Tuesday 30 November 2010
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Duddridge.)
First, I declare an interest in the debate as the co-chair of the all-party group on learning disability. My main point concerns Government plans to remove the mobility component of the disability living allowance for disabled people who live in a residential establishment. To put that into context, it is important to establish which members of our society qualify for that benefit. The first, and by far the most common group, is where the claimant is unable—or virtually unable—to walk. The second group consists of people who are both blind and deaf. The third category comprises people with a severe mental impairment, and/or severe behavioural problems. In truth, we could not be discussing people who are more vulnerable or deserving in our communities. I understood that that was what the concept of community care was all about.
As far back as 1921, those who required it received help and support with mobility; a decade into the millennium, we are faced with confusion and fear about what the Government advocate. This House, and millions of people with disabilities, are entitled to expect clarity on the issue. Until today, that is exactly what we have not had.
I will give a few examples. On 10 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions,
“what consultation he undertook with (a) charities, (b) third sector organisations and (c) other disability organisations prior to his decision to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance for those who live in residential care homes.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 343W.]
On 16 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) stated:
“The comprehensive spending review contained a proposal to cut the mobility element of the disability living allowance for those in residential care. Why did the Government make that decision—because it was fair or to reduce the fiscal deficit?”
The Chancellor replied:
“We sought to identify the savings that we thought were most justified. As far as I understand it—although I am happy to be corrected—the DLA changes have been supported by the Opposition.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 740.]
I will attempt to resist the temptation to make political capital, and I apologise if I seem to be doing so. Point scoring is not what disabled people in my constituency want to hear. They want to know the facts and receive clarification on their position and future.
On 22 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) said:
“Of all the proposals on welfare reform, this is absolutely the most brutal and cruel…What will the Minister do when she has to meet a disabled person in one of those homes face to face, and how will she explain why she is taking away their much-needed lifeline to the outside world?”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 6.]
It is important to remember that that lifeline gives disabled people access to a freedom pass, a blue badge or a disabled person’s railcard, as well as to the Motability scheme and other important items.
I declare an interest because my constituency contains one of the good Leonard Cheshire homes, which I visited on Saturday. I tabled six questions yesterday, which the Minister will probably be able to see tomorrow. They cover the same kind of ground. Is it not right—rather, is it not accurate but wrong—that someone who currently receives the higher element of mobility allowance and who goes on two journeys, perhaps with the home’s van at a perfectly reasonable cost of 60p per mile, will have exhausted the lower limit and will not be able to make any further journeys? The Government must find a way to ensure that the mobility allowance is still available to those who need and use it. Through the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) I invite the Minister to visit one of the Leonard Cheshire homes and speak to those who are affected.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw asked how people would react, particularly if faced by the Minister. At the weekend, I took his advice and travelled around as many residential homes in my constituency as the heavy snow permitted. I can reliably inform the Chamber that people in residential homes are terrified about the removal of the mobility component of their DLA, and they have urged me to make the strongest representations on their behalf. I have no doubt that the same is true for other hon. Members from all parties.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. On the point about impact, will this move not hit all the harder because we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people, many of whom are on very low incomes? It will remove a substantial portion of their real disposable income. How can anybody possibly justify that?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and speaks with the authority of a proactive constituency MP and as a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Further supporting my allegation of a lack of clarity, an interesting question was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South on 22 November. I do not go over these questions just for the sake of repetition. She asked:
“Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify exactly who will lose the mobility element of their DLA?...Will there be exemptions, or will everyone in residential care lose the mobility element of their DLA?”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 6.]
As we would expect, Front-Bench Opposition spokespeople have tried to clear up Government ambiguity. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) asked whether the Government can guarantee
“that there will be ‘no losers’ as a result of this policy?”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 7.]
There has been far too much obfuscation on the issue. It is too important a matter for vulnerable people to be left in the dark about how they will be affected. I genuinely thought that the days of “out of sight, out of mind” were long since past.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this valuable debate. I also declare an interest because there are a number of residential homes in my constituency. Last week I met with some residents, and there is major concern about the loss of the mobility allowance. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if that component is removed, despite what we hear from the coalition Government about giving independence to people who are disabled, such a measure will effectively make people prisoners in their residential homes? The lifeline that they have wanted and have had for a long time will be taken away.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Like other hon. Members, I have received a huge amount of correspondence making the point that he just raised.
In order to seek clarity, I will turn to the question put to the Prime Minister last Wednesday by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). He asked:
“How can he possibly justify this cruel cut of either £18.95 per week or £49.85 per week to some of the most decent people who have paid their taxes all their lives?”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 264-265.]
To my complete dismay, the Prime Minister chose to trivialise his response. I say that because I had expected him to show greater sensitivity towards people with disabilities. In fact, he served as an office-bearer in the all-party group on learning disability and his input then was regarded as positive and welcome. I hope that the Prime Minister will think again.
In any event, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), put the Opposition’s position beyond doubt when he said following Prime Minister’s questions:
“The Prime Minister, after a word in his ear from his Chancellor, got it flat wrong today.
He was asked about his own government’s plans to cut mobility support for people in care homes but confused it with separate reforms…But when the Chancellor went back in his Spending Review and scrapped mobility support for people in care homes, we are clear that goes too far and is a punitive measure that could leave people in care homes more isolated.”
That clarifies the Opposition’s position on the matter, but my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East may want to add to it; I shall welcome what she has to say later. It is in complete contrast to what the coalition has said. We are calling for clarity.
The right hon. Gentleman is making some good points, but on the issue of clarity, will he help those of us who are perhaps not as learned as him on this topic? Is there an underlying issue that different amounts of the mobility allowance go to people who are disabled based on their route into the care home? Will he provide clarity on that?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are benefits at the moment—we all hope that they will continue—for people who live in care homes, as there are for people who live in their own homes. There are two approaches to the matter. I think that that is the answer that he seeks.
On the question of clarification, the coalition has been unclear and ambiguous, which is one of the reasons why I called for the debate. I genuinely hope that by the end of our discussions today, the Minister will have left us in no doubt that people with disabilities will not be left isolated, as so many fear, because they live in a residential home.
What has caused the current uproar—there is certainly uproar in my constituency—among people with disabilities and disability organisations? Many have been in touch with me as their Member of Parliament, and I am sure that other hon. Members have shared the same experience. I think that the uproar is based on two things. The first is the Government’s proposal as we understand it so far. The Treasury estimates that 58,000 people who live in care homes will be affected by what is an outrageous decision. What would the cuts mean in reality to individual people?
Patricia King drew my attention to the case of Doug Paulley, a 32-year-old wheelchair user and campaigner for disability rights. Doug was diagnosed 14 years ago with a degenerative neurological disorder and now lives in a residential home in Yorkshire with 17 others aged 20 and above. Already they are allowed to keep a personal allowance of only £22.30 from their benefits, or £20 from any earnings, with the rest going to offset the cost of their local authority care. Those sums cannot provide or cover clothes, phone bills, stationery, personal items and so much more. Their only other income is the mobility element of up to nearly £48 a week, which Doug described as a “quality of life-saver”. That is a disabled person speaking for himself and others.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there appears to be a lack of appreciation of the number of people who would be affected by a cut in this budget if that were to come about? In Northern Ireland, it is 10% of the population—about 182,000 people. In my constituency, the proportion is higher—about 12%, or 16,000 people. There appears to be a lack of recognition that this is not about people who are fraudulent or feckless or who fear work, but about people who are incapacitated and cannot work and therefore must be supported.
Again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know far better than I do what is happening in Northern Ireland, but one of the persons whom I quoted earlier comes from the Province and I know that there are very severe difficulties there, too.
So what are we saying as we ask these questions, seek more information and express the views that we know disabled people living in residential care and their carers hold? We are simply saying this. While disabled people who live at home are to keep the mobility component of their benefits, and that is as it should be, it cannot be right, it cannot be fair and it certainly cannot be equitable for 58,000 disabled people in residential care to be hammered with a 69% cut in overall benefits.
Let us hear what care homes themselves are saying. The chief executive of Norwood, a fairly large, third sector provider for people with learning disabilities, wrote this to me:
“I am delighted that you are able to draw this matter to the House’s attention as it is certainly an issue that appears to have been so far unclearly presented. We provide residential Care Homes for 250 people whose needs are profound or complex in nature…they therefore require additional support for their daily requirements.
The mobility component of the DLA is given only to those people whose mobility is severely impaired. As such it enables them to access day opportunities, shops, leisure pursuits, holidays (often requiring special transport), all things that more able-bodied people take for granted.
To remove this allowance would be extremely regressive.
Surely the solution is straightforward…the mobility component remains to ensure that the people who need it are not penalised. LAs”—
“instructed never to include this in their fees and the mobility component remains intact.”
My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the need sometimes for special transport for people who are in receipt of this component. Does he agree that they have very considerable difficulty accessing mainstream transport, which may be ill equipped to meet their needs and which may also mean that they encounter hostile public and staff attitudes, and that therefore it is particularly important that they can fund transport that does adequately meet their requirements?
Transport is vital to the quality of life of the vast majority of disabled people, but particularly those living in residential care. My hon. Friend makes her point very well.
I come now to the views of organisations of and for disabled people. It must be well known to right hon. and hon. Members that they have been virtually unanimous in their response. For example, Scope says:
“Disabled people are particularly vulnerable to cuts in services and benefits. They are disproportionately reliant on health, social care, housing and transport services, and also, as a result of low employment rates and the additional costs associated with living with an impairment, more likely to live in poverty and/or rely on benefits for a large proportion of their incomes.”
Given the extent and the nature of my right hon. Friend’s campaigning on behalf of disabled people over almost three decades in this House, when he speaks it is always sensible for Governments to listen. On his point about Scope, I remind him of the information it has given to Members on the kinds of activities that will be put at risk by the loss of the mobility component. They include access to work and volunteering; access to friends and family; community activities, health care services and leisure activities, such as swimming, shopping and even going to the cinema; and the ability to maintain relationships with a partner. How does my right hon. Friend imagine that any Government could justify this savage cut?
My hon. Friend, who has added substantially to the quality of debate in the House on these matters, asks the kind of question that people are asking, including, I am sure, people in his constituency. I know that he will always tell it like it is.
I was dealing with organisations of and for disabled people, and so I turn to Mencap:
“Mencap believes the government have misunderstood how disabled people use this important benefit. Without this vital lifeline, many disabled people in care will lose much of their independence, be unable to take part in many community activities and have fewer opportunities to meet with friends and family. Mencap is concerned that by removing this benefit many disabled people who live in residential care…will be unable to lead fulfilling and independent lives.”
“The Government’s initial justification for this decision, was that the situation of people in residential care homes is the same as those in hospital. This is a totally incorrect assessment; residential care settings are individuals’ homes and they should expect to be able to access their families and local communities. Yet Sense’s experience as a provider of residential services to deafblind people is that in the vast majority of cases, local authorities will take the DLA mobility component into account when deciding on funding levels.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that, when local authority budgets and the voluntary sector organisations that provide transport services for disabled people are under pressure, this is the worst possible time for the mobility component of the DLA to be withdrawn? Doing so will increase the institutionalisation and isolation of disabled people, instead of promoting their integration and inclusion in communities.
If I may say so, that is an excellent point. The plain and simple fact is that we all know in our hearts that our local authorities are under tremendous pressure. We know that they are facing cuts and difficult decisions, and unfortunately, in too many cases the result is that provision of social services and disability care does not always get the priority needed and required. There is not a shred of evidence from the local government organisations in England—or no doubt from Northern Ireland, and certainly none from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—that local authorities will be in a position to pick up the bill if the Government remove the money from those living in residential care. We are facing a crisis, both for local government and for disabled people.
Finally, there are many relevant organisations to which I could refer, and I apologise to those I have not mentioned this morning due to time constraints. I want to end with Parkinson’s UK:
“The Government compares this decision with the removal of the mobility component from hospital inpatients. But the two situations are very different. Hospital stays tend to be relatively short, and patients are often not in a position to make good use of the benefit. By contrast, many people live long and active lives in residential care homes.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is about not only the elderly, but young people who could be facing their whole lives in residential care? In my constituency, 25-year-old Katherine, who lives in the local Leonard Cheshire home, is devastated that she will be unable to go to the cinema or have outings with her parents and so on. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to recognise that this is not like hospital short stays at all?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. All the evidence of which I am aware supports precisely what he has to say.
I am acutely aware that this week marks the 40th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970—the first legislation of its kind. I am much more comfortable and at ease with the vision outlined by my then colleague, Labour MP Alf Morris, than with the menu of cuts advocated by this coalition Government. Forty years ago, we reached out to people who were marginalised by their disability. As Alf Morris said:
“I would choose a society in which there is genuine compassion for the very sick and the disabled; where understanding is unostentatious and sincere; where needs come before means; where, if years cannot be added to the lives of the chronically sick, at least life can be added to their years; where the mobility of disabled people is restricted only by the bounds of technical progress and discovery, and where no person has cause to be ill at ease because of their disability.”—[Official Report, 5 December 1969; Vol. 792, c. 1863.]
I agree wholeheartedly with Alf, and I plead with the Government to think again.
May I begin by apologising that I will have to leave soon to attend a Select Committee sitting? I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on his thoughtful speech and on securing the debate. Although we might not agree on everything, I understand his intentions.
I want to start by acknowledging the need for welfare reform, which is one of the single most important things that the Government are doing. I know that many Opposition Members, such as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), have wanted to reform welfare during the past 13 years. Like me, they will welcome the fact that the Government are committed to a universal credit.
Many of my constituents will welcome this chance to escape the poverty trap. However, on the specific issue of the mobility element of disability allowance, many constituents have contacted me with genuine family concerns. Only a small number are affected but, as has been noted, they are deeply anxious, and they do not have a political axe to grind. I have already spoken to the Minister about this and written to her about specific cases in my constituency. Ms Jacqueline Hobbs is concerned about the low residual income that will be left for people in care homes. Mr Kevin McGrath is worried that the cut will apply also to younger adults, who prize their independence and need mobility services to have a decent quality of life. Ms Jean Plumridge is anxious that disabled people must not become prisoners in their own homes, but must retain access to the outside world.
It is important to be clear about what the new Government are proposing. They inherited the largest deficit in our peacetime history, and we now spend £120 million a day on debt interest alone. In June, as part of the emergency Budget, the Government announced that they would save £11 billion a year from welfare spending by 2014-15.
As the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about debt, will he tell us how people in residential homes who have taken out loans to buy electric wheelchairs to use outside will repay that debt? What do the Government have to say to them?
If the hon. Lady is patient, she will hear the answer later in my remarks.
To preserve spending on other front-line services, the Government then announced that they would have to go even further in tackling the extremely large welfare bill. One way in which they are doing that is by ending the mobility component of DLA from 2012-13 to claimants who have been in a residential care home for more than 28 days, which will affect about 58,000 claimants. The Treasury says that that will save £60 million in 2012 and that the figure will rise to £135 million by the end of the Parliament. I appreciate, however, that the Government have confirmed that affected residents will retain an underlying entitlement to the benefit, and that payments will start again if they leave the care home. I also understand that the measure will not be introduced until October 2012. Local authorities will have a legal obligation to provide mobility services for residents from their social care funding.
I come back to the point that I made to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke): local authorities face the same squeeze in their budgets as everybody else. I know from my constituency that there are some great voluntary services supporting wheelchair users and people with severe mobility problems who live in care homes or in their own homes, but who do not have access to transport. However, those charities are terribly strapped financially because of a lack of giving and the problems with trust funds. There is nothing to pick up the slack. Why should disabled people be on the front line? Why should they be punished for financial mistakes that were not of their making?
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise the extent of the problem? There are 42 care homes in my constituency. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) indicated, this issue affects a massive population of elderly and young people. In my case, we are talking about hundreds of people. Every one of those care homes without exception has written to me about this issue—this is massive.
I am here today because I accept that this is a serious problem. Opposition Members do not have a monopoly on compassion; I care just as much about disabled people as they do.
Let me explain what I want to happen and what I believe should happen. Local authorities will have a legal obligation to provide mobility services for residents from their social funding. That funding will increasingly be distributed in the form of personal budgets, giving disabled people more choice and control over their services, including access to mobility equipment, taxis or scooters, if that suits them. That will end the anomaly whereby two state-funded residents with similar needs who are placed in the same care home can be treated differently according to whether they are funded through the NHS or the local authority.
I welcome the fact that the Government are waiting until 2012 to introduce this change, because it is important to give local authorities enough time. They will need safely to translate people on to personal budgets and to get those budgets up and running on a mass scale. Despite the welcome introduction of personal budgets in 2007, progress in rolling them out was simply too slow.
One difficulty that many of my constituents face is that they are in residential care outside the borough because there are insufficient places in the borough, which means that their transport costs are higher. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about stretching personal budgets far enough to meet those costs?
In some ways, I agree with the hon. Lady. The whole point of my argument is that we need to extend the personal budgets.
As was mentioned, the Audit Commission recently highlighted the fact that although some local authorities were on course to offer 30% of eligible people a personal budget by April 2011, most were not, and only six out of 152 councils are currently on track. What is more, a 2010 survey showed that only 6% of total spending on adult social care was allocated to personal budgets. That is a disappointing record, given the huge potential of personal budgets to give disabled people more independence.
My central concern is that we must help the 58,000 claimants I mentioned to access personal budgets before the mobility element of DLA is withdrawn. On that basis, I have a few questions for the Minister. Will she reassure hon. Members that the Government will seek to migrate those 58,000 claimants to personal budgets before 2012? Will she set out how the statutory requirement for local authorities to provide mobility services will work in practice? Finally, will she reassure my constituents that disabled people will continue to be supported so that they can keep their independence and mobility?
In conclusion, many people in Harlow are concerned for their families. They do not have a political axe to grind, but they are genuinely anxious about the future. As someone with a disability, I know that any change, or any threat of change, can cause immense anxiety, even if the outcome is not as drastic as expected. The problem with the changes that have been proposed is that decent people are worried. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure hon. Members and my constituents that disabled people and their families will not suffer as a result of these reforms.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate, because there is clearly considerable interest and concern right across the House.
I know that several Members would like to speak, and my right hon. Friend has eloquently presented many of the points that I would have raised, so I will highlight just three issues. First, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that disability living allowance is intended to meet social and participation needs, not to provide support for medical needs. That underpins the reason why so many of us in the debate are so concerned about its removal from people in residential care. To some degree, such people are already isolated from the community because they are in special and slightly artificial circumstances, and many of them are acutely aware of that special isolation. The mobility component of disability living allowance enables people to leave that residential setting from time to time for leisure or social purposes, to be with their families and, in some cases, for employment and educational purposes, so it is a precious aspect of their social participation rights.
