency. Constituencies such as mine or those of my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) have, in their nature, vastly more casework. I talk to Members of Parliament for other constituencies who have given up holding advice surgeries, because no one comes. That is fine, too, but let us ensure that the resources meet the demand.
I want genuine public engagement. I want to end the farce of early-day motions, and conning the people that they mean something. I argued for that in my maiden speech and in the Wright Committee. If sufficient Members across the party political divide put their name to a limited number of motions it should drive House business, and there should be a debate in the House. That would properly engage the public.
I have looked at examples from Australia where Members can use interesting devices such as three-minute constituency statements, in which a matter of import—particularly local import—can be raised without a convoluted attempt to tack it onto a question about something else. I am bitterly disappointed that 13 years on we shall still not see reform of the House of Lords completed. I remain a defender of the principle of a second Chamber. All too often, perhaps because of the ineffectiveness of the House of Commons, the second Chamber does a better job of scrutinising legislation, which should be a matter of shame for us all.
We really must end time-wasting as a political weapon. It is monstrously unfair that we do not have time to put through much-needed legislation and reform and yet waste hour upon hour marching organisations up to the top of the hill for private Members’ Bills and other motions that simply go nowhere because of the ability to filibuster. In this place the most disempowered group are the critical friends of whoever are in Government. In Public Bill Committees Government Members are encouraged to keep quiet—often I do not follow that advice. Why do we not co-opt outside expertise onto those Committees? The notion that a Bill, once published, must travel through Parliament for a form of mock scrutiny, during which not a semicolon, paragraph or phrase can be amended, is ridiculous. We are all paid a reasonable salary to do a little better than that and to apply our judgment and that of our advisers and constituents.
Perhaps we should go further and set a maximum age limit for Members. I am leaving this place because I vowed not to be rattling around the House in my 60s. That is not to say that people here in their 60s do not do a fantastic job, but I became a councillor 25 years ago when I was 29 years old and there are other things that I want to do with my life.
I will raise a point about our staff that has been overlooked. It is difficult for any Member facing re-election to criticise the report and recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but we should take a closer look at what it is seeking it to do to our staff. The 10 per cent. staff pension allowance that was formerly paid centrally now comes out of the starting budget, yet with no corresponding increase. If Members pay their staff up to the maximum, and those representing places like Reading have to pay the maximum to get good staff—we are only as good as the people working for us—they will effectively have to implement a 7 per cent. wage cut. That is monstrous. For all I have read about the expenses scandal, which applied to only a minority of Members from across the House, I have never come across a staffer or researcher who spent money on a duck house or a moat or who claimed for a false mortgage, but once again it is the poor bloody infantry who are carrying the can, not the officer class.
I am loth to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid flow, but I will add that although the amount of money allocated to Members for staffing purposes sounds very large, after taking out national insurance and pensions, it is not only quite a small sum—only enough for three and a half people covering the constituency and Westminster—but smaller than it was last year. We will be trying to do more on less over the coming year.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I will say later in my speech, the public want us to do more.
There is a concern, to which I hope Members will turn their minds, about complaints to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I have been the subject of a vexatious complaint and ended up having to take legal action—I made history by being the first person to sue a sitting Member. It is awful for a Member to have an unresolved complaint having over them. Where possible, I hope that the Commissioner will resolve complaints or publish interim findings so that Members who are the subject of vexatious or politically motivated complaints do not have them hanging over them as they face the electorate, because we all know how easy it is to imply ill of people purely on the basis of an unproven accusation. Furthermore, on the other side of that concern, there are three or four complaints against Members still outstanding because they have failed to co-operate fully with the Committee and the Commissioner in the hope that judgment can be deferred until after the election. That is also wrong, as those matters should be resolved.
We have had our successes, of course. The Select Committees are often still regarded as a 30-year experiment, and I think that we could conclude that it has been successful. In fact, I understand that recently seven consecutive lead stories on the “Today” programme featured either a report or the work of a Select Committee. For many of us, particularly those who will never be given an opportunity to ply our trade in Government, Select Committee work is perhaps the most rewarding we will get to do. The Select Committees must remain the focus of the process of scrutiny in this place.
I am pleased that we introduced topical questions, but it is ridiculous that the Government choose what is topical. We can do better than that, which is why we need our new Back-Bench business committee. We have seen more pre-legislative scrutiny. I would hold up the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 as an excellent example of legislation on which we worked together with the other place. The Bill was published in draft and then amended and improved so that we put forward a superb measure.. It was heavily criticised by the Government Whips Office at the time as a dreadful example of legislation because it had been amended so often. That is what we are here to do and what we pick up the salary for.
The election of Select Committee Chairs was something I called for in my maiden speech. We are on the verge of achieving it, but it has taken 13 years for something so patently obvious. There is the proposal for a Back-Bench business committee, although I read last night that the Government’s business motion does not find time for a 90-minute debate to put through the key recommendation of the Wright Committee. I give notice to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that if the Government want my votes in the wash-up, and the votes of those Members who participated on the Wright Committee and backed those reforms, she should state when she responds that the Government will make time for a Standing Order to be put in place and not rely on the device of a single Member standing up to torpedo months and months of important, hard work.
The hon. Gentleman has signed the amendment to that business motion, which is on today’s Order Paper, as have I and other Members present. If the Government will not give ground and accept the amendment, does he not think that we should have a last exercise of Back-Bench power in this Parliament and force it through?
I have drafted an e-mail to send to the many people who are prepared to stand up for Parliament and for representative democracy, and unless I receive a satisfactory answer, the button will be pushed.
I want to talk a little about the unsung work that takes place here by Members across the political divide. I single out the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is leaving under a cloud because of expenses and some unwise comments, but whose contribution on the vital matter of human trafficking often goes unreported and unsung. The work of the all-party group on Gurkha rights, on which I have worked with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), was instrumental in getting that issue right to the heart of Government and forcing a sufficient number of Members on our side either to vote against the proposals or to hold back and enable the Government to come to their senses and give justice to those who are prepared to shed blood for our country.
Everyone who makes it to this place, however inarticulate some may seem, has something about them. Thousands of people try at every election to get into Parliament and very few succeed. To come through that process they have to have some attributes, which, sadly, this place can overwhelm from time to time. Every day Members of Parliament are on their feet, pressing issues and concerns close to the hearts of their constituents. The best advice I ever received was from a Member who has since left my party, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). She told me, “Remember, the House of Commons is the best megaphone in the world. Use it wisely and sparingly and for the issues that matter to you and your constituents and you won’t go far wrong.” I offer that advice to the phalanx of new Members who will join this place.
I worry about this place, particularly under the new rules. The travel arrangements say that my constituency of Reading, West can be commuted to in an hour. I have done that commute for 13 years—I have never had a London flat—and I have never, ever done it in an hour. When we sit late, there are times where I am dragging myself back here again in the morning. I do not regret it for a moment. I certainly did not regret it when The Daily Telegraph published its files. It has enabled me to be a more effective MP. But the idea that a Minister can deliver that job and the ministerial requirements as well as be an effective constituency MP while commuting during all those crazy hours, as I have had to, is for the birds. If we, in our politics, undervalue, underpay and under-resource ourselves, we undervalue our democracy and our political system.
My own parliamentary record is one of modest endeavour, but with the occasional achievement. I am particularly proud of the change in the law to make it illegal to download violent internet pornography. That followed the appalling death of the daughter of a wonderful lady, Liz Longhurst, from Reading. Her daughter, Jane, was horribly murdered by someone addicted to such pornography who had, in the past, sought help in respect of some of the depraved snuff movies and other imagery that is available out there in the wonderful world of the worldwide web. The Evening Post, communities in Reading, Amnesty International, women’s groups and cross-party coalitions all worked together on persuading the Government to treat that imagery in the way we treat child pornography. It is not just its publication that is now an offence—how can we go after a website based in Guatemala or Mexico?—but downloading it becomes an offence, too.
I was pleased to work with my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North and for Birmingham, Northfield and many others, including some other hon. Members, in making a bit of parliamentary history. We published the first alternative education White Paper. We did not like the Government’s White Paper in 2006, because we were bringing the marketplace into the schools, much like the Conservative manifesto now. It was clear that local authorities were being removed from the ring and that those wealthy enough and powerful enough would be able to set up their own schools, and the rest could go hang. Instead of promoting a parliamentary rebellion in the conventional sense—waiting until the last moment, with the various troops marched up to the top of the hill—we rewrote the White Paper. Former Secretaries of State for Education were involved. Once 100 Labour MPs had put their names to an excellent document, the then Prime Minister decided that it was time to talk. It is always good to talk.
I will always remember with huge affection leading a delegation from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to Belfast in 1998. We campaigned for the agreement in the Falls road in the morning and in the Shankill road with the loyalists in the afternoon. It really was politics in the raw. Whatever our differences may be on the Belfast agreement, it is a huge achievement of our politics and our political process that politics restored itself to Northern Ireland and that 300 years of killing and hatred started to become a distant memory. Huge credit goes to the politicians of Northern Ireland for being prepared to embrace change.
I have tried to use what organisational skills I have to get us to work collectively on issues, often across the political divide. It was pleasing last year to be working with hon. Members in the Thames valley to defeat the crazy plans of the Environment Agency to sell off all the lock-keepers’ cottages. We did that. Those crucial workers can now carry out their responsibilities without fear of eviction. The campaign for the Speaker of the House, which I will touch on shortly, was another exercise in organisation.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) who, as Sports Minister, made me my party’s spokesman for angling—the great passion of my life—which was a role that I particularly enjoyed. That position gave me the opportunity to give a voice to Britain’s 3 million recreational anglers. It was my pleasure to be able to publish Labour’s charter for angling and to see that we do what we can to promote Britain’s most popular participant sport.
The job has changed over the years. The number of letters and e-mails, and the contact that we have with the public, have grown hugely. Figures from the House of Commons post office show that in the 1950s the average Member of Parliament received some 15 to 20 letters a week. If only! We can reach that number in an hour now. As we know, figures are now in the 400 to 800 mark, and growing.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. We have website polling and we want instant answers. There are those ridiculous bespoke websites, including TheyWorkForYou.com. Tragically, I know hon. Members of the 2005 intake who have tailored their work programmes to get a high score on the TheyWorkForYou website. As we know, an intervention used to count the same as a speech and parliamentary questions were asked to drive up a score, rather than for a purpose.
In the 1950s, one in 11 people belonged to a political party. [Interruption.] I am sorry to say, Mr. Fraser, that a crown has decided to fall out during my final speech. I will hiss for the remaining few moments. [Laughter.] I think that I will turn away from the cameras.
In this decade, one in 88 people belong to a political party. Are we saying that people are engaging more, or is it just a small minority who are doing so? We tried to respond to this situation. I have set up supporters clubs in my constituency. The Conservative party has shown the way forward with open primaries. We have community forums, too.
It was right and proper that we produced constituency reports, keeping ourselves in touch with our constituents. I regret the end of the communication allowance. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is not in his place, has criticised the publication of constituency reports, yet his own council issues an almost daily council newspaper seeking to achieve the same thing. A degree of consistency on this issue would be helpful.
May I say that my hon. Friend may lose a crown, but he certainly deserves a title for his work as a Back Bencher?
The constituency reports—certainly, the ones that I produce—reflect our constituencies. Some hon. Members represent deprived constituencies where lots of people do not normally come to the Member of Parliament, because they regard the MP, even one who tries to be approachable, as somewhat distant. Putting a report around the constituency and giving a phone number, details and surgery times is an outreach effort that MPs should be commended rather than penalised for, which has now happened since we have been told that we can no longer do this.
I could not agree more. Of course, we are talking about the very people who do not often go online or read local newspapers. We should be attempting to engage with all our citizens, not just the informed minority.
I remain sceptical of people who argue that parliamentary reform and making the House of Commons more effective can be achieved by some kind of magic bullet and that proportional representation will be the answer. I remain convinced—I was 13 years ago and I am now even more so—of the importance of the constituency link. It is our responsibility to try to drive up turnout. I have done some work for the Wright Committee, looking at Australian models. Compulsory voting will drive up turnout, but my goodness it changes the way that politics is done: in a compulsory voting system there is no longer a need to have to inspire, because people have to turn-out, so politics becomes even more negative and even more about trashing the other side and fear. The level of abuse in the Australian Parliament makes that point. I think I shall bottle it rather than mention a particular instance. [Interruption.] Actually, as it is my last speech I really do not care. Perhaps the worst example of abuse was from Mark Latham, the former Labour leader, who managed to get into Hansard that the Opposition Front Bench was
“a conga line of suckholes”.
How lovely! Our reputation may have fallen, but we still have some way to fall yet.
Radical reform of this place needs radical leadership, which is why I backed Mr. Speaker for election to this place and why, in the previous election for Speaker, I backed the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I will always back the reform candidate. May I say a little about the nonsense that has come out—the plot that has been hatched—in the Procedure Committee? The suggestion that the current Speaker of the House of Commons was not subject to the secret ballot that he is calling for his deputies is fundamentally wrong. He is the only Speaker who has been elected by a secret ballot. At the start of the new Parliament, we have a procedure to trigger deselection. If Members of Parliament want to deselect the Speaker of the House of Commons, they should not hide behind a secret ballot; they should walk through the Lobby, and put their names on the record. Not so to do is a coward’s charter.
I believe that Parliament made the right choice. I really do. Our current Speaker has proved himself to be a reformer. We have already seen a brisker style of dealing with oral questions. More Members are called, which is fantastic, and more urgent questions have been granted. There is a tracking system for written questions, and more pressure on Ministers. The Speaker is considering restoring cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall on subjects covered by two or more Departments. He is a reformer and, goodness me, we need a reformer in the Chair of this place.
Have we ever been popular? I thank Peter Riddell of The Times, who is probably our most eminent political commentator, for drawing my attention to the following quote:
“Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom because, a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.”
Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in 1837. There has never been a golden age when politics and politicians were revealed—I intended to say revered, but they have certainly been revealed!
The theory that we are all scoundrels has been a constant refrain. Of course that is unfair, but we do not always help ourselves, do we? The rush to American-style triangulation is dangerous. We could triangulate away and focus-group away, but what would happen to principle? We would achieve the lowest common political denominator. A collective, political class would chase after the lowest common political denominator. Sometimes, we must lead. We would not have delivered civil partnerships by referendum or votes on Sky. Sometimes we must stand up for what is right, and lead public opinion.
What I am perhaps most proud of in my constituency is not when I was everyone’s sweetheart and followed the herd, but when I stood up to my constituents and called for, supported and campaigned for a new mental hospital in the middle of my constituency in a public park, because the old Victorian practice of consigning the mentally ill to asylums with no bus routes and so on was inhuman. When we lead, the public sometimes respond, and some of the fiercest critics of that hospital eventually sat on the steering committee to make the project successful. We must never, ever allow the campaigning process to triumph over the principles of why we seek people’s trust to allow us to govern in the first place.
No valedictory address, even a semi-valedictory one, can be completely depersonalised, so please forgive me, Mr. Fraser, if I take a few moments to describe how I arrived in this place to represent my constituency and my home town of Reading. I was blessed with politically engaged parents who cared. I was blessed with a grandfather who was prepared to make sacrifices for his political principles. He went to prison as a conscientious objector. After experience in the voluntary sector and the trade union movement, I arrived in Reading in 1980 not to become a councillor or an MP, but to go fishing. I bought my first house on the banks of the River Kennet. I have always been suspicious of people who had their lives mapped out on the back of an envelope and who intended to make their first million in their 20s, marry well in their 30s, enter Parliament in their 40s, and become Prime Minister in their 50s. The former right hon. Member for Henley, much as I like, admire and respect him, may have been in that mould. The present hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is much more modest.
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman great latitude in the issues that he is discussing because this is his valedictory, but he is trespassing slightly on my generosity, and other people want to contribute to the debate. May I ask him to remember the title of the debate in his final comments?
I accept your strictures, Mr. Fraser. I want to put on the record my thanks to Reading district Labour party for sending me here to help to make the House of Commons more effective, not just in 2010 but in 1997 and during the intervening years. I thank it for making me its candidate in seven elections, in six of which I was fortunate in being successful. My deepest appreciation goes to my constituents who have been most kind and generous in their thanks, words and wishes. I want particularly to thank my loyal staff, who have played their part in helping me to try to make the House of Commons more effective in 2010. They include Moira Dickenson, Viki Lloyd, Ann Morgan, Alex Crampton, Will Sherlock and my current workers, for whom I will buy a drink tonight.
I could not have represented a better constituency or worked with a more pleasant bunch of people. There is no doubt that, as a result of what has gone through the House of Commons when it has been at its most effective, my constituency has benefited from 13 years of this Labour Government. We have had new planning protection for Kennet meadows, and we have two new hospitals. I referred to one earlier, and the other is the Royal Berkshire. We have seen massive investment in our schools with improving results, and the £26 million John Madejski academy, of which I am proud to be a governor, has raised educational standards in a challenging part of my constituency. We have a record number of police officers and community support officers. My constituents are healthier, safer and better educated than ever before.
Perhaps it is fitting, as a former shop steward, to end by speaking up for the trade of politics. I implore those who follow on in this place to promote nothing less than a cultural revolution in our political life. The vicious, build-them-up, knock-them-down culture is a self-defeating road to nowhere except personality-driven politics. This House of Commons must remain central to our national political life. It must never be treated merely as a vehicle for policy announcements and party press releases. To brush it aside is to brush aside the one powerful tool that our democracy bestows on its citizens. We should remember that power vacuums never remain in place for long. Our politics may not be perfect, but when politics fails, people with guns invariably take over.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. This is the first—and probably the last—time I have done so. As your parents are my constituents, it is right to put on the record my appreciation of your role as a trusted and loyal colleague since 1997.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on his speech, and on introducing this topic, which fortunately is very wide. It includes the effectiveness of the House of Commons in 2010, and I shall refer briefly to matters on today’s Order Paper concerning the Back-Bench business committee. It is perhaps a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not spend more time on that.
Cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high, and the Prime Minister tried to counter that by saying, “Don’t worry. I will give more power back to Back Benchers.” He then set up the Wright Committee, which argued against the Executive and the shadow Executive by making a strong case for a Back-Bench business committee. There was a debate last month, and it was significant that there was strong support for that committee from Back Benchers throughout the House. When it came to the vote, the Executive and the shadow Executive voted against it. Is it surprising that the Standing Order amendments, which are necessary to implement this wish of the House, are still below the line.
The only excuse provided yesterday by the Leader of the House was that amendments had been tabled. However, that did not prevent her from putting other things above the line in priority. For example, I have tabled a large number of amendments—about 15—to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill. If the motion before the House today goes through, the Leader of the House will have effectively torn up the Standing Orders by saying that although that Bill was due to be considered further on 23 April, she wants to amend the arrangement. The fact that I have tabled amendments is not a reason to block the Bill; that is a specious argument in the extreme. I hope that we will be able to exercise power on the Back Benches to ensure that we get the Back-Bench business committee, which we have repeatedly been promised.
I want to speak briefly about the effectiveness of the House in another respect, and I shall begin by quoting what the Speaker said in the 31st report of the House of Commons Commission, printed on 21 July last year:
“If the House is to regain public confidence, it needs among other things to demonstrate that it is an effective and modern Parliament, not only forceful in holding the executive to account and scrutinising its activities but also run in a professional and accountable manner.”
That brings me to an issue about which I have tabled many questions: I am concerned about the financial implications of the proposal for the establishment of a day nursery. As you will know, Mr. Fraser, that project was originally designed to provide short-term child care for a six-month trial period, which was the decision taken by the House of Commons Commission at its meeting on 19 October last year. In November, it was decided that a detailed proposal, including fully costed options for a child care facility, should be produced in December. At the December meeting, the Commission decided that a nursery facility should be set up at 1 Parliament street, and that it would begin operating in September 2010. That was done on the basis
“of seeking to recover the full running costs from users.”
I tabled a question to inquire about what would be included in those running costs. On 29 March, I received a reply from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answered on behalf of the Commission, and stated:
“This has yet to be finally determined.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 625W.]
There is no accountability. We have an assertion that the project will cover its costs, but we are not told what those costs will be.
Neither I nor my hon. Friend are opposed to the day nursery in principle, but we are opposed to the principle and method by which the decision was made in the House. It was never formally referred to the Finance and Services Committee, which has been set up in the House to consider important financial matters. My hon. Friend makes the case that no proper business case has been put in place. Does he not think that the Clerk of the House needs to consider the matter carefully before the project proceeds?
I would like to put on the record that this is one of several occasions when important financial matters have bypassed the Finance and Services Committee. If we are to have such a committee, it ought to consider all financial matters before they come before the House.
Exactly. That is what the Speaker must have meant when he spoke about the need for us to scrutinise activities and run the House in a professional and accountable manner. As my hon. Friend will know, the minutes from the Commission’s meeting of 29 March stated that
“the Accounting Officer will examine the business case, including cost and value for money aspects.”
We now know that the cost has gone up to £511,000 plus VAT—that is £600,000. In addition, there are costs associated with the need for extra evacuation in the event of fire. The costs keep rising, but the matter has not been referred back to the Commission in accordance with issues of accountability.
In the real world, issues of affordability are significant. Families up and down the country are saying, “This is desirable, but we can’t afford it.” I hope that an incoming Government will put at the forefront of the mission statement for every incoming Minister the need to separate what is desirable from what is affordable during the worst financial crisis in our lifetime. We in this House will not set a good example if we do not apply those principles to the way in which we conduct matters. I have already shown that this project has developed into a full-blown day nursery. Now the costs are running away, and we do not even know that there will be a demand for such a nursery.
A lot of cold water has been poured on this way of dealing with child care by a gentleman who is the largest child care provider in central London. He says that it is best for child care for children under the age of 5 to be in a home setting, or as close to the home as possible, rather than in a central London location. He has produced a paper showing how better value for money could be obtained through a different way of expending money on this service. I am not against child care facilities, but we should think this project through carefully and ensure that we get value for money.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Fraser, for saying that we are talking about the effectiveness of the House. When judging that effectiveness, one of the top criteria is whether people outside the House think that we are applying the same standards in the House that they apply in their own lives. Ultimately, the money that we spend in the House—whether in subsidising food or whatever else—is provided by the taxpayer. That is important.
Another issue is that of petitions, and the reforms aimed at giving them more prominence. The people who use the facilities in 1 Parliament street submitted a petition—I declare an interest, as the lead signature on it is that of my researcher. The petition gathered a large number of signatures over a couple of days, and only now have we have received a response. However, I am not sure that the response does much for the reputation of the House and its effectiveness. It does not respond at all to the suggestion for providing alternative facilities in Derby Gate. All it does is express regret on behalf of the Commission for the fact that many staff will have an important facility taken away from them, and that there will be a loss of income to the refreshment department of £80,000 a year.
As you can tell, Mr. Fraser, I feel strongly about this matter because in the end the effectiveness of an organisation is judged not on its generality but on specific examples. I do not want to be a Member of a House that gets a reputation for spending money without proper accountability. The House would be more effective if there were a lot more accountability for the way in which we spend money, and if we gave more power and authority to the Finance and Services Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is the Chairman of something called the Administration Estimate Audit Committee. I wrote to him in that capacity on 11 March and I have no record of having received a substantive reply; I have certainly had an acknowledgement. I said in my letter:
“As your Committee’s terms of reference require it, inter alia, to encourage best financial practice, use of resources and governance in the House administration I hope you will intervene quickly to ensure that the proposed works”—
for the day nursery—
“do not proceed without endorsement from the Finance and Services Committee.”
It is not too late for that to be done. In any event, I should have thought it prudent now to defer any final decisions until the beginning of the new Parliament, when we shall know what the demand for those facilities is likely to be. Then we can have another look at the costs and the effectiveness on that issue.
I did not originally intend to make a speech. I was just going to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), but I so much wanted to listen to what he had to say that I never got round to intervening. I shall just say a few words.
My hon. Friend made very important points about what serving in this place means. It is both a privilege and a responsibility, especially for those of us whose commitment to social justice took us into the Labour party and made us stand for election in the first place. It is a privilege to be able to give voice on the national stage to the issues that arise in our constituencies and the issues that our constituents bring to us, whether that be my constituency in Birmingham or my hon. Friend’s in Reading. As he said, it has been a privilege to be able to use our votes in this place to bring about some of the improvements in public services that he mentioned.
However, being in this place is also a responsibility. That sometimes means even telling the Government whom we support that we think they are getting things wrong. As my hon. Friend said, we worked together on education matters to do that in 2006, and we had to tell the Government that we thought they were getting it wrong in 2003 on Iraq.
One thing that underlay everything in my hon. Friend’s speech—this is the main issue that I want to raise and conclude on—was the way he is and has always been committed to shaking up the way this place works. We need to shake it up in a way that opens up politics rather than closes politics down and that allows Members of this place a little more freedom to strike those balances between the privilege of speaking up and the responsibility of sometimes saying things that are a bit discordant, and a little more freedom to say those things in a way that opens up politics and boosts democracy.
My hon. Friend and I believe that part of the process of opening up politics should be a change to the voting system. We perhaps disagree on the level of proportionality that that should involve. I shall pass over that, but certainly as we approach the election, when all parties are talking about opening up politics, for anyone to say that the voting system itself should be a no-go area for debate is entirely wrong.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in his time in this place. If hon. Members are in the same party, they refer to one another as hon. Friends and we normally are, but I have to say that he is an honourable friend of mine and I am proud to say that. Those of us who are standing again in the election, if we are successful and are re-elected, have an obligation to continue the work that he outlined so successfully in his speech today.
First, may I pay tribute to you, Mr. Fraser? I mean that. I know that you are standing down, and many of us deeply regret that, so I should like to get that off my chest to begin with. Secondly, I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). He and I have taken part in these debates on a number of occasions. He, too, is standing down and I pay tribute to him for the effectiveness that he has brought to the House. I also pay tribute—without overdoing it, I hope—to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has continuously fought for the rights of this place, and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). I welcome very much what he said, because it is exactly what I should like to say. It is simply this: responsibility is the other side of the equation.
We need radical reform in the House, and furthermore we were promised it. When I say “radical reform”, I mean radical reform. We must bring the House back to where it belongs—being respected by the people. It must also be in line with what the freedom of choice that lies at the heart of our democracy really means. The question is who governs and how, and the abandonment of the business committee by the Government yesterday is not in any way a reflection of the direction in which we should be going. We also have the matter of the House business committee, which slipped off the agenda about 10 days ago. That is also vital to bring back the conduct of matters in the House to where it belongs, which is not with us because we think that we are important, but with the voter because we are elected by them and it is their freedom of choice that enables us to speak on their behalf.
I deplore the introduction of the proposal for the alternative vote system and the gimmickry that lies behind it, for the same reasons. It will not make the House more effective. It will not bring it back to the people. It will simply act as an artificial mechanism to achieve the results that the Liberal Democrats want. It is no more than a piece of political chicanery as far as the Government are concerned. I have had this out with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) in the past, and he knows that Lloyd George himself switched horses on this subject over and over again.
We dealt with the Equality Bill yesterday, and the issue of Christians wearing crosses came up. There is not only a question of equality, but a necessity for responsibility. I deplore the decision that was taken in the employment tribunal yesterday. The issue hinges ultimately on the question of the application of human rights. I referred yesterday to the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice, who issued severe strictures against the way in which the human rights culture and human rights decisions have been advocated even by judges at the expense of our own common law and in relation to the European Court of Justice as well. That is there in the speech that the Lord Chief Justice gave only a few days ago, on 17 March.
I believe that the effects of the Lisbon treaty in relation to the criminal justice law will make the position even worse. Ultimately, the question turns on how we are governed and who governs us, and the bottom line is that it is increasingly the legislation and abstract principles that come from Europe, adjudicated by unelected judges instead of the people themselves. We must tell the British people the truth both on the economy, which is not being done, and on the way in which the European Union is taking away their right to govern themselves through their elected Members of Parliament.
My final point is simply to repeat what Churchill once said. I am paraphrasing, but it is so important: “You should put your country first, your constituency second and your party third.”
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, although this is the last time, as both of us are leaving the House. I thank the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for negotiating his way to this debate. He said a lot of things, many of which I agreed with—it is especially good to greet a fellow commuter. Nevertheless, I can respond to only a couple of the points in the time that I have.
First, the question that the hon. Gentleman raises itself raises a further question: what is Parliament’s job? We cannot tell how effective a body is until we know what its job is in the first place, so I shall make some remarks about that. Secondly, he raised the question about what kind of people are coming into Parliament and into politics. That is a very important question and I shall say something about that as well.
On the first point, the key issue is what Parliament’s job really is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have found a great contrast between this place and local government—between what a Member of Parliament is supposed to do and what a member of a local authority is supposed to do. A member of a local authority is there to make decisions about things that happen, whereas the job here seems to be just rhetorical. The hon. Gentleman has made that rhetoric effective on a number of occasions, but it is a very different thing.
It comes back to two problems. One is the idea that the job of Parliament is not to govern the country but only to hold to account those who do. That was said originally by Gladstone, and the time has come to question it. If our job is not to set at least the outlines of policy, why are we here? What kind of people are attracted to a job that is not to effect policy, except when they are promoted to be Ministers along the route of patronage? That is a real problem.
The second problem is that this country seems to operate according to a theory of a single source of authority, which used to be the Crown, under the hereditary principle, but is now the leader of the winning party in the election, who holds power as a single source of authority under current assumptions. Therefore, from the point of view of the media, when Parliament does the job mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West—changing proposals for laws as they go through the House—it seems to be rebelling and defying that authority. The theory is wrong. We need a different idea of Parliament’s job, whereby it is perfectly legitimate for Members of Parliament to do their job and not be accused of defying the single source of authority. Otherwise, we shall end up in a situation in which the only supposedly legitimate job of a Member of Parliament is to act as a member of an electoral college in the first week of a new Parliament, but after that to be a kind of drone or cheerleader.
I have supported nearly all the proposals for reform. I am a great supporter of changing the electoral system, and believe that a different configuration of parties, and majority rule not being so common, would change the single source of authority theory. I am in favour of the business committee and will have more to say about that this afternoon—we need to get rid of the idea of Standing Order No. 14, under which the Government, just by being the Government, control the agenda of the House. I am also in favour of an elected Lords and all that. However, such proposals all come down to this: do we have a political system that has moved from having an hereditary monarch to having an elected, presidential monarch? I do not think that we should have such a system.
The second question is about who comes here. In part, the answer depends on what the job is. I think I am observing a serious change in who comes here, because of what the job is seen to be. Often, members of the public think that Parliament is dominated by lawyers. I am a sort of lawyer, but an academic one, not a real one, so I notice how many lawyers there are and it is only about 11 per cent. of the House, not the 60 or 70 per cent. that people think. In fact, the percentage of lawyers in the House is going down. I suppose we can get up to 14 per cent. if we include people such as me, who are academics, and those who have law degrees but did not practise. Instead, the type of person coming into this place has a background as a professional in politics or in the media, in marketing, public relations or journalism. In the current House, nearly 40 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party have some such background as political professionals, and across the House as a whole about 20 per cent. have a background as media professionals.
In case people think such a situation will change if lots of Conservatives are elected, of the incoming Conservatives in their held and target seats, exactly the same percentage have been political professionals and even more—nearly a third—have been in the media professions. The life of such people involves not making real-life decisions, but manipulating symbols and getting themselves ahead by their ability to manipulate symbols.
Has the hon. Gentleman done any research on the number of Members of Parliament who have a business background? Both Houses seem to be lacking people with business experience and, consequently, we are getting too much legislation that is not business-friendly. After all, businesses in this country are the bedrock and the wealth creators.
One of the problems with such research is defining “business” as including all sorts of businesses. I would be interested in finding out the sorts of business that people were engaged in and the kinds of position they held.
Should we despair of the present situation in politics and of the changes, in personnel in particular? Can anything be done about it? The hon. Member for Reading, West is right that there never was a golden age—politics has always been difficult, even if we go back to the classics of political sociology. I want to read out what Max Weber said in 1919 at the end of his great essay, “Politics as a Vocation”, because it is still true:
“Politics is a hard, slow boring down through hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. All historical experience confirms the truth that we would not have attained the possible unless time and again we had not reached out for the impossible. But to do that, one must be a leader, and in a very plain sense, a hero. And even those who are neither must arm themselves with a steadfastness of heart that can take strength even from the shattering of all hopes, or else we will not be able to achieve that which is possible right now. Only those who are sure that they will not be destroyed when the world, from their point of view, seems too stupid or too debased for what they have to offer, who can say, in the face of all of this, ‘in spite of all’, only they have a true vocation for politics.”
Those of us who have lost our vocations should at least say that we have not lost our faith. Politics is still the most important thing for anyone to do—it is about everything. Even those of us who are liberals and believe that the most important thing to do in politics is to draw a dividing line between what politics should be active in and what it should not be active in—between the public and the private—recognise that that question itself is a political one, which must be defended and argued out in places such as this.
Politics is about defending political views—it is about all the other things that the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned, but in the end that is what it is about. Even though a lot of us say that politics is something that we should do less, we should all end by saying that it is something that a lot more people should do more of.
My final message echoes something said by the hon. Gentleman. Politics is only safe when it is done by more people and when more people participate and have the experience of responsibility. The reason that he is right about the media and their effect on our politics, is that it infantilises our population. We need to do the opposite and to make sure that we have ways of encouraging more people to take more responsibility. Only in that way can we maintain our democracy.
May I start by paying a personal tribute to you, Mr. Fraser, for your personal friendship to me over the years? You will be very much missed in the House—on both sides of the House, I believe I am correct in saying. You have been a trusted friend and we shall certainly miss you.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing today’s debate on the effectiveness of the House of Commons, a subject on which he has spoken consistently and with irrepressible force since entering Parliament. As far back as 1997, in his maiden speech, the hon. Gentleman called for restraints on the powers of the Whips, which caused great excitement on the Government Front Bench, holing his parliamentary career below the waterline even before he had made it out of port. There is perhaps no more fitting way to round off his time here than by drawing the battle lines for the next generation of Members before he sets sail into the sunset.
In recent days, many Members have made valedictory speeches in the Chamber. As a self-proclaimed moderniser, it is only fitting that the hon. Gentleman should make his valedictory speech in Westminster Hall. I also pay tribute to his work as a member of the Wright Committee, a subject to which I shall return. Incidentally, may I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)? He, too, has made his last speech in the House, and I wish him well.
Few would deny that Parliament has been subject to a gradual and relentless attack on its powers and prerogatives, something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred. Although it has been happening over many years, it has been particularly acute in the years since 1997. On his last day as Prime Minister, Tony Blair said to a packed Chamber that he was not
“a great House of Commons man”—[Official Report, 27 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 333.].
That was an understatement of considerable proportion. Parliament suffered greatly under his premiership. For example, statements were regularly issued to the media before being made in Parliament, and Parliament suffered from the growing payroll vote.
Many of those traits continued under the current Prime Minister. We have seen the routine use of the guillotine; the quantity of legislation has become more important than its quality, and whole groups of new clauses or amendments are often pushed through without debate—for example, in what became the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 and the Planning Act 2008. Most recently, many groups of amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill were not debated. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the other place has often improved our legislative drafting, which was needed because of the lack of debate in the Commons.
However, the attacks on Parliament’s prestige and standing have not all been caused by the Executive. As we have heard, Parliament collectively has done itself huge damage. The expenses fiasco and, latterly, lobbygate, have meant that this Parliament will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. In dealing with these issues, there has been a distinct lack of effective leadership from the Government, who have regularly been seen to be reactive rather than proactive. The resulting damage to Parliament and to politics generally has been considerable, and the public’s dismay is completely understandable.
Of course, there have been some changes over the past 13 years. Indeed, the hon. Member for Reading, West has been at the forefront of many of them. They include an end to all-night sittings; the Prime Minister giving evidence to the Liaison Committee; the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall, along with a more family-friendly general approach. Most of those improvements were about making life easier for MPs, but too often they also made life easier for the Government. A good example of that is the routine use of the programme motion.
