Wednesday 18 April 2012
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
Mental Health Care (Hampshire)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(James Duddridge.)
Last November, I secured a short Adjournment debate entitled, “Woodhaven Hospital”, the subject matter of which ranged far more widely than the future of that state-of-the-art mental health unit, which was opened in New Forest East only eight years earlier. At issue was the vital question of how many acute beds should continue to be provided by the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which covers most of Hampshire.
The trust was proposing a 35% reduction in acute mental health beds for adults, from 165 to only 107, 10 of which would go from Antelope House, Southampton, 24 from the Meadows in Fareham and 24 from Windsor ward at Woodhaven in my constituency, with this last unit being reused as a low secure unit for much longer-term detained patients. No one disputes that some beds will always be needed for people in crisis, and everyone welcomes the use of new mental health therapies to reduce the number of admissions and enable people to go home earlier. The argument is purely about how many beds are required and whether the trust has shown adequate statistical rigour.
The trust’s consultation document seemed to be designed to persuade the public that bed numbers were much higher and length of stay much longer in Hampshire than the national average, when that was not the case. Two other matters also caused particular concern. First, about half the acute in-patients at any one time had been detained or sectioned under mental heath legislation, so most detained patients would still need beds in the future. It seemed obvious therefore that the proportion of beds allocated to such patients would rise from about half to some two thirds or even three quarters if there were a 35% reduction. Yet, when I said on the BBC’s “South Today” programme that people’s best chance for future admission would be to get themselves sectioned, the chief executive of the trust, Katrina Percy, sent a letter to Ministers, councillors and Hampshire MPs denouncing such comments as “unfounded” and “scaremongering” and with
“no place in the 21st century”.
The trust feared the broadcast because it also demonstrated my second contention, which is that people were being misled about the number of unused acute beds out of the 165. As was explained in the previous debate, at 4 pm every day a bed states report is issued, showing the total number of beds available in each acute adult mental health unit. The figures are broken down into four important categories: male beds, female beds, vacant beds and leave beds. Male and female beds are obviously not interchangeable, except in the minority of cases where the configuration of a ward allows a bed to be used for either gender. Leave beds are those whose patients are away for a few nights, and beds empty for longer periods are rightly regarded as vacant and genuinely empty. Despite what the trust says, one cannot rely on admitting the same number of new patients as there are leave beds because people come back after two or three nights to reclaim such beds.
The trust hates my use of these 4 pm daily snapshots of bed occupancy, yet what is its alternative? It issues simplistic graphs, which plot three elementary tracks. The top line shows the number of beds in the system; the middle one shows the number currently in commission in case some have had to be closed; and the bottom one, which fluctuates widely, shows the number of patients in beds on each day. The picture presented by the graphs seems reassuring, because there is always a visible gap between the number of patients in beds and the number of beds in commission, but they do not distinguish between the different categories of unfilled beds. The graphs assume that all the beds are interchangeable regardless of gender and that they are all available for admitting new patients, when many are leave beds, which are, by definition, never empty for long.
In last November’s debate, I pointed out that between 21 September and 6 October 2011 the combined total of vacant and leave beds had varied from just three to just 11 out of the 165 in the system and that over the three months from August to October, even if all the leave beds had been counted as fully available for new admissions, bed occupancy was still at almost 92%. One must have huge confidence in the ability of the trust’s proposed alternative—virtual wards at home for acutely ill people—to think that a 35% reduction in beds will be safe and sustainable. In the previous debate, I said that it was
“distinctly probable that the overview and scrutiny committee of Hampshire county council may decide to refer this matter to the Secretary of State.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 552.]
That health overview and scrutiny committee—HOSC—can do that if it is sufficiently concerned about proposed changes in NHS arrangements.
I was a little perturbed to hear that HOSC’s relatively new chairman, Councillor Pat West, apparently said that I had my figures wrong. Before Christmas, I made contact with Mrs West, who took the trouble to meet me at the home of my caseworker, Councillor Diana Brooks, who is the health portfolio holder on the district council in the New Forest. The HOSC chairman went though some of my data, and forcefully explained her poor opinion of the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust and one of its most senior administrators. She even hinted that there was a question mark over the suitability of the trust to continue with its contracts and said that the future of the acute mental health beds was just part of a bigger picture. She also added that the HOSC had considered referral to the Secretary of State but felt that that was premature at present and that matters would be considered further at the next HOSC meeting on 24 January. Encouraged, I put the date in my diary.