My hon. Friend brings enormous expertise to the debate. One point that has not been mentioned so far is that entitlement to DLA is a trigger for accessing the Motability scheme. As she says, contact with the community is enormously important, and some of the people we are talking about have jobs. Will people not risk losing the cars that they get through the Motability scheme? Is that not awful?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that. I am also grateful to a number of disability organisations, including RADAR, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Leonard Cheshire Disability, for highlighting the fact that individuals need to be in receipt of DLA for three years to access the Motability scheme. As my right hon. Friend says, there is a very real risk.
Fundamentally, we are talking about a threat to the independence of people in residential care settings. That threat arises because the costs and inconvenience of leaving those settings are greater for such people than they are for those who do not need the mobility component of DLA. The mobility component helps those in a residential setting to go beyond the basic level of transportation—for instance, when attending medical appointments. It enables full participation.
I hope that a full impact analysis of the proposals will be directed specifically to social and participation needs. I would welcome such an undertaking from the Minister.
To what extent does the hon. Lady believe that local authority care contracts should take account of the needs that she mentions? She makes a precise distinction between medical needs and wider social needs, but all Members here today would agree that those needs are equally important. To what extent should local authority care contracts take account of them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which builds on one raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford).
Although local authorities might be expected to make full provision within their care packages, many will not—or may not be able to afford do to so because of inadequate funding. We also have anomalies in the system between those in residential care who pay for themselves, those with places in residential care that are funded fully or partly by the local authority, and residential care that is funded by the NHS. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, we need certainty and consistency of treatment, and we need adequacy of funding. Given the stretch on local authority budgets and the cuts they face, it is not clear whether disabled people in residential settings can be fully assured of equality of treatment.
I turn to the question of how disabled people will feel as a result of the proposal. It has the potential to threaten their dignity and cause considerable humiliation and hurt. I repeat something said to me by Mrs Khan, a constituent, who is the mother of a profoundly disabled young adult in residential care. She asks, “How will our son come home to see his family, as we will not have a vehicle to bring him home? What happens to his human rights?” She says, “Because he is disabled, is he not important?” That is the impact of this decision on her. Although I am confident that it is not the Minister’s intention to cause such hurt or humiliation, there is a real sense of not being seen as worth while. In the context of the big society, many disabled people feel they are now considered not worthy, not necessarily part of it.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution to the debate, particularly on the question of employment, which had not been mentioned before. Does she agree that many of those in residential settings who are in receipt of the benefit have the most complex needs, and transport may be more important to them than it is to others? Although the Government want to challenge spending across the entire area, they may need to revisit this because those most in need will be affected simply because of where they live.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are talking about some of the most vulnerable and excluded people, and they have particularly high levels of need and face a higher risk of poverty—not least because of the additional costs often incurred by them and their families in order to cope with living with a disability.
There is a clear sense among my right hon. and hon. Friends, and I suspect more widely in the House, that this group is small but highly vulnerable and we ought to be offering them extra protection, rather than stripping it away. I urge the Minister to reconsider this policy, particularly in the light of the helpful comments offered on the cost of benefit; £135 million is not a substantial sum in the context of £18 billion of benefits cuts.
I alluded earlier to disabled people’s sense that their dignity and their rights are under attack. Will the Minister tell us what consideration has been given to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, particularly article 20? Regarding disabled children—in that respect, I had a helpful briefing from the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign—what attention has been given to the UN convention on the rights of the child? That convention specifically requires the UK, as a signatory, to ensure that children can access play, leisure, cultural and artistic facilities. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the Department for Education to ensure that such provisions can be kept in place?
There is widespread concern that the policy should be reconsidered. Most important, however, the voices of disabled people and their families must be heard. I ask the Minister to explain more fully how that consultation will take place. I hope that the significant and genuine concerns of disabled people and their families will be responded to, and that the policy will be reversed.
I start my short contribution by making a confession. This is the first time in nearly 28 years as a Member of the House that I have made a speech in a debate on disability. That was not because of a lack of interest—far from it. However, this entire area of policy has always struck me as something of a secret garden—moreover, one with its own jargon and terminology. My experience is that if we use the wrong phrases or the wrong words, others, including people from NGOs and concerned charities, are likely to shout at us. As a result, I am never quite sure whether I am meant to refer to disabled people or people with a disability.
Listening to oral questions to the Department for Work and Pensions in the House last week, I again felt somewhat lost in this secret garden. I am genuinely interested in the matter, not only as a constituency Member but as the co-chair of the all-party group on carers. I was reassured to hear that even the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), whom I believe chairs the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, was not sure exactly who would be affected by the Government’s proposals. She observed that there was quite a lot on the blogosphere about who might or might not be affected by the changes.
My first request is that Ministers should set out clearly what is being proposed and who is likely to be affected. I am not confident that I am right, but after listening to the answers given by my hon. Friend the Minister at oral questions last week, I understand that it is primarily about people being supported and funded in residential care homes by local authorities. It is a consequence of the move towards personalisation of care—enabling people to have a much greater say over their own care packages, which by common consent is wanted by almost every disabled person. My hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the Department of Health has put £2 billion into social care. Am I right in assuming that a proportion of that money is intended to be used by local authorities, to ensure that residents in care homes continue to have a measure of mobility?
As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) observed, the Treasury spending review of 20 October mentions on page 28 the intention to save £135 million, but I am unclear from whom that money has been taken or from where. Is it intended that the money should be replaced by the funding that the Department of Health has put into social care?
My hon. Friend the Minister said in the House that
“Local authorities, working with care homes, have a clear duty to promote, where practical, independence, participation and community involvement for every single disabled person living in such care homes.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 6.]
Is that a statutory right? How do disabled people ensure that it is delivered? If it is not being delivered by the local authority, is the matter subject to judicial review? I am unclear as to whether something is actually being taken away, or whether the activities are expected to be funded through a different and separate funding route.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Peter Bottomley), I have an excellent Leonard Cheshire care home in my constituency. Agnes Court in Banbury is home for a number of seriously disabled residents. Many of them, like those mentioned by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), have been there for many years. Indeed, I have known some of them as constituents for practically the whole of my time as a Member of Parliament, as they have lived almost all of their adult lives at Agnes Court. The mobility component of the DLA has enabled the residents of Agnes Court and other constituents to access such things as electric wheelchairs; it has funded visits to local GPs or doctors; and, most important, it has funded visits and activities away from Agnes Court.
These constituents, like us, clearly want to live their lives to the full. Is this money now being taken away from them? If so, how will such activities be funded in the future? My hon. Friend the Minister asserts that local authority contracts with care homes should cover services to meet all residents’ assessed needs, including any assessed mobility needs, and that an individual’s care, support and mobility needs should be met by residential care providers from social care funding. If that is what she is saying, I hope she will write to the chief executive of every local authority setting out exactly what the Government expect them to do.
I thank my fellow Oxfordshire MP for giving way; I know that he cares about these issues. I urge him and his colleagues to reflect on the perversity of these proposals. Even if local authorities, under instruction from the Minister, are able to put together some package of support for transport for people in residential care homes, which seems rather doubtful given all the financial pressures that they face, does it not go completely in the opposite direction from the whole philosophy of personalised care, which is that a person has a package appropriate to their needs and they can choose how to exercise it? They may choose to spend the mobility component of DLA on special transport—electric wheelchairs or access to Motability and so on. Will they not have less independence and choice, even if this money is replaced through the local authority route?
The right hon. Gentleman and I are both Members for Oxford constituencies. Having been a Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, he is a more frequent visitor to this policy secret garden than I am. I am trying to understand whether something is being taken away here. If it is, is it being replaced by something else? If it is, and if the expectation is that local government should be funding it, then that needs to be set out very clearly. The test for all of this is that when each one of us, as a constituency Member of Parliament, meets a constituent who is affected by these changes, we need to be confident that we can explain what is being proposed. I make no criticism of anyone at the moment—the Chairman of the Select Committee cannot even work it out. I am not confident at the moment that I know the answers. If the Government are proposing changes, it does not seem unreasonable to expect those to be set out clearly and unambiguously in terms that everyone can fully understand.
I will not give way again, because many colleagues wish to take part in what is a comparatively short debate.
As this issue clearly involves at least three Government Departments—the Departments for Work and Pensions, for Communities and Local Government, and of Health—it would be immensely helpful, particularly for those of us who are professedly not experts in disability and welfare policy and legislation, if my hon. Friend the Minister clearly set out what role each of those three Departments plays in ensuring that the correct level of support to disabled people is being delivered locally and appropriately to meet individual needs. Everyone will agree that disabled people have different needs, and as far as humanly possible we need to have care personalised for each one of them. That also means there must be clarity regarding who is responsible for doing what.
Yet again, we have an example of how not to do welfare reform—if indeed that is the intent. The Government have attempted to pray in aid the fact that the Opposition had said that they were willing to consider reforming DLA. However, I thought that that meant looking at the benefit in the round, examining how it operates, and assessing what needs to change and what can be done better. I did not think that it was about picking out one brick without looking at the way in which the whole benefit operates. From my perspective—and, I am certain, that of my whole party—that was what we meant when we suggested that we were open to considering changes in DLA.
We are considering something that was clearly proposed as a saving—or a cut. It is about reaching that £18 billion figure, which was why it was announced in the comprehensive spending review rather than as a part of welfare reform. Having decided to do that—ex post facto—all sorts of things are then presented as to why it might be done, why something could be done better and why there may be money somewhere else.
A similar thing happened during the proceedings of the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Public Bill Committee, of which I was a member. Having decided to make a series of reductions, a number of reasons were suddenly conjured out of the air, and then a whole host of ideas was proposed to find the money to make up for some of the cuts, but those ideas were not costed or fully thought through. The Government were not even able to say whether those proposals would cost more than the savings that were being suggested.
As someone who comes from Scotland, I want to know what consultation has gone on with the Scottish Government. What consultation has been carried out with local authorities in Scotland? I can assure the Minister that, over the past three years, my local authority has already seen substantial reductions in the money going into social care. I have several constituents whose direct payments, which they were receiving from the local authority, have been cut substantially. In some cases, “substantially” means halved. Such cuts have largely come about because of the financial constraints under which the council has found itself. Yes, the cuts have been dressed up in terms of my constituents’ personal needs, but as their needs and capacities have not changed at all, it is clear that this is really about making savings. I am not confident that my local authority has the resource to put this in as a substitute for removing DLA when it is already making so many cuts, and that is before the even further reductions in local authority spending that are coming our way in Scotland and elsewhere.
Moreover, it is important to consult. The Government should not make a decision and then wait for people to react. I heard the Secretary of State for Health talking on Radio 4 this morning about the importance of consultation over public health matters. He was discussing whether to implement the regulation on tobacco and the display of tobacco. He said that it was very important to consult, but if it is so important to consult even on something that has already been passed and subjected to consultation, why is it not important properly to consult the users, care homes, local authorities and the devolved Administrations that are all involved in this change? If it was then felt that there was a need to consider the way in which the benefit is provided and that was better for it to come down the local authority route, so be it, but I do not think that that is why we have got to this position.
The mobility component of the DLA is one of the few parts of the benefit system to which personalisation already applies. Does the hon. Lady not agree that the Government’s proposals will take away that aspect of the personalisation agenda at the very time they are talking about promoting it?
I certainly agree and, as I have said, I have seen some of that personalised agenda being placed at risk in other ways over recent months, which is a substantial concern, especially to the recipients of this component.
I think that we have an opportunity to look again at the proposal and to get it right, if it is genuinely thought to be necessary to fund this scheme differently. However, if it is being seriously suggested that this change can be made—it involves a substantial sum for an individual, but the collective cost of any substitution will be very substantial for a local authority—and if the Government will ensure that it is made, I would ask whether there is a costing of how much will be involved in monitoring the change, in checking that it is made and in managing that whole process, when in fact the system appears to be working well.
I intend to be very brief because I know that other Members still wish to speak.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate. I think that all Members of Parliament will have had contact with our constituents on this issue. People are very concerned about what the consequences of this change will be, and he was absolutely right to remind us that the people affected by the change are those constituents to whom we have a special obligation, given their position in society.
On the other side of the coin, I have a great deal of sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister and for Government Ministers in general, because they are having to take some incredibly difficult decisions at the moment. I have been a Member of the House only since 6 May. During the last six months, I have had to support a number of decisions that, in an ideal world, I would not have wished to support. I think that if the tables were turned, as it were, and Opposition Members found themselves in the position of being in government, they would probably have to take decisions that they would not ideally want to take.
I will come on to that exact point about this decision.
As a Government Back Bencher, I ask myself a question when I look at each of these issues as they emerge: is there a justification for the decision that is being made? I think that the Government have a case. As I understand it, it is that there is a degree of double-counting in respect of this money and that, legally, local authority care contracts should provide the resources to meet people’s needs—and not only their medical needs but their social and emotional needs, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) referred to earlier. The money to meet those needs is also being provided via the mobility component of the DLA. I do not think that a case can be made that residential homes are analogous to hospital care, and the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill made that point very powerfully in his speech.
However, I have two caveats. The first is that if one takes the view that this support is at least nominally being provided in both ways that I cited, it would be better to strip out the local authority support mechanism. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) made the point that the mobility component of DLA meets the need for personalisation of funding. However, I guess that it would have been much more difficult to identify the exact level of spending by local authorities on meeting those needs and what savings could be made on local authority contracts if we were to say that the mobility needs of people with disabilities were to be met through DLA.
The issue is that this element of funding is not always duplicated. My constituents have expressed concern that there is great confusion because they are told that there is a duplication, but that is not the case for them. Given that the sums involved are so critical to the quality of life of the individuals affected, it is a great concern when that argument about duplication does not match their reality.
My hon. Friend leads me very nimbly on to the second point that I wish to make. We cannot say that everybody is in the same situation. Opposition Members have made points about the pressure on local authority budgets. Indeed, my own local authority has seen a real-terms cut in funding during the last five years. At that time, to be fair, the Labour Government were providing extra resource to local government in aggregate, but because of the perversities of the grant system, my council experienced something like a 3% real-terms cut over the last five years. There is real pressure on local authority budgets.
I wish to conclude by posing a question to the Minister. If the Government go ahead with this measure, and if we accept that there is at least a degree of double-counting at the moment, what guarantee do my constituents have that if the mobility component of DLA is removed and the local authority care contracts do not meet their needs, they will have some recourse? What can they do to ensure that their legitimate needs—I think that all hon. Members would agree that these people have such needs—are met?
Like other Members, I will keep my remarks short, given the time pressure.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing this important debate on an issue that affects many people and that worries many more people. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred to the observation of the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, that a lot of concerns were being expressed in the blogosphere about this issue. However, I do not think that the hon. Lady was reflecting any confusion on her part; she was reflecting the scale of the fear and concern among many people who will be affected by the change.
People are worried about who is affected by these cuts and where the cuts will extend. The proposal is currently that the cut will affect people who are local authority-funded, or who are deemed to be local authority-funded, in residential care, but not self-funders. However, people will inevitably then say, “How does the logic of that stack up? Will self-funders be targeted too, because how can you justify some people in a residential care setting getting this benefit just because they are self-funded when other people do not get it?”
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that this cut—nasty and horrible as it is—affects about 60,000 people, but that the mobility allowance goes much wider than that? Is this the start of something much bigger, whereby the mobility allowance is removed altogether?
I think that many people have that concern, precisely because of the confused arguments that are now coming from the Government to justify the cut. Even in this debate, several hon. Members have suggested that this is just switching from one channel of support to another. Some hon. Members seemed to be suggesting that it might not even be a cut at all. We were told that the change was justified on the basis of the need to cut the deficit and because there had to be a cut in the welfare bill, but now we are being told that it might not be a cut at all and that the money might reach people by different means. However, does anyone seriously believe that the money that already reaches people in a highly personal and highly effective way, and that is well justified by the needs of those people, will be replaced or replicated by personalised budgets coming through hard-pressed local authorities? No, it will not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) asked what consultation there had been with the devolved authorities. I know that Alex Attwood, the Social Development Minister in Northern Ireland, who runs the Department that covers the social security agency, has made it very clear that he cannot pretend—to himself or anybody else—that if this cut is imposed, it will be made good by the health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland and the sort of packages of personalised budgeting that they would be able to deliver, because those trusts are already under severe pressure after going through years of efficiency saving and because they face yet more again.
There is no point in people trying to delude themselves, or anybody else, by pretending that this is not really a cut at all. Some of the arguments almost amount to a sort of “let them eat cake” answer, Some suggest that there might be something better for people than what is in place already, but people know what they use the allowance for. They use it to ensure that they are able to get accessible taxis, to continue to run their Motability car, or so they can fund powered wheelchairs to get them about in their life and to keep them connected with their family, neighbourhood, and the voluntary groups and support efforts in which they are involved. Many people in residential care homes who receive the allowance use it not just for themselves. Many of them deliver messages, collect library books or do other things for those who are in the care settings with them.
I ask the Government to think again about this cut. In the minds of the people who are making this cut, I am at a loss to understand whether it is justified by context, because of the urgency of tackling the deficit, as we are told; whether it is a convenience cut, simply because the people affected seem to be a handy group of people to get and those who are making the cut have made the mistake of thinking that they are the equivalent of people who are in hospital; or whether it is a conviction cut. Are people somehow genuinely scandalised that people in residential care settings are able to have a modicum of decency, independence and choice for themselves by virtue of this allowance? We are still getting confused and inconsistent answers from the Government, so I hope that the Minister will clarify the situation.
I am very pleased to be here to respond to this debate. Of course I want to begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke)—I think that I have got the geography right there, but I am very bad at geography so please forgive me if I make mistakes along the way—for securing this debate. I have been in this particular “garden” for many years, as has my right hon. Friend, and I know very well his work on disability. He is an outstanding figure in that field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) said, when he speaks he commands respect, and I counsel the Government to listen to him.
Of course this has been a very important debate on a vital issue. It has been said that, at first glance, this change appears to affect only a very small number of people. However, as my hon. Friend from Northern Ireland, if I may say that—
Thank you. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has said, actually this measure has an impact on thousands of lives and it could radically alter thousands of lives. He put it well. However, although £135 million is a huge amount of money, it none the less represents a small percentage of the cuts being proposed by this Government.
As we have heard, there are concerns about the impact of the cut. We have heard dramatic examples of how real-life circumstances have been altered. I have observed in the past few months that the issue has energised many in the disability, voluntary and charitable sector who are deeply concerned. To quote Mencap:
“Without this vital lifeline, many disabled people in care will lose much of their independence, be unable to take part in many community activities they enjoy and have fewer opportunities to meet with friends and family.”
Fear of the cuts’ implications has become widespread and has now captured a wider audience for this debate.