The Opposition believe that, after more than a decade of power ebbing from the Commons to the Executive, we need to make life harder for the Government. If the Government have a harder time of it, ultimately the citizen will benefit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I join him in paying tribute to those who have made valedictory speeches. I think particularly of you, Mr. Fraser; we have had a long and good relationship.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of things being made harder or easier for the Government. Is it not the case that all who hope to return here after the election should want Parliament to be more relevant to voters rather than easier or harder for the Government?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that Parliament should be made more relevant. I maintain that we should make Parliament an institution that makes it harder for the Executive, effectively making the Executive more accountable. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In the 21st century, we clearly have different modes of communication—for example, the internet—and we need to adapt to them. I shall speak about that in connection with petitions. We certainly need to become more relevant. That may also increase the number that can be bothered to vote.
More radical changes are needed. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for his contribution. I disagree with his concept of proportional representation. Those who propose PR often say that it brings about an equality of votes, but they conveniently overlook the fact that PR systems give a disproportionate amount of influence and power to minority parties in hung Parliaments. They also overlook the fact that minority parties would more or less be in permanent power, as they would be prepared to do deals with whichever party had the higher number of votes. Many people would agree that it is only fair that one party should not hold on for ever and a day.
The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree over proportional voting systems, but if Labour wins the election it is likely that we will have not the proportional system but the alternative vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be we politicians but the people who decide these matters through a referendum? Does he agree that the people should be given a choice about what voting system we have?
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the current wash-up, the Government and the Conservative party are doing the negotiating, and excluding all other parties? How can he explain his remark about minority parties having disproportionate power when, for example, the Government have no majority in the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman makes specific reference to the next 48 hours. With proportional representation we are talking about Parliaments, which last up to five years. That is a huge difference, and the arguments are quite different.
We welcome the recommendations of the Wright Committee, not least because many of them were suggested by the Opposition. However, although we are pleased to see the passing of some of those measures, it is deeply disappointing that there has been no further progress. One area where more action is needed is in Parliament’s engagement with the public, a point to which I referred earlier. For example, we suggest that citizens initiatives should be introduced: if 100,000 or 250,000 people signed a petition, it should be recognised by the House in some form.
We need to do more to restore trust in this institution. That is why the Conservative party suggests that Parliament should have the power to recall Members between elections. The ultimate power would lie with the electorate; MPs would not be here for the duration of an entire Parliament, but could be kicked out mid-term. We also need to return more control of parliamentary affairs to Parliament itself. That is the larger prize identified in the Wright report, as it would give the House more control of its time and business. That was always the most significant part of the report, but it is the part that the Government, control freakery being deeply ingrained in their very soul, have shied away from. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).
I record what my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House said about that big prize. He said:
“We have always said that the Government should find time for debate on Standing Orders so that we can implement the Wright Committee’s recommendation and get the Back-Bench Committee up and running at the start of the next Parliament.”
It is highly regrettable that, despite regular assurances that it would happen, the Leader of the House has shied away from it. It is telling that she failed to turn up to this debate; at the last minute—late yesterday—it was signalled that she would not be responding to this debate but that her deputy would be here in her stead. Doubtless she did not wish to face her critics.
I am bitterly disappointed that the motion to enforce the Standing Order is not on the Order Paper. The Leader of the House wanted to come to this debate but was called away by the Prime Minister. I am not in any way slighted by that, and I am listening carefully to what the shadow Deputy Leader of the House says.
Hansard will record the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am a little more enlightened now than I was earlier.
In conclusion, this place needs urgent reform. Although there has been some progress, it is highly regrettable that the Government have failed both Parliament and the public in not stepping up to the mark when required. They have failed to implement the most important part of the Wright report despite the fact that the House wanted them to do so. I hope that the public will make the correct decision on 6 May, and then it will be for others to complete the work of reforming Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate. I should like to thank other hon. Members for their contributions to what has been a wide-ranging and stimulating debate.
My hon. Friend has been a Member of the House since 1997. At the start of his contribution, he described the 2005-10 Parliament in very strong terms. His description was disturbing, but we all accept the need for profound change to restore the public’s faith in Parliament. I hope that the reforms that we have already put in place and the others that will come will do that. The Prime Minister is expected to announce my party’s commitment to reform and constitutional change today, and I greatly look forward to that announcement.
My hon. Friend has served in public life for 26 years; he started out as a councillor in Reading borough in 1984, and was deputy council leader from 1987 to 1996. In the House, he has campaigned against violent pornography, championed many causes, such as Gurkha rights, advised the Minister for Sport on shooting and fishing—I guess somebody had to do that—and been a member of both the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee and the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that that will be the last time in my reply that I shall mention the Modernisation Committee. He always takes me to task when I refer to the delights of that Committee.
My hon. Friend has championed the cause of the use of the Commons Chamber by the UK Youth Parliament, which I support. I am pleased that the arguments in favour of such a use prevailed. I was astonished by what I heard from the Opposition on the matter, and it took us many occasions to get the measure through. There were some good debates and some very confident performances by members of the Youth Parliament. I hope that the UK Youth Parliament debate can take place again and that the Commons Chamber can be used by other groups. We are considering allowing pensioners to have a Parliament in the Chamber, which would also be appropriate.
My hon. Friend has been speaking up for the trade of politics. Since he has been a Member, he has worked on opening up politics and boosting democracy, which is important. He spoke eloquently about the reform agenda, which was something that he first did in his maiden speech, and I pay tribute to him for his work on that. He was concerned about IPSA’s new budget for Members’ staff and the fact that pensions have to be paid out of the budget. There is no provision for child care vouchers or for temporary secretarial cover for staff who are on maternity leave or who are sick. Many hon. Members have raised concerns about that, and I will ensure that relevant parts of today’s debate are sent to the board of IPSA, because it is important that it understands our concerns. My hon. Friend also touched on IPSA’s new rule for travel, which will have an impact on Members of the new Parliament. Perhaps such an issue gives fresh impetus to the idea of this place returning to normal office hours, which would alleviate the problem to some extent, and I hope that we—if other Members and I in the Chamber are returned—can discuss that in future.
Let me talk briefly about the Wright Committee motion, which my hon. Friend raised. Members will know that there is a business motion today. It would not be appropriate to pre-empt the debate; I should not get outside my particular role, as the Speaker constantly says. Members can make their points in that debate, which is only a couple of hours away, and I hope that they will do so.
My hon. Friend touched on the suspension of the communications allowance. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) led a debate on the subject in which some very powerful arguments were made. On that occasion, I agreed—and I still do—on the necessity and importance of supporting hon. Members who produced constituency reports. In that debate, some Members expressed concerns about the matter, but this issue of standing up for constituents, which sometimes means taking up unpopular stances and causes, shows that it is a factor not just in incumbency, but in helping Members to do their job.
Briefly, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred to the setting up of a child care facility in the House. I know that that has been a contentious issue, but I applaud the a suggestion by the House of Commons Commission. I cannot believe that Members are questioning such a facility; its establishment is overdue and it brings the House into the 20th century—not even into the 21st century.
No, I do not have time to do so.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) discussed reform and, importantly, what the role of an MP is seen to be. Interestingly, I have looked into the matter for my own party and found, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that parties are increasingly selecting Members who have a background in politics or the media. Perhaps I should say to him and the other Opposition parties that they should select more women candidates. I was one of the 2005 intake of women MPs. There were 26 of us out of 40 candidates, so we made history coming into this place. My hon. Friends will know that the 2005 intake of Labour women MPs does not reflect the profile that has been discussed—of people with backgrounds in politics and the media. The solution, therefore, is to select more women. I support the view that politics is something that we should do more of, and that it is wrong for it to be infantilised.
The hon. Member for Cambridge, who was elected on the same day as me—5 May 2005—is standing down at the election. He has served in public life since 1987, having been a councillor and council leader in Cambridge before being elected as an MP. I pay tribute to him and wish him well for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West has announced that he will step down at the forthcoming election, so this was his valedictory speech. I should like to congratulate him on his achievements, both in the House and more widely in politics, and wish him well for the future. Looking at one of his blogs last night, I had the impression that we will continue to hear from him. I hope that he will carry on commentating and shaking up politics by telling us how he thinks people in the House are doing. I pay tribute to the work of hon. Members from all parts of the House who will not be standing for re-election at the next general election, including you, Mr. Fraser. I think this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate in which you have been in the Chair, so it is a very brief acquaintanceship, but I wish you well.
As my hon. Friend said earlier of the work that we do: “Someone has to do it, someone has to take responsibility and give voice to the hopes of the people.” Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have taken that responsibility, made important contributions to the work of Parliament and have represented the hopes and the issues of their constituents. I wish all Members who are standing down well, and say that for those of us who hope to return here, we will take forward the work and the sentiments that have been expressed here today.
May I say, Mr. Fraser, that it is a bittersweet pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, as it is the first and last time that I will have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship? I am very sorry that you will be disappearing from the House after the election.
It is very good to have the opportunity to raise this subject, even at the tail-end of this Parliament, because it is a subject of very considerable concern to some of my constituents, as I shall explain in a moment, and because it has wider ramifications. I should give the facts of the particular case that I will talk about, which are extremely simple. West Bexington is a very beautiful stretch of coastline in my constituency. It has a remarkable shingle beach that is a particularly nice part of a world heritage coastline. Behind the beach and the coastal path lie a set of chalets, which are the only things that are visible from many angles on the beach. Those chalets are quite small.
In April 2007, a chalet owner at West Bexington put in an application to enlarge their chalet and alter it. As is normal, that application was accompanied by both factual details and drawings. Unfortunately, the drawings did not bring to light, in a way that enabled either the planning officers or the local people to understand what was going on, the relationship between the size of what was being planned and the adjoining chalets on either side.
The drawings suggested, to the uninformed eye and indeed to the more informed eyes of the planning officers, that the chalet for which the application was being made would not be very far off the same size as the chalets next to it, if the application was permitted. Unfortunately, once the works to the chalet were completed—indeed, I think it was clear even from the point at which the works began—it was obvious to all the local people that the chalet for which the application had been made and for which planning permission had been received in April 2007 was by no means of the same scale as the chalets on either side. In fact, it was much larger and visually quite obtrusive.
That led to very considerable objections locally. People felt that they had not been alerted to what was being proposed and therefore that they had not done what they would otherwise have done, which was to object to the change. They felt that the planning officers had not seen what was on offer, so to speak, and therefore that those planning officers had effectively been misled by the drawings. Consequently, they were outraged. Therefore I received a petition from more than 100 local people—given the size of West Bexington, that is a lot of people.
I then engaged in a considerable amount of correspondence about this application over quite a long period with the Minister’s predecessors, as well as with other people, including officials, lawyers and representatives of the district council and the parish council. I have also had a number of meetings with local residents about it. As a result of all that activity, what has come to light is that, under the current planning law, if an application is made and permission for what is applied for is given, the permission that has been given is valid, regardless of the fact that the basis on which the application was made was such as to lead the planning officers and any councillors—if any councillors had been involved in the process—to the wrong conclusions about the scale and nature of what was being proposed.
In other words—to take an extreme example—if I proposed building the Empire State building at West Bexington and I provided a drawing that suggested that it was six feet high and if, by mistake, the planning officers did not look sufficiently closely at the dimensions of the Empire State building and merely looked at the drawing and concluded that I was building something that was 6 feet high and they gave me permission on that basis, then under current English law, as I understand it and as the Minister’s predecessors have explained it to me, I would have an undisputed right to build the Empire State building at West Bexington.
I give that ludicrous example simply to point out that there is clearly a problem in this sector of planning. It has visited itself on my constituents in West Bexington in a less exaggerated form than that ludicrous example, but at some other time someone could do something much more exaggerated than the changes proposed at West Bexington and they would still be in the same position of having a valid planning permission on the basis of information that was misleading to the naked eye.
I have stayed on for this debate as I am rather interested in this issue, which I think my right hon. Friend is raising in the national interest. As people have sought advice from the various lawyers and others who are involved in this case, I wondered if anyone had mentioned the words “judicial review”?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for displaying his usual legal acuity, because it is exactly the question of judicial review to which I now turn. I received responses from Ministers suggesting that judicial review might be the answer in this case. However, I have two questions to ask the Minister about judicial review.
First, why would anyone suppose that the inhabitants of West Bexington, or the inhabitants of any similar village or neighbourhood in Britain, would be able to spend money on a judicial review of a planning decision? Why would anyone suppose that those inhabitants would be willing or able to risk the costs that they might incur in challenging a council that has the taxpayer behind them?
Indeed, is not the whole point of the planning system that it is not in court and that it is a substitute for going to court? If we wanted to have all planning decisions made in court, we would have them all made in court, as some other decisions are made in court. But the point of having planning decisions not made in court is to prevent those types of court costs arising. In fact, at the moment we even have a system of appeals against planning decisions that does not involve courts, so that someone does not have to have very expensive barristers to appeal a planning decision; although people may employ planning barristers at planning appeals, they do not have to have that type of apparatus.
In other words, very considerable efforts have been made to reduce the exposure and liability of those who challenge planning decisions, and clearly if people have to rely on judicial review to contest planning decisions, they would be exposed to very considerable liability, so the first question I ask the Minister is why does she suppose that anyone would be able to mount a judicial review in these circumstances?
My second question for the Minister is even more important, and it relates directly to what my hon. Friend asked about in his intervention. Why would anyone suppose that a judicial review would be an answer to this question? As I understand the matter, the law is quite clear in this area. If someone has planning permission, they have planning permission; it is a sort of piece of property, as I understand it. Therefore, if someone were able to mount a judicial review—that is, they had the funds to do so and they were willing to undertake the liabilities associated with it—the judicial review might rule that the original decision was unreasonable. Incidentally, the judicial review certainly could not rule that the decision was ultra vires, because it is clearly within the powers of a planning authority to grant planning permission. The only thing that a judicial review could do to rule in someone’s favour would be to say that the original decision was an unreasonable one.
However, even if a judicial review were to rule that the original decision was unreasonable, is there any indication, or does the Minister have any legal advice to suggest, that the decision by the judicial review would invalidate the planning permission? If the council was shown to have made an unreasonable decision in granting planning permission, that might have other consequences for the council—I do not know what those consequences would be. I am not all sure, however, that under current English law there would be any remedy for those who objected to the planning permission, because it would still be the case, as far as I can make out, that the permission itself was valid and a piece of property on the part of the person who held it.
I want to press the Minister on those two questions. First, why would anyone in her Ministry believe that judicial review is really accessible to people who are in this situation? Secondly, why does anyone in her Ministry believe that judicial review is an adequate remedy in these circumstances? Finally, I want to make a positive suggestion. There is a very straightforward way of solving this problem and I have already raised it with Ministers in correspondence. I am glad to say that my own party has now taken it up and I hope that we might achieve consensus on the suggestion that we change planning law, so that it follows common sense in this respect.
I think that it is a matter of common sense that if someone applies for something on the basis of information that an ordinary and reasonable person, including an ordinary, reasonable and expert person such as a planning officer, is misled by, any permission that that person might obtain should not be valid. It would not be an enormous change in planning law—it is certainly not as large as some other changes in planning law that I think we need to make—to arrange things so that if I make an application on the basis of drawings or other information that cannot be understood for what they are, even by professionals, then my application, if I obtain it, is invalid.
That would be a small but useful change. It would put the onus on the person making the application to go the extra mile to ensure that their accompanying drawings and other information adequately illustrated what the thing would look like in relation to things around it. The applicant would be worried that it might otherwise be alleged that their application had been in some way misleading. If they knew that the application would not be valid if it were judged that the information accompanying it had been misleading, they would want to go that extra mile to ensure that it was not misleading. Surely it would be better to build that incentive into the system.
I believe that there is a general principle in our law, constitution and political practices that if something has gone wrong, there should be a remedy. Many of my constituents in West Bexington, as well as objecting to what happened and to the state of the law, object on the grounds of unfairness because they feel that there is no remedy. I hope that the Minister is willing to acknowledge that there is a need to ensure that there is a remedy in such circumstances, that at present a remedy is not available, and that that is bound to generate a sense of unfairness of the kind that my constituents, many of whom live in West Bexington, feel.
I am most grateful, Mr. Fraser. I had not intended to speak in this debate, but the subject matter is of enormous interest to many people throughout the country and, indeed, in my constituency. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for securing this debate, and I look forward with interest to what the Minister has to say.
My right hon. Friend ended his remarks by saying that this House and Parliament are here for the purposes of remedy and clarification. I asked him in an intervention whether anyone had raised the issue of judicial review, and they clearly have. I am still somewhat fascinated—I await the Minister’s reply—by why, in this case, if indeed the application and the information that had been provided to the planning officers and the council were misleading, and leaving aside the question of costs, to which I shall refer later, it was deemed that an application for a judicial review somehow would not have succeeded.
I would have thought that there were ample grounds for quashing an application on judicial review, and that, by definition and as a result of that, the original planning permission would be deemed invalid. There are great experts on all this, and my right hon. Friend may well have taken the most expert advice from people who would disagree with me. I have some difficulty in understanding the matter, but we shall see—perhaps the Minister can explain it.
However, I want to deal with a broader political question that arises in the context of planning applications. Having practised in this field—on a far more reduced basis in the past 26 years, for obvious reasons—I have in the past raised the issue of costs. My right hon. Friend was right in suggesting that, in matters of this kind, a small amenity group or people who are trying to protect themselves from some utterly horrific monstrosity that is about to be deposited on their doorstep should have the right to go through appropriate legal procedures; otherwise, the law is an ass or, at any rate, an extremely ineffective donkey.
I therefore proposed way back in the days of—dare I say it?—Margaret Thatcher that there ought to be an arrangement, if there are sufficient grounds in the public interest, for persons to oppose the almighty coffers of a massive company, a public authority or whatever. On a certificate of public interest—an application to a judge that there is sufficient national/public interest—a proper analysis could be made which could come only from the kind of judicial expertise in chambers such as Harcourt and Landmark. There are distinguished chambers that deal in such matters, and their people tend to be the ones who end up in the House of Lords.