Meanwhile, the trust’s chief executive, Katrina Percy, had responded to my November debate, and that led me to prepare a full analysis of the deficiencies so far discovered in the trust’s information. My memorandum, entitled “Unreliable Statistics”, was sent to my right hon. Friend the Minister, Miss Percy and the HOSC chairman on 11 January. My covering letter to Pat West stated:
“I hope the HOSC will consider the contents presently”.
With the HOSC meeting drawing near, I asked my parliamentary assistant, Colin Smith, to ring Councillor West to ask about my addressing her committee, perhaps with a delegation. She was adamant that there was no need for me to go to the 24 January meeting. She said that it would be “counter-productive” and that she would much rather keep me “in reserve” for later. Having no reason to doubt the advice, I followed it. My feelings can be imagined, therefore, when the day after the meeting I discovered that the HOSC had fully endorsed the bed closure plan and would not be considering it again until July, by which time all 58 beds would have closed.
I immediately telephoned the leader of Hampshire county council and expressed my incredulity that an elected councillor from my own party could have misled me so blatantly. Subsequently, the HOSC chairman spoke further with my office. She still insisted that my attendance would have been counter-productive. I am at a loss to know how the meeting could have been more counter-productive. Could her committee have voted to close all 58 beds twice over?
Suspecting that my paper on bed statistics had been suppressed rather than circulated, I sent it directly to all HOSC members and set out the circumstances in which their chairman had dissuaded me from attending. In case anyone thinks that I am relying on parliamentary privilege, this is what I wrote without it:
“She gave no inkling that there was the slightest chance of a decision to close the beds being taken at that meeting. I was, therefore, amazed and dismayed to learn (from a local press report) that that is precisely what happened. I feel totally misled and let down on behalf of some of my most vulnerable constituents... In almost 15 years as a Hampshire MP, I have never received treatment like this from an elected colleague in my own party, and I am deeply shocked by it.”
When the row broke in the local press, Councillor West refused to comment to the Southern Daily Echo, saying that she
“did not want to get into a slanging match with the MP in the media”.
However, on 3 February, she replied to my original letter of 11 January covering my memo to the HOSC and to my later letter to committee members:
“I am sorry that you could not attend the 24 January meeting”,
she wrote, without a trace of irony, adding that the agenda and papers for the meeting had been on the council’s website and would have shown me that the HOSC
“would be considering recommendations which related to the closure of beds”.
Apparently, I had only myself to blame for not distrusting her enough to ferret around on websites to check that I was not being misled.
The minutes of the meeting and the resulting press coverage revealed that two factors had featured prominently in the HOSC deliberations. The first was a statement by the trust’s clinical director, Dr Lesley Stevens:
“With regard to the data on bed demand, it was highlighted that between 20 and 30 beds had been vacant consistently over the past three months, and that this trend coincided with the introduction of new community services.”
That is precisely the sort of claim that I had intended to challenge.
On the very day of that meeting on 24 January, the trust’s own figures showed clearly that there were no vacant male or female beds, no leave male beds and just six leave female beds in the entire system, giving a grand total of six unoccupied beds. In November and December 2011, there had certainly been an unusual rise in the number of empty beds, in stark contrast to the previous month, October, when on 17 days the total number of male and female vacant and leave beds had been in the single figures, not 20 to 30.
Indeed, on 10 October, there had been no vacant male beds, no vacant female beds and just one male and one female leave bed in the entire directorate. Still, if overall totals of empty beds in January had continued at November and December’s high levels, I would have ended my campaign to prevent the closures. However, that did not happen. For example, on at least 14 days in January, there were no vacant male beds, and on at least 10 days, there were no vacant and no leave male beds, so no beds for men at all.
Later, I wrote to the local press about Dr Stevens’s claim to the HOSC that there had been 20 to 30 vacant beds consistently in the past three months. I pointed out in my letter that actually only a handful of beds had been empty when she claimed consistent totals of 20 to 30 unoccupied, and I noted:
“It is true that during November and possibly December”—
I did not have the full figures for December at that time—
“there was a sudden surge in available beds totals. Yet my continuing investigations have shown this to have slipped back since Christmas—and this would have been known to the trust’s representatives when they made their presentation to HOSC.”
Although my letter was published in at least three local papers, including the Southern Daily Echo, in which Dr Stevens had aired her views, as far as I can tell, she did not respond in any of them.