I should make my party’s position clear, although it has been mentioned. Labour supports welfare reform; I quote the Government as saying that they are continuing our work of welfare reform. However, we cannot support these crude cuts. They are ill thought out and, as has been said, they go against the central principle of personalised support for disabled people by actively undermining their empowerment to choose how they live their lives.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely ridiculous to expect local authorities to fill the gap? Will buses run around care homes? Will people be stuck on buses for hours, waiting to be dropped off? How far in advance will they have to book their transport? The issue is about independence and choice, and the cuts will adversely affect some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I will come to that central argument of the Government’s, as we must address it head-on, but I will do so later in my comments if that is okay. I am grateful to have this opportunity to correct on the record the view put forward by the Prime Minister about Labour’s position on the issue, because it is important to clarify it.
I repeat that Labour does not support the cut proposed by this Government; the Prime Minister implied that it did. Perhaps I am not as honourable as my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, but I am obliged to say that it is not the first time that the Prime Minister has made a mistake after listening to a whisper from the Chancellor. I think that that explains what happened last week. It is deeply troubling that the Government are about to cut a vital lifeline affecting about 60,000 people living in residential care. They will be £2,500 worse off as a result, and the Prime Minister is not being exactly clear about the details of the proposal, which is of concern.
The issue of double funding lies at the heart of the Government’s case; we have been told that that is their argument. The logic seems to be that transport costs are currently funded by local authorities and therefore should not be funded again by Government. However, as many charities have rightly pointed out, local authorities’ assessments of care needs cover only what they consider core or essential needs. They do not always cover aspects of an individual’s life and social interactions, so social trips such as those to friends and family are unlikely to be included within the current service arrangements.
Furthermore, if that is funded already, why is there so little mention of it in existing community care plans? Surely we should be able to track and identify such funding. If it is funded already, why do so many people use their mobility payments to buy scooters, to take children out of residential homes at weekends and to use adapted taxis to go to the shops? Why do they pool payments to buy or lease an adapted car? Those services are important. The change represents a cut.
We are also told that the £2 billion that the Government are investing in social care could provide the resources to make up that loss. Some hon. Members have argued that the Government should be made to make up the loss. However, the claim of an extra £2 billion for social care has been rejected by the Conservative-led Local Government Association in England, which warns of a 4% increase in the need for social care in coming years and expects that even with the most optimistic efficiency savings, the shortfall will be at least £4 billion by the end of the comprehensive spending review. Even with the so-called extra £2 billion, there will still be a shortfall of £2 billion. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) said, local authorities cannot reasonably be expected to make up that extra gap.
There is no guarantee that the money will be effective in meeting existing demands, let alone in filling future gaps. I know that some people have said that the Minister should direct local authorities to make up the gap, but that runs completely counter to the decision not to ring-fence. If services are not ring-fenced, the Government cannot direct what they should do.
The Government’s approach, I argue with great sincerity, does not address the fundamental issues. How will it address the individual difficulties cited in this debate? It will fall on local authorities to find the resources to replace what the mobility component pays for, but the argument is that local authorities already fund the mobility component. Does the Minister think that it is realistic or likely that local authorities, which are set to lose one third of their funding, will step in to provide those essential services? I repeat the question I asked her last week at the Dispatch Box: do the Government believe, and can they guarantee, that there will be no losers as a result of the policy?
This has been an important and good debate. I call on the Government to listen to the strength of feeling involved and the range of issues selected. I note a degree of sympathy on the coalition Benches with the argument made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. This is an opportunity for the Government to think again.
In my kinder moments, I honestly think the Government have made a mistake and that the plan was dreamt up by some young spark in the Treasury who had a quick look at the tables and thought, “There’s a quick saving. It looks as if it’s already double-funded.” However, they were not in the secret garden and did not think through the consequences. At worst, it is a callous cut for which the Government will be held to account for many years if they proceed without thinking it through. I leave it to the Minister to tell us which is true.
As it stands, it is a crude, cruel cut that undermines moves towards personalisation, the Minister’s own efforts at welfare reform, quality of life and opportunity. For such a small saving, it will have an enormous impact on the quality of life of the people in greatest need. It cannot be accepted. This is the anniversary of the passage of legislation empowering disabled people, and Friday is the international day of disabled people throughout the world. I call on the Government to take this opportunity to show solidarity with disabled people and announce that they will not proceed with the cuts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank all hon. Members for coming to this debate and for taking the time to voice their concerns and their constituents’ thoughts about the measure. In particular, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate. At the beginning of his remarks, he called for clarity, which is exactly what the measure is designed to address and deliver. I hope that he will be able to see that in my comments.
We as a Government owe a duty to disabled people to promote their independence and equality, but we also owe a duty to the country to ensure that we have the right governance in place to deliver support efficiently and sensibly. The problem is that we inherited a system that some might say is not fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) called for a full reassessment, not piecemeal reform, of disability living allowance. I reassure her that that is exactly what we are doing, and I hope that we will have her support when we introduce our full measures in the coming months.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I can say to her that we will shortly be consulting in full on this and other measures on disability living allowance. Hon. Members, their constituents and interested parties will have a full opportunity to give their thoughts and see the measures that we are introducing.
Across the spectrum of disability living allowance, we see overlaps, duplication and gaps in provision created by a series of opaque, confusing and inefficient systems. The debate has highlighted just how out of kilter the current system is, with different payment streams and delivery mechanisms spanning different lines of departmental responsibility. We have to address the underlying issues, which is why we are proposing major disability living allowance reform. That is the only way we can ensure that the clarity we need is put in place.
I am still a little unsure about when the reform will take effect—2012 has been mentioned. Would the Minister clarify exactly when the measure will be introduced and perhaps give some further information on other measures that will affect disability living allowance?
As the Chancellor has set out, the measure is due to come into place in October 2012, and others will come into place in a similar time frame. It is important to focus on time because, as hon. Members have said, that will give us the opportunity to work across the Departments affected by the measure to ensure that good provisions are put in place and delivered effectively.
We remain fully in support of the principles of DLA as a non-means-tested cash benefit contributing to the extra costs incurred by disabled people. However, we must ensure that the benefit reflects the real needs of disabled people today and their aspirations for greater control in the future and that the system is sustainable in the long term. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) will know from her colleagues who were in government, more than 3 million people currently receive DLA and the expenditure this year is forecast to be £12 billion, which is substantially more than was intended when the allowance was introduced.
The Government are trying to make savings in that budget, but has the Department considered maintaining support for at least the most vulnerable, for example by keeping the higher rate mobility allowance for those living in care homes, as they have the highest costs and the greatest need for mobility support?
We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the independence of disabled people living in care homes is maintained, and that is our prime responsibility. I will give more details on how we intend to do that later, but I am conscious of the fact that other Members have raised points and that I should make progress in answering them.
At a time when we are spending £120 million a day in interest payment on the debt we inherited from the previous Government, the unbridled expansion of DLA is unsustainable. We need to be certain that public money is focused where it can have the most impact in an affordable manner, helping people to lead independent lives. That is why we propose an objective assessment, which we are developing with the help of medical experts and disabled people.
I appreciate that time is short and so thank the Minister for giving way. Would she address the issue at hand? The debate is not about the general reform of DLA, but about the specific cut. We should focus on that, as there are many answers that people are looking for.
The hon. Lady must understand, as her hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East has said, that the measure has to be seen in the context of the wider reform of DLA, so I will outline a little more on that. The reform of DLA will allow us to ensure that we accurately and consistently assess people’s support needs and reassess those receiving the allowance as their needs change over time, which is also currently lacking. We believe that that is crucial. As a result of the reforms, we believe that we can focus resources where they are most needed.
I will now address the specific measure on the mobility element of DLA. We believe that the mobility element plays an important part in helping disabled people lead more independent and autonomous lives, an ambition with which I am sure all Members agree. However, that element also includes duplication and overlap, which is why we have set out to tackle the disparity as part of the spending review. At present, some people in residential care receive DLA cash directly for their mobility needs, and at the same time they receive varying levels of mobility support at local level from care services, funded by their local authority. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in her contribution. In some cases care homes provide excellent mobility support, but in others there is only basic provision, which means that some people receive cash support for services and others do not.
The Minister referred to the confusion and overlap that the measure is intended to remedy, but what representations have been received about that? Who has made the case that there are chronic difficulties and that all sorts of confusion are seizing people with worry and bewilderment?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that it is the role of the Government to ensure that systems are clear and straightforward, and he will also know from his constituents who are disabled that the push towards personalisation is something that disabled people feel strongly about. Unless we have clear budgets and budget lines, it is difficult for that to happen. I hope that he will understand that it is incumbent on the Government to be able to deal with that.
Hon. Members must forgive me, but I want to address more of the issues that have been raised directly, and there have been many contributions throughout the debate.
The arrangements are further confused by different funding streams, as Members have pointed out. For example, NHS-funded individuals in residential care do not receive the DLA mobility component, while those funded by local authorities do. If we want to be fair—not only to disabled people, but to taxpayers—we have to tackle the gaps and overlaps and ensure that everyone gets access to the mobility they need, without the taxpayer having to pay again for needs that have already been met. In the current fiscal climate, that is exactly what Members would expect the Government to do.
The hon. Lady must forgive me, but I have taken a number of interventions already.
We simply cannot continue to accept that lack of clarity. We currently have mismatched systems for assessing the needs of disabled people: one for DLA, which assesses mobility and need in terms of cash; and another that provides, via local authorities, a more generic needs assessment reflected in services contracted with care homes. Those mismatched systems produce huge potential for duplication, uneven expectations and varying provision. We have to change that and target the right funding on the right people.
I will answer some of the direct issues that Members have raised. There has been a broad question on what consultation there has been with the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities. I would like to reassure Members that the forthcoming DLA reform consultation document and the legislative process will allow disabled people and other affected groups ample opportunity to provide their views on the measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Peter Bottomley), who has had to leave the debate to attend a meeting, made several important points. I would be happy to meet representatives from Leonard Cheshire homes to discuss the matter further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made an important contribution to the debate and asked a number of specific questions. He, too, has had to leave, to attend a Select Committee meeting. I can clarify that the measure was designed to remove overlaps in the payment of mobility support, as I have outlined. It is not intended to lead to a loss of independence and we remain committed to promoting greater personalisation for disabled people. I reiterate that milestones have been agreed with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, including the growth in personal budgets, and that we are absolutely committed to the implementation of personalisation across the board.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) talked about the ability of people living in residential care homes to get into work. I would like to be clear that the ability of individuals in care homes to take advantage of access to work, which can cover their travel costs, makes an enormous difference to them. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston talked about DLA being paid for social and medical needs. To be absolutely clear on that point, we will shortly be consulting on the wider reform of DLA and are absolutely committed to a social model for it, not a medical model. She mentioned article 20 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which sets out the right to personal mobility and promotes the greatest possible independence. The Government’s measure is designed not to reduce the mobility of disabled people, but to address the current complexities in the system.
Shoreline Management Plans
I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate on an important issue. I wish that more of my colleagues were here today. I am new to Suffolk Coastal, which is the only constituency with the word “coast” in its name—and as may be imagined, the debate subject is one of the biggest issues there—but I am not new to coastal erosion. I grew up as a little girl in a place called Formby, which is also well known for its shifting sands. I recognise that I am very new to Suffolk, and I commend the work done thus far to protect the coast. I pay tribute in particular to my predecessor, the recently ennobled Lord Deben.
I want to raise awareness of the issue of shoreline management plans and invite Members of Parliament to consider joining the all-party coastal and marine group, which decided to include the plans among our particular issues. I am slightly thrown, because I expected the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) to be here, and was therefore about to pay tribute to him. However, I am sure that the Minister of State will pass on to him the gratitude that is still felt in my community for the fact that within only a few months of joining the Government, he came to Norfolk and Suffolk constituencies. That was very well received.
I also want to say well done to the many councillors and Government agencies that have worked hard to produce the shoreline management plans. Although I do not agree with every word that is in the plans, on the whole those responsible have done a great job—constrained by the policy visited on us by the previous Government. The shoreline management plans were driven by the policy in “Making Space for Water”. I recognise that what led to that was severe flooding across the country. However, in my view, much of what went into “Making Space for Water” and subsequent reviews, such as the Pitt review, had nothing to do with coastline management; it was trying to deal with flooding. That is typical of much of the approach that has been taken to flooding and erosion.
Flooding is temporary. It is very disruptive to people; I recognise that. There have been some severe incidents; but it is not terminal, whereas erosion is. Once shoreline is gone, it is generally gone for good. There might be a little movement of sediment up and down the coast; but, as to houses, there is a village in my constituency, Covehithe, that is not expected to exist in 40 years’ time. That is quite an impact for the people who live there.
I shall not compare our situation with that of Holland. I do not pretend to be Canute or to think that we can change nature. However, perhaps I may make use of an analogy with our neighbours across the North sea, who have made their country bigger by reclaiming land from the sea. Their shoreline is roughly the length of that of Essex. Yet they manage to spend €1.5 billion a year on their shoreline defences, and to supply on average about 9 million cubic metres of beach recharge, as opposed to the 2 million enjoyed across the UK. As an aside—although there is no conclusive evidence on this—I understand that Holland does not allow aggregate dredging within 10 miles of its shoreline, and, indeed, that it buys aggregate from the United Kingdom.
To return to “Making Space for Water”, I am not going to get into the debate about rising sea levels and similar issues; that is not the purpose of this debate. However, what is relevant is the fact that the plans are now effectively based on 25, 50 and 100-year decisions. We are making 100-year decisions on the basis, to some extent, of a three-year budget. I am not surprised that the consequence is a disproportionate impact on communities that are not densely populated. I should prefer a rethink on “Making Space for Water”. I do not suggest it should be complete and fundamental or that we should turn back the clock in every respect. However, I suggest that instead of making 100-year decisions we should continue with what was the tradition in this country until fairly recently, and make decisions for 25, 30 or 40 years, so that one generation can pass on the challenge to the next, but also do its bit for that generation; and so that one generation will not take decisions that leaves nothing for future generations. That is what is happening in places. I am thinking of places such as Happisburgh, in North Norfolk, as well as parts of my constituency, where people know that their village will not exist in 40 years and there is nothing they can do about it.
Among various things that have happened, more and more powers have been given to the Environment Agency. I understand that the strategic aspect of that was to try to put responsibility in one area and take an integrated approach. With the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 there has been strengthening of the regional flood defence committees. I am concerned that those committees cover a large area. That almost goes against the mantra of the big society and the idea of enabling local communities to take decisions, which of course should mean working with neighbours but should not mean being told, from the regional perspective, “This is what you can and cannot do; this is what we can and will not fund.”
I want to spend a little time focusing on my area of Suffolk. Shoreline management plan 1 was published in 1998 and it continued the “hold the line” philosophy that we should do what we can to preserve the coast. Shoreline management plan 2, which has still not, to the best of my understanding, been signed off by the Secretary of State, contains a significant change, in that properties will be lost. The Under-Secretary came to my constituency and met people who will be affected. I wanted him to meet such people—Mrs Flick, Mr Chandler and Mr Monson —and see the tears in their eyes because of the effect of the policies.
In my maiden speech I mentioned Thorpeness, where something happened that is supposed to be a one in 50 or one in 100-year event—I cannot remember which; within 50 days of the passing of the plan at local council level, a significant loss of beach was suffered. It does not give residents much confidence when there has been a downgrade to no active intervention, and something that seemed far off happens. I pay tribute to the council and the Environment Agency for pulling together and doing some remedial work. It required the financial intervention of constituents, who have put in money. Not all my constituents are particularly cash rich, but they have done that to try to protect their homes for another 30 years. That relates to the policy I mentioned earlier.
Another aspect of the shoreline management plan that is relevant to my constituency is the suggested breach just south of Aldeburgh, moving into the estuary. When the shoreline management plan was initially being made, there was a separation between it and the estuary management plan. I am pleased that there was recognition from the council and the Environment Agency that that was wrong, and such matters cannot be considered in isolation. Under the Alde and Ore futures initiative, work is now being done to examine the impact of breaches of the shoreline among wider areas of the estuary. There were reports yesterday on the BBC that if there were a “one in 100” big North sea storm, Cambridge would be a coastal town. That is the impact suggested by some of the modelling, which I do not decry; but the impacts of smaller storms could wipe out many properties in my constituency, and much agricultural land and habitat.
Two councillors have brought to my attention their concern about the consultation process. I am not clear on this, so I do not speak with complete authority, but my impression from meeting residents is that those who are not on the electoral roll, discouraged because they were second home owners, may not have participated fully in the shoreline management plan. Indeed, some residents have said that they had never heard of it until the impact was known. That is a cause for concern: people whose houses would be lost as a result of the shoreline management plan did not know about it. That needs to be reflected upon, and I hope the Minister and the Secretary of State will consider that when they sign off the plans.
The impact on people and on agriculture is real. One concern about the funding formulas, when we start looking at the cost of coastal defences along different parts of the shoreline, is that issues such as heritage assets and agriculture have not been taken account of in a valid way. I understand that Suffolk produces a great many potatoes for our country, and I am sure they are delicious and are enjoyed by many hon. Members. One of the features of our agriculture, however, is that we have two or three seasons of potatoes, and some of that could easily be lost if there was a breach of the shoreline and subsequently the estuary.
The previous Government looked at ways of mitigating and carrying out managed retreat, using schemes such as the pathfinder grants. Constituents feel that although that was jolly nice, it was a waste of time. More hope is coming from the community right-to-build proposals brought in by the Minister for Housing and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). Instead of people being told that they have to move to a town, they are now working with councils to get planning permission to go into other areas. Frankly, if they live on the edge of the coast they do not want to live in a town; they are living in an isolated rural hamlet. Some moves have been made on that, but I am not sure that pathfinder money has been spent in the best way. I have been told on several occasions, “We would rather have used this £1.5 million grant actually to put some defences in, rather than being told we will lose our homes.”
In terms of compensation, more and more awareness exists about the human rights impact of the decisions that are made about the change in policy no longer to hold the line. Those who will be impacted by High Speed 2 will receive compensation for the fact that their houses will be moved as a result of a change in or an introduction of Government policy. That does not happen in coastal erosion, where we have decided not to hold the line. I believe, although I am not certain, that those who suffer from fluvial flooding also receive compensation. In Happisburgh there were schemes looking at giving people 40 to 50% of the value of their homes. Frankly, trying to rebuild a home sometimes costs more than that, and trying to buy elsewhere can easily cost more than that. That needs to be looked at. I recognise that traditionally, compensation has not been a feature of coastal erosion policy, but we have not been putting in black and white as effective policy, “You are going to lose your home, and we are not going to compensate you for anything.” I understand that compensation is available for landowners where land has been deliberately allowed to flood, but that is limited to agricultural situations.