Where there is a matter of principle and a degree of unfairness on the scale that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has described, a certificate of public interest warranting the use of legal aid for the amenity group would seem to be a solution of a kind. It does not deal entirely with whether the law should be clarified, which would be the best way of tackling the matter, but it would deal with circumstances in which it was impossible, simply by producing another line of legislation, to alter the fact that there is an issue of public interest about whether something was misleading in a matter of law. A certificate of public interest would be one way of dealing with the matter because, ultimately, everyone would be affected by the outcome.
I merely offer that suggestion, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed her mind to it as well. I am not in favour of massive amounts of unnecessary legal aid. However, if there is a massive amount of financial artillery on the side of the public authority, which, after all, is paid for by the taxpayer, or on the side of some monumental company that can bulldoze its way through, the people who have a right, in the national interest, to raise a serious question of law and of fact should have the right to apply for some assistance with funds because it would be in the public interest for them to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, for the first time and, I fear, possibly the last time, as you and I will both be leaving the House in a few days’ time.
I thank and congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this debate on a matter that is of such importance to his constituents and to my Department. I shall attempt to address the questions that he and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) have asked, but, as this is not my area of expertise, I may at some stage have to get the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), to fill in the gaps that are left by my answer.
As the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman know, the Government have been working for some time to facilitate and encourage an effective and efficient planning application process. I am sorry to hear that in West Dorset it appears not to have worked in the way that we would have liked. The problem is that the devil is in the detail, as the constituents of the right hon. Member for West Dorset have discovered, and individual actions on the part of the applicant and the people who receive the application are crucial. In other words, they can make the difference between extending a chalet in a reasonable fashion or building a replica of the Empire State building on a beach in an obviously inappropriate fashion.
The Government set the framework and make clear their expectations, but, in the end, it is the behaviour of those who engage in the process that determines whether the system will work well. When the system does not work, there are various kinds of redress, but let me look quickly at the information that is required.
We have tried to be clear about the information that is required to minimise unnecessary information and give local authorities the flexibility to set their own information requirements because, obviously, each area has different requirements. Our aim is that all users of the system find it straightforward, and feel that they have been treated fairly, whatever the outcome. With the chalet extension, there appears to have been multiple layers of problems. Because of the quasi-judicial nature of the planning process, I will not comment on the individual case, but in all cases we would like people to feel that they had got what they wanted, in general, and that they had the right of redress.
A valid application is one that meets the statutory requirements, and it is in the applicant’s interest to provide both sufficient detail for the scheme to be fully understood by the planning officer, and sufficiently high-quality information for the officer to be assured of the type and quality of the proposed development. Applicants are expected to act honestly. If a factual error is found in any of the submitted documents, it is up to the local planning authority to decide whether that materially affects the proposed scheme or its anticipated impacts. If the authority considers that it does, it is within its rights to refuse the application or to ask the applicant to provide supplementary information. If the local planning authority identifies the error before the application has been validated or determined, it can refuse to validate or determine it until the correct information has been supplied.
If, however, the error is undetected and the planning application is subsequently approved, the planning permission will, as the hon. Member for Stone said, be at risk of a challenge by way of judicial review from anyone with sufficient interest in the decision. The right hon. Member for West Dorset pointed out that that sufficient interest has both resource and time costs, and he suggested a way forward that might solve the problem. All of us in this House are well aware of the cliff facing us. Once we come through the other side of that cliff, it will be up to the party in power—the Government of the time—to consider that suggestion. If the right hon. Gentleman’s party is in power, the suggestion will obviously be considered. We also will look at it, in the spirit of trying to ensure that people get what they want out of the system. As the hon. Member for Stone said, the people pay for it, after all, and it should therefore not be something that is set up against them, but that works with them.
The Minister suggests that in the public interest she will seriously consider my point, to ensure a degree of equality and responsibility in the system—the Equality Bill has just gone through Parliament. People affected, such as the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and others in the country, would at least then know that they were not just abandoned to the monopolistic money that is available to the great engines of enterprise and to public authorities.
It is important that the Government are seen to act on behalf of the people that we all represent, but I cannot commit a future Government of any kind to considering the matter. I do, however, understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.
If, once planning permission has been granted, the subsequent development is not in accordance with the application and the permission, the local planning authority can use the available discretionary enforcement powers to rectify the situation. I do not know if that has happened in this case, and I do not wish to get too far into the details, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes, he may intervene.
I can understand why the Minister does not want to dwell on this particular case, but the issue that it raises is that the building, at least in the referred respect, conformed to the permission; the problem lies in the basis upon which that permission was given.
This is a very difficult situation, and once again I am going to move away from the particular and go to the general, not to evade the issue but simply because of the need for Chinese walls. A local planning authority cannot unilaterally withdraw a permission that has been granted. It does, however, have the power to revoke or modify a permission, if that is considered expedient. That action is subject to certain limitations, and requires the authority to pay compensation, which could in this, and in any other case, cause it problems.
If a third party feels that it has cause for complaint about how a local planning authority has handled an application, a concern in relation to the conduct of members of the local authority can be directed—as I am sure both Members know—to the Standards Board for England, the district auditor or the local government ombudsman.
Again, I know that the Minister does not want to dwell on this particular case but, to illustrate the general point, I point out that there has indeed been an application to the local government ombudsman. The general problem lies in the fact that it is not at all clear whether whatever ruling the local government ombudsman might eventually give, in any case, would have any effect on the validity of the planning permission. We are, therefore, back to another process that does not seem to solve the problem.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is now even more difficult for me to comment on the case because it is going through the complaints procedure, the outcome of which we will have to await. I know that if the right hon. Gentleman is returned to this House, he will continue to pursue the matter.
It is vital that applications for planning permission are accompanied by sufficient information for the local planning authority, third parties and all others to be clear about what is proposed, and the likely impacts. To ensure that that happens, local authorities provide lists of local information requirements for planning applications, which are intended to provide certainty about the type of information required, and to ensure that that requirement is proportionate to the type and scale of the application. I realise that in this case something has gone wrong in the process. The case is, however, going through the complaints procedure, and I regret that I cannot comment any further on the matter that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to this House on behalf of his constituents.
Transport (North West)
[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair]
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr. Howarth. You have a justified interest in this debate as a north-west Member. It is always good to have the opportunity to discuss our great region, especially its transport links. This debate will be a journey round the north-west and down its links to other parts of the country.
Last week, there was a debate on the wonderful high-speed rail link to which the Government are committed. I tell the Minister that we welcome that link, but we do not like the low-speed build that the north-west faces. When the east and west of America were joined by the railways, construction did not start at one end and end up at the other, but started at both ends and met in the middle. Starting with the UK’s third city of Birmingham instead of its second city of Manchester is a disaster. We need to link the great cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. I would like construction to start in the north-west and the south and meet at Birmingham in the middle.
I would welcome that, because it would provide much-needed construction jobs in the north-west. It would not only benefit our transport communications, but it would provide vital construction and engineering skills. The high-speed link with the low-speed build can be changed. The challenge is to build from both ends and provide construction jobs. It is strange that London will have the benefit of the construction for the Olympics and Crossrail. Many jobs could be created in the north-west by the high-speed rail link.
There must also be electrification of the triangle of the three cities of Liverpool, Preston and Manchester, as that would ensure that our region not only contains the second city in the UK, but rightly becomes the most influential region. Every economic indicator tells us that the link should go to the north-west first and benefit the north-west. The route must then go on to link the major cities of Europe with the north-west. I welcome the high-speed rail link, but I would like to see some manoeuvring so that it is recognised that the north-west should not be put at a disadvantage. The north-west is the engine room of the economy, and we cannot afford to fail it. If we are serious about ensuring that we come out of recession and do not have recessions in the future, we need skills and transport links.
I was pleased when the Government recognised the importance of the Blackpool to Manchester line, as electrification is greatly needed. That line is a misery for commuters because it is over-crowded and the rolling stock needs to be extended. With electrification, the trains will not only be faster, but greener. It will also bring the benefit of linking Blackpool, Preston, Manchester and Bolton in the middle. Within that hub is Chorley and we must not forget its importance and relevance. It is well placed logistically at the centre of the three cities and can offer great benefits.
I am pleased that there is good cross-party turnout for this debate. I look to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), to confirm that if the Conservatives win the election and form the next Government, they will support the electrification and place as much importance on it as this Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for tempting me to expand on that matter. There is a section in my speech on electrification, but I am sure that Mr. Howarth would think it too long to read now. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will refer to electrification in my winding-up speech.
I welcome that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will distance himself from the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who, I understand, in an interview for a railway magazine, could not commit to the electrification. That was a major disappointment for people between Blackpool and Manchester, as a huge population relies on those trains. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will put right that wrong, and I look forward to him doing so.
On jobs, it is unacceptable that Jarvis is laying people off when we should be investing in the railways, as they have a great future in this country. I am disappointed with Jarvis, and many hon. Members have rightly signed up to the early-day motions that have been tabled on that matter. However, I want to dwell not on that, but on transport. The other great link to the north-west is the M6, which is important to us. Some people say that they do not want the M6 to be widened, but I tell the doubters that we have the stupid situation of having the four lanes at Warrington going down to three lanes and then back up to four north of Chorley. That bottleneck is not good for the environment because queues develop. There is nothing worse than standing traffic with the engines running. That happens because there has not been investment between south Preston and Warrington. I say to the Minister that it should be a priority to put that right. I know he is taking that on board and that he will consider it seriously because it will make a difference. The problem of exhaust fumes in the Chorley area is caused by slow and standing traffic. We could improve the lives of the people who live near the motorway, so it is important that we try to stop the bottleneck and the traffic jams.
Along with the widening, Chorley would welcome a link to the M6. Chorley has a population of more than 100,000 people and there is no doubt that it plays a major role in the economy. It is the 34th richest constituency based on disposable income. However, more than 50 per cent. of the working population travel out of Chorley to work so there must be good transport communications. That is why it is so important that electrification, environmentally friendly trains and the M6 link all come together.
Of course, there has been good news in Chorley, as we have the wonderful new railway station. Chorley used to be dominated by a great organisation called the Royal Ordnance factory. At its height, more than 35,000 people worked there. The casing for Barnes Wallace’s bouncing bomb was made there. The factory has fought its way and played its part through all of the wars up to the beginning of the Afghanistan war, but it no longer exists. It is good that we no longer need big armaments factories, but there was a dividend to be paid—a huge brownfield site that had to be decontaminated. We now have about 800 to 900 acres of brownfield land, which is the biggest single piece of land available for redevelopment in Europe. We are redeveloping it, which is wonderful. However, it was said at the time that it must have a railway station, but that still has not been built. As part of the section 106 agreement, Chorley borough council got about £3.5 million and stuck it in the bank. However, it sat on the money for too long instead of spending it and the cost of the station went up.
Chorley borough council ended up with a shortfall of £3.5 million. It took a Labour Minister to listen—I was knocking on his door and chasing Ministers around—and make up the difference of £3.5 million. I thank the Minister for the fact it is a Labour Government who have ensured that the railway station goes ahead. The only thing I would say is that the money is in the bank, but the spade is still not in the ground. I want to know why Network Rail has not started, because the money is there. We do not want to be in this stupid situation, where we have the £7 million but by the time we get around to constructing the station the cost has gone up to £8 million. I ask the Minister to put pressure on Network Rail and make the railway station happen now, not later.
Chorley borough has played a crafty one. While I was banging on to the Minister to give us £3.5 million, another chunk of Royal Ordnance land came along and Chorley borough got section 106 money—£3.5 million for transport. Of course, it does not need that for the railway station, because the Government are paying for it. I say to the Minister that it is important to consider that there is £3.5 million extra in Chorley’s coffers. Chorley is not a transport authority; it is a borough council. I am not sure what it is going to do with the £3.5 million that it is sitting on, but I know that as part of the 106 agreement, they have that money.
Perhaps we ought to hand the money over to the county, which is the transport authority, because it could make a real difference. That £3.5 million could be spent on bus services, such as the 124 between Chorley and Blackburn. That bus no longer uses its old route, because unfortunately the subsidies have gone, but we have £3.5 million that we can put into subsidising the routes and buses in Chorley. I urge the Minister to pressurise Chorley borough to deliver a transport service that is second to none. With £3.5 million in the bank for transport, we can make a real difference to the people of Chorley. That is what we need to be doing.
Of course, it is fantastic that people in Chorley have benefited from the freedom pass, and that pensioners can go out on the buses for free. However, we should extend the pass to trains. Perhaps we ought to run a pilot scheme. There is £3.5 million in the tiny district authority account waiting to be spent, so perhaps we ought to trial a young people’s freedom pass. If we could give the schoolchildren and teenagers of Chorley the freedom pass, it would make a real difference. We should consider that challenge, because it would mean that young people in Chorley would benefit, just like young people in London, so it is a good idea. Using the £3.5 million in such a way would make a difference, and if people have a freedom pass when they are at school or college, it will get them into the habit of using public transport. We cannot force people to use public transport; we have to make public transport attractive, and my proposal is a way of doing so.
Has the hon. Gentleman had a chance to see the scheme in operation in Kent, which was brought in by Conservative-controlled Kent county council? It established a young people’s freedom pass and it is working very well indeed. That could be the model for other local authorities up and down the country.
Absolutely. In Chorley, such a scheme would not cost the Government or council tax payers a penny, because the money is there as a result of the section 106 agreement. We could trial the scheme without any cost, then we could say, “Has it been good or has it been bad?” I suspect that everyone would say such a scheme was good, and we could then begin to roll out a programme. We have a real opportunity to test such a scheme.
The issue is about those trains; it is about Buckshaw village; and it is about the railway station and electrification. There were some listed arches—called the flying arches—between Chorley and Euxton, which were taken down by Network Rail, and stored up at Garstang. Network Rail keeps saying to us, “Don’t worry, we’re going to put them back.” I have to tell the Minister that they have not reappeared. I am highly suspicious that Network Rail is hoping that people will forget. The arches are listed, and I wonder if the Minister can get Network Rail to ensure that it takes up the agreement, which was that the arches would be replaced once the work had been carried out. The work has been done, but the arches have not returned, so if the Minister could consider the matter, it would be useful.
On the frequency of train services, as time goes on, more and more people commute from my wonderful village of Adlington—it is just outside Chorley and there is a wonderful railway station. We used to be able to get on the train and go direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but all that has changed. Network Rail has suddenly decided that the train gets too overcrowded before it reaches Bolton. It seems to me that if the train is too overcrowded before it gets to Bolton, more carriages and trains should be put on. Network Rail does not agree. It has said that trains will not stop at Adlington station any more, so that some capacity will be left when they get to Bolton. That is not the answer; we are deluding ourselves. People in Adlington have decided to drive up the line and park on the park-and-ride.
Network Rail’s response does not make sense environmentally, and it does not achieve the objective. If it is struggling with capacity, provision should be extended, but that has not happened. Network Rail is still failing the people of Adlington and the railway station there. I hope the Minister will take the matter up, ask Network Rail to reconsider its decision, and make sure that we return to having the same number of trains to Piccadilly that we used to. People do not want to change trains at Bolton, and doing so offers no advantage because it simply leads to crowding at Bolton. I would be really happy if the Minister looked into that issue.
I also wish to raise the Preston to Southport line and the benefits of it being single track. Part of my constituency that I am unfortunately losing is at the Croston end of that line. We need major investment in that single-track line and we must ensure that it has a strong future. We need to put the beneficial extra curve into that line. If the Minister looked at that, I would be grateful. As I said, I will lose that part of the constituency, but I do not believe that we should give up the argument of ensuring that the track is developed.
I do not know whether this is the case in other constituencies, but in a town such a Chorley, which is a growth area and, logistically, a great place where people want to live and commute from, huge estates have been built by developers, but unfortunately the roads have not been adopted. It suits the developers not to finish such roads properly and the local authority will not take over the roads because they are not up to standard. The problem is that the people who live on such roads pay full council tax, but receive absolutely no benefits. They are living on roads that are not up to standard, and thousands of households in Chorley suffer as a result of living on unadopted roads. We need to pressurise developers to ensure that those roads, bus shelters and litter bins—everything that goes with adoptions—are of the appropriate standard. I hope that we can do something for those people who pay full council tax and receive no benefits. If the road is flooded, nobody wants to know. If the road is iced over and needs salting, nobody will grit it because it is not the responsibility of the Highways Agency.
Of course. That is what was agreed in the beginning, but it never quite happens. At one time, a bond had to be put up. However, these days, I understand that people do not bother with a bond; they have a licence and other things. The developers build the houses and put in a basic road, but the road needs a finished surface, which never gets done. In addition, the manholes are often raised, but not finished.
Developers are on their uppers at the moment, so not bringing the roads up to full adoptive standards is a way for them to avoid spending money. It is right that an adopted road is not put in before the houses are built, because when heavy traffic is put down the road, it churns it up. The developers put in roads that are not of a complete standard, which should come when the estate is finished. The best way of ensuring that that is the case is to have a bond, so that if the developers fail to finish the roads, the local authority can do it through a bond. The answer might be for local authorities to use the bond system and say, “You aren’t doing it. We’ve got the money; we will finish it off.” We need to ensure the local authority has enough money to do so. The incentive would then be for the developers to ensure that the road is of an adoptable standard.
The same issue arises in relation to bus shelters. No one takes responsibility for the bus shelters—sometimes they are broken, smashed up, sprayed or vandalised. If the roads are not looked after, the same problem quickly spirals to a new area. That is why it is important to ensure that roads and footpaths are adopted at an early stage. I would appreciate the Minister’s help in ensuring that that happens. Hon. Members from the north-west who are here will rightly want to put their case in relation to that. As I said, when we look back, we can see that the Government have done much for transport, and much has been envisaged for the future. I want to see the high-speed rail link and electrification, and I want to see young people’s bus passes trialled.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a great champion for transport in the north-west and in his constituency. He mentioned the future and jobs. Is not one of the key schemes in the north-west, and one that would also be affected by the M6, the proposed Mersey gateway bridge, because the capacity of the current bridge has been far exceeded, leading to congestion? Furthermore, its building would lead to hundreds of construction jobs, and 5,000 to 6,000 jobs would be created for economic benefit. Is not that also the sort of scheme we want to see in the north-west?