To deal with any suggestion that the trust’s new programme of intensive day therapies had been responsible for the temporary glut of beds in November and December, I asked senior trust members at a routine meeting on 3 February whether the new therapies and arrangements begun in 2011 were still in place. Dr Shanaya Rathod from the trust confirmed that they were. Therefore, the rapid decline in empty bed totals in January cannot be explained away by suggesting that the trust had stopped doing whatever it claimed was responsible for the temporary surge in beds during the last two months of 2011.
The second major factor that influenced the HOSC on 24 January was also set out in the minutes of the meeting:
“It was reported that the Centre for Mental Health had independently reviewed the evidence for the changes the trust was proposing and concluded they were necessary to meet the challenges the trust faced. The trust offered to provide the full report to HOSC members when available.”
On 27 January, I met the trust’s chief executive, Katrina Percy, and was given that document. In fact, it consisted of two separate reports. The first, from the Centre for Mental Health, supported what are termed recovery-oriented services, which the Government are rightly keen on, but did not analyse bed numbers. The second report was by Steve Appleton of Contact Consulting. Less than one page of his report dealt with Southern Health acute bed data, but every reference was footnoted to a single source, which was not attached—a third report called “Inpatient Capacity” drawn up by a third organisation, Consilium Strategy Consulting.
I recall the important debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) on 19 December last year. With my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), local consultants and the press, he had been battling similar techniques designed to justify closing acute beds at the Margaret Stanhope Centre in his constituency. Those techniques had also relied on an appeal to external authority and an “independent” report by Staffordshire university, which turned out to have been produced by someone on the payroll of the local trust.
Wondering whether something similar had happened in Hampshire, I contacted the Centre for Mental Health, formerly the Sainsbury Centre, which I knew enjoyed a deservedly high reputation. Its chief executive, Professor Sean Duggan, met me on 23 February, and later confirmed in a letter:
“The scope of the centre’s work did not include an examination of the number, type or location of beds that would be needed now or in future. A separate analysis, by Contact Consulting, looked at bed numbers...[The] Centre for Mental Health is an independent charity and as such we would not seek to endorse or condemn specific local decisions about reconfiguring inpatient mental health services.”
Yet, as we have already seen, the second report by Contact Consulting depended on a third report by Consilium Strategy Consulting that had not been made available.
I wrote to Katrina Percy on 28 February, pointing out that
“the so-called independent report that you handed me involved no examination primary source data whatsoever, but simply relied upon a third document—a report by Consilium—which it described as having been produced when the Trust ‘conducted its own benchmarking process’.”
I asked for a copy of the Consilium report; for a statement of the status of Consilium, in particular of how independent it is, if it all, from the trust; and for its contact details. Miss Percy replied on 9 March:
“I would just clarify that the content and status of the Consilium report, as mentioned in your letter to me, is commercially sensitive and is therefore not available to share publicly. However, should it be required, I would be pleased to provide you with the contact details of the consultant involved so that you may contact them directly.”
Despite two phone calls from my office to hers, and a further letter from me, the trust’s chief executive has yet to supply even the contact details of the Consilium consultant.
Although reluctant to reveal data that ought to be available, Southern Health resents criticism of its slippery methods. Yet how else can one describe the activities of an organisation that seeks to discredit, as it does, a public petition with more than 1,000 signatures against the closure of Woodhaven’s 24 acute beds by claiming that
“a number of people contacted the Trust and told us variously that they either did not know anything about the petition, could not recall signing the petition, suggested a friend or neighbour may have signed it on their behalf without their knowledge or consent… I am sure you would also acknowledge that the petition only has limited value in terms of a valid indicator of people’s views”?
If the trust had pointed out that I have some 70,000 adult constituents and that a petition, quickly compiled, represented only a fraction of them, that would have been fair enough. Sadly, it preferred to use a few anomalies to discount the views of 1,000 people and to cast doubt on the integrity of the petition’s organisers.
On Monday 5 March, the trust’s clinical director Lesley Stevens was interviewed for “South Today”, whose chief reporter—in fact, political editor—Peter Henley, challenged her claims about empty beds, given the figures in January’s bed status report. She insisted that there was no shortage of acute beds, yet the very next day the trust sent an e-mail to its consultants, stating:
“There are currently no unassigned acute beds in the Directorate. Can CRHT”—
the crisis resolution and home treatment teams—
“and the acute wards ensure that all clients are reviewed for leave or early discharge as a matter of urgency, please?”