Returning to the idea of not trying to be Canute, this country does not have billions of pounds to put a ring of steel or a ring of stone around our shorelines, and that would not necessarily be best for our coast. The Minister has heard from some of my constituents the can-do attitudes they can bring to decisions on how to fund future defences—in particular, the initiative with Suffolk Coastal district council and landowners around the Bawdsey area. Gerry Matthews engineered a scheme whereby exceptional planning permission was given to build some houses on greenfield land. The money from that paid for defences around the Bawdsey area. That has been welcomed, and it was pioneering at the time. Although some of my constituents are concerned that that will mean we will pay for our coastal defences for ever, at least we have been given the choice to do so. In this day and age, it is about making choices for ourselves and not simply expecting the Government to write a blank cheque, especially in these difficult times. Other schemes could be possible up and down our coast.
One aspect that we must get right is that the partners of Natural England and the Environment Agency should not have the sole judgment over whether defences can be done. At the moment the EA and Natural England have some quite restrictive powers, and they can say “No, you cannot put those hard defences in.” It is hard to argue with a constituent who says they are happy to pay for defences or to arrange some match funding, and who is subsequently told that they cannot do so. That has led to some extreme reactions in parts of my constituency: frankly, dumping a whole load of rubble on the beach is not ideal either, and I would not recommend that as a course of action. There are, however, situations where landowners desperately need to be able to maintain their defences. They should be able to enhance their defences if they need to. I recognise the importance of the various directives we have signed up to on habitat, but people are still more important than fossils or certain kinds of birds. If there ever was a case for the Human Rights Act, that is one: humans have a right to live and to defend their homes.
Moves are afoot in the Ministry, and I want to recognise those. The consultation is out now for the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. We have heard about future funding, the draft guidance is out for consultation and people are working together—the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association, with DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency—to look at protocols on the subject. I call on the Government to consider that, as I have said, coastal erosion is terminal and we are not reclaiming anything; flooding is temporary. Please bear that in mind when we are looking at the different schemes and at allowing people to make the big society a reality, not just hot air. We must encourage the Environment Agency and Natural England to work with the people on our coastal shorelines to recognise that they can do things. It is not about damaging the future; a lot of the land around the coastal shorelines and slightly inland has been held in families for generations. They do not want to destroy such places; they want to enhance them and to keep them, not only for their descendants but for the enjoyment of many people across the country.
Councillor Sue Allen from Southwold has written to me making the point that we had set aside £1.6 billion for the habitat creation programme, and in writing off Benacre Broad, Covehithe, Tinkers Marsh, Delacroix Marsh, Hen Reedbeds, Reydon Marsh, Dunwich Marsh and Minsmere aspects, 950 hectares of land has to be recreated. The habitat has to be recreated elsewhere, and the estimated cost is £50 million. That sum could produce a significant number of defences in that area. I do not see that as a Ponzi scheme, but I want to encourage Ministers who say, “We are not going to spend money on it from this pot, but we will spend money from that pot” to think about that. That does not make sense to me, and we need to have a rethink.
This is one of the most important issues in my constituency. It does not affect everybody there, but there is a recognition that our coast is important to us. We do not want to see too many more towns such as Dunwich, which can appear more interesting under the sea than they are on shore. I encourage DEFRA to look, as I believe it is doing, at innovative and different ways of protecting the coast—methods such as artificial barriers and artificial reefs, looking at constituents’ ideas for defending their own shorelines, or thinking again about some aspects of the consultation—so that people in areas that have moved to no active intervention, and who, in their view, were not made aware of that, are allowed a second chance to express views to their local councils.
I give credit to the Government agencies, councillors and others who have worked very hard on shoreline management plans within the constraints of “Making Space for Water”. I hope, though, that the Government reconsider the issue fundamentally and recognise that 100-year decisions being made today have impacts on people in the shorter term, not just 100 years hence.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for raising a very important issue. Coastal erosion is a key issue in my part of the country. My constituents in Devon have one of the most beautiful but also one of the longest and most prone to erosion bits of coastline in the country. In addition, we have a particular problem, because the south-west is tipping along an axis, so it will sink, while the north-east, happily for it, rises. Consequently, coastal erosion is an acute problem for us. By 2050, our sea level is predicted to rise by 22.9 cm, which is a significant amount.
Shoreline management plans are a vital tool in managing the problem. I am delighted that following their inauguration in the mid-1990s, they continue to be in existence, and shoreline management plan 2 is in prospect. My request to my hon. Friend the Minister is that we try to build some certainty and begin to secure some agreement because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal said, those plans have not yet been agreed. There was much debate about them before the election, then they were shelved, but now we have a new Administration.
We need certainty, because the plans have significant implications for our national plan for flood defences and for the renegotiation with the insurance industry—with the Association of British Insurers—about how we deal with covering the risk to those properties that are prone to flooding. We also need certainty locally so that local authorities can plan sensibly on where to build and where not to build. I am conscious that the arrangement that the previous Government made with the ABI, which in effect said that insurance would continue to be available provided that the Government continued to invest in flood defences, does not apply, as I understand it, to houses built after 2009, so this is quite an important issue to get right.
For my local area, tourism is the biggest generator of income, and it would be profoundly affected if we did not properly manage erosion along that beautiful coastline. Our shoreline management plan is part of the Dorset and south Devon plan. Within those many miles of beautiful coastal mileage, there are three particular areas of concern, which I shall highlight for the Minister so that he can understand why I am concerned about the need to reach agreement. At the moment, agreement is looking a little tenuous, and we need it.
Let me start with the easiest of the three areas. The Dawlish sea wall is crucial, because a railway line runs along that coast, and without the integrity of the sea wall, the railway line could not continue to run trains. The railway line carries 2 million passengers a year, and I can honestly say to the Minister that it is crucial to tourists travelling to and from the area, as well as to local constituents travelling to and from work. I am pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), confirmed in a previous Adjournment debate that that railway line was crucial and that therefore he would write—he has indeed written—to the Environment Agency and to Network Rail to indicate that retaining the defences to ensure that coastal erosion was kept to a minimum was what the Government wanted. That is great. I am pleased that we have a hold-the-line policy for the next 100 years there.
Let me move on to the other two areas, which are a little more controversial. Dawlish Warren is a beautiful sand spit and home to a thriving tourism industry. We have 800,000 visitors a year, and on a good day we might get 20,000 visitors in a single day. It is also a nature reserve, a conservation area and a place of great scientific interest. That is more problematic, and the area suffered significantly in 2004 when the level of the beach fell dramatically; about 10 metres of the beach was taken away. We have a hold-the-line policy until 2025, but after that the policy is mixed between hold the line and a managed realignment.
Because of the nature of the tourism industry, this issue is crucial for my constituents. The Environment Agency has been helpful, and to date it has maintained the groynes and supported the gabion defences. In the relatively recent past, it spent £100,000, which was good news. There is, however, a debate between Natural England and the Environment Agency about whether the defences to be put in place should be soft or hard defences. Clearly, there are arguments on both sides, but we need clarity so that we can move forward. I urge the Minister to remember that this is a key area for tourism, and without that tourism it will be hard for local businesses and people in Dawlish Warren to survive.
Another area of concern is the Exe estuary. A study of the area found—rightly—that we should be looking to implement a new wetland area. Because of the erosion, the wetland has been lost, which will have implications for our natural wildlife. However, the consequences of such an action will require a causeway to be created in the area so that the train can continue to pass along the coast. The challenge is who will pay for that work—should it be Network Rail or the Environment Agency? I ask the Minister for his input in trying to ensure that we reach a sensible agreement.
In essence, it is crucial that shoreline management plans are agreed. Without them, we will never ensure that a proper flood defence plan is put in place across the country, and we will never help local authorities plan properly for housing—a particular issue with coastal erosion. Furthermore, we will never have a sensible and meaningful debate with the ABI, and others, about how to cover insurance for properties after 2013 when the current arrangements fall away. Locally, I am passionate about securing the future of the railway and of tourism.
That, in a nutshell, is my contribution, but as a final comment, I welcome the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal that we review the issue of compensation. It seems appropriate for compensation to be considered in cases of coastal erosion, as well as with other forms of flooding and disaster. I also commend my hon. Friend on her proposal for local people to be more involved in discussions about such matters, rather than leaving it to large Government agencies.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate? She is a formidable ally on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and she is also a strong champion for her constituency. A lot of the issues that she has raised directly affect my constituents, but that is unsurprising since we share the same shoreline management plan.
I represent a rural area of Essex with a long coastline. It will come as a surprise to many people to hear that my area of Essex has one of the longest coastlines in the country. However, that will not come as a surprise to the Minister, who is an extremely distinguished former chairman of the Essex National Farmers Union, so I am pleased that he is responding to the debate. Many of my concerns relate to the protection of agricultural land, and he will understand why coastline management is such an important issue, particularly in my part of the world.
We in Essex are conscious of the fact that shoreline management is extremely important. Many people still remember 1953, when more than 100 people died in Essex as a result of the last major tidal surge and the collapse of sea defences. A map on the Environment Agency website, which is available to anyone who wishes to consult it, shows the extent of the floodplain in my area. It shows that 2,000 houses in Heybridge, in my constituency, would be under water following a one-in-200-year event. It also shows a large amount of agricultural land on the Dengie peninsula, which I represent, being lost to the sea, which is a real concern.
The Environment Agency rightly concentrates on protecting residential dwellings and human life, and that must be the priority. However, there is concern that agricultural land may not get the attention that it deserves. We realise, of course, that the country is under pressure. We have steadily rising sea levels on the east coast, a tilting land mass and the erosion of salt marshes, which constantly increases the pressure on our defences. We are also very much aware of economic considerations.
I do not therefore in any way dispute the necessity of drawing up a shoreline management plan to determine where we should concentrate resources and to work out a sensible strategy for each part of the coastline. Indeed, I was at the meeting at which the plan was first unveiled, and it came as a relief to some extent that it was less drastic—certainly in the first epoch—than we had feared. Nevertheless, in areas where there are proposals to realign the coastline and to give up agricultural land, farmers find it difficult to come to terms with what is happening, particularly at a time when we are increasingly worried about our food security and the need to maintain and increase agricultural production.
What has caused greater concern, however—my hon. Friend rightly touched on this—is the feeling that the plans were drawn up without any proper consultation of affected landowners. There have been public meetings and opportunities for people to come along and look at the proposals, but there has been a lack of moves directly to involve the people who will be affected to give them an opportunity to make representations, to question some of the criteria that have been used or to appeal.
Indeed, there is still a debate about how the plans have been drawn up. There is no agreement, for instance, on matters such as the economic value of the land that would potentially be abandoned or the cost of repairing sea walls. The whole cost-benefit analysis is slightly shrouded in mystery. There have been questions, for instance, over whether sufficient regard has been given to mobile homes and caravan parks, which are obviously not permanent residential dwellings. Those are all issues on which more needs to be done.
I and other Members in Essex have been contacted by the Managing Coastal Change group in Essex and by Andrew St Joseph, who is a former constituent, although he is none the less still a good adviser on these issues, and I suspect that his name will be familiar to the Minister as well. They have raised concerns both about the fact that landowners have not really had a chance to discuss these issues and about the Environment Agency’s assurances in the plan. For instance, the Environment Agency said that it had spoken to everyone who owns land in the areas where managed realignment is proposed, but Mr St Joseph points out that a number of landowners had told him that they had had no meaningful contact with the Environment Agency at all about that. When I went to the unveiling of the shoreline management plan, which was attended by landowners from my constituency and the rest of Essex, one of the farmers came up to me and said that on the wall he had seen for the first time that a large part of his farm had been designated for future realignment and loss to the sea. Clearly, that is a matter of concern. There needs to be greater dialogue between landowners and the Environment Agency.
There is an even greater concern about the lack of dialogue with Natural England, which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal also touched on. There is concern that it has a very powerful influence over the decisions being taken. My hon. Friend referred to some of the frustrations about the extent of protection for wildlife as opposed to human beings. There certainly appears to be greater protection for the habitat of a water vole than there does for that of a human being, which is difficult for people to understand. I am not one to say that the habitat of water voles is not important—it plainly is—but these things need to be kept in perspective. There is a general feeling that the habitats directive is driving this policy too much and that some decisions are being taken in large part to meet the requirements of the directive rather than as a result of proper consideration of the costs and benefits of maintaining sea defences.
Although I get some reassurance about the large amount of sea wall designated as “hold the line”, the truth is that if the Environment Agency decides that money is not available to maintain defences, it can come back and say, “Even though it is ‘hold the line’ that does not necessarily mean that we’re going to have the money to maintain it.” There is a willingness on the part of landowners to take on that responsibility. In previous debates, I raised the difficulties facing landowners in obtaining the necessary consents to carry out minor maintenance work. Something has been done; the Environment Agency has produced a useful pack to give a simple guide to landowners about how to go about maintaining their defences, but it makes it clear there will be a need to get permission from Natural England in areas with sites of special scientific interest.
Mr St Joseph pointed out to me that a long time ago farmers were approached and asked whether they would accept SSSI designation on their sea walls, and they accepted it, thinking that it would have little impact or make little difference to the practicality of maintenance. Obviously, they were happy to do it. It was only later that they discovered that it made a huge difference and, as a result, it became much more difficult for them to obtain the necessary permissions to carry out repair work on their sea walls. The willingness is there but more still needs to be done to make it easier for landowners to take on the responsibility and carry out the work if the Environment Agency is unable or unwilling to do it.
I shall end by stressing a point that came out particularly in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, which is the feeling that there has been a lack of dialogue. A group of farmers in my constituency approached me and said that they had repeatedly asked to discuss with Natural England how it could be made easier to reach agreement on what was acceptable and welcome work to maintain defences, and on how to obtain the necessary consents. As far as I am aware, that group has not yet had a response from Natural England. I have written to Natural England and I have not yet had a response. Much more needs to be done in that area to increase co-operation and understanding, because the absence of those things leads to resentment, making it much more difficult to achieve what we all want, which is protection wherever possible of land and human habitation within the necessary economic constraints that exist today.
May I add to the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this important and timely debate? It is important because Britain has, I am led to believe, 11,073 miles of coast, and, although I do not have “coastal” in my constituency name, the longest boundary I have is part of Morecambe bay on the west coast on the Irish sea. The debate is timely because the shoreline management plans are due for completion in the next few weeks. They will be delivered through the Environment Agency and local councils. In the longer term, my hon. Friends have hinted at concerns about erosion and about which parts of England are going up and which are going down. When I learned geography at school, I was always told that the east was going down and the west was coming up, but now I am told differently. However, hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not want to go into that kind of science; I was not the greatest geographer, although for a time I did manage to teach the subject. [Interruption.] Well, I always thought that geography was an easier subject than history.
Thurnham parish is in my patch. It is a rural parish with no particular centre. It is not a village; it is an area comprising scattered farms and caravan parks and caravan developments by the coast. The people who live there are retired couples and those who want to bring up their children in a rural area. It lies between the villages of Cockerham and Glasson Dock and it is part of Lancaster city council district. It is Thurnham parish’s experience in this process that I want to highlight.
Unlike most of England’s coastline, Thurnham has been protected by a “hold the line” policy, which means that it has a system of hard defences—in this case a sea wall and vast numbers of drainage channels. However, according to the Environment Agency, such defences have been thought to be inadequate for future years and the whole area is being reassessed as part of the shoreline management process.
We then come on to the interesting concept of managed realignment, which is a phrase that sounds almost Orwellian. The Library briefing says that
“managed realignment is still in an experimental phase with research showing many uncertainties in outcome.”
My concern is that we are basing many of our shoreline management plans on something that is experimental, and that is impacting on people’s lives and livelihoods. If a new experimental system is to be used, where has the effort been to explain the benefits of the scheme or to convince and win over those who will be affected? At the moment, the people in Thurnham believe that this is part of a cost-saving exercise.
Let me turn to the consultation on the second phase, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) mentioned. Yet again, my constituents have had the same experience of consultation. There were two public meetings and a 12-month consultation in which everyone in this country, from the Ramblers Association to English Nature and English Heritage, was consulted—apart from the residents who live in the area. I am told that it was only when a district councillor asked a parish councillor why no one from Thurnham had been turning up to meetings that it was clear that no one had actually been told to turn up.
Eventually, the residents were involved in the process. We secured another couple of meetings to try to understand what was going on. The challenge from residents was, “Why are you just considering managed realignment?” That was after a long explanation of what managed realignment might involve. Again, the issue of compensation—or lack of compensation—arose. Some residents were even told that if this happened, they would have to demolish their own house to allow the sea and salt marshes to encroach. It almost seemed that the habitat of birds was far more important than the generations of people who had lived in the area for hundreds of years and who had invested a great deal of money there—some had done so just a few months before they found out about the operation.
We finally get to a stage in which the council recognises the residents and the residents are talking to the Environment Agency. The agency finally walks the sea wall and finds that it is in far better shape than it first imagined. Now it has been agreed that there will be a further look at the cost-benefits of managed realignment and of holding the line. The agency says that such a policy will involve £100,000, for which it hopes to bid centrally. If it does not get the money this year, it will try again next year. The completion of this process will take five years, but if it does not get the money this year it will take six years. In the meantime, that whole area is blighted in terms of the ability to sell property or invest more in thriving businesses. Farmers wanting to invest are lost in the whole process, wondering where to go from here.
On consultation, as other hon. Members have said, can the details of how the costs and benefits fit together be supplied to me and residents of the area, so that we can understand how the processes work? So far, the new Government have pushed for transparency and clarity on what the Government spend and how they operate, so it is not asking a great deal to see the spreadsheet analysis and the cost-benefit formulae behind it, so that residents of Thurnham can have some grasp of the process, even though they will now sit there for five, six or seven years with that blight on them.
In conclusion—I realise that other Members want to speak—my constituents’ experience of the SMP process has not been good. They were ignored at the start, and they have been treated as though they do not understand their own area. They are now asking the new Government to supply them with information and to treat them as the grown-ups they are by helping them to understand all the pressures on the Government in dealing with the coast. They live and work there, understand the coastline and have a contribution to make, and they are asking the Minister to let them.
Hemsby in Great Yarmouth has £80 million of tourism economy at risk from shoreline management issues. Tourism in Great Yarmouth is worth about £500 million a year, so a deteriorating coastline is a huge issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate and being a fantastic advocate for her constituency and coastal erosion issues in general.
When the Minister visited our coastline—I congratulate him on coming so quickly—it was clear that he needed many advisers with him. There were advisers from Natural England, the Environment Agency and a range of other quangos for which I cannot begin to remember the acronyms. It highlighted residents’ problem in understanding what they can and cannot do. Every part of the coastline is under a different agency or ownership and involves going to a different body—from the local authority to central Government to various quangos.