I totally agree, because we could all benefit from that. Such a major bridge would lead to many construction jobs, as my hon. Friend has said. The building work and the steel needed for such a bridge would all lead to good, valuable jobs. The best way to come out of a recession is to have a thriving construction industry, so of course I back that proposal. The opening up of the Mersey gateway is important to us. Anyone who has been on the old Widnes bridge will know what a problem crossing it can be. It is a beautiful bridge, of course, but that is not the answer—we need a second crossing. It is about the north-west, but it is not about being parochial. Chorley is the centre of the north-west, but I recognise that people from other areas could take advantage of that proposal.
With regard to Network Rail, we have a serious problem at Rylands crossing—a level crossing with an unmanned gate where people walk across the line. There have been fatalities at that crossing and serious injuries. The link between the east of Chorley and the town centre where people cross the railway line is crucial, but we must put safety first, as it is important to us. Network Rail is committed to building a footbridge over the crossing. Can the Minister assure us that he will chase that up on our behalf, because it is crucial that the footbridge goes ahead? That would make a real difference for trains, as it would save them having to slow down, sound the horn and do everything they must do when approaching the crossing. That would make a real difference for people who live on the east side of Chorley when they travel into the town centre. Overall, I say well done to the Minister, but we can do more and need the return of the Government to do it.
Mr. Howarth, you might well ask why a proud Yorkshireman such as myself—I look forward to the clashes in June between Yorkshire and Lancashire at the cricket ground in Headingly and intend to be there—is contributing to a debate on transport in the north-west. I will not try the patience of Members for long because I know that several wish to speak, but I want to contribute for some of the reasons indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), whom I congratulate on securing the debate and on introducing it with his usual passion and verve. Transport links in the north-west are important not only to the north-west, but to the whole of the north of England. I intend to refer briefly to two matters where that is certainly true: the trans-Pennine rail link and Jarvis Rail’s maintenance work, which is so important across the north of England.
I have a particular regard for Stalybridge railway station, which has a magnificent pub on the platform. At one stage in my life, when I was working in Wolverhampton during the week and returning to Yorkshire on a Friday, my weekend began when I arrived at Stalybridge and its magnificent pub. It is one of only a few such pubs on railway station platforms in England—Huddersfield station has another, I think. The trans-Pennine link is so important, and I praise the current operator First Trans Pennine, which has definitely improved the service enormously. The line’s punctuality figures are among the best in the country, even though they were among the worst when the operator took on the franchise. There has also been investment in the rolling stock.
Whatever party forms the next Government, real consideration should be given to extending that franchise, which I understand is a possibility under its terms. That would lead to certainty on the line, and I think that the operator has done broadly a good job. Incidentally, we are probably looking at having high-speed rail in the future, so I hope that we will not abandon the ambition of high-speed rail across the Pennines.
I agree entirely. I also think that in the shorter term we need to look at track configuration and investment in the track around Manchester, because there is a need for investment. Some of the track is not up to the best standards, and that really clogs up the whole of the north of England. Investment is needed in Manchester in particular to improve the efficiency of the train network there.
Incidentally, I also think that Manchester airport is a beacon in the north’s economy and that it is important not only to the north-west, but to Yorkshire. It is ridiculous that there are no rail links to Manchester airport on Boxing day, its busiest day of the year. Many airports in the south of England, such as Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, are all linked by train on Boxing day. The next time the trans-Pennine franchise is up for renewal, I hope that it is specified that services should be provided on that line, which is so important for the economy of the whole of the north of England, at least 364 days a year and on Boxing day. Direct links from Manchester airport to Selby, my constituency, have been cut, and I hope that they can be restored at some stage, perhaps the next time the trans-Pennine franchise is negotiated. There are proposals for an open-access operator to compete with the franchise operator on trans-Pennine links. That might be a good thing. It has certainly helped with the east coast main line.
The other matter I wanted to discuss is Jarvis Rail, and it affects both the north-west and Yorkshire. I got the job figures from the administrator, Deloitte, earlier today. In the north-west, 63 jobs have been lost in Manchester and 10 have been lost in Liverpool. In Yorkshire, on the other side of the Pennines, 302 jobs have been lost in Doncaster, 62 have been lost in Leeds and 213 have been lost in York. I am not sure that the response of either the Ministers or Network Rail to the crisis for Jarvis and for all of those whose jobs have been affected has been up to scratch.
Ministers could have invoked the powers of the Railways Act 1993 and set up a railway administration order. That would not have prevented Jarvis from disappearing, but it would have meant that the contracts had to be funded by the Department for Transport or Network Rail. It would have meant that the appointed railway administrator had to keep the contracts intact and that people would have been paid last week over the Easter holidays. The railway administrator would then have had to sell on the contracts in an orderly way. That was envisaged under the terms of the 1993 Act, so I am not sure why it was not called upon last week. The whole of Jarvis, including Jarvis Rail, is now in administration, so we are where we are, as they say.
I sought advice from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole). He told me that that is in the hands of Network Rail, which is now responsible for deciding what happens to the important maintenance contracts Jarvis was undertaking. He suggested that I contact Network Rail and seek a meeting. I did so and received a reply from Iain Coucher, who, incidentally, is paid £555,000 a year plus a £250,000 bonus. He said he was not prepared for Network Rail to meet me and possibly MPs from the north-west. He had taken legal advice and was not prepared to do that, although I had been advised to go to his office by the Minister. It is disgraceful. He has a responsibility to the whole rail industry and there are many constituents in the north-west who have been made redundant and who are eager to learn what will happen to Jarvis’s contracts and whether there is any possibility that they will get work in the future.
Many constituents have rung my office and asked whether the railways are safe now that Jarvis has gone into liquidation and what is happening to the maintenance work it was doing as part of its contracts. Those are questions that Network Rail should be prepared to discuss with elected representatives. Incidentally, Mr. Coucher—£555,000 a year and a £250,000 bonus—last week refused me a meeting on the station car park at Selby, which we want to be developed, not least so that more people can go to Manchester airport on the trans-Pennine rail link.
In my 13 years as an MP, I have never encountered such an arrogant attitude from an organisation. The spokesman from Network Rail said that it was not a public organisation, as if that was an excuse. An organisation that exhibited capitalism red in tooth and claw would not decline a meeting with an MP.
I very much hope that in the next Parliament MPs from the north-west, Yorkshire and across the north can make Network Rail a little more accountable for the money that it spends on our behalf. I hope that even at this late stage—Parliament will not be dissolved until Monday—the Minister, powerful man that he is, can perhaps get Network Rail at least to speak to concerned MPs about the future of the rail contracts that were lost last week, which were important to the north-west and Yorkshire.
The great transport revolutions in this country happened in the north-west. The first canal, the Bridgewater canal, was built in the region. Incidentally, the last major canal built in this country, the Manchester ship canal, was built there too. The first passenger railway station was built between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool in the early 1830s. Most people have forgotten, but the first part of the motorway system was the Preston bypass, which was built in the region. The rest of the motorway system came out of it.
The Secretary of State for Transport has said that high-speed rail is part of a new revolution. It is certainly a change in the order of magnitude in terms of transport, but it is not starting in the north of England. It is starting in the south, and I want to examine some of the reasons for that and explain why I think that it should not be happening.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on bringing this important matter before the House. He has been a distinguished MP for Chorley. One only has to listen to his speech to know how deeply he has the interests of his constituents at heart, and how much he understands the area that he represents.
If one looks at the expenditure figures per head of population for the north-west, the north of England, Yorkshire or, in this case, for the slightly wider area covered by passenger transport executives, which includes even the west midlands—I shall use those figures because they make the case more powerfully—one sees that the ratio of expenditure per head of population is £836 for London and the south-east and £269 for the PTE areas. Those figures are from the Passenger Transport Executive Group. Not only are they wide apart, but they are getting wider apart. The rate of expenditure growth in the south is about twice what it is in the regions, and one gets an even greater ratio when comparing London and the south-east with, for instance, Yorkshire. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have for many years been asking for a justification of that, but there is not one, as far as I can see. I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend the Minister and others, but they have never adequately explained to the Committee why that has happened.
The Select Committee has just done a report—I assume it is a coincidence that we got a reply in our pigeonholes today—on “Priorities for investment in the railways”. We took a tangential look at the situation. One of our conclusions states:
“Too often, however, the Government prioritises its spending on rail projects based on current and forecast demand, which has contributed to a disproportionate increase in the ratio of investment into London compared to the regions.”
That is supported by the figures that I just gave.
The response to that point is long, for a Government response. They have never really had a reason for doing what they are doing, so they waffle a bit about wider implications. Our conclusion states that if they carry on following demand, they will fuel it and will always put investment in the south-east while ignoring other social and economic impacts in their assessments. Part of the Government response states:
“While this advice”—
about those wider implications—
“is not mandatory because it is still being refined and a method for applying the advice being developed by taking outputs from the appropriate transport model, it has been used in the case of several major projects including HS2”—
that is, High Speed 2.
That is not satisfactory. If we continue to use models of demand, all the money will go to the south-east, and that will carry on, in effect subsidising congestion. If more money is put in, more people will go to the south-east, so greater demand will be projected, so more money will go to the south-east. That is not acceptable.
Given that we have Thameslink, Crossrail, the investment in transport for the Olympics and the mess that the public-private partnership for the tube is in—billions and billions of pounds are going into the tube system—I think that high-speed rail should start in the north of England for some of the reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) gave. It could easily start with a link between Manchester and Leeds to give a crossing time over the Pennines of a matter of minutes, and then, like the motorway, railway and canal systems, it could move southwards. If this or any other Government are serious about dealing with economic priorities, they have to change the way in which they assess and invest in major infrastructure projects, and look at social and economic benefits, and the economies of the regions, which are underutilised.
I respect my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I think that the ministerial team that the current Secretary of State has put around him since he has been in power offers a breath of fresh air. It has been a peculiar delight and pleasure to see officials and Ministers coming along to the Select Committee and saying exactly the opposite on investment in the high-speed rail system to what they had been saying for the previous 11 or 12 years, when they poured cold water on it. In cahoots with the Treasury, they initiated the Eddington report, which said that we did not need high-speed links, and that the network was good enough. It is a Treasury view, is it not, that everything will be fine if we just widen a few pinch points in the network. It will not be fine. We need serious investment in the infrastructure.
As far as I am concerned, my right hon. Friend the Minister and the transport team have killed off Eddington, and I hope that they have educated some of the officials in the Department who have been giving such appalling advice. Having listened to them give advice against high-speed rail over the years, I thought that if they had been around in 1820, they would have been telling us what a jolly good thing the stagecoach was, and that those newfangled railways would never catch on. The advice on high-speed rail was of that ilk.
I will not be tempted. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the new Secretary of State’s change of tack on high-speed rail had anything at all to do with the announcement by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), at the Conservative party conference two years ago that we were backing high-speed rail, not only to Birmingham, but to Manchester and Leeds?
I am pleased that the Conservatives and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats support high-speed rail, but, to answer the question directly, no, I do not. If people look back at what the Secretary of State has said, they will see that he has been a long-term supporter of high-speed rail. He has a clear case to make—a much clearer and better case than the Conservative case, which came about simply because that party needed an answer to a question put to the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. In order to win an election—we all want to do that, so I understand him—he said that he was against the third runway at Heathrow airport, but there had to be an answer to the question, “What will you do?” The answer was high-speed rail, but, having announced it, the Conservatives are a bit confused about where they want it to go, how it will be funded and whether they will support it. The Conservatives came to their view to win the mayoralty in London, whereas the Secretary of State based his conclusions on a clear analysis of what the country needs, which is being linked to the continental high-speed system.
I want to mention two or three other things, such as the Manchester hub—now called the northern hub—and the pinch points in that system. Part of the case for high-speed rail is linking the great economic generators, the great cities of this country: Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and eventually Liverpool, Hull, Glasgow and Edinburgh. We should get the investment—it is a shame not to have had it earlier—to take out the pinch points and to create the Manchester hub but, even if we do, the journey time predicted by Network Rail between Manchester and Leeds is 43 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby might have a better recollection of the distance between Manchester and Leeds, but I guess about 40 miles—only averaging 60 mph. In 2010—when completed, in 2018 or 2019 possibly—we should have better connections than that on routes dedicated to just one form of transport. The issue of pinch points, therefore, is dealt with by the Manchester hub, which ought to be prioritised by the Network Rail capital programme period between 2014 and 2019, as the Select Committee recommended. I understand that Network Rail is doing feasibility work, and I hope that, on conclusion in 12 months, it and the Government will support that investment.
The other way of dealing with capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley said when talking about Adlington station, is to increase the number of coaches in the north-west. At the start of the current Network Rail investment period, 182 new coaches were thought necessary—according to Government and Network Rail figures. Many people in the passenger transport executives involved with the Northern Rail franchise—I think it is five—thought the figure was too low. However, of those 182 carriages, 18 have been ordered, and I understand that 50 for the northern franchise are waiting for a signature. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister told me whether that contract will be signed before Parliament is prorogued, because we are right at the last minute, and certainty about the matter is important. The Secretary of State has been good enough to see my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) and me about the issue on two or three occasions. I hope for confirmation of the good news about the contract before we all go to fight elections, retire or do whatever we shall do over the next four weeks.
I would also like a firm commitment about where we are on phase 2 of the contract. Can the Minister give any more reassurance about whether we shall get new or refurbished trains? I would like him to tell us as much as he can about the latest situation on the 50 carriages and on the second phase of the scheme.
The north of England—not just the north-west, but the whole of those regions of England—have not had a fair deal in transport compared with the investment going into the south-east of England, partly because of the methodology used at the Department for Transport. My hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues have made a fantastic start, but I hope that they get into the guts of the technicalities, so that they can follow their natural political instincts and ensure a fair deal on transport investment for all the regions.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth.
I compliment the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate, which I am sure is of great interest to his constituents, just as it is to mine. He referred to the debate a few days ago on high-speed rail, to which a number of us present today were lucky enough to contribute. Some of the arguments might well be repeated but, frankly, they bear repetition, because of their importance.
I want to start with the issue on which most people so far have spoken in detail—high-speed rail. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of high-speed rail, not only to the north-west, the most important region of the country, but to the rest of the nation. High-speed rail would encourage a modal or paradigm shift to rail from private car transport and, I hope, from domestic aviation as well. High-speed rail would have a big impact on business travel in particular in the north-west. Surveys show that 70 per cent. of rail journeys in the north-west are made for business or commuter purposes. Passenger journeys overall increased by fully 20 per cent. between 1999 and 2005.
On the economic front, we know that high-speed rail construction could create as many as 10,000 jobs over seven years, according to High Speed 2 studies. A further study by KPMG earlier this year showed that high-speed rail might create between 25,000 and 42,000 extra jobs, boosting the UK economy by 2 per cent. by 2040. The greatest economic gains, of course, would come in such regions as the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, Scotland and the west midlands. A lot of support for high-speed rail comes from the business sector. A survey of 500 businesses of various sizes was carried out in December 2008. When specifically asked which would help their business more, almost four in 10 of the businessmen surveyed chose the high-speed rail link and fewer than one in 10 the third runway at Heathrow.
High-speed rail will also free up space on the established or classic rail network. The background to our debate today is the increase in rail travel: up by more than 50 per cent. in the past 26 years, and by 36 per cent. in the past decade alone. In an area such as the commuter station of Gatley in my constituency, rail passenger numbers have increased by 130 per cent. in the past 10 years. Our railways clearly have an awful lot more potential if the capacity is available. However, the picture is not all rosy. In 2008-09, 18.8 per cent. of trains on the east coast main line were running late, as were more than 26 per cent. of all Virgin trains, with which those of us who use the west coast main line regularly are familiar. If and when we get high-speed rail, trains will be capable of travelling at up to 250 mph and journey times will be significantly reduced: London to Birmingham 49 minutes, down from an hour and 24 minutes; London to Manchester an hour and 20 minutes, down from two hours and eight minutes; and London to Edinburgh three hours and 30 minutes, down from four and a half hours as now.
I want to make an important, if parochial, point: we do not want to lose stops that are well established and well supported by the travelling public. I am referring to the stop at Stockport; the station is just outside my constituency but is well used by residents of the wider area and is at risk because of the new high-speed rail line. I have asked Ministers to guarantee that any new high-speed rail link would continue to stop in Stockport, but that guarantee has not been forthcoming. It is obvious that the train operating companies are looking to reduce journey times by cutting out established stops that are well used and well liked by our constituents.
The Liberal Democrats regard high-speed rail not as an alternative to other rail schemes, but as a complement to them. There is, as we have heard, currently a huge transport spending gap between London and the north. It is crucial that that be addressed in this debate. Spending per head on transport is far lower in the north than in London. As we know from the Transport Committee report of 2009, the north-east and Yorkshire receive only 72 per cent. of the UK average per head of population. London, by comparison, receives 195 per cent. per head of population and Scotland receives 162 per cent. There is a similar gulf in capital investment. In the five years to 2008, investment rose by 35 per cent. in the north-east and 37 per cent. in Yorkshire, but over the same period investment in London rose by 80 per cent.
We are committed to electrification of virtually the entire network by 2050. At the moment only 39 per cent. of our rail network is electrified, compared with more than 50 per cent. in Germany. In France, fully 90 per cent. of passenger traffic travels over electrified lines. Why is this important? Put simply, electric trains emit around 20 to 35 per cent. less carbon than conventional trains.
We would like the Government to give greater consideration to reopening old lines. We have said that we would set up a rail expansion fund worth up to £3 billion, from which councils and transport authorities could bid for more money to pay for rail improvement and expansion projects. That would be paid for by cutting part of the major roads budget. I shall be clear on this point. We are suggesting not a moratorium but a presumption against new road schemes, except where there is an exceptional case. Hon. Members might ask what I mean by “exceptional case”. I have a perfect example right in the middle of my constituency: the A555 relief road that links a roundabout on the Bramhall-Woodford boundary with a roundabout on the Heald Green-Handforth boundary. If that relief road is not completed, it will stand as a permanent testimony of the follies of short-term transport planning.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I find that temptation utterly resistible. I am happy to confirm that the earlier part of his jibe is fallacious. I will give him a further example. Liberal Democrat-led Stockport council has this year put an additional £2 million into its road repair budget. I hope that he will consider further the point that he made.