I was also interviewed for the “South Today” report, which was broadcast on 13 March and said that that e-mail had given the game away completely. In-patients were already being reviewed for early discharge at a time when only 18 of the 58 beds scheduled for closure had actually gone. I said then, and I repeat now, that the trust’s policy of closing so many beds on the basis of bogus claims about surplus beds is inhumane.
As a result of the row over the January HOSC meeting, I was invited to take a deputation to the next one on 27 March. Although it was late in the day, a chance had been created to persuade the committee to at least pause the closure programme once the 34 beds at Antelope house and the Meadows had gone. We could then see whether the trust could cope with so many losses before starting to close the 24 Woodhaven beds as well. That had consistently been urged by Councillor Keith Mans, a governor of the trust and a former Member who was once a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Secretary of State for Health. We believe that closures on this scale must be trialled properly and in stages before full implementation.
At the March meeting, I distributed tables showing how wrong it had been to claim that 20 to 30 beds were still empty when the January vote was held. I was given 10 minutes to state my case, which was a relief, because right up to the start of the meeting the chairman, Councillor Pat West, had told me that three out of the five of us would have to share 10 minutes between us. Mary Bryant, who was one of my deputations, spoke movingly of the burden on carers that the loss of the beds would impose; Councillor Sally Arnold gave the results of a survey of parish councils that had not been properly consulted; and Mrs Jane Barnicoat-Chongwe, a nurse practitioner on the acute ward at Woodhaven who had contacted me, expressed professional concern about the trust’s proposals. I put on the record now that at no time has she given me any data whatsoever or any documents from the trust.
Our fifth spokesman was Andrew Evans, a service user who for decades has relied on periodic admission to acute units. With extraordinary eloquence, Andrew explained not only the pressure on his parents, who are his carers, if he stays at home when in an acute crisis phase, but how the loss of the en-suite facilities at Woodhaven—remember that the unit is only eight years old—which are not available in some of the other units, will have a traumatic effect on in-patients’ dignity in future. The HOSC and the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of his presentation.
Thereafter, none of us could contribute further to the discussion, and I watched in frustration as Dr Stevens blandly maintained that the bed closures at Antelope house and the Meadows, which, of course, had only started after 24 January, had absorbed the 20 to 30 beds, which, in the face of all the evidence, she still claimed to have been empty up to that January meeting. She then mistook the e-mail of 6 March—which said that the system was full and that early discharges were needed, and which had been shown on the “South Today” programme—for another one, sent three days later. She explained how such communications were so normal and so routine that she would be concerned if she were not receiving them. I have since checked with sources at the trust, who have told me that no such e-mails had been sent for months before 6 March.
When questioned by HOSC member Councillor John Wall about the lumping together of male and female empty beds as if more than a fraction of them were interchangeable, Dr Stevens told the committee that a female could be allocated an empty male bed, for example, as long as “one-to-one observation” by a member of staff was maintained. So much for our long years of campaigning to eliminate mixed-sex wards in NHS hospitals.
Once the trust had finished its long presentation, the chairman put a motion to the vote that reflected the case made by Keith Mans and others, including me, that there should be a pause before the closure of the Woodhaven beds began, while an independent panel would seek to resolve the disputed figures about bed occupancy. To our delight, it was carried nem. con., at which point Dr Stevens interrupted the proceedings, which was out of order, because the trust’s presentation had ended. If there were any delays, she exclaimed, the Woodhaven staff would be so unsettled that many would leave, the unit would close and it would not reopen at all—even in its new role, I presume she meant. To my utter astonishment, the first vote was then ignored, as though it had never happened, and replaced by a much weaker proposal that a small panel of committee members and key stakeholders would examine the issues urgently and seek to resolve them without any delay to the closure of Woodhaven’s beds.
Given that the only reason any of this was happening was because of the data I had unearthed and my exclusion in January—remember that originally the matter was not supposed to have been considered again by the HOSC until July—hon. Members might think that I should be a part of the process if it is meant to be more than a charade. Not a bit of it. This little panel will go on its merry way looking at points previously raised in writing by me and others. If it cannot resolve any of those points, according to its terms of reference,
“this will be handled as a matter of urgency through the chairman communicating to the trust”
on behalf of the health overview and scrutiny committee. So our arguments and objections will be safe in the hands of Councillor Pat West and Katrina Percy, supported, no doubt, by the zealous Dr Stevens.