In Hemsby, tourism is a great concern. A lot of the properties there, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said, are mobile homes, which are classed as temporary and therefore not counted in the cost-benefit analysis. Their value runs to tens of millions of pounds, but they are simply not counted when weighed against water voles, for instance, or in our case the lifespan of terns. Terns are phenomenally interesting birds, but I struggle to see how they match up to a tourism industry of about £80 million.
We have an area of special scientific interest in Winterton that has eroded dramatically over the past 10 years and continues to erode to the point where commercial properties as well as a coast watchtower are at risk. In Hopton, residents have watched the coastline move dramatically in the past few years. The shoreline management plan’s weakness in round 2 was highlighted when properties bought there under “hold the line” were reassessed as requiring no active intervention.
My experience with the SMP has been good. In Great Yarmouth, at least, the authorities have listened and reacted by changing the final recommendation back to managed retreat. That might allow private individuals and commercial companies in Hopton, such as Potters and Haven, to consider making investments. However, to do so, they must be able to present a full business plan. I will come back to that issue, but I want to touch on a couple of local issues before I discuss the bigger picture.
In Scratby, we have a pathfinder scheme of which many residents and I were wary and suspicious, because it felt as if the Government of the time were trying to buy people off for a year without doing anything. The money put into the pathfinder, at least in Scratby, would have gone a long way toward finishing some of the flood defences for which residents have been working so hard for so long. What the people in Scratby have said to me—I met some of them recently when they came to the meeting of our all-party group on coastal and marine issues—is that they want the freedom to do something for themselves.
Indeed, the example of Scratby provides a perfect transition to discussion of the bigger issue. As has already been touched on, when we look at the shoreline management plans we look at issues over the next 50 or 100 years. The previous MP for Suffolk Coastal made the point—it has stuck with me because it is very relevant—that the companies and commercial bodies and some of the private individuals affected, particularly regarding tourism, need to see that they can protect the coastline and make an investment that gives them a business plan of 20 to 30 years.
However, we do not really need anything too much beyond that time scale. If we think about what is possible now—compared with what was possible and what we knew 20 years ago; and in some cases, five or 10 years ago—we realise that, once we get beyond the next 20 to 30 years, we are putting our fingers in the wind and guessing how technology and our understanding will change. Therefore, to be honest, the 100-year plans become somewhat redundant. We should focus on what we can do in the next five to 30 years, with a clear understanding that this process is about allowing private individuals and businesses to have a business case to protect their shoreline.
Education is an issue, as has already been mentioned by one of my hon. Friends. We have had a similar issue in Great Yarmouth. Residents in Scratby who are directly affected by coastal erosion obviously care passionately about it, are working hard on dealing with it and have put a lot of resources and their own time into that. However, there are residents who live just one or two roads back from the coastline, let alone a mile inshore, who knew nothing about that work until a major consultation was carried out. Residents in Great Yarmouth who do not live on the coastline do not really understand the big impact that erosion could have on them going down the line.
So education is an issue, because erosion will have an impact. If we do not do something soon to protect the coastline, it will retreat anyway. Erosion will impact on farming. I know that the NFU in Norfolk has been frustrated at its lack of involvement and its inability to understand how it can feed into the process, because of the complexity of the different organisations involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) is concerned about farming-related problems and the impact of salt water on the land. In Great Yarmouth we produce many potatoes, to which reference has been made, and some of us enjoy them regularly.
Tourism is also important for areas such as the Norfolk Broads. The authorities there are already finding that salt water levels are rising because of coastal erosion. So coastal erosion has a huge impact and we probably need to do a better job of educating our residents about it. There is huge value in doing something about this issue, in terms not only of protecting property but promoting future peace of mind. However, we must be clear about the time scale.
We also have to be honest and realistic about what the Government can afford to do. I fully understand that they are not in a position to do what I assume and hope they would like to do: to protect every inch of coastline around our country. Residents, certainly those in Great Yarmouth, also understand that. We had a meeting with the Minister near the Suffolk Coastal constituency, at which the people of Waveney, Great Yarmouth and North Norfolk were also represented. Those who attended understood that there is a financial constraint, and that some tough decisions therefore have to be made.
First, I should declare an interest, in that I have an Environment Agency “blue blob” in my back garden and I live about 20 feet above sea level. Part of Redcar is actually below sea level.
I agree with everything that has been said so far, and I understand the financial constraints. However, I hope we do not allow the current debate and uncertainty to interfere with any schemes that are about to take place—in particular, the new sea wall in the town where I live. I hope the new Government do not decide to pull the funding on everything, and therefore take another number of years to decide what to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he made his point very well.
One of the problems with the structure of SMPs is that many people have come to the view that they have become nothing more than a tick-box process for planning departments. We need to move beyond that. Finance is important in this regard. For some authorities, SMPs must be affordable and they must be responsible for them, because they feel a responsibility to their residents. However, in fact, we should be looking at a plan that gives residents, communities and commercial organisations as much ability to protect the shoreline as the Government have. That is where the big change could occur. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal and I have worked closely with him on the matter—has been talking for some time about a community solidarity fund. I recommend that the Minister consider it, as it could allow local authorities to raise their own funds under the decentralisation—the Localism Bill.
The residents of Scratby have already talked to me about their ideas for a scheme. If they had the freedom to do so, they could raise the funds that would allow them to move forward and finance some of the work that they want to do. They believe that the work needs to be done, and the pathfinder schemes show that it would still be best for Scratby. However, it will have an impact on the coastline. That is why we need some form of community fund, based on the pathfinder work done in North Norfolk on the sale and lease-back scheme. It would be a community-based fund and would have no impact on the Government. Local people could take a view on whether they wanted to do that by holding a referendum, and they could then play their part. Local businesses and organisations could take part, and local authorities could get involved with land deals, for example, which could start making some of these opportunities possible.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
The main message on coastal erosion that I want to get across to the Department —the Minister was positive when he came to Great Yarmouth—is that although we would like the Government to protect everything, most important to the residents affected would be the freedom to get through the overwhelming bureaucracy. It would allow them to become more responsible for their own future; they want to have some control over their destiny and be able to run with it. If it were not for the fact that our forebears were able to deal with coastal erosion, many of those representing coastal areas would not be representing the constituencies they do. We therefore have a huge duty to free up the system, so that in the years to come we can represent our constituencies as they are now.
May I start my short submission by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate? I confess that until I saw the debate title in the Order Paper, I did not realise that there was a shoreline management plan for my part of Wales, a point that was reflected upon by others this morning. That is all the more embarrassing because 60% of my constituency is a variety of shoreline. That is a great asset most of the time, but not when it comes to parliamentary boundary reviews. That, however, is a debate for another day.
The coastline is probably the single most important feature for the tourism industry in south-west Wales. Indeed, I slip into the conversation the fact that National Geographic magazine says that it is the second most beautiful coastline in the world. It beats Suffolk and Devon, and even Essex, to that coveted title. Although erosion is not a particular problem in my constituency, management is. For my constituents, the shoreline is not only beautiful and spectacular cliff. It also has beach, marsh and wetlands, as well as estuaries, and balancing the conflicting interests of agriculture and tourism is a constant battle. It is a battle for everyone, including the Pembrokeshire national park, and that has to be reflected in the management plans.
Not many people know this, but before becoming a Member I spent a little time working for the Environment Agency in south-west Wales as an official valuer. One of my earliest jobs was to value the sea wall between the Severn bridge and Trostre steel works in Llanelli. Those who can picture the map of south Wales will realise that it covers pretty much the entire coastline. I made one stupid decision and one sensible one. The stupid decision was to walk every inch of it; the sensible decision was to base my fees not on value but on time. That was just as well, because the capital value of such an asset is £1. Who would want to accept the liability?
That is a serious point. The wall was a hugely important physical feature for the Environment Agency, but it was also important to everyone who had an interest in the estuary. The problem for the agency was that every time one crossed a local authority boundary or a legal boundary between farms, or even when one crossed into a new wildlife trust area, the rules changed. It was impossible to have a cost-effective and cohesive policy for the sea wall along almost the entire stretch of coastline. The upshot is that it was not managed properly, and people’s businesses and livelihoods were put at risk.
We are of course sympathetic, as other Members have mentioned, to the point about the ever-increasing pressure on the wildlife asset. However, if there was ever an example of how these things pan out in reality, it is the Cardiff bay barrage. Significant sums were spent on giving migratory wild fowl preferment over the interests of farmers and residents. However, as soon as the barrage was constructed, nature adapted particularly successfully, as it often does, to the changing circumstances. Twenty years on—that is about the right time scale—there is no evidence whatever to suggest that there was a detrimental impact, particularly on migratory wild fowl in the area. The Cardiff bay barrage is a living example of a management process that involves a lot of physical alteration to the coastline, but which has no adverse effect on wildlife. We need to take careful note of the fact that it is possible in such circumstances to have your cake and eat it.
I want to revert to the point about liability and the legal point. As we proceed with the plans and with future shoreline management, we could give local authorities greater responsibility for taking such matters into account through the planning system. In addition, the legal profession may not have been particularly effective in one or two cases when it has come to undertaking searches on behalf of people purchasing properties adjacent to shorelines, to future management plans, and to attempting the impossible task of second-guessing the effects of nature over a long period.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this timely debate on shoreline management plans. She began by telling us that hers is the only constituency with the word “coastal” in its name. The coast that she represents is wonderful and, indeed, has an excellent brewery, which some of us have often appreciated in the past.
Like other hon. Members, the hon. Lady has expressed her constituents’ understandable concern about the future of their shoreline. She might not have been resident in the constituency for long, but she has clearly illustrated that she has a good understanding of the issues that affect its coast. It was a great pleasure to note that she has picked up her predecessor’s environmental concerns, which she clearly expressed.
Shoreline management issues are controversial and subject to a wide variety of different views and interests. Given the nature of our geography, we in the United Kingdom have sought over many centuries to manage the natural processes, such as erosion and deposition, that affect our shoreline. However, as time has passed, and particularly over recent decades, we have grown to have a better understanding of those natural processes, the risks associated with development on our shoreline and the mechanisms available to manage that shoreline.
The diversity of our shoreline has been well illustrated by the range of hon. Members’ contributions. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) illustrated the fact that the coastline varies greatly not only from one constituency to another, but within constituencies. As a result, the solutions that are appropriate for one part of the shoreline can be very different from those that are needed elsewhere along the shoreline, even within a constituency.
The hon. Lady referred to “Making Space For Water”, and that important publication has had a great impact on how we think about the management of our coast. She also referred to the number of studies done since the mid-1990s, when shoreline management plans were first introduced, that have looked at the broad issues relating to how we manage our shoreline. Since the introduction of those first management plans, we have seen predictions of sea level rises due to climate change increase dramatically. Those have had to be incorporated into the second generation of plans. The current defences, which may have a limited life, might not be economically, socially, technically or environmentally practical in future. Also, changes in the shoreline might require new approaches to manage future risks.
Clearly, there is no suggestion that we could abandon coastal protection altogether, but climate change is a reality, as is the tilt in our geography, and changing shorelines are to some extent inevitable. I think that we are all aware, though, that many solutions are both expensive and problematic. We are also aware—I have referred to the diversity of our shorelines—that what is appropriate in one area might not be appropriate elsewhere, or indeed in that area in future. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) gave an excellent example: what is appropriate in Dawlish is not necessarily appropriate in the Exe estuary. She is right to make the case for continuing the defences at Dawlish because of the railway line that they carry and all that it represents, but she is also right to draw our attention to the different solutions necessary for the nearby Exe estuary.
The purpose of shoreline management plans has been to provide a coherent, consistent and strategic approach to shoreline management. All those elements are important as we look towards the next generation of plans. It is also important to recognise that, as was intended in the beginning, there must be a partnership between local government, local communities, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the many others with an interest in how particular stretches of shoreline are managed. Since their establishment in the mid-1990s, shoreline management plans have undoubtedly had considerable success in providing such strategic, consistent and coherent approaches, but the future will bring new challenges. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal was right to draw our attention to the fact that it is not possible to envisage a ring of stone, as she put it, around the United Kingdom. Difficult choices will have to be made.
I hope that when the Minister replies to this debate, he will be able to reassure us about the future. It is of course important, as the hon. Lady said, to enable local communities to respond in ways that they feel are appropriate. It is also important, as the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) suggested, that there should be a degree of freedom and choice in the way forward. However, the approach to shoreline management plans must continue to be strategic. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that it will be, and that it will not simply be a matter of allowing those individuals and localities that can afford it to build defences, regardless of the impact on other stretches of coast, other communities or other individuals.
I also hope that the Minister can reassure us about something that must be of concern to all of us: the ability of the various partners to continue to play an active part in shoreline management plans. I referred to the Environment Agency and Natural England, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is suffering severe budget reductions, and local authorities will have to make significant reductions as well. I am not talking only about their ability to fund capital works. It is vital that the Minister reassures us about the ability of all the partners to continue to play their part in the management and maintenance of shorelines and about their ability to ensure that they have the expertise necessary to give advice and support to those who have an interest in the future management of shorelines, because the expenditure reductions taking place in DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England and local authorities undoubtedly could result in the loss of the expertise that is essential to make the partnerships that are inherent in the success of shoreline management plans as successful in the future as they have been in the past.
I shall begin by congratulating, as other hon. Members have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on obtaining the debate. I also congratulate my many other hon. Friends who participated. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for my presence and for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I particularly apologise if she had not been forewarned that he could not be here. He is in Brussels at a Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting. That of course also affects her constituency, so I hope that she will forgive me and understand the change. I hope that she will also accept that my background was very significantly in her constituency at one time, when I was chairman of the local authority. Without getting into the “Whose is best?” debate, I can say that I am very familiar with the parts of the beautiful area to which she referred.
Almost all the hon. Members who spoke were, of course, from the eastern side of England, where the tilt is taking place and where coastal erosion is at its worst. However, I will pick up some of the specific points that were made. Shoreline management plans raise difficult issues and cause anxiety for people who are affected, especially if those plans point to the fact that, as the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said, there is some inevitability about change. Sometimes we have to accept that it is not possible to maintain the status quo. That controversy in relation to the plans is also in some ways their strength. Arguably, if we did not have shoreline management plans, we would have to invent them. They were invented by the last Conservative Government in 1994; they predate the “Making Space for Water” project.
The plans provide an opportunity for local authorities at the coast, the Environment Agency and the various other bodies mentioned to explore options for the future with local communities and to clarify what they might expect from Government and what they can do for themselves. We owe it to people to be honest and open about what we can afford. I am concerned that a number of hon. Members have referred to the consultation process and pointed out inadequacies to do with second home owners, or others who may feel that they are affected but were not consulted. The consultation ought to be pretty substantial. It should run for three months, and the local authorities are required to run a range of processes to try to reach everyone, including employing coastal community engagement officers to support them. Clearly, if that is not happening, we need to pursue that, but it should be the case. I entirely agree with my hon. Friends that no one should feel excluded from the consultation.
When we are examining what we can afford, we must bear in mind the impact that a choice in one place may have on another. That might relate to the community or to the environment. There could even be an impact on coastal erosion, because sometimes if the sea is stopped in one place, it will vent itself in another. There is no doubt—this picks up the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester South—that the Government have fully recognised that flood and coastal defence is a priority. That is why spending on that defence has been largely protected in the spending review. We will be able to invest £2.1 billion over the next four years. We will protect the front-line services, such as forecasting and warning services and incident response, and prioritise the maintenance of existing defences.
It is worth referring to the fact that the threat is changing slightly. Coastal erosion has not changed, but there is now, probably as a result of climate change, an increasing incidence of flash flooding inland. We must also take that into account as part of our overall flood defence programmes. We expect to be able better to protect 145,000 households by March 2015. However, there is no getting away from the fact that times are tough, and it will be difficult to kick off new defence projects over the next couple of years.
I assure hon. Members that the Government are determined to proceed with those projects that are already well advanced. Schemes that are under way will continue and we shall protect the front-line services to which I have referred. However, it will not be affordable or sustainable to maintain the status quo everywhere on the coast, and I do not think that anyone expects otherwise. I entirely appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal that erosion is permanent. It is a pertinent point for us all to remember, but we must be honest with communities about what can and cannot be done, and provide them with sufficient information to make decisions for themselves. A generation or more of politicians in different Governments have probably given assurances about coastal defences that we have not been able to live up to, and perhaps we need to be more honest. The idea that we could always hold the line on the whole of our coastline in perpetuity was probably wrong from the outset.
I fully take the point about the need to inform homeowners about what might happen to their properties, and also the point that several hon. Members have made about the impact on agricultural land. I shall return to that in a moment. However, it does not make sense do things to manage erosion or flooding in one place without regard, as I said earlier, to the impact elsewhere. Nor is it right to give people the impression that the Government—and only Government—will pay for defences, or that they will pay for those defences if there are no realistic prospects for them.
That does not mean that people cannot take measures to protect themselves with the support of the relevant authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal referred to the visit of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and to work in her constituency at Bawdsey, Thorpeness and elsewhere, where a local initiative has created the means of self-help in erosion prevention. The coast has always been changing; my hon. Friend referred to a map suggesting that Cambridge could become a coastal town, and I can tell her that it once was. Much of my constituency, which is to the east of Cambridge, would not be there had it not been for flood defences. It probably would not be there if we had had to get planning permission for them, either, but never mind. There are villages in my constituency called Waterbeach, Landbeach and Reach—all names that show they were once on the coast. Some things come around again; though I hope they will not do so in my lifetime.
I want to respond to points made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred to issues affecting her patch, including the integrity of the sea wall and the railway line to Dawlish—which I, too, would like protected; it is a wonderful rail trip, and I am glad that that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), is supportive. My hon. Friend discussed Dawlish Warren and the fact that there is a hold-the-line defence until 2025, when the policy will be mixed. That gives me the opportunity to make the point that shoreline management plans are not cast in stone for ever and a day. There is an opportunity to review them every five to 10 years, so changes can be made, to reflect new local priorities or countless other occurrences. I understand my hon. Friend’s comment about the question of who is paying, with respect to the Exe estuary, and will draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) represents another area where I spent much of my earlier life—though reaching the heights of chairmanship of the county NFU is something that eluded me.
I am very grateful for that. I think that my hon. Friend will find that I was chairman of Essex Young Farmers, rather than the National Farmers Union. In those days, believe it or not, I was young. My hon. Friend also referred to the 1953 floods and the memories of them. I am probably one of the few people in the House who remembers them—just. I was a very small child at the time, living just outside Felixstowe. The flood came close to where I was living and it was horrendous. That sort of memory lives on. People will always be frightened if they have been through that awful experience.