There is potential for reopening thousands of miles of railway lines across the UK, once again establishing a truly national rail network. As we have seen from the figures mentioned earlier, and from what other hon. Members have said, the public at large are clearly interested in and willing to use trains as a better method of transport. The simple problem at the moment is that the capacity and the infrastructure do not support the demand.
Thank you for the observation, Mr. Howarth, but my constituency is in the north-west of England, the schemes that I have mentioned are transport schemes and the title of the debate is “Transport in the north-west”. I await further guidance on that matter.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made a point about the reduction in the major roads budget, but he knows that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), our party’s Front-Bench spokesman, has already dealt with that question. For reasons of time, I do not wish to go over that again.
I want to say a word or two about overcrowding, because the 2007 White Paper forecast the need to provide additional capacity for in excess of 4,000 people in morning peak times and to ensure that the average load factor on the trains was no more than 45 per cent. The Department for Transport’s rolling stock strategy, published in 2008, identified 182 additional carriages for Northern Rail, as the hon. Member for Chorley mentioned, which covers the north-west of England. Later that year, the Department announced a plan to purchase 200 diesel carriages, including those 182 carriages that I have already mentioned. That plan has since been cancelled, owing to the higher than expected procurement costs. The DFT has issued a revised proposal that will introduce 80 to 100 carriages in the first phase. As other hon. Members have indicated, an update from the Minister today on those carriages would be most appreciated, not least by the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority, which has been in touch with the Transport Minister about this matter, which is of great concern to us.
The issue of buses has not been covered in this debate so far—
I beg your pardon. That subject was touched on by the hon. Member for Chorley, but it needs to be given a little more time if we are to do justice to it in the wider context.
The cost of buses has increased more than the cost in any other sector since the current Government came to power. Between 1997 and 2008 the real cost of motoring declined by 10 per cent. and the real cost of coach and bus fares increased by 13 per cent. That is not to say that the cost of motoring is too low, but it is an argument for saying that the cost of bus and coach fares is too high. The background is that the vast majority of local transport journeys are made by bus or coach. In 2008-09, 5.2 billion such journeys were made, compared with 5.1 billion in 2007-08. Between 1985-86 and 2006-07, the number of bus journeys fell by 30 per cent. in Scotland, by 28 per cent. in Wales and by 22 per cent. in English non-metropolitan areas.
With prices and operating profits going up, and journey numbers going down, the whole system must be revaluated to provide a better deal for passengers in the north-west and beyond. The Liberal Democrats would like the Tories’ bus deregulation of the 1980s to be reversed, with local authorities being given much more control over pricing and planning services.
The hon. Gentleman is generous with his time. I agree with his arguments. I supported the Transport Act 2008. Can he tell us why the Liberal-led integrated transport authority does not use the powers in that Act to bring in quality contracts in Greater Manchester?
Having recently met the chair of the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority, I know that it is concerned about this matter, which is currently receiving attention. Following your guidance earlier, Mr. Howarth, to stick to the main subject, I do not propose to be diverted further, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that discussions on that matter continue.
I should like to talk about concessionary fares, which the hon. Member for Chorley mentioned earlier. As he rightly said, the scheme is hugely popular—the take-up rate across the country in 2006 was some 60 per cent., including 85 per cent. in London and 79 per cent. in metropolitan areas, such as those in the north-west—but many local authorities across the region have found that the DFT-provided funding is insufficient to cover the real costs of providing the national scheme and have therefore been forced—
Some local authorities got more than they should have, while some did not get enough, and the ones that got too much would not hand anything over to the ones that did not have enough. The problem was that the funding was there but its allocation seemed to go wrong.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am minded to say, “’Twas ever thus.” Those of us familiar with the arguments about central Government funding for local authorities can testify that the argument is not always that there is not enough money in the pot, but simply that it is not appropriately allocated, and this is another example of precisely that. With his intervention, the hon. Gentleman has saved me from having to go on to the other point I was going to make about the disparity between what different areas receive.
There have also been changes to eligibility. In December 2009, the Government announced that the age for eligibility was to change from 60 to 65. From this month—April 2010—anybody turning 60 has to wait an extra month before qualifying for free travel. As we know, the threshold for eligibility will be raised—
Thank you, Mr. Howarth. Yes, I was keeping an eye on the clock, and you will be pleased to know that I am coming to the end of my remarks.
As I was saying, the proposals on concessionary fares will mean that 3 million people over the age of 60 will no longer be eligible for a bus pass. This year alone, some 92,000 people will be denied the bus pass they were expecting.
I conclude by referring to a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes in an interview with The House Magazine in September 2008:
“With climate change the greatest threat facing us today and aviation the fastest growing source of carbon emissions, we cannot afford not to invest in high-speed rail. The government needs to sever its unhealthy ties to the aviation industry, stop its small-scale tinkering with the rail network and make the step-change necessary to accommodate fast-growing passenger numbers and encourage a switch from air to rail.”
Our constituents deserve nothing less, and I acknowledge that, with their announcement of support for high-speed rail, the Government have finally made a small step in that right direction.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. He talks passionately about the issue. The north-west—the north in general—has been the poor relation in transport funding. Department for Transport figures show that in 2008-09 the north-west received £309 per head, Yorkshire and the Humber £239, and the north-east £235, compared with per capita funding in London of £826—more than two and a half times as much. The Transport Committee stated in its report “The major road network”:
“It is unacceptable that some parts of the country are discriminated against in terms of transport investment.”
That is disappointing, particularly bearing in mind the large number of Labour Members of Parliament who represent the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber, and the fact that fairly recently we had a Secretary of State representing a constituency in that part of the world. Not only is the north-west losing out, but some hard-earned taxpayers’ money has been wasted due to Government incompetence.
A case in point is the controversial Mottram-Tintwistle bypass. The three-and-a-half-mile bypass was originally budgeted at £183 million, and would have taken thousands of vehicles a day away from village roads on the edge of Tameside, relieving traffic jams from the M67 through Mottram and boosting jobs and investment in the area. As all road schemes have an environmental impact, the Highways Agency should have been in a position to present a case at the public inquiry that began in June 2007 and was expected to last 10 weeks. In January 2008, the Manchester Evening News reported that the hearing had been adjourned indefinitely after five unsuccessful attempts to draw up the right plans for the scheme.
There has been a catalogue of errors. I tabled a parliamentary question on 6 May 2008 for the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who was the Minister at the time. In the answer, he said that the public inquiry had met for only 15 days between 26 June and 18 December, and that since August 2004, £15 million had been spent on design, publication of draft orders, environment statements, draft modelling, legal costs, Highways Agency staff and the public inquiry. When I tabled a further question in 2009, I was informed that an additional £1,176,000 had been expended, which means that more than £16 million has been spent on the bypass and not a single square metre of tarmac has been laid. The scheme was finally cancelled by Lord Adonis on 23 July 2009. That was interesting timing—just before the parliamentary recess. No doubt it was another day to bury bad news. According to the Government, the scheme could be resurrected in 2016-17. When the Minister has the chance to comment, will he say whether he takes any responsibility for the fiasco and whether he can think of better ways of spending £16 million in the north-west?
The hon. Member for Chorley mentioned the concessionary travel scheme, which has been a real boon for pensioners. He pointed out that at the start, some local authorities were inadequately funded and others received a surplus, but the Government have tackled some of the funding problems and the situation is now much better. I wish to put it on the record that a fallacy is being put around the country by some perhaps not-so-well-advised parliamentary candidates and also, dare I say, by the Prime Minister. At Prime Minister’s questions today, he stated that the pensioners concessionary travel scheme would be under threat should a Conservative Government be elected. I reassure pensioners up and down the country that we do not intend to scrap the scheme. It is a brilliant scheme, from which many of my constituents and others across the north-west benefit.
That is one of the matters that we will have to keep under review, and I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by giving an answer off the top of my head.
Labour’s proposals risk getting high-speed rail wrong for the economy and the environment. The Government Command Paper talks about High Speed 2 going to Birmingham, but mentions only the possibility of its being extended to Manchester and Leeds. The proposed line to Birmingham leaves the north, Scotland and Wales out of the massive social, economic and regeneration benefits of high-speed rail. Failing to take high-speed rail through Heathrow will be a big mistake and a major lost opportunity for the environment. Labour’s deeply misguided support for a third runway has distorted the party’s approach on high-speed rail. The whole point of taking high-speed rail to Heathrow is to connect it to Manchester and Birmingham and their airports. That is not a fudged policy that was cobbled together—it is part of a co-ordinated approach to greening our transport policy. It would ensure a twin-hub approach, similar to the high-speed rail connection between Paris Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam Schiphol. If a destination is served by planes that often travel half-full or even emptier, a high-speed rail connection between airports makes it possible to keep those services going, and high-speed rail between Manchester and Heathrow would ensure that that is the case.
The overall cost of building a new line would be about £20 billion, and taxpayers’ contribution would be £15.7 billion, with both figures at 2008 prices. The building would require £1.3 billion from the taxpayer in each of the 12 years that the rail professionals tell us construction would take. Since the planning and preparation process would take at least four to five years, we would target construction to take place between 2015 and 2027. It is important to remember that the major cost of the project will not kick in until that point. I am always surprised to be told that our policies for high-speed rail are not costed. We have announced the figures, and they add up.
On the rail review, the long-term project for high-speed rail should not be at the expense of improvements to the existing network. That is why when we costed the project, we ensured that it would not consume the whole railway budget, but would allow for continued investment in improving services for all, including electrification. Furthermore, if we are elected to form the next Government, we will implement a host of changes to the rail industry that will have a more immediate impact on the quality of rail travel in the north-west and other areas. We will extend the length of passenger franchises, allow train operating companies to carry out short-term capacity enhancements, reform the governance of Network Rail, and reinforce the regulator’s role. Labour has shied away from reform, but the Conservatives will not.
I want to make a brief point about the Manchester hub. Network Rail’s recent report highlights many of the problems around Manchester and the wider north-west that we have long recognised. Despite its pledge in 2000 to deliver a Manchester hub as part of its 10-year plan, Labour has singularly failed to deliver the capacity improvements needed in the north-west. A Conservative Government are committed to bring high-speed rail to the north of England via Manchester, and we have set out clear plans to reform our rail network to deliver the better stations, better services and new trains for which passengers are crying out.
The hon. Member for Chorley mentioned electrification, and there is no doubt that if we are to meet our long-term environmental targets of reducing greenhouse gases by 90 per cent. by 2050, rail electrification is important. Further electrification of our railways is an important way of improving efficiency and reducing carbon emissions from transport, but the Government have failed to come clean about the cost to taxpayers. Yet again, Labour is maxing out Network Rail’s credit card, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. After Lord Mandelson’s announcement of swingeing cuts to the transport budget, how can we believe that Labour’s announcement of billions of pounds of new spending will not impact on existing transport commitments or put further strain on public finances, which are already stretched to breaking point? Labour should come clean on what current projects it plans to cut to provide the funding.
Having said that, the big hit for obtaining environmental improvements is reducing reliance on aviation. Until we have a sustainable electricity supply in this country, we must consider carefully how to phase in electrification. People in countries such as Spain and Germany would not dream of flying distances as short as the one between Manchester and Heathrow. There would be a high-speed rail link. We are catching up with other countries.
On rolling stock, the Northern Rail franchise in particular is suffering from the Government’s failure to deliver new carriages. We have heard the 1,300 new carriages being announced, re-announced, then re-announced again. The delay in publication of the revised rolling stock plan has caused great uncertainty for the industry. The recent announcement of 16 class 150 vehicles for Northern Rail is welcome, but it is nowhere near enough, as the franchise was promised 182 in the original rolling-stock plan.
The difficulty that we and others have experienced in trying to tie down exactly how many carriages will be delivered, when and to whom, is indicative of the horrendously complex system used by the Department for Transport for buying new rolling stock. Conservatives believe that the Government's role in buying rolling stock should be radically scaled back. The detailed involvement by civil servants is delaying the delivery of new capacity and driving up costs for both taxpayers and fare payers in the north-west. The Competition Commission’s recent report highlighted the fact that the Government’s meddling in the procurement of rolling stock was preventing the rolling-stock companies from getting more trains on to the network.
Our proposed changes to the franchising system will give train operators a much stronger incentive to invest to improve the quality of service that they offer and to provide new capacity to help to tackle overcrowding. Our approach may provide a realistic option for passenger operators to save money by buying their own rolling stock rather than leasing it. We have had a good and interesting debate. My only criticism—dare I say it?—of the hon. Member for Chorley is that he came up with a very long shopping list.
The problem with transport, as in so many other areas, is that although the hon. Gentleman has a shopping list, his credit card has already been maxed out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Many of the long-term aspirations to which he refers will have to be viewed in the context of the overall economic climate and this Government’s unprecedented level of borrowing, which will have to be repaid some time or other.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Howarth, for what will probably be the last major debate on transport in this Parliament before we secure an historic fourth term at the general election. It is right and proper that we have a Chair from the north-west. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—he is indeed a friend—secured a one-and-a-half-hour debate on this important issue. I am not being patronising when I say that if a parliamentary candidate ever wanted to see how an MP can secure investment in his community and improvement in his region, they should read this debate, particularly my hon. Friend’s speech. For the record, it is not just his ability to raise these important points in Westminster Hall and the House that is important—he doesn’t half hassle Ministers in the Lobby to obtain the best for his community. He is always courteous, sometimes forceful, and always passionate in trying to secure the best for his community.
I thank all hon. Members, including my hon. Friends and Opposition Members, for their contributions to this important debate. It is important to begin by putting the record right on what we have achieved during the past 12 years. My Department is proud of the investment that we have put into improving transport in the north-west. Over the past five years, total public expenditure on transport in the north-west increased by 38 per cent. from £1,548 million in 2003-04 to £2,136 million in 2008-09. The north-west was allocated just under £672 million for local transport and maintenance for the period 2008-2011, and in addition the regional funding allocation included £1.3 billion for major projects, which has already helped to deliver large-scale new infrastructure.
People on the doorsteps who read the scare propaganda that they receive through their letterboxes sometimes ask, “Why didn’t you fix the roof when the sun was shining?” Of course we built new schools, we built new hospitals, we employed more nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers, but we also invested in transport in the north-west.
In respect of the north, we need to defend our record proudly. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) referred to this matter. Figures from the Treasury and from the Department for Transport show that from 2003-04 to 2008-09 there was greater percentage growth in transport spending in the north, which includes the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) here—and the north-west, than in the greater south-east, which includes London, the south-east and the east. The figures are 37 per cent. or 38 per cent., depending on whether the figure is levelled up or down, compared with 29 per cent. That was done because the region deserves that funding, not because we were seeking to influence the electorate, as has been claimed. Hon. Members here for the debate have been powerful advocates for their communities’ need to receive additional funds. I am pleased to put on record the huge investment that the area has secured thanks to the Government accepting the worthiness of the case articulated today.
I am also pleased to be able to highlight the excellent delivery of major transport schemes achieved in the north-west. Since 2006, the region has completed nine schemes, and a further nine are already under construction. That is an excellent record. During the last financial year, we announced full approval for a further eight schemes in the north-west, amounting to approximately £330 million in conventional funding, plus £158 million in private finance initiative credits. Let us be clear: that was in the last financial year, when some people advised us to make a 1 per cent. real-terms cut in spending, which would have meant a cut of £840 million in spending on transport. Imagine having cut £840 million over the last financial year, and add to the equation the advice that we have been given to make savage cuts in 2010-11 and further cuts thereafter. It is important that prospective candidates read the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley regarding how an MP should effect change in Parliament. I hope that voters around the country, especially those in the north-west, will read Hansard with due diligence tomorrow to see a record of delivery versus one that would have led to huge cuts.
My hon. Friend made a number of excellent points, which I will deal with as quickly as possible in the short time that I have left. He congratulated us on the plans announced for high-speed rail—those are proper, detailed plans, not something done on the back of an envelope after someone was kiboshed by the Mayor of London in an announcement on the eve of a conference. However, those plans are subject to an important caveat—public consultation. Everything is up for grabs. The idea of high-speed rail is up for grabs; it is not a done deal. We will be consulting formally from the autumn on whether there should be high-speed trains, and we will also consult on the route. That consultation should include the issue of where construction begins. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which prays in aid as a tour de force the history of people from the north-west as pioneers of transport over the past 200 or 300 years. Why should that not continue? I encourage people to get involved in the consultation process.
My hon. Friend reminded us of the importance of the Liverpool, Preston and Manchester triangle. He will be aware that an announcement about the electrification of those lines has been made by the Government over the past 12 months. Imagine if we had taken the advice to make cuts of £840 million over the last financial year, on top of the savage cuts that we have been advised to make this financial year, which began this week. Could those lines be electrified over the next period, as we intend them to be?
My hon. Friend was right to remind me that Chorley is not simply the centre of the universe, but the centre of an important triangle in that part of the region. He made an important point about the job losses at Jarvis, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Selby. I am surprised that people at Network Rail are not willing to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, and I will ensure that a letter is sent today from my private office to Network Rail. The civil service works very hard and some people in it get a far smaller salary than some people in other industries. I will try to send the person in question—or someone else senior if he is not available—a transcript of what my hon. Friend has said, and suggest that a meeting is arranged to discuss the two issues that have been raised, both of which are important not only to my hon. Friend, but to his constituents and users of Network Rail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley raised an important point relating to the Royal Ordnance factory and the development of the station. He was right to pay tribute to the announcement of the £3.3 million from the community infrastructure fund. When I heard his contribution, I was concerned about the section 106 agreement, and the questions about whether there had been a “double reward” for monies that may or may not be spent.
Quite rightly, in Chorley there was a double insurance. Lobbying took place and the Government picked up the £3.3 million. However, another section 106 agreement was added, so that another £3.3 million was awarded for the railway station if plans had gone ahead. That allows us £3.3 million to spend on transport for the benefit of the people of Chorley. The people of Chorley can win with this, as long as the money is spent as agreed.
My point was that, to avoid the perception of the council pocketing a gain for the community, people should read the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend. They will need to ask how the money is being used to the benefit of transport users in that part of the community. The whole point of a planning gain is to ensure that the community benefits, and it is important that that is the case. The lobbying that my hon. Friend undertook in getting investment for transport in his constituency does not simply benefit his constituents; it also benefits the wider community.