What then should Ministers do? At a meeting with Keith Mans and me on 26 March following an earlier exchange at Prime Minister’s questions, the Minister here today explained that Ministers cannot intervene to pause the process or have an audit carried out unless the HOSC refers the matter to the Secretary of State; but he did confirm that such a referral could still be made. Ministers’ hands are not completely tied, nor should they be given the deplorable tale I have set out today. If a Minister were to say that to restore a degree of public confidence he would welcome a referral to the Secretary of State, and if he were to invite and encourage such a referral to be made, it would be surprising if the committee rebuffed such an expression of concern. If he is unwilling to do so immediately—I quite understand if that is the case, although I would love it if he did—I expect Ministers to consider doing so later, when reflecting on my narrative.
It would be easy to summarise this story as that of a trust that could not be trusted with its own statistics and of a committee chairman who deceived an MP about a vital meeting. However, what it is really about is carers such as Mary Bryant, nurses such as Jane Barnicoat-Chongwe and, above all, service users such as Andrew Evans. It costs nothing to applaud such people, but applause will not help them. What they need is a Minister to grip this situation and send an unmistakable message to the scrutiny committee that he stands ready and willing to bring in the Independent Reconfiguration Panel on referral of the matter to the Secretary of State.
I pay tribute to my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), not only for the outstanding work he has done to highlight this important issue, which is of grave concern to his constituents and to many residents of southern Hampshire, but for his tireless work to analyse bed availability within the Southern Health trust area. From what he has told us this morning, there can be little doubt that the work done to analyse and challenge the statistics of bed usage, including the somewhat confusing question of what is an available bed and what is simply a leave bed, has taken a great deal of time.
What many of my constituents and other local residents want is to make sure that the outcome of the process is correct for local users of adult mental health services. As my hon. Friend has correctly indentified, this is not an argument about the philosophy of how best to care for those in need. There will always be a need for acute in-patient beds, although we certainly believe there is potential to improve arrangements and thus avoid in-patient admission for those who can be successfully and safely treated in the community. However, what has not been clarified throughout this process is the number of beds that there are in the system and the number of beds that are needed. My hon. Friend has certainly done sterling work over the past few months analysing bed usage, and I do not intend to repeat any of those statistics—we have heard in great detail what may or may not be available. Suffice it to say that, in the past six months, there have been many occasions when there have been no vacant beds across the service.
On top of that, there are many valid questions from service users in my constituency about the choices made about which beds should remain available in the locality. At the start of the year, I attended a meeting organised and hosted by my hon. Friend to learn more about the concerns of local service users and to hear at first hand how important the provision at Woodhaven is to local people, their families and their carers. Given the location of Woodhaven and the distribution of mental health beds across Hampshire, it is inevitable that this closure will impact on not only the constituents of my good Friend, but those of several Members across southern Hampshire. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) has indicated, mental health problems are no respecter of, and trust boundaries are not contiguous with, constituency boundaries.
Of course, when discussing reconfiguration of health services, frequently the focus is on location, and service users will emphasise the distance of travel to get to a facility, the availability of public transport and how convenient it is for loved ones to come and visit. Interestingly, when discussing Woodhaven, that was not the message I received from service users or their families. Indeed, if we were to analyse the journey times and the ease of access, it is possible to argue that, for the vast majority of my constituents, Woodhaven is simply not as accessible as alternative provision at Melbury Lodge in Winchester. Woodhaven is a great deal further away for many people, and the public transport links are much poorer.
However, location has simply not been the focus for any of my constituents who have had experience of either Woodhaven or Melbury Lodge, or indeed both. Far from emphasising convenience, my constituents’ concern has been regarding the quality of provision. The questions they have posed have been eminently sensible. Why is it proposed to deprive acutely ill patients of the benefit of 24 modern en-suite beds that were opened only eight years ago? Why would the trust choose to keep the facility that is not as good, that does not afford the same level of privacy and dignity and that has no en-suite facilities at all? I would like to highlight the comments made to me by just two constituents who have contacted me. The first wrote:
“My wife has been an inpatient at both Woodhaven and Melbury Lodge. Melbury Lodge isn’t anywhere near the standard of Woodhaven. Woodhaven is very pleasant, with a lovely atmosphere. Melbury Lodge by comparison is very intimidating with a lock down high security approach. This may be appropriate for some of their patients but for the majority it’s just scary.”