My hon. Friend referred to the importance of agricultural land. As a Minister with responsibility for agriculture, and coming from such a background, too, I am very concerned about it. However, I accept that against someone’s home, it comes second; we must all realise that. I hope that the point I will come to in a minute about other Government proposals will reassure colleagues that it is something that we are trying to address, albeit in a different way. I take his point about the involvement of local landowners in shoreline management plans and I am very much aware of the work of Andrew St Joseph in trying to drive that forward and in generating dialogue.
My hon. Friend and one or two other hon. Members referred to the role of Natural England. Although it has a vital role to play, it is important that it adopts a more enabling and supportive role and that it recognises that other issues are involved. We are making some substantial changes to the way in which Natural England is organised and run, which I hope will make it more responsive to local needs and understanding, and I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon also referred to the difficulty of landowners in doing maintenance work. I am not sure whether that happens just in his constituency, but an Essex farmer, who had better remain nameless, told me that he was given permission by the Environment Agency to do some maintenance work on the sea wall, which involved several hundred tonnes of stone. Natural England then came along and told him that the stone had to go in by helicopter, which stopped the process in its tracks.
Mobile homes, to which a number of hon. Friends referred, are included in the cost benefit analysis, although at a lower rate than a fixed building because they can be moved. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) referred to the issue of consultation and to the apparent priority of the habitats directive, which allows projects to go ahead, even where damage to protected sites is foreseen as a consequence. Projects that damage European protected sites can still go ahead if there are imperative reasons for overriding that public interest or if there are no alternative solutions and if necessary compensatory measures are in place.
The issue of how cost benefits are calculated, to which my hon. Friend also referred, are addressed on the DEFRA website. I will write to him with more detail, because I fully appreciate that people have a right to know. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) referred to the solidarity fund promoted by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, is, in principle, supportive of that, but it is a matter for local people to take forward. Although the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) cover a devolved issue, I appreciate his point about the liability aspect.
As the hon. Member for Leicester South said, no two places on the coast are the same, which is one reason why greater local involvement is necessary if we are to get this job right. The powers of consent for work rest with the local authority, except where there are certain European obligations to achieve, and then the powers rest with the Secretary of State. The House is aware that the coalition Government are determined to be the greenest Government ever, and that includes protecting and enhancing the natural environment. None the less, we need to be more creative in the way in which we serve those interests as well as meeting our international obligations and protecting agricultural land wherever possible.
Greater local involvement is at the heart of the Government’s proposed “payment for outcomes” funding approach, which we launched for public consultation last Wednesday, alongside the joint consultation with the Environment Agency of the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. The consultation suggests changes to the way in which Government funding is allocated to flood and coastal defence projects. That follows recommendations by Sir Michael Pitt in his review of the 2007 flooding. The reforms aim to provide improved transparency and greater certainty over potential funding levels from the general taxpayer for every flood and coastal defence project. They will also allow local areas to have a bigger say in what is done to protect them. Over time, local ambitions on protection no longer need be constrained by what national budgets can afford, and the reforms will encourage innovative, cost-effective solutions in which civil society can play a greater role. This is about saying what the Government think the cost-benefit analysis is and, therefore, what funding might be available from Government. If that is not enough to do the work, the local community has the option to find funding to enable it to happen.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she makes a point that has been made many times. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury is conscious of that issue and is working with the Environment Agency to see how we can alter the situation, which I do not think necessarily means reducing the specification of what is done. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter.
The proposals to which I have just referred are subject to consultation and final decisions will be made in the spring after the consultation closes on 16 February 2011. I hope that this will mark a significant step forward in how we go about things. I think I have referred to most of the issues that hon. Members raised; if I have not or if I have answered their concerns inadequately, perhaps Members could let me know.
I referred, at the conclusion of my remarks, to the loss of staff and expertise from Natural England, the Environment Agency and local government. The Minister referred to the role of Natural England as enabling and supporting Government. Will he provide reassurance that the Department is aware if that role is to be played, Natural England needs experts to offer the support that is fundamental to making a success of the plans?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman assurances about individuals for obvious reasons. Although, as he says, we are making significant savings across all the arms-length bodies, and within DEFRA, there is no reason why they should not retain the element of expertise to which he refers. We are trying to ensure that those arms-length bodies retain the ability do what they have to do and what Government need them to do, which includes giving scientific advice. Natural England is, after all, the statutory adviser to the Government on such issues, and it will retain that role. Where there are functions that the private or third sector can perform, we should try to make that happen. I know that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise, but those bodies have taken their fair share of the reduction in funding that we have had to make as part of dealing with the overall public deficit. I hope that I have addressed most of the issues raised by hon. Members, but if not, I am happy to write to anyone who wishes to raise an issue with me.
Breast Cancer Screening (Young Women)
Breast Cancer is the UK’s most common cancer. It affects thousands of families every year. Almost 48,000 people were diagnosed with breast cancer last year: 47,000 women and 277 men, and 125 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer today. Breast cancer incidence rates among women have increased by 50% over the past 25 years—5% in the past 10 years—and, because of lifestyles changes such as increased obesity and drinking in young women, those incidence rates will continue to rise, particularly for those under 50. Eight in 10 breast cancers diagnosed are in women aged 50 or over, but that means that two in every 10 are diagnosed in younger women, who may have young families. For young women the disease can be particularly virulent and aggressive, and the chances of survival are less good as a result.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the time between the mammogram and the results is critical, and that the length of that period depends on the area and district a person lives in and the hospital they attend? It could be between a week and up to four weeks, depending on the hospital, which could mean the difference between life and death. At the same time, those with money have the opportunity to have a mammogram in the morning and receive the results in the afternoon.
That is incredibly true. I am particularly concerned about young women, and in many cases the younger they are, the more virulent the disease is and the chances of survival are less good as a result, so that is particularly crucial. Every family in this country will be touched by this awful disease. Within my family, four close relatives have died of breast cancer in recent years, all aged well under 50; and a cousin, also under 50, is currently battling the disease for a second time.
However, it was an inspirational woman, Trish Greensmith, who runs the Chyrelle Addams breast cancer appeal trust in my constituency, who first brought home to me the number of young women who are being diagnosed with, and having to fight, breast cancer today. She told me that when she first visited an oncology clinic she was struck by the number of young women in the waiting room—young women who were trying to deal with virulent and aggressive cancers while bringing up young families. Under the current system, they would never be offered the opportunity for routine screening, which might have detected their cancers early and saved their lives. More women are surviving breast cancer than ever before, and the survival rates have steadily improved over the past 30 years, but 12,000 women and 70 men in the UK died from breast cancer last year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Few people will not have a friend or relative who will suffer from breast cancer and who would benefit from earlier diagnosis and improved information. I understand that Cambridge university has developed a computer programme called “Predict”, which allows any patient—or doctor—to go online and enter their symptoms and the kind of cancer they have, and it will predict their life expectancy and the likelihood of survival. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be another useful tool to help inform and reassure women and men who are diagnosed with breast cancer?
I am aware of the “Predict” computer system, which is an incredibly useful tool in the hands of clinicians, but I do not think it should be generally available for people to use in their own homes to calculate, using their symptoms, how long they have to live. I think they would find that very worrying. However, it would be incredibly useful for their doctor.
Of the women who died last year from breast cancer, 1,300 were under 50 years old. We know that women with a mother, sister or daughter who have been diagnosed with breast cancer have almost double the risk of being diagnosed themselves. We know that the risk increases with the number of first-degree relatives diagnosed, but even so, eight out of nine breast cancers occur in women with no family history of cancer whatsoever.
A woman in Derbyshire, Wendy Watson, runs the national hereditary breast cancer helpline. What is my hon. Friend’s view on getting national funding for that helpline, which is a lifeline for many women suffering from hereditary breast cancer?
I am aware of Wendy and the fantastic work she does; I also know that she is struggling to secure funding. Perhaps the Minister might look at that as a result of today’s debate. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.
We know that obesity presents a risk, as do hormone replacement therapy and the use of oral contraceptives. In the binge capital of Europe, we are now told that as little as one alcoholic drink per day increases the risk of breast cancer by about 12%.
I absolutely agree.
Going back to the risk factors—obesity, HRT, oral contraceptives and alcohol—all of them are likely to affect women under 50 more than women over 50, and yet women under 50 are not routinely offered screening of any kind. About 1.5 million women in the UK are screened for breast cancer each year, and we must congratulate those involved in the routine screening programme on the many lives they save. The previous Government extended the screening programme so that from 2012, all women aged 47 to 73 will be invited for routine screening. That extension will save many more lives, but it will do nothing to help identify breast cancer in younger women.
Concerns have been expressed that wider screening could lead to over-diagnosis, but recent research is showing that the benefits of mammographic screening in terms of lives saved are greater than the harm caused by over-diagnosis. Those same arguments about over-diagnosis were used in the past to argue against extending screening for womb cancer and cervical cancer, but the response to those arguments has always been that it is better to be safe than sorry, and that, in the case of breast cancer screening, between two and two and a half lives are saved for every over-diagnosed case. Despite that, however, women under 50 are not currently offered routine screening.
It is also argued that film mammograms are not as effective for pre-menopausal women as for post-menopausal, as the greater density of breast tissue in pre-menopausal women makes it more difficult to detect problems. That is absolutely right. Screening of women under 50 may not be as effective as screening of women over 50, but it can still be effective, certainly in the absence of any other screening programme.
It is also argued that routine screening of women under 50 is not necessary, because the incidence of breast cancer is lower in that age group. I would say, “Tell that to the hundreds or thousands of young women battling this disease”, who say that any arguments about numbers are outweighed by the increased virulence of the disease in the young.
We are told that, because breast cancer is less common in women under 50, research trials have shown that regular screening of young women does not help to save lives. It is even argued that in other trials, regular mammogram screening is more of a risk than not screening. However, I say to the Minister, “Tell that to the young women currently undergoing chemotherapy”.
It is absolutely clear that mammogram screening is most effective among women who have gone through the menopause, but recent research shows that it can also be effective among those aged 35 to 50 and that, despite all the counter-arguments, there is now increasing evidence that there are significant gains to be made by routine screening of women from the age of 35 upwards.
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing time for this important debate. On routine screening and the value of targeting a particular age group, I, too, have received information from Breakthrough Breast Cancer—an excellent organisation—pointing out that 1,400 lives a year are saved by routine breast screening. However, Breakthrough Breast Cancer also says that any woman aged 70 or over is not routinely invited to attend for breast screening. It may well be advantageous, in terms of improving the health outcomes of those women, if a screening programme targeted them, too, in view of the high incidence of breast cancer among post-menopausal women.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
I ask the Minister to consider the arguments that have been put forward and the increasing weight of medical evidence calling for routine screening from the age of 35 onwards. In his response, I ask him not to pull out the one argument that the coalition Government seem to have for everything: that there is no money. If we could set aside £9 billion last week to build more trains to make commuting more comfortable, surely we can consider routine screening. If we can find £9 billion to lend to the Irish in their hour of need, surely we can find the money to save young lives.
I understand that the Minister is unable to announce that routine screening for breast cancer will start tomorrow, but he could consider a long-term plan—over five years, for example—to reduce the age of screening to 45 in year one, 42 in year two, 40 in year three, 38 in year four, and to 35 within five years. Such a policy would be universally welcomed and could save precious lives.
I am aware of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer campaign. In particular, it seeks early breast screening for women from the age of 35 where there is a history of breast cancer. We must learn lessons from the highly successful cervical cancer screening programme. Early intervention is cost-effective—it saves the country money in the longer term, and it saves lives.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on securing this important debate. As others have said, it is important that we do everything possible to increase awareness of breast cancer so that people are more aware of signs and symptoms and are able to present themselves at an earlier time and thus make the chances of survival much greater. I also congratulate the hon. Lady on the work that she does in raising funds and increasing awareness of the issue, as she has done today. I note the personal experience that she draws on.
Around 40,000 women a year are diagnosed with the disease—that is a third of all cancer diagnoses in women. The hon. Lady made a good speech setting out a powerful case that needs proper consideration. It is a shame that she made the point about Ministers trotting out certain lines about coalition funding and so on, as that added nothing to the debate. I was certainly not intending to go down that line because I want to try to give a substantive response to her remarks.
Breast cancer can strike women of all ages, although a person’s risk of developing it rises dramatically after middle age, with cases peaking among women in their early 60s. The prognosis for a person with breast cancer has transformed over the last 40 years. It has gone from a consistently lethal killer, to the second-least deadly form of the disease, if judged by five-year survival rates.
The NHS breast screening programme has played a major part in that success. Since it began in 1988, the programme has made a huge difference to a woman’s chances of surviving breast cancer. Around 83% of all women with breast cancer are still alive five years after diagnosis, and among those whose cancer is detected through screening, that survival rate increases to over 96%. That is a striking demonstration of the power of detecting cancer early on—that point has rightly been made in the debate—and that is why we will make earlier detection a key part of our forthcoming cancer reform strategy.
Experts believe that the current breast screening programme saves 1,400 lives a year among the 50 to 70-year-old age group on which it focuses. That point was made by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). Therefore, the hon. Lady asks a fair question about whether there is scope to widen the net and whether that would be appropriate. Should we be looking to extend the programme to cover other age groups?
Under the current programme, women aged between 50 and 70 are routinely invited for screening, and women over 70 can request to be screened every three years. The hon. Lady suggested that women as young as 30 should be invited for screening. When it comes to health care, our priority is simple—to have outcomes that compare with the very best in the world. We will achieve that by handing power to front-line professionals and basing decisions on the best available evidence. That is where there is a debate. I am interested and I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said about the emerging evidence. However, when it comes to extending screening to all women older than 30, as far as I can see, the evidence is not there.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification. In 2006, the Institute of Cancer Research published the results of a 15-year study of the benefits of screening women from the age of 40. The study invited about 53,000 women to receive annual breast cancer screening over nine years and then compared them to a control group of women who received standard NHS treatment. The study found that the reduction in deaths due to screening was not statistically significant. I understand that, for the individual, it is 100%; I understand the hon. Lady’s powerful point. She might say that, if such measures save a single life, they are worth doing. However, the study pointed out, as she seemed to guess, that early screening had significant disadvantages. Almost one in four women in the study had at least one false positive, with all the resulting distress, anxiety and unnecessary follow-up, including invasive biopsies. Currently, there are about 7 million women aged between 30 and 49 in England. I accept that she wants to screen from 35 onwards, but if the take-up rate among that population were 75%, we would be screening about 5 million more women a year. Even if the minimum age were 35, it would create the issue of false positives.
Does the Minister agree that there is still a huge diagnosis problem, involving the time between mammogram and results, based on what is classed as a postcode lottery? We need to look at that and ensure that each patient, regardless of wealth or where they reside, gets her mammogram results within days, not weeks.
Yes. It is entirely right for the hon. Gentleman to make that point. That is why this Government will publish the first ever NHS outcomes framework, which will focus much more clearly on how we ensure that the system delivers the right outcomes in terms of cancer survival. We will publish that shortly, along with a new cancer reform strategy in due course that will say even more.
The Government’s view at present is that the risks of the change proposed by the hon. Lady outweigh the benefits. However, I want to ensure that the evidence that she has discussed is properly evaluated by officials in the Department. We will consider those points and her representations carefully, and I will write to her after we have had an opportunity to do so. However, the Department’s view and the Government’s view about maintaining the status quo is shared by most countries in Europe, as well as the Council of Europe, which recommends a breast cancer screening age of 50 to 69. The United States recommends screening every two years for women aged between 50 and 74. The position that this country has adopted for a considerable time is based on international practice and the best available evidence. One must be open to changes in evidence; that is important in an evidence-based approach to developing policy.
On best practice and targeting available resources, the figures suggest that in some areas, as many as one third of women within the target group aged 50 to 70 do not attend routine screenings. There are various reasons for that. It might have to do with misconceptions about the nature of the screening test. In some urban areas, it might have to do with the fact that there is a large transient population. In my area, where we also have the problem of people failing to turn up for routine appointments, they may be reluctant or poorly educated, or a number of—
I understand fully. Today, the Secretary of State will make a statement in the House setting out this Government’s new commitments on public health and the clear lines that we are drawing on tackling health inequalities. Some of the issues clearly involve a social gradient that we must address, and we will address them in our new cancer reform strategy and public health White Paper.
I appreciate what the Minister says about considering new evidence. Will he also take into account—this relates to the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris)—the issues that affect younger women and the cohort that those younger women are likely to come from? It is about obesity, hormone replacement therapy and alcohol. It is younger women from low socio-economic backgrounds who are likely to be hit hardest by those things.
I am grateful for those points, and I am coming to them, which is why I was smiling—it was not because of the subject, which is very serious.
Let me talk briefly about partial age extensions, which is another issue worth airing. The last cancer reform strategy committed the Government to extending the NHS breast screening programme to women between the ages of 47 and 73. Beyond 73 years of age, patients would still be able to self-refer. That extension will ensure that all women are invited for screening before their 50th birthday. The June revision to the NHS operating framework confirmed that the extension will begin this year—in 2010-11. By the end of March next year, we expect 60% of screening programmes to be screening that wider age group, and we obviously want to go as far and as fast as we can.
Our updated cancer reform strategy will focus on outcomes and on improving cancer survival rates. Although the one-year and five-year survival rates have improved in recent years, we still lag behind other European nations. If we could match the five-year survival rates of the best countries in Europe, we could save up to 10,000 lives every year in England. As has been said, therefore, early diagnosis is essential. In September, I announced funding for a new £9 million campaign to get people to recognise and, importantly, to act earlier on the signs and symptoms of cancer. We are talking not so much about a campaign as a series of 59 local campaigns, which will focus on the three big killers: breast cancer, bowel cancer and lung cancer. The campaigns will raise public awareness of symptoms and encourage people to talk to their GP at the earliest possible opportunity. We will target those populations that the hon. Member for Easington talked about, which are often harder to reach.
Our approach will also encourage GPs and others in primary care to act appropriately. The tragedy of these cancers is that they are preventable. As has been said, lifestyle—eating too much, drinking too much and not getting enough exercise—plays a big part. That is why the coalition is determined that public health will become a far more important part of overall public policy and practice nationally and locally. We will make sure that we treat and prevent cancer in that context. That is why we will, as I said, publish a White Paper later today to set out how we will provide the right leadership and the strategy to improve people’s lifestyles and to reduce their risk of getting cancer in the first place.
Will the Minister briefly outline his opinion regarding national funding for the hereditary breast cancer helpline? It is a national service and it needs national funding, but the Department of Health has said that it is more appropriate to fund it locally. This incredibly important service provides information and advice and helps women up and down the country. What does the Minister think needs to be done about it?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I certainly pay tribute to the work that the helpline does, but it is important to stress that NHS organisations and commissions are responsible for such funding, so it is perfectly possible for them to collaborate to make the resources available.