My hon. Friend raised an important point about the arches, and I will write again to Network Rail to see how soon it will be getting those arches back and to find out what the delay has been. He noted the short-sightedness of the policy at the village of Adlington on the Piccadilly service. I am not in charge of the timetable, and the best thing I can do is send Network Rail a verbatim account of what my hon. Friend said and ask it to explain why it has made those changes.
The point raised about new developments is important. It relates to weak local authorities—some are borough councils or district councils—that do not enforce planning conditions. My hon. Friend points out that in the current climate, some developers may seek to reduce their costs, which could mean that roads are built that are not of adoptable standards. I am keen to ensure that local authorities protect their communities and put the conditions in place for having roads that are adoptable, so that residents can benefit from roads, bus shelters and sewers that are properly maintained. That is important. I will write to Network Rail separately on the issue of Rylands crossing and that safety issue. My hon. Friend also raised a point about the footbridge, and I will look into that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby raised a number of important points. I have already responded to the point about Network Rail and Jarvis. He raised other points about the quality of ale at the pub, Stalybridge station, Boxing day and other matters. He asked how we can improve franchises when future contracts are given out. I will take those points on board and ensure that my officials do, too. However, on the choices that we make and some of the advice that we are given, we are sometimes accused of micro-managing contracts. If micro-managing involves ensuring that those who have contracts provide a good service, ensuring that franchises are written in a way to get the best quality of service for commuters, and holding train operating companies to account in relation to bad timetabling arrangements, I plead guilty. We will not allow train operating companies to take commuters for a ride—forgive the pun.
When preparing for a Select Committee, when it is the turn of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) to speak, my heart beats slightly faster, and I was slightly nervous when he got up to speak today. He made a fantastic contribution to the debate, and was right to put on record the huge contribution made by my noble Friend Lord Adonis since he became Secretary of State. We have tried to engender an attitude whereby transport is at the centre of everything that city leaders, councils and others do in matters of planning, land use and other issues. My hon. Friend raised two specific questions about the rolling stock contract and phase 2. He will appreciate that things have moved fast over the past year in relation to that, not least because of the delay with the Thameslink programme contracts. I will write to him before Parliament is dissolved to answer the important questions that he raised.
Let me put on record the fact that the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) has been a constructive partner in securing recent improvements in infrastructure, not least in the role that he played in meetings on HS2 and with the Secretary of State, and there has been a constructive dialogue about how we get the best for our country in a consensual manner. I compare and contrast that with how those who wish to form the next Government and appoint the next Secretary of State for Transport have behaved in relation to High Speed 2. We should put aside party political issues to try to get the best possible deal for commuters around the country. The hon. Member for Cheadle raised some important points, and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley picked up on some of the possible perceived inconsistencies between what his party says nationally and what it may do locally.
Last year we spent £2.5 billion on buses—that is more money spent on buses than at any time in recent history. More people are using buses now than at any time since they were deregulated by the Conservative party. The quality contract is one way in which local authorities can secure the franchise deal that London has secured. Only one party goes into the election with a commitment to abolish quality contracts. It is not the party of the hon. Member for Cheadle or my party; it is the Conservative party.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) has the breathtaking audacity to talk about how his party would run the transport system at the same time as making the huge cuts that it wants to make this year, and those that it will inevitably make in future. His shopping list has no way of being met by his spending envelope, and so electrification, High Speed 2, Crossrail, motorway widening, quality contracts, bus passes for those of pensionable age and those who are disabled and further schemes to improve transport around the country would not happen.
I conclude by saying that this has been an excellent debate secured by an excellent MP who is doing the best for Chorley, together with other colleagues who are doing their best for the north-west.
Iraq (Humanitarian Aid)
I mean it when I say that it is an honour to speak my final words in this Chamber, and indeed the House, under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth.
Four weeks and three days ago, on Sunday 7 March, I was in Iraq as an election monitor for Iraq’s second set of parliamentary elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. My election observation took place in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, some 80 km from the Turkish border. At precisely the same time, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) was in Basra, several hundred kilometres to the south, also as an election monitor. I am grateful for his participation in this debate. I shall describe what I saw on 7 March and explain why Britain’s programme of aid to Iraq is important—important in its humanitarian assistance, in repairing the country’s infrastructure and in strengthening its governance arrangements. I hope that that assistance and support will be sustained.
At this point, I place on the record my huge gratitude to our consul general in the Kurdish region, Jeremy Macadie, and his team and my thanks to Chris Bowers and his Foreign and Commonwealth Office team and to Lucia Wilde and the Department for International Development team in Baghdad for their help in the preparation of this speech.
What I saw in Dohuk was an impressive demonstration of a free and fair election. In Dohuk, the turnout was more than 70 per cent. In Iraq as a whole, despite the threats and despite the bombings in Baghdad, the turnout was more than 62 per cent. In Baghdad, it was 60 per cent. In Britain, at our last general election, we managed 61 per cent.
At the half-dozen or more polling stations that I visited, I saw men and women casting their votes freely and in secret. With one or two regional exceptions—the older men in Kurdistan in their characteristic baggy trousers and elaborate headscarves—what I saw in person replicated the images that I watched in the television coverage of the polls across the whole of Iraq: the voting usually taking place in a small school classroom; the plastic blue-topped ballot boxes; the bottle of purple dye taped to the table at the side of the ballot box for people to dip their forefinger in as proof of having voted; the three cardboard voting booths; the lists and voting instructions on the walls; lines of blue and white tape to guide electors into the polling centres; men and women in separate lines to be frisked before they entered; the election officials sitting at school desks, one with the register and another to tear off the ballot paper; and the very large ballot paper, because there were many parties and, as well as voting for a party, the elector had to express a preference for the order of the candidates on the list.
In addition to the five or six election officials, inside each polling station there were a similar number of scrutineers—party representatives and representatives of non-governmental organisations, which might be human rights or women’s organisations. For a British observer, it was unexpected to find a multiplicity of party representatives in the same room as the voting, but that was not a bad check against fraud.
Equally unexpected was the counting of the votes in the same polling stations at the conclusion of the voting, but the counting was closely observed by the party scrutineers, and the result was posted up at the most immediate local level. That did, on reflection, serve to make later tampering far less easy. Although the count that I observed took two and a half hours at the end of an already long day, it was done with humour, grace, commitment and efficiency. The election officials and scrutineers were mostly young people in their 20s or 30s and many were women—a good harbinger, I thought, of the future of democracy in Iraq.
That is not to say that the elections were without flaws and defects. There are in Iraq a very large number of internally displaced persons—up to 2.8 million—hence the continuing need for significant humanitarian aid. The names of the IDPs were not always on the registers, although when they were, I found it extraordinary and impressive that in Dohuk there was provision for such displaced persons to cast a vote on the ballot paper of their home town, be it Mosul, Kirkuk or even Baghdad. Problems were also reported with the registers for the security forces, who voted two days before the general election so that they could be on duty on polling day.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the painfully slow process of the central aggregation of results from nearly 50,000 polling stations throughout the country, what I saw and the positive judgment that I made seem to reflect the response of the thousands of Iraqi and international election observers. The three main independent Iraqi election observation networks—Tamouz, Hammurabi and Shams—said:
“The electoral process went well”.
According to the International Election Monitors Institute,
“the essentials of a democratic election were in place.”
According to the United Nations, the elections were “credible” and “a significant achievement”. In the words of the UN special representative, Ad Melkert,
“7 March was a triumph of reason over violence.”
Indeed, when an incumbent Prime Minister complains about the result, that is a fair guarantee that the election has been fair and free.
It is plain to me, from my experience of election monitoring in two African countries and now Iraq, that generally people like to vote. They like to take some ownership of their lives. However, it is equally plain that people will lose confidence in the democratic system if it fails to meet their basic material needs or to offer them reasonable standards of governance. They need an economy and an infrastructure that work and a state that protects its citizens. That is where the British aid programme comes in and why it is so important.
I have mentioned that there are 2.8 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, with a further 2 million dispersed around the region. Their needs have been the most urgent, and I welcome the £170 million that DFID has contributed since 2003 to provide food, water, shelter, medical care and protection to those most vulnerable people. Iraq is probably no longer in humanitarian crisis, but I should be grateful for my hon. Friend the Minister’s assurance that humanitarian aid will continue where necessary.
I also welcome the several hundred million pounds of British aid that have gone towards rebuilding Iraq’s dilapidated infrastructure, especially in the south around Basra. There have obviously been considerable improvements in electricity supply. Hundreds of thousands of people now benefit from clean water. There have also been important improvements in health care and education facilities. The Iraqi people have deserved that assistance in starting to recover from the years of neglect and mismanagement under Saddam Hussein.
However, I am conscious that Iraq is not among the poorest countries. It already ranks as a lower middle income country. With the third largest proven oil reserves and 10th largest gas reserves in the world, its potential wealth is clearly enormous. The key questions are how it manages that wealth, whether its people benefit from it—Iraq is third from the bottom of the 2008 corruption perceptions index—and how far its Government recognise their responsibility to provide for their own people. Those challenges go to the heart of governance, the rule of law and human rights in Iraq.
It is excellent, therefore, that DFID has provided technical support to improve the decision-making and administrative systems of the office of the Prime Minister and of the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi Parliament. I find it fascinating and important that in advance of the recent general election, DFID supported Iraqi cabinet office preparations for a transition of Government. DFID has also worked with the Ministry of Finance to improve its operation. In 2009, DFID’s budget preparation support helped to secure for the first time cabinet approval of the budget strategy and the submission of the 2010 budget with a clear statement of guiding priorities and a medium-term fiscal framework. Similar capacity-building work has taken place with the Basra provincial council to enable it to take forward more than 800 reconstruction projects since 2006.
It is evident that the FCO, working closely with the European Union integrated rule of law mission for Iraq, is also doing good work in strengthening the criminal justice system in Iraq, not least in helping Iraqis to develop their forensic capacity. It is easier to trust the state that does not torture its citizens.
Led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq on human rights, to whom I pay the warmest possible tribute, the FCO has done good work in human rights, including encouraging the Council of Representatives to pass legislation in 2008 to establish the Iraqi national human rights commission.
I accept that as the country begins to achieve its economic potential, the UK’s overall aid programme to Iraq will decrease. At the same time, however, all the DFID and FCO interventions in the area of government and the rule of law play a vital role in consolidating democracy in Iraq.
It is a great privilege not only to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say but to take part in his final debate here. He has been such a successful Member for Streatham.
May I ask whether there was any discussion about moving on and taking advantage of the wealth that could be created in Kurdistan? Was there any discussion of the opportunity for direct air flights from London to that part of Iraq, so as to promote trade with the UK and, therefore, wealth in that region?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and for his exceptionally kind words. We are close constituency neighbours in south-west London.
The answer to his precise question is yes. The matter of direct air flights from the UK to the Kurdish region was raised with me, specifically flights to Erbil. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that Austrian Airlines has three direct flights a week and Lufthansa is about to start flights there. There is a desire on the part of the Kurdish authorities and Kurdish entrepreneurs to strengthen their business links with the UK, and they are certainly keen that such flights should be instituted. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to put that expression of desire on the record.
I return to my argument that DFID and FCO interventions in the area of government and the rule of law play a vital role in consolidating democracy in Iraq. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to offer a strong reassurance that such interventions will continue to form part our aid programme to Iraq.
Last week, as I was beginning to think about what I might say today, I happened to read an interview with Mohamed el-Baradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog and perhaps a candidate in the next Egyptian presidential elections. Mr. el-Baradei offered a severe critique of the west’s involvement in middle east politics, in the course of which he said:
“The west talks a lot about elections in Iran, for example, but at least there were elections—yet where are the elections in the Arab world? If the west doesn’t talk about that, then how can it have any credibility?”
Actually, there have been elections in Iraq. Parliamentary elections were held in 2005, provisional elections were held in 2009, and parliamentary elections were held again last month. Each time, as far as we can see, they were freer and fairer than previously. This time, the elections delivered a result that may reshape alliances across communities and perhaps boost national reconciliation.
It is true, of course, that tensions still run deep. There are still appalling bombings by a perverse and apparently irreconcilable minority, yet the election in 2010 was unquestionably democratic, and democracies tend to be less cruel to their citizens and more peaceable to their neighbours. That was a prize worth winning. I hope that the UK will continue to give priority to helping Iraq strengthen its democracy.
I thank you, Mr. Howarth, for your forbearance in allowing me a couple of minutes; I also thank the Minister.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill); at the end of a pretty salubrious parliamentary career, he made a fine speech about Iraq. That is on top of his many other fine speeches. My right hon. Friend may be best remembered for being a close aide and support to one of our great Prime Ministers.
It was a great privilege to take part in the same scheme as my right hon. Friend and observe what was going on during the Iraq election. I went to Basra, and was hosted by the astonishing Alice Walpole, our consul general there; she runs a flawless operation. It was a super time. We had a one-day tour of Iraq—not long for a politician, but short for a soldier—and I saw much of what my right hon. Friend described. It was a good trip; we went round a bunch of polling stations, which seemed to be perfectly well run. There was enthusiastic participation and a pretty good turnout.
It was interesting from a broader perspective. We now know that Mr. Allawi got a larger share of the vote, but most people thought that al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister, would receive the larger number of votes. It was striking that the parties had to rely on support across the religious denominations. A Sunni could not demand Sunni votes, and Sunnis made it clear that if a politician demanded their vote because he was a Sunni or a Shi’ite he would get short shrift. As it was, Mr. Allawi’s party seems to have done the best, primarily from Sunnis with Shi’ite support; for Mr. al-Maliki’s party, it was the other way round. I was in Basra, and saw substantial support for Mr. al-Maliki. A coalition has not yet been put together, but we shall see.
The FCO staff that put together the programme that my right hon. Friend mentioned were super, as we have come to expect. Inevitably, I still get letters about my having been fairly vocal in support of the Iraq campaign from people who still will not take back their great opposition. I cannot put them right on all of those points, some of which are entirely valid.
We all know that the post-war reconstruction effort could have been a great deal better. However, as my right hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has done much work in that respect, and we can be sure of Britain’s effort between then and now; it has been exceptional. The aid programme has been extremely successful, and the efforts of our diplomats in Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra have been equally exceptional. In a way, we tend to forget about that, I guess because people’s interests have moved across to Afghanistan. However, our hard-working diplomats and their support staff, and the contractors and security staff there, are all doing great work. I understand that, from a financial point of view, Basra in particular is the subject of some interest at the FCO. The Department cannot keep all its posts open, but I hope that its post at Basra can be kept going for the moment.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham for allowing me the great honour of speaking directly after him in his final debate. Perhaps we should reflect on the fact that in 1979, Iraq had a similar GDP to Portugal; within a few years of Saddam taking power, its economy was in pieces. With the elections, we started the long process of moving towards welcoming Iraq as a modern country, again similar to today’s Portugal.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work in the House over a number of years. It would be remiss of me not to record the breadth of his contribution.
My right hon. Friend has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, an Assistant Government Whip, an Under-Secretary of State at the DETR, deputy Chief Whip, and Minister of State at the Office of Deputy Prime Minister. Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) said, he was PPS to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. On a personal level, my right hon. Friend was Minister when I tabled a Back-Bench amendment to what became the Transport Act 2000; he kindly accepted it, to great plaudits in my local newspaper. He found fame in my local newspaper for meeting a colleague of mine while surfing; his exploits surfing on the beaches of Cornwall have also been noted.
As one of the observers of the elections in northern Iraq a month ago, my right hon. Friend speaks with some authority about the transformation that has taken place. I respect and value his comments—and, indeed, those of other Members who contributed to the debate. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how far Iraq, its Government and its people have come since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. External debt is down from 326 per cent. of GDP in 2005 to 68 per cent. in 2009, Government investment increased six-fold between 2005 and 2008, and in 2005, Iraq held its first democratic election. None the less, as Members have noted, more than 20 years of conflict and neglect have taken their toll. Iraq remains a poor country; nearly a quarter of its people live in poverty, and thousands more have left in search of better prospects for themselves and their families.
The UK Government have been staunch allies to Iraq, contributing some £744 million to reconstruction efforts. The Department for International Development has played a key role, disbursing more than £500 million, nearly £200 million of which in humanitarian assistance. DFID has channelled its humanitarian funding through international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross, which are best placed to help the most vulnerable in Iraq. Money on its own, however, is not a measure of success. It is important to look at the outputs and what has been achieved with that money. So far, our money has brought 2 billion litres of safe drinking water to deprived households, schools and hospitals. It has helped to rebuild more than 1,000 schools, to provide food on an ongoing basis to around 1 million displaced and vulnerable people and to repair more than 4,000 emergency shelters for displaced Iraqis.
UK aid, together with that of the wider international community, is working. The number of refugees returning to Iraq is increasing, albeit slowly, and the number of registered refugees has dropped. Food insecurity, a good indicator of real impact, has dropped by 12 per cent. Although humanitarian aid is important, it is only the first step in any sustainable development programme. That is why we have focused our attention on helping Iraq to rebuild its own capacity. Given Iraq’s economic potential, our priority is to help it manage its economy and financial resources more effectively while creating the right environment for investment. Through lending our practical expertise to the Iraqi equivalent of the Cabinet Office, for example, we have helped to smooth preparations for the transition of government.
Physical infrastructure is also vital to a country’s long-term growth, so we have provided nearly £100 million to secure or improve power and water supplies to more than 1 million Iraqis. Understandably, a lot of our early work focused on Basra, and our efforts were often delivered in partnership with the UK military. More widely, we have worked on a number of large-scale projects to improve water and power supply. Overall, international efforts have yielded very real benefits for ordinary people. To take just one example, where people once had an average of four to eight hours of electricity available per day, they now have more than 15 hours of supply.
In the long-term, however, the Iraqi Government must take a more active role, both in maintaining existing infrastructure and by investing in new supply. DFID has been working with the relevant Government institutions in Iraq to train and support them in taking the lead in ongoing reconstruction and development. Ultimately, Iraq’s future will depend on its people and on their ability to revitalise the country’s economy. Alongside its humanitarian and reconstruction support, DFID has also developed a small business finance programme that will provide some 1,000 loans, a quarter of them to women. The programme has already paid out more than $1 million.