The hon. Lady rightly refers to inherited cancers. It is perhaps important to stress that about 5% of women will contract breast cancer simply because it runs in the family. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance published in 2004 recommends that women with a moderate or higher risk of familial breast cancer should receive annual screening. However, across the NHS, delivery is patchy, and we have heard examples of that patchiness in the debate. Women deserve better than that; they deserve a consistent service wherever they happen to live. For that reason, the NHS breast screening programme will soon take responsibility for ensuring that familial screening is regularly and routinely carried out.
In conclusion, I very much respect the points that the hon. Member for North West Durham has made, the passion with which she delivered them and the commitment that she clearly has to improving our ability to detect these cancers early and prevent them. We must do everything we can to improve survival rates and to improve the quality of life for those living with cancer. We will do that by focusing resources on what works and where the evidence demonstrates the risks are outweighed by the benefits. In this instance, the evidence at the moment is clear: extending annual breast cancer screening to all women over the age of 35 would not improve their chances of surviving the disease. However, it would mean that we would need to ensure that we did not place women in a situation where they felt unnecessary anxiety as a result of false positives. We will always act on best evidence, which is why I make the undertaking to take away the evidence that the hon. Lady referred to. At this time the evidence does not lead us to conclude that there is a case for change. But we will keep it under review.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising these matters today. The Government are determined to achieve the best possible outcomes for people with cancer through our public health strategy and our cancer strategy. We are committed to ensuring that the resources are there to avoid the postcode lottery that some hon. Members described, an inheritance that we are determined to deal with.
Christians in Iraq
It is a great pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mr Betts. I am particularly grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on the position of Christians in Iraq. It follows on from the very well informed debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) almost exactly two years ago on 16 December 2008. At that time my hon. Friend told the House that back in 2003, there were some 1.2 million Christians in Iraq and that that number had been reduced to around 600,000 because of the persecution they had suffered. Sadly, since then things have continued to be even more difficult for Christians in Iraq.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that there have been Christians in Iraq since virtually the time of Christ, when doubting Thomas stopped off in what is now modern day Iraq. There are Christians in Iraq who still speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself would have spoken, and the tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Nahum is in Iraq with the inscription from Nahum chapter 3 verse 18:
“Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them”—
words which, unfortunately, have an eerily accurate ring to them for Christians in and from Iraq today.
Last week I met in my office in the House of Commons an outstanding member of the Iraqi Government—the Minister for Human Rights, Mrs Wijdan, who is herself a Chaldean Catholic, and Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of St George’s in Baghdad. Andrew is a long-standing friend and one of the most inspirational Christian leaders I have ever met. I learnt from Canon White that in this month alone more than 100 Christians have been killed in Iraq, and 58 were killed in one massacre during evening mass in the Syrian Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad on 31 October. Since that atrocity many more Christians have also been targeted, blown up or told that they no longer belong to Iraq and should leave now or be executed. This violence has gone on for many years.
Back in August 2004 there was a series of bombings targeting five churches, and 11 people were killed. In October 2006 an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched in Mosul by a group demanding ransom. Despite payment of the ransom, the priest was found beheaded, with his arms and legs cut off. In June 2007 Ragheed Ganni, a priest and secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh, was shot dead in his church along with three companions. In January 2008 bombs went off outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad. In February 2008 the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahh, was kidnapped. His body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later. In April 2008 Father Adel Youssef, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, was shot dead by unknown assailants. In February 2010 at least eight Christians died in a two-week spate of attacks in the northern city of Mosul. So it is a pretty sorry state of affairs.
I am well aware that Iraq is still in the process of forming a Government, some eight and a half months after its general election earlier this year. I would request, however, that both British and American Ministers raise these issues with the newly appointed Iraqi Ministers as soon as they can after the formation of the new Government. I also hope that able Iraqi Christian MPs are not held back from Government positions merely because of their faith. When I met Mrs Wijdan last week, she told me that a lot of her requests were very practical ones to do with preventing terrorists from outside Iraq entering her country to kill and injure. She also requested help with counter-terrorism and intelligence to prevent such future atrocities.
I have concerns about aspects of the Iraqi education system regarding what is taught about minority faiths in Iraqi schools. Canon Andrew White told me last week that children in his church are being abused at school because they are Christian, and we know that when such prejudices are taught to the young, they can be very hard to shift. I am of course conscious of the recent media reports that some part-time schools in the UK have textbooks that inflame religious prejudice, so we should acknowledge these issues in our own country as well.
In the debate two years ago on this subject, there was discussion of the possible formation of a 19th province in the Nineveh plains, where there would be a Christian majority which would have control over the police and local militia. It is not for foreign countries to advise Iraq how to organise its internal affairs, but I hope that a major middle eastern country such as Iraq can do better than to opt for any form of segregation or ghettoisation of different faiths. I was impressed by the views of Yonadam Kanna, a prominent Member of the Iraqi Parliament, who is a Christian and was reported on the BBC as saying:
“This is our home, we have been together with Muslims for centuries, this is our destiny, and we will stay together”.
I obtained a debate on this subject two years ago because, as my hon. Friend knows, I visited Iraq and went to the tomb of Prophet Nahum. More importantly for the purposes of the present debate, I heard some heart-rending stories from mothers who had lost children and husbands. We have a responsibility in this country because, for all Saddam Hussein’s horrendous faults, there was some sort of protection for the Christian community in Iraq. We invaded Iraq and since then the situation for Christians has become deplorable, frightful and murderous. Our Government have some responsibility with respect to the 19th province to make representations and encourage the Government of Iraq to protect that ancient Christian community.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend who has gone one better than me in going to Iraq and seeing things for himself. I was able only to meet an Iraqi Minister last week, in Parliament. I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience, and thank him for his presence here and his continuing interest in the subject.
Some foreign countries, and Iraqis in exile, have called for greater provision to be made for Christians in Iraq to leave and settle overseas. Again, the view of Canon Andrew White and his congregation at St George’s, Baghdad, is that they wish
“to stay and to be safe”
where they are. That should not be too much to ask for. One issue of concern is the fact that traditionally, churches have been protected by Christian police and military personnel in Iraq. As the persecution of Christians has intensified there have been fewer Christian police and military personnel, at a time when they are most needed. The new Iraqi Government will need to examine that issue, to ensure that all minority communities can be protected, even when there are dwindling numbers of police and military personnel from the faith concerned.
An initiative that has done a lot of good in recent years in promoting tolerance and dialogue between the different faiths in Iraq is the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. It was funded by the United States but I understand that the funding has been stopped. Denmark has now agreed to continue funding the group. Parliament should pay tribute to the Government of Denmark for stepping in to provide funding for that organisation. One of the fatwas produced by the group said:
“Therefore religious and ethical duty calls us as Shia and Sunni religious leaders to announce that all killing must be stopped now whatever the reasons and the cause and the motives between Muslims. We must start reconciliation and tolerance and make them the only way to solve the conflicts between the brothers in our country.”
It goes on to urge all people of faith in Iraq
“to reject and forsake all violence, killing and provocation”
and furthermore says,
“achieving peace and living together under the rule of law is the demand on all Iraqi people and is the religious and ethical duty of everybody to abandon all violence.”
I am sure we would all say amen to that.
In the debate two years ago concern was also expressed about Christian-owned land being taken in the Kurdish north of Iraq. The then Minister of State at the Foreign Office said that he would
“endeavour to discuss it with him”—
the Kurdish regional Government Minister for extra-regional affairs—
“at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 44WH.]
It is excellent that my hon. Friend has secured the debate today. Does he agree that it was a very brave commitment by the coalition Government to maintain levels of funding for overseas aid? Does he also agree that the stated intention of helping post-conflict areas of the world to build tolerant, sustainable communities is a vital aim, and that the Government could be looking at the situation in Iraq with a view to investing resources to ensure the safety of the Christian community there and help them in their larger role of building a peaceful and sustainable Iraq?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point; I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take it back to his colleagues at the Department for International Development to see what can be done. I would be grateful to hear from him whether such conversations with his predecessor took place, and what the result of them was. It would be good to understand how the British Government intend to handle the future protection of all minorities, including that of Christians in Iraq.
We who sit in this Parliament have the immense privilege of having a voice in the mother of Parliaments. It is our duty to use our voices to speak for those who are suffering for their faith in Iraq.
Has the hon. Gentleman had any discussions with the British Council, which has done similar work in other conflict areas in promoting tolerance and trying to get a greater understanding of diversity, about what it can do in Iraq? Would he welcome that mechanism as a way in to Iraq to promote Christianity?
I am grateful for that intervention, which builds very helpfully on the point that was made earlier. I do not know the exact position of the British Council in Iraq. I raised that question with Canon Andrew White when I met him last week. I will leave the hon. Gentleman’s question on the table, as it were, and if the Minister can pick it up in his response, that would be helpful. The hon. Gentleman is right to pursue that line of argument and I am glad the Minister has heard what he had to say.
Whatever our views on the war in Iraq—there are people in this Chamber today from both sides of that debate—there is no question but that this country has an ongoing responsibility and obligation to the people of Iraq and the Christian minority within it. They need to know that they are not alone. Even though our forces on the ground have stopped fighting, we must show that we have not forgotten them and that we have a continuing obligation. I am incredibly grateful to colleagues today for supporting this debate. We have made it clear to our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq that we stand with them, and that we will continue to ask these questions of our own Government and of the international community.
In its quest to improve human rights around the world, the United Nations has produced for Governments, in relation to the suffering of their own peoples, a new doctrine of responsibility to protect. What engagement have the British Government had with the United Nations and other international organisations to undertake the hard and difficult work of reconciliation and of instilling tolerance, to ensure that these ancient peoples who have lived together in peace for many centuries can do so again, and that Christians are not forced to flee Iraq and many other parts of the middle east? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank him for his time this afternoon.
I am grateful to have this opportunity to respond to this important debate. I pay tribute to the many Members who have attended and contributed. By so doing, they have indicated and demonstrated their interest in this important matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. He raises an important issue that enables me to set out not only the Government’s policy towards the protection of Christians in Iraq but our firm position against religious persecution worldwide.
Let me start by saying that the Government utterly condemn all attacks against Iraqi citizens, including Christians and other minority communities. We were appalled at the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad on 31 October, which killed more than 50 people. The further attacks on 10 November targeted mainly Christian areas across Baghdad, killing six and wounding more than 30 people.
On 1 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), spoke to Canon Andrew White, the vicar of the Anglican church in Baghdad, St George’s, to express his sadness about the attacks on Christians and the need for all religious minorities to be resilient in the face of such violence. He also issued a statement on behalf of the Government, which I think is worth briefly quoting from. He said:
“I utterly condemn the attack against Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. My thoughts are with the families and friends of all those that have been killed or injured in this tragic event. I urge the Iraqi authorities to do all they can to bring to justice those who are responsible for this attack on innocent worshippers, and all Iraq’s politicians and diverse communities to work together to tackle the threat of violent extremism.”
That is the position of the British Government. We remain in close contact with the Iraqi Government and we are committed to doing all we can to support them where possible.
On 10 November, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the visiting Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zebari, and he specifically raised the issue of Iraqi Christians with him. Mr Zebari acknowledged that the protection of Christians was the Iraqi Government’s responsibility.
My right hon. Friend and colleague the Prime Minister also discussed the attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as the wider security situation, in a phone call to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki on 15 November, just two weeks ago. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Iraqis had the UK’s full support and in turn Mr al-Maliki expressed his concern at recent developments in his country. Mr al-Maliki said that the Iraqi Government were doing everything possible to tackle the terrorist threat and that UK support—including support for efforts to persuade Christian minority groups to remain in Iraq, which is an issue that has been raised in this debate—would be most welcome.
During a visit to the Our Lady of Salvation church on 9 November, Mr al-Maliki said his Government worked for
“justice and equality among all citizens, noting that Christians are part and parcel of a civilization all Iraqis are proud of.”
I was encouraged by the emphatic nature of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement with regard to Christians in Iraq and the part that they have to play.
I noted the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire regarding the dwindling number of Christian police and security guards in Iraq. The Iraqi police service plays a fundamental role in ensuring that Iraq has a strong rule of law that protects all Iraqis regardless of their religious affiliation. We will continue to encourage the Iraqi Government to improve the professionalism of their police and security forces.
My hon. Friend may be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is the Minister with responsibility for Iraq, visited Iraq between 22 and 25 November. On that visit, he met a number of senior Christian figures and he raised the plight of the Christian community with the Foreign Minister, the new Speaker of the Council of Representatives, and the President and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional government. The central Government in Iraq are taking responsibility for improving security for Christians, while the Kurdish leadership offered protection to Christians coming to the Kurdistan region from elsewhere in Iraq.
It is not only the appalling violence against Christians in Iraq that is of concern but the constant intimidation and encroachment that they face. I must say that a lot of the problems in northern Iraq come from the Kurdish community. I hope that the Minister, before he sits down, will say something about this “19th province”. I know that he probably cannot give a commitment one way or another, but the reason the campaign for a 19th province has arisen is that the Christian community in Iraq feels that it is the only way that it can have some sort of protection, including its own militia and its own legal system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his long-standing interest in the subject. I hope that he is reassured by the very hands-on interest that the Minister with responsibility for Iraq is taking in this matter, including, as I have said, the number of meetings that he held only a week ago in Iraq to discuss it specifically.
The concern that the Government have about going down the track that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) suggests is that we would not wish to see Iraq divided up into provinces based on religious affiliation. We want Iraq as a whole to be a hospitable country for people of all faiths, which is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made a particular point of meeting representatives of the Kurdistan regional government when he was in Iraq a week ago—it was not with a view to segregating Iraq into different religion-based districts.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire may know that the Iraqi authorities are carrying out a thorough investigation into the attacks, which has, we believe, led to the arrest in the past few days of individuals who may be linked to attacks against Christians. The Iraqi Prime Minister has called on the armed forces and the security forces to be on maximum alert and to secure mosques, churches and other places of worship.
The Iraqi Parliament—the Council of Representatives —has also been active in calling for the Government to do more. It has formally requested the Prime Minister to issue a statement condemning the attacks and to dedicate more resources to stopping them. It has called for the increased recruitment of Christians into the Iraqi security forces. A parliamentary committee, under the leadership of a Christian MP, has been set up to address the official reaction to the attacks. The British Government regard all those as promising steps in the right direction.
I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to urge the Iraqi Government to protect all communities, especially vulnerable minority groups, and to prosecute those who are found responsible for any acts of violence and intimidation that are carried out against people because of their political, ethnic or religious affiliation. As my hon. Friend will know, the UK has also discussed the current security situation in Iraq with EU partners, including at the Foreign Affairs Council on 22 November.
We are encouraged by responses from the Iraqi authorities suggesting that they take this matter very seriously, and we are pleased to see the renewed commitment to protecting all Iraqi citizens, including Christians. Prime Minister al-Maliki has said that his Government are ready to take whatever measures are viewed as necessary by Christian leaders
“to assure all citizens in general and the Christians of Iraq in particular so that everyone enjoys stability and safety”.
Some Members attending the debate may feel that it is one thing to express those good intentions, but another to deliver on them, and I accept that. However, the fact that they have been expressed in such emphatic terms is an encouraging development. I also hope that I have been able to indicate to those attending the debate that concrete actions are being taken, and we will continue to try to ensure that they go as far as possible and lead to desirable consequences.
We are aware of requests made by the Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Mrs Wijdan Salim, for support in developing some of Iraq’s counter-terrorism capabilities. Where appropriate, we will work with the Iraqi authorities to consider where our support is best applied. However, Prime Minister al-Maliki has publically committed to improving the security situation.
My hon. Friend may be aware of comments from the exiled archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church suggesting that Christians should leave Iraq. The Iraqi Christian community has made it clear that emigration is not the answer, and the British Government agree. Christians are one of Iraq’s indigenous populations, and all the religious leaders we have spoken with have reiterated that driving Christians from their homes is the goal of terrorists and not one that we should facilitate with offers of asylum.
During his recent trip to Iraq, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for the middle east, met a number of senior Iraqi Christian figures. The clear sense was of a community that was vulnerable and under threat but determined not to allow the attacks to threaten the continued existence of Christians in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki has commented that
“The countries that have welcomed the victims...of this attack”—
the attack on the Church—
“have done a noble thing, but that should not encourage emigration”.
At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the work of Canon Andrew White, who has been mentioned in the debate, and other religious leaders. We support initiatives that bring together different faith groups to promote tolerance, and I am pleased to hear that Denmark is supporting such initiatives with funding. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in paying tribute to the Danes for their commitment in that regard.
It is important to remember that Iraq has made a long-standing commitment to protect all its minorities. During the universal periodic review of Iraq carried out by the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010, the Iraqi authorities revealed that minorities, including Christians, had been subjected to grave violations at the hands of terrorist groups and militias. The Iraqi Government made a commitment to support the rights and freedoms of all minorities, in keeping with the guarantees set out in their constitution, and they restated their commitment to protect religious institutions and places of worship.
I am most grateful for the support that the Government are showing on this issue. Does the Minister agree that, in some ways, the actions and words of the Iraqi Government set an example to other surrounding countries about the way that religious minorities should be treated?
I do up to a point. The level of willingness to respond to the problem, rather than to conceal it, is encouraging. We all share the concerns. There will be hon. Members who are not Christians but who nevertheless share the concerns about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. We want a country where people are free to practise their faith without interference, and we are keen to work towards that. We are encouraged that the Iraqi Government, and other senior figures within the Iraqi political environment, share that ambition. It would be extremely worrying were that not the case. There are Christians who hold prominent positions in Iraq, including, as I have said, roles in Parliament chairing a relevant committee. The fact that Christians are institutionalised in Iraq and not pushed to the fringes should encourage us. However, as other hon. Members have said, the situation remains far from desirable, and I hope that the progress is in the right direction.
The UK recognises the importance of protecting and defending the rights of religious minorities, not just in Iraq but worldwide. I will conclude the debate with a quote from the Foreign Secretary, which I hope will provide a wider context to our deliberations. During a recent speech in London on the subject of values he said,
“religious persecution is unacceptable to us at any time in any place.”
That is the position of the British Government. It applies to Christians just as much as to any other religious group, and it applies to Iraq just as to any other country. We will pursue a foreign policy in line with those objectives.
Local Government Funding
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important matter on behalf of my constituents and of SIGOMA—the special interest group of municipal authorities. There is great concern among MPs in the SIGOMA group that we are facing one of the worst spending reviews ever experienced. It is likely to have a massive impact on every part of our public services, whether in education, health or any other area. I am pleased that so many of my colleagues have attended the debate, and I will try to give way to as many of them as I can. I know they will have major concerns about the impact of the spending review on their constituencies.