We have also secured work placements for more than 200 young people as part of our youth employment pilot programme; another 200 are currently undertaking training before starting their placement. We are working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to develop a programme that can be rolled out across the whole country, because we want lasting change in Iraq. DFID’s role in future will focus on engaging with others. For example, we could work with Iraq’s Ministry of Finance in matters of public financial management; the Ministry of Labour in youth employment; the British Council in tertiary education; the UN in humanitarian assistance or the World Bank in Iraqi policy and programmes.
Iraq is a country with enormous potential. Confidence in its economy is growing and security is improving. The real challenges now lie in helping its people to manage their resources so they can deliver better public services and generate growth while at the same time making political processes more effective on the ground. We can only meet such challenges by working in partnership with other donors, the wider international community and, most importantly, with the people of Iraq itself.
Thank you very much, Mr. Howarth, for calling me. I also thank Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate, which will be the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament. I am very privileged to have that opportunity.
I have chosen for this Adjournment debate the subject of housing in Southwark. Like you, Mr. Howarth, I have been a Member of Parliament for a long time. I have been the Member of Parliament for the northern part of Southwark for more than 27 years, and for the constituency that is currently called North Southwark and Bermondsey since the boundaries were redrawn in 1997. This debate will also be the last Adjournment debate in which I have the responsibility of representing that particular constituency. Although I hope to be back in the House after the election, the boundaries will be changed again slightly and the constituency will have the new name of Bermondsey and Old Southwark from next Monday.
Whatever the name of the constituency, however, the issue that has dominated my constituency work for all my time as a Member of Parliament is housing. You and I have that in common, Mr. Howarth, as constituency MPs. Of course, there have been other issues that I have had to address, but housing has been the main one. So it is absolutely right that I use this last opportunity in this Parliament to raise housing with the Government, because there are some very specific concerns that I would like the Minister to address when she responds.
Southwark is unique among London boroughs in that it has more than 40,000 local authority tenants and 12,000 local authority leaseholders who are tenants and leaseholders of the borough itself. I also have the privilege of representing many tenants and leaseholders of the City of London corporation, which has estates in Southwark, so I deal with two local authorities.
According to the new electoral register, the electorate within the boundaries of the new constituency is 84,899, which is one of the largest electorates in the country. Obviously, if we add on the people who are not on the electoral roll, because they are too young or otherwise not eligible to vote, we are talking about a population of probably 120,000 or 125,000.
For many of those people, there is a problem because they either cannot find a home—normally a home to rent—at an affordable cost, whether that is a local authority home, a home provided by a registered social landlord, housing association or housing trust, or a rented home in the private sector, or they are in a property that is still not of the standard that you, Mr. Howarth, or I would wish our constituents to live in.
The issue for them and for me is how we help them, particularly those people on relatively low incomes who cannot afford the sort of prices that properties go for along the river in my constituency, which stretches from the Oxo tower to Deptford, where some of the property prices are very high. Many of them have lived here all their lives, others have lived here for a long time and some have come here more recently. But the issue is how we can ensure they have the sort of housing they need.
I have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament in England who represents the highest number of council tenants as a proportion of their electorate. I have always taken that responsibility seriously. Therefore, much of what I want to say today is about providing support for local authorities—in this case, Southwark and the City of London—in the job that they want to do of housing our constituents.
As I have said, there are more than 40,000 Southwark tenants and 12,000 Southwark leaseholders. In Southwark, there are the same number of council properties as in Wandsworth, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham put together, or as in Lambeth and Tower Hamlets put together. I think that, in England, only Leeds and Birmingham have more council housing stock than we do in Southwark, and they are much bigger authorities and much bigger places than Southwark, which has a total population of about 250,000.
Eight years ago, for the first time since the London boroughs were created, Labour lost its overall majority in Southwark and the Liberal Democrats became the largest party in the borough, both in votes and seats. The Liberal Democrats took over as the minority administration for four years and for the last four years we have led a coalition administration. So my colleagues have had to take responsibility for housing and they have done so to the best of their ability.
Many good things have been done in that time. I am pleased to say that, just the other day, a housing league table produced by Shelter showed that
“Southwark ranked nineteenth out of 323 councils nationally, and fourth out of the 33 London boroughs, based on the percentage of affordable housing it provided of the 2009 requirement.”
According to Shelter:
“Southwark Council delivered 74 per cent of the amount of affordable housing that was needed.”
Southwark council has done very well, but to be honest that is a drop in the ocean. As of today, the number of people on the housing waiting list who are either in private sector accommodation, including bed and breakfast accommodation, of no fixed abode or living at home with somebody else, is about 15,000. In my judgment, it would take at least five years to house that number of people. We now have a banding system. If someone is in the top band, they are likely to be housed very quickly, but if they are in bands 3 or 4, it will take much longer.
The housing requirement study that was compiled for the council in 2008 called for 10,660 additional dwellings to be built by 2013 to satisfy housing requirements in Southwark. So, irrespective of the work that we need to do to improve our housing stock, there is without doubt a job to be done to build more homes. Indeed, there is another job to be done, which is to bring any empty properties back into use. Those properties are normally in the private sector, for example, flats over shops on the Old Kent road, the Walworth road or elsewhere in the borough.
The Communities and Local Government Committee recently produced its fourth report of the 2009-10 Session, dated 8 March 2010. It was a very welcome report called “Beyond Decent Homes”. A few years ago, the Government announced a very good initiative, saying that there should be a decent homes programme to bring local authority housing stock up to a better standard. Much of that work has been done. However, one of the Select Committee recommendations was that the Government need to pay much greater attention to where the funding will come from to complete the work on the decent homes programme that was begun all those years ago.
That work was originally due to end this year, but the end date was put back to 2011, specifically to the end of the financial year that began this week. I would like to quote from recommendation 18 of the Select Committee’s report, on page 92. Under the heading “Access to Public Funding”, it says:
“We welcome the Minister’s suggestion that reform of the HRA”—
the housing revenue account—
“will enable all local housing authorities to fund the maintenance of their homes at a decent level. We note, however, that the Minister’s replies were significantly weaker on the question of how retention authorities can bring their stock up to that level in the first place.”
I will pause there for a moment. For the record, a “retention authority” is a council that decided to retain ownership of its property. Southwark council made that decision. There are currently four parties on the council: there are councillors from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservatives, along with one Green councillor. All those parties in Southwark have always supported the view that the council should retain control of its housing stock and not divest itself of that stock. Whenever that view has been tested among the people who live in council property in Southwark, it has overwhelmingly been that of those tenants, too.
So there is a political consensus in Southwark that we want to retain our council housing. Therefore, the question of where the funding for that housing comes from is a key one for Government. The Select Committee’s report went on to say:
“HRA reform will not solve that problem. We call on the Government urgently to set out how, post-HRA reform, authorities which have retained management of their stock will be funded to eliminate the backlog of non-decent housing.”
The amount of housing debt that has been incurred in Southwark is extraordinary. Southwark council has a housing debt of—wait for it—more than £700 million. That debt costs £50 million a year just to service. Why do we have such a big debt? We have it for very obvious historical reasons. The London borough of Southwark inherited its housing stock from the three previous boroughs that made up the borough—Bermondsey, Southwark and Camberwell—and from the Greater London council. It has a huge amount of stock that was built after the blitz and other wartime raids, so a lot of our property was built in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Some of it predates the 1940s—we had the first council housing in England—but a lot of it is post-war.
That post-war housing was built but not fully paid for, because the money was borrowed, and Southwark council is still paying for it today. The new council in Southwark will be elected on 6 May. Hopefully, the new administration will be made up again of my Liberal Democrat colleagues and ideally without our having to rely on making any arrangement with anybody else. Whoever makes up that administration, however, they will be desperate to have the ability to spend money on housing and not on paying off the debts for our properties, many of which no longer exist, having been demolished a long time ago. Therefore, the first problem is that we have a huge housing debt.
Secondly, we have to borrow all the time to refinance our loans and are not allowed to borrow at market rates; we have to borrow at rates of about 9 per cent. If the Government did not intervene and the council was allowed to get on, it could borrow at a much lower interest rate. Borrowing at a rate of 3, 4 or 5 per cent. would release a huge amount of extra money that could be spent on repair, renovation or building new housing stock.
Sadly, during the past 13 years of Labour Government, we have seen council house building decline across the country to the lowest figure since the war. It is a paradox; it is strange to me that there was no great new dawn for local authority housing as I had assumed that there would be in 1997. Less council housing has been built under Labour than under the previous Tory Government.
Many of my constituents have suffered a double whammy from the combination of authorities that have been in charge at a higher level than the local council. For many years we had a Tory Government who were actively hostile to the need to invest in the condition of our housing stock. In the old days, when Labour ran it, we had a council that did some good things, but it certainly did not manage to keep its estates up to scratch. That is why, in 1997, I and all my constituents, whatever their political views, hoped that we would get a better regime under which to work. Sadly, one telling fact is that since 1997, across the whole country, only 2,700 council homes have been built, but, in the same period, the Government have built nearly 20,000 prison cells. It says something that a Government would build seven times more prison cells than council homes. I think that my constituents would have strong views about that priority—it is wrong.
I have acknowledged the benefit of the decent homes programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into bringing homes up to scratch, but there have been two unattractive aspects of the programme: first, a centralised, target-driven approach that prevents local discretion, and, secondly, a failure of Government to understand that local councils should be given choice.
Let me amplify the first point: a home does not have to have a working lift to be defined as decent. There is money to improve a door, a sink, a bathroom or a toilet, but there is no money to get the lifts working well. To be honest, for someone living on the 11th floor, having a new bathroom is probably a secondary priority to ensuring that the lifts work.
On choice, in 2001 there was a ballot of every tenant on one of the largest Southwark estates, the Aylesbury estate, a small part of which is, until next Monday, in my constituency, although it then becomes in its entirety part of the Camberwell and Peckham constituency. The vote was on whether the estate should be demolished and replaced by new housing built by a registered social landlord. The turnout was 70 per cent.—probably higher than we will get in many places on 6 May, certainly at local government level—and there was a three to one vote against the transfer. The tenants wanted the Government to invest in the estate to bring it up to the state of repair needed. That would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds, and the Government would not come up with the money.
Elsewhere, people were told that if they went for an arm’s length management organisation or if the council sold off the housing estate, they would get the money. Southwark tenants and politicians said that they did not want to do that. We wanted to run our own show, and no money was forthcoming. It is a paradox that Lambeth next door, which is a Labour-run authority, voted for an arm’s length management organisation, but is still waiting for the £200 million promised, as I understand it, for voting for an ALMO.
If we are to get people to trust in local government, we should, first, give them choice about how they spend money and, secondly, not discriminate or give money based on the sort of management the council chooses. If people want the council to continue to own the housing, they should be allowed to have the council own the housing.
We have a huge number of tower blocks and still have many homes that do not meet the definition of a decent home. We—the council, tenants and residents—still aspire to have homes that do not just meet the basic decent homes standard but do more than that, particularly environmentally, to ensure that they are insulated well, energy efficient and so on.
I have made the point that we ought to allow councils full local discretion about how they spend any money the Government give. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are now more sympathetic to that and that they will leave that recommendation on their desks for their successors. I hope that the Government will say that, in future, they will not discriminate among councils based on the sort of structure the council wants for its organisation with its tenants, and that councils should be able to borrow at the lowest commercial rate. I hope that the Minister will either reassure me today or take the point back to the Secretary of State before the Government ceases to be the Government. Whatever happens at the election, the Government and Ministers will change, and some of us hope that the governing party will change, too. I hope that a new regime will allow us to refinance our debt so that we are not using all the money to pay off debts from the past, and can get on with repairing and building homes for the future.
Southwark is a very attractive place for investment, as the Minster knows, and as do you, Mr. Howarth. Even in the middle of the worst recession since Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor of the Exchequer, we are building what will be the tallest building in London at London bridge: the Shard of glass. It is still ridiculous that the local authority cannot spend the money that the developers pay on improving the local housing estates or building new housing. It has to be spent on other things. In my Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (Amendment) Bill, I tried to change that, but both Labour and Tory Front Benchers prevented it from going through in this Session. I regret that. I hope that the Government will have second thoughts and that the Labour and Conservative parties will come to support the proposals. In the coming election campaign, it will be interesting to hear my Labour and Tory opponents explain why their parties were so unhelpful about that measure.
Leaseholders also need a better deal. I tried to get a Bill through in this Parliament, as did the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), which would have improved the lot of leaseholders who have high bills. That is the other change that people in Southwark would notice most as improving their housing.
Southwark local authority spends about £40 million to £60 million annually on decent homes, £40 million on other improvements and landlord obligations, and £50 million on debt repayment. We are willing to take on our responsibilities. The political leadership—my colleague Nick Stanton who leads the council and his colleagues—are absolutely willing to do that, but we must have a Government regime that helps councils do what they want to do. My plea is: help people to live in the homes that they aspire to. Let us have homes fit not only for heroes but for everyone, and push housing up the social agenda.
In the general election campaign, I hope that we can ensure that we understand the extent of the housing crisis and the shortage of housing in a borough such as Southwark. I hope that the new council and the new Government will have a much more open, honest and generous way of funding housing, which is still the major concern of my constituents.
Thank you, Mr. Howarth, for presiding over this, the last Westminster Hall Adjournment debate of this Parliament. It is not my last because I have the honour of doing the end of day Adjournment debate as well.
Yes, whenever that may be.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate and on his very evident care and concern about a problem that your constituents, Mr. Howarth, and my constituents share with his constituents. Housing is a huge agenda and a problem across the country, from the areas where there is a surplus of or not good enough housing, to areas such as my own and Southwark where supply is too constrained for the number of people in the area.
Southwark is a particularly harsh case. The council is already the largest social landlord in the capital and the population continues to grow apace. It increased by 23 per cent. between 1981 and 2006, whereas the population in the rest of London increased by only 10.4 per cent. That gives an understanding of the problem that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The population of Southwark is projected to grow by about 35,000 by 2016 and a further 46,000 by 2026. It was timely of him to raise this significant problem in the final Adjournment debate of this Parliament in Westminster Hall. We need sufficient good-quality housing in Britain and in Southwark in particular.
In Southwark, housing has been the cause of some tragic events. The fires at Lakanal house and a few weeks later in Peckham underlined the importance of safety measures in residential blocks. Yesterday’s events in Southampton, which are fresh in our minds, reminded us of the need not just for good housing, but for housing that is safe and secure.
The Government are committed to housing. Like the hon. Gentleman, we want it to be of good quality and of the kind that local people want. The main problem with retention councils is that the money they need counts against the national debt. That is why my constituency eventually opted for an arm’s length management organisation. It got the money and has built more homes than anywhere else in the east of England. That shows that it can work. This is not an ideological problem, but a financial one. The alternatives that the Government offered were private finance initiatives and registered social landlords.
I understand why the people of Southwark wanted to be retained, but because that adds to the national debt, there is a break on development. The Government have been incredibly aware of that problem, in particular the Minister for Housing, who on 25 March announced a far-reaching new deal to give local authorities the freedom that the hon. Gentleman spoke about to fund and run their council homes without central Government subsidy.
The tradition that local authority spend counts against the public sector borrowing requirement is an accounting requirement. Many countries do not count local authority spend or borrowing in that way and the Government could change the requirement if they wanted to. I know that the Treasury has resisted that, but if it were changed, it would not be the issue that it has been.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, having deployed it myself. However, Her Majesty’s Treasury does not look kindly upon that financial or accounting ploy.
The deal that the Minister for Housing came up with will release at least 10 per cent. more money in every local authority to maintain and manage homes. It will also create the funding and capacity to build more than 10,000 new council homes a year across the country by the end of the next Parliament. Under the deal, local authorities will keep all the rent they collect from their homes and all the receipts from the sale of housing or land. Not a single penny will go to Whitehall or subsidise other councils. Southwark stands to benefit significantly from the deal.
Since 2001, we have reduced the number of non-decent homes in the social housing sector by 50 per cent. and 1.4 million council houses have been improved. The Government have invested £18.8 billion and councils have added £4.4 billion. Southwark council decided to deliver a higher decent homes standard than that set out by the Government. That solution will be more costly and take longer to deliver. The decision was understandable, but it was entirely that of Southwark council. As I said, the Government are committed to completing the decent homes programme. We recognise that £3.2 billion of works are still needed to meet the commitment. That will be a central element in our decisions on investment priorities in the next spending review should we be returned after the general election.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of writing off all housing debt. We cannot do that, but if self-financing were implemented, Southwark council would receive a cheque for £306.9 million from the Government. Self-financing would enable councils to manage their homes on much the same basis as arm’s length management organisations. That would give councils the freedom to manage their finance without the interference of central Government.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last two points, I have read his private Member’s Bill. It sought to secure additional funds for decent homes through section 106 agreements. As he knows, the arguments on the Bill and the role of section 106 agreements are well rehearsed. I reiterate that the basic aims of the Bill are already Government policy and its objectives can be secured through other measures. On 6 April, we brought in new regulations on this matter. It is not the Government’s intention that section 106 receipts be used to improve existing housing conditions or to secure a share in the profits of development for the community. Section 106 is a planning instrument that is intended to make particular development proposals acceptable in planning terms, rather than to achieve wider policy objectives.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about leasehold. I commend his work in this area, which has benefited his increasing number of constituents over the years. The Government acknowledge that the housing position in Southwark must be addressed urgently.
I am grateful for the Minister’s kind remarks. I ask her to take away two things. First, the Government must take on board the fact that following the fire deaths that happened in my borough but outside my constituency, there is a need for additional health and safety work in boroughs such as mine that have many tower blocks. Secondly, if the debts will not be written off, it would be helpful if Ministers and civil servants could consider ways in which debt can be refinanced and reprogrammed so that it does not cost as much, particularly for boroughs that have a large amount of council and public sector stock and that want to maintain the quality of it in generations to come, when additional numbers of people will be knocking on the door asking to be housed.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is apt that the Westminster Hall debates of this Parliament are closing on a subject on which there is cross-party accord. Although I will not be involved because I am standing down, I hope that the parties can work together to solve this problem.
Question put and agreed to.