I believe we are likely to see massive and devastating cuts in our communities, and that the general public have no idea about the scale of the cuts heading their way. When people see the level of cuts, they will be concerned about their implications and the way that the Government are going about them. From day one, both I and the rest of the Opposition have accepted that there must be cuts in public services. We accept that local government must play its part in reducing the deficit. However, we are concerned about the speed of those cuts, the way in which they are being implemented and the unfairness of the cuts to the SIGOMA authorities.
My constituents accept that there needs to be a reduction in public spending and that local government must play its part in the cuts, but they have every reason to feel aggrieved that, at a time when they face massive cuts in their public services, the Government have cut tax for the bankers, who caused the problem, by £1 billion and have already turned their back on doing anything, realistically, about the massive bonuses that continue to be paid to bankers. They have now decided that they will not even publish the size of the bankers’ bonuses so that people can hold them accountable for their actions.
The least that my constituents should be able to expect is that any cuts are fair, that they protect the most deprived parts of our communities, that they take into account the unfair cuts that have already taken place, in May, and that they allow time for councils to adjust their budgets. That is one of our major concerns—that the cuts are front-loaded.
I want to ask my hon. Friend about that. The worst aspect of the cuts that people are seeing is the front-loading—the lack of time that there will be between the settlement and implementation. Does my hon. Friend think, as I do, that it is difficult to see any fairness, as was promised in the comprehensive spending review, in a situation in which some councils, in the most deprived areas, will see reductions in their budget next year of, it has been suggested, up to 25, 30 or 38%, whereas other councils, in the south, will see increases of an equal size—25 to 37%? It is hard to see how there has been fairness. The other promise in the CSR was that those parts of the country that depend on public sector jobs would not be hit the hardest. It is very hard to see those things. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can see them, because I cannot.
It is very difficult to see any fairness in the system so far. We know that more cuts are on the way. We hope that they will be introduced more fairly and will take into account the unfairness of the last set of cuts, which hit the most deprived communities.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Does he agree that this is not just a question of fairness? It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a built-in unfairness in the system. Some authorities, of which Knowsley is one, as part of the SIGOMA group of local authorities, are likely to be disproportionately affected. Does he agree that in those circumstances it is important that damping be kept in place, so that the losses we will experience can to some extent be mitigated?
We would hope, in relation to any massive cuts, that some damping would be introduced to ensure that local authorities do not face the full loss of grant, as they did under the previous Tory Government, who cut millions of pounds from local authorities overnight. The previous Labour Government, when they made changes, put in mechanisms to ensure that local authorities did not suffer in the same way as they had done with the Tory cuts. I hope that the situation will be fairer, that there will be some damping and that local authorities will have an opportunity to adjust their budgets.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for the work he has done over many years on behalf of local government. I wonder whether he is aware of a question that I raised yesterday at oral questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Along with a number of other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I raised the issue of the threat of library closures in many communities because of the cuts to local authorities. I was trying to explain to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), that the financial realities are different in different parts of the country. As my hon. Friend has said, in an area such as Barnsley, which has very low council tax receipts but high social needs, the pressures on the budget are hugely disproportionate compared with more wealthy areas in the south. The Minister replied that councils needed to show “a little imagination”, which I think demonstrates—
I do. I am pleased that the Minister here is not the Secretary of State, because it is clear from the Secretary of State’s comments that he has no idea of the implications of the cuts he is advocating. The idea that the cuts can be dealt with through efficiency savings or by councils using their imaginations as they have not done in the past is ridiculous. I point out that many of the authorities facing the biggest cuts, including my own, are the most efficient and effective already.
My council is a five-star council that provides excellent education, social services and other council services. It has kept its council tax below inflation rates for the past 10 years, and it runs an effective partnership with the voluntary and private sectors, yet it faces up to £12.7 million in cuts in 2011-12 and up to £24 million in cuts by 2014-15, on top of a previous cut of £5.6 million from the working neighbourhoods fund. We also face the potential loss of enterprise growth funds, which have helped regenerate my area; the money is spent in partnership between the private, public and voluntary sectors. Clearly, it is not inefficient councils that face the biggest problems but councils that are well run and well managed and provide good services.
As colleagues and I have said, the Government’s record on the matter is not good. So far, cuts have hit the most deprived communities the hardest. They have been front-loaded, and the cuts to the working neighbourhoods fund have hit the most deprived communities in Britain. The record so far is not good.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the councils in the south to which he refers so freely as exceptionally well funded by wealthy local populations suffer exactly the same problem as those in the north? The cuts are fair and proportionate and carry on across the country. The level of funding in many northern councils is considerably higher per capita than in the south. I understand, of course, that the level of need is higher, but does he agree that pain is being felt all over the country and that the cuts are in fact fair?
I accept that not all deprived communities are in the north. There are certainly deprived areas in the south, and they have been hit hardest as well. They have not been exempt. I do not say that there are no deprived councils in the south, because there certainly are. We need not go farther than Southwark to see major problems, as there are in many other parts of the country.
However, the tax base in most southern areas puts them in a much better position to deal with cuts than areas where the tax base is low, such as St Helens and the SIGOMA authorities. So far, the south-east has lost 13%, the south-west has lost 12% and the north-east and north-west have lost 16%. That demonstrates how unfair the cuts are. I recommend that the Minister read the SIGOMA document “All in this together”, which dispels the lie that we are in this together by showing that, and supporting the argument that, local authorities in the most deprived areas are being hit hardest.
I am sorry to interrupt again, but that goes to the heart of what I was saying. The level of subsidy per capita in Sedgefield, for example, is five to six times higher than in Hampshire county council. That means that the cuts can, to some degree, be more easily borne by those with much higher per capita funding. The proportion being removed in this element is right at the margin down in the south, and it hurts.
Before it was changed by the new Government, the system of allocating resources was based on deprivation. A number of factors were to be taken into account, and an academic research document indicated where the grant should go. Unfortunately for many authorities, the Labour Government did not introduce all those changes but left money in some of the southern areas that should have been passed to the north. The changes were not fully implemented.
We would have no problem if an academic study was undertaken on the need to spend that took account of deprivation, if that is what the Government wanted to do. However, the Government are not doing that. Instead, they are finding ways to cut budgets for the most deprived councils without an academic study, and with no research documents to back their actions. Frankly, we think they are gerrymandering the system to ensure that their councils are not hit as badly as ours.
Will my hon. Friend comment on this, as I know he is concerned about the matter and knows the information for SIGOMA authorities? My local authority of Salford is to have a 13% cut, taking only the cuts being inflicted by the Government, but the loss of the working neighbourhoods fund will take it up to a cut of 18% or 19%. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) is referring to councils that do not have unemployment problems of the sort that would need the working neighbourhoods fund—problems that the SIGOMA authorities definitely will have.
My hon. Friend is right. That funding has made a tremendous difference for some of the country’s most deprived communities. The cuts will be a massive loss to them. The Government should be ashamed. If they are going to cut, they should do so in a way that protects the most deprived communities, not doing as they are and making cuts in the most deprived areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that areas such as Nuneaton in Warwickshire were particularly underfunded under the Labour Government? He mentioned gerrymandering, but that seems to have been the case for many years when comparing the funding for shire counties such as Warwickshire with that for the Labour heartlands in the north, and particularly those in the north-east.
That argument is put forward by many councils. They say that everyone should get the same; if everyone does not get the same because deprivation is taken into account, they say that that it is unfair. The grant system took account of the ability of local councils to raise local tax and of the deprivation within their communities. The hon. Gentleman suggests that everyone should get the same, regardless of deprivation. As I said before, I would have no problem if the Government were going about the job by doing some academic work and producing a study that people could consult, taking account of existing need and deprivation. That is not happening, and the Government should be ashamed of their proposals.
The Government cuts will go so far as to hit the most deprived communities, and they are front-loaded. We have lost the neighbourhoods fund. As I said before, the south has been protected but not the north. I was saying that the Minister should read the SIGOMA document, which goes into far more detail about the unfairness of the proposed cuts. He should also read “Hard Times”, a document produced two weeks ago by the Industrial Communities Alliance. Hard times is what our communities are in for. That document shows the devastating effect that the cuts in public spending will have on our areas. Anyone who reads it could not help but understand the deprivation that will exist as a result of the cuts.
We fear that the cuts are heading our way. We could lose 33% of our grant in 2010, and a further 22% by 2011. We hope that that is not the case, but we know from what the Government have done so far that that is the likely impact. There is no way in which efficiencies can stop the wholesale closure of libraries, and we will also have fewer policemen and firemen, and fewer social workers, if that level of cuts is introduced in our communities.
On top of that, the Government have top-sliced the council block grant to pay for the freeze on council tax. That will make the situation even worse in communities such as mine, as they will be less able to provide services. Those communities will lose as much as another £500,000 of grant, which they would have received, had the grant not been top-sliced. We understand that SIGOMA authorities may face cuts of up to £44 million over the next few years.
The new homes bonus scheme, which is also hitting local authorities, is intended to provide resources to encourage new homes to be built. Again, I do not think we will do well out of that. It is not that local authorities such as St Helens and the SIGOMA authorities do not want to provide new homes; but given the devastating effect that the Government’s cuts will have in our areas, I do not think there will be much of a market for building new homes. Where we have real deprivation in our housing, we will have fewer resources with which to provide homes for our constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is absolutely right about housing, for which there is a great demand in Rochdale. Another problem with the cuts being inflicted is that local authorities are cutting the money they give to local charities that support homelessness services. Petrus community trust and the Sanctuary trust in my constituency are losing thousands of pounds as a result of the cuts, and now cannot even provide for homeless people. It is vulnerable groups in deprived communities who are feeling the effects.
Most local councils and MPs will know that the voluntary sector is very much supported by local government. It cannot exist without funding and support from local government. I worry that not only will we have cuts in council services, but the voluntary sector will be hit as a result. I fear for the safety net of services that are now provided by the voluntary sector, but which will disappear if the cuts are made.
What are we trying to get from today’s debate? We would like an assurance from the Minister that any further cuts will be fair, that more help will be given to the most deprived parts of the country, rather than less, and that any cuts will be transparent so that it can be easily understood how the Government are making the changes to ensure that those in the most deprived communities get the most support. We would like an assurance that any cuts that are introduced will take into account the cuts that are already disadvantaging us. Any future cuts we face should take into account the fact that we have lost more than anyone else.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, in which he is trying to be fair to the Government. Halton, which has one of the most outstanding councils in the country, has already had £1.2 million cut from its education budget, compared with £600,000 from Cheshire East and Cheshire West, which are more affluent boroughs. It has lost massively and disproportionately as a result of the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme and the education maintenance allowance cut, which has also hit other deprived communities. Given their track record, how can we expect the Government to be fair to deprived communities such as Halton, St Helens, Knowsley and others? The Government somehow believe that a 28% average cut will not hit the most vulnerable.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent contribution. Our concern is not just about cuts in local government services, because we have already had cuts right across the board and face even bigger cuts in welfare. As the “Hard Times” document demonstrates, many of our communities are not in a position to fight back and will go to the wall. We are throwing those communities into abject poverty, which will have serious implications for our communities and the country as a whole.
I advise the Minister, before those draconian cuts are made, to take into account all the losses of grant that are taking place. A substantial amount of money is already being taken out of the local economy, which is having an impact on the private sector in our communities. Many of the shops, retailers and suppliers already face major problems. I spoke recently to a gentleman in the construction industry who told me that all his orders have now run out and that within six months he would be laying off hundreds of workers as a consequence. The economy cannot generate itself; it needs the support of the Government. That is why all our previous policies took into account deprivation and the need to spend.
What do we want? We certainly want any changes that are made to take into account the tax base and the ability of local government to raise money. We have already seen some scandals, such as the fact that Westminster council’s ability to raise millions of pounds every year from car parking charges is just ignored and not taken into account, which allows it to provide good services at a low cost to local taxpayers. It is a scandal that that has been allowed to continue for many years. I hope that when the Minister is looking at any change, he takes into account that some very wealthy councils are in a much better position than my authority and the SIGOMA authorities to deal with the levels of cuts that we have seen.
Yesterday the Chancellor was optimistic about the recovery. So would my hon. Friend, like me, like DCLG Ministers to approach the Treasury about re-phasing the cuts to local government budgets, so that they will not be so front-loaded? That would help.
As I understand it, most—in fact, all—local authorities believe that the way the Government have front-loaded cuts is wrong and does not give them time to adjust their budgets. The Government could have switched it round and had the most severe cuts in the latter part of the period. We know why they are doing this: frankly, we are seeing all sorts of political shenanigans going on because they want to make all these draconian cuts now, so they can have some tax cuts in the run-up to the general election. That is a short-term view, given the problems that will be created. The Government’s view of the economy as a whole is very optimistic, and what we fear will happen with local council spending will shove most of our economy into recession, if not depression. There are areas around the country that may take 50 years to recover from the cuts that are on their way—places such as Barnsley and some of the north-east councils. They will have a dramatic effect for a very long time.
I hope the Minister will take those things into account when he responds. I hope he can give us some assurance that, when he makes changes, they will be fair and transparent, will take into account deprivation factors and will put resources where they are most needed; and that he will look at the tax base to ensure that those who can afford to pay a bit more council tax and can afford to receive less grant than they are receiving do not continue to receive higher levels of grant. There was a time when—and I do not think things have changed from when I was council leader many years ago—if we received the sort of income Westminster gets from grants, car parking and all the other things, we could have had no council tax at all and sent every one of our constituents on a holiday to Spain every year. That is the level of fiddle that has gone on with the system, and it needs to come to an end. Fairness needs to be put back into it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts, and a pleasure to respond to this important debate initiated by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts), to whom I am sure we are all grateful. It is an important topic. It arises at this time of year every time the local government finance settlement is coming up. Inevitably, there are debates in advance of the settlement and, understandably, hon. Members seek to get the Minister to say things about the detail of the settlement. The Minister, regardless of party, says, “You’ll have to be a bit more patient because the detail as far as it affects local authorities is set out in the settlement itself, which will be laid before the House shortly”. I say that because that is the factual position. I want to respond to some of the matters raised, but I am sure that you, Mr Betts, and hon. Members who have participated in the debate, who are well experienced in local government matters, know that I am not in a position today to set out the individual impacts of the funding settlement on particular local authorities. However, I can make it clear that the provisional settlement will be done in the usual way. It will be announced shortly, and we will provide as much information as we can to enable local authorities to set their budgets.
This debate gives us a chance to look at the overall position. It is a position that arises, first, in relation to the financial situation, but it is actually broader than that. It is unfortunate that the opportunity has not been taken to put what has to be done on local government finance in the context of the Government’s broader agenda of handing more power and flexibility to local authorities. I agree with the hon. Member for St Helens North: the fact is that we need to reduce the deficit. Reductions in spending have to be made, and local government, as a significant part of the public spend, has to play its part. That much is common ground, but we are seeking to reduce spending constructively, and there I have to part company with the hon. Gentleman.
With respect to those on the Opposition Benches who have participated in the debate, there has been almost a competition—dare I say it—to come up with the most overcooked, overheated and exaggerated language possible. Frankly, it does no justice to the seriousness of the subject. Opposition Members have chosen to adopt a regrettable approach. It will make cheap headlines in a press release, but it does not advance the argument.
The Minister must know—and if he does not, he should know—that councils in the north-west are now looking at having to make cuts of £35 million, £40 million and £50 million. If he thinks that that is fair and balanced, we will all be very upset next week. Last night, Stockport council, a Lib-Dem council, announced the cutting of 400 jobs, and the Local Government Association has suggested that the number of job cuts will be 140,000.
I have seen those figures. I have also seen the SIGOMA document, which I read with interest. I have met SIGOMA representatives and I am happy to continue to do so. I want to take the hon. Lady to task a little. She referred to the reduction in funding for the working neighbourhoods fund. Yes, absolutely right—and who decided to do that? Her Government. The Labour Government made it clear that the working neighbourhoods fund was a three-year fund due to end in March 2011. The previous Government—the Labour Government—were committed before the general election to cutting it, so I am not taking any lectures from anyone on the impacts of that.
I shall make a little progress before I give way. Neither will I take lectures from Opposition Members about the need to reduce the deficit and how we should do it. The simple fact is that, thanks to their Government’s policies, about which I have not heard a word of apology, we are paying £120 million a day just to pay off the interest on their debts. That money is lost for ever to council services on the front line. If we carried on down the Opposition’s route, the pressure on local authorities would be all the greater because we would be paying up to about £100 million more by the end of the Parliament in debt interest. I am not taking lectures from the Labour party about our attempting to balance the nation’s book, when it is its prodigality that has placed local authorities under such pressure.
The Minister must get off the rant that we hear regularly from the Front Bench. There has been a world recession caused not by the Government, but by banks. At a time when the general public face such draconian cuts, they want to know why the Government have given the bankers a £1 billion tax cut, refuse to act on the bonuses and are now refusing to publish the size of the bonuses that bankers are receiving. The real enemy is not the previous Labour Government. They were faced with a meltdown of financial systems in this country and throughout the world, so it is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to blame the financial crisis on that Government. As he knows, the crisis is worldwide and it is one that has been caused by the bankers, not the Government.
That is as discredited an alibi as we hear nowadays, but I credit the hon. Gentleman for his loyalty in still trotting it out.
Council tax payers throughout the country know that their council tax doubled during the 13 years or so of the Labour Government. That was not anything to do with the world crisis. It was to do with mismanagement of the economy and, ironically, the sometimes perverse workings of the system of local government finance which that Government put in place.
We are certainly seeing a lot of synthetic rage from Opposition Members. Does my hon. Friend agree that, under the previous Labour Government—and had they formed this Government—local authorities such as Nuneaton and Bedworth and Warwickshire were looking at 20% cuts in Government funding?
That is entirely right, which is why the rage is synthetic, and why I hope that hon. Members, including Opposition Members, will welcome £650 million of additional money that the Government have put in to support the council tax freeze and which will be embedded in the base budgets of those authorities. I hope that they recognise the steps that we have taken specifically to protect services for the most vulnerable, such as £1 billion of grant funding for social care by 2014-15 within the £2.4 billion that we have rolled into formula grant. By rolling more money into formula grant, we give local authorities more flexibility to reflect their own priorities and demands.
I shall make a little more progress. An extra £1 billion of extra funding has gone in through the NHS budget to break down the barriers between health and social care. As I said, we are fully funding the council tax freeze and embedding it into the base. We will make £200 million of capitalisation available in 2011-12 to deal with restructuring costs. Those are positive things.
It being Two o’clock, the sitting was adjourned without Question put.