The second constituent provided me with a very detailed account of his mental health issues, a suicide attempt in 2008, and his own stay at Woodhaven under section. He wrote:
“Having been an inpatient at Woodhaven I would emphasise the privacy. Having a breakdown surrounded by others who do not respect your privacy is very difficult. When I was in acute crisis I desperately needed short term care and support, it would be a disaster for local service users if those high quality short term beds were lost in favour of a less good facility, or worst case scenario, no bed at all.”
I pay tribute to one of my hon. Friend’s constituents, who made a lasting impression on me at the meeting mentioned earlier. He had been an in-patient under section at both Melbury Lodge and Woodhaven and, again, it was the privacy aspect he emphasised. While an in-patient at Woodhaven, he felt he had retained his dignity by being able to have his own bathroom. That clearly made an enormous difference to him personally, and I think we can safely draw the conclusion that a feeling of having some personal space and privacy can greatly improve the overall sense of well-being and aid the chances of a swifter recovery.
I have absolutely no doubt that the facility at Woodhaven is of an extremely high standard; we know that from the comments made by consultant psychiatrists. We know that the demand for short-term acute beds is high, and that one in four of the population suffers from some level of mental health problems at one time or other during their life. We also know that the NHS trust’s figures on bed usage and length of stay at the unit have been called into question. Is now the right time to press ahead with a closure, or is it timely to call a pause to the process until such time as the disputed statistics have been independently analysed?
I will speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). We have joined together on many occasions to campaign on the provision of acute mental health facilities, and today I shall express my concerns about how these processes are being undertaken by primary care trusts across the country. If anybody wants to see why the health care reforms that the Minister has fought so valiantly to introduce are needed, PCTs’ actions and decisions to close mental health facilities are the perfect example and demonstrate how they are out of touch, need reform and need to change.
Sadly, three weeks ago South Staffordshire PCT took the decision to close Margaret Stanhope Centre, a unit of 18 acute mental health beds in my constituency. It took that decision not only in the face of huge opposition from local people—8,200 people signed a petition as part of a campaign run by my local newspaper the Burton Mail and the Friends of Margaret Stanhope campaign group—but in the face of the evidence. I am a new Member of Parliament, elected for the first time at the last general election, and I had always assumed that such decisions were based on fact and on evidence—that the PCTs that took such important and often life-threatening decisions would be able to stand up to defend their decisions by proving their case. However, in the closure of the Margaret Stanhope Centre the PCT acted irresponsibly, recklessly and had no factual evidence to back up its decisions.
We conducted some research and found an Audit Commission report: 46 PCTs across the country had taken part in a benchmarking exercise, and the report showed that the average provision of acute mental health beds in those 46 PCTs was 27.5 beds per 100,000. In my trust, however, provision was 14.5 beds—almost half that average. The PCT then prayed in aid the following report, produced during the consultation process. It claimed that, miraculously, its provision had shot up to 31 per 100,000, and that there was nothing to fear.
I tried to get the facts. I tried to get the information. I asked and I asked and I asked for independent data. When the data came, they showed that the PCT had got its figure wrong: provision was not 31 beds per 100,000, but 22. However, when analysing the raw data, the PCT had included such things as mother and baby post-natal depression beds, beds for eating disorders, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, so actually the figure for provision came out at 13.2. The PCT then prayed in aid an independent report that it had commissioned from Staffordshire university. We asked for that report. When we received it—it took two and a half months to come—we found that the person who had conducted the independent report, Dr Eleanor Bradley, was being paid not only by Staffordshire university, but by the NHS trust. The independent report that it claimed demonstrated how safe it was to close the Margaret Stanhope Centre was actually conducted by somebody on its payroll.
One claim made in the report was that the PCT had been able, through a pilot scheme, to reduce the in-patient stay by a third, but when we managed to drag the report out from the PCT, we discovered a number of things. First, we discovered that for stays in Margaret Stanhope of more than 91 days, it had managed to reduce average stays beyond 91 days by more than a third, from 39 days to 23—a reduction of 41%. However, the vast majority of admissions—88%—were between two and 90 days, and there the reduction was just 1.1%. The PCT claimed to have reduced in-patient stay by a third, but had actually reduced it by just 1.1%. I could go on about how flawed was the evidence used by my PCT to justify the closing of a much loved and much valued unit that serves the most vulnerable in my community. The process began some four years ago, so this is not a party political point, but a point about the actions of the PCT.
We met three weeks ago to discuss the passionate campaign for the continued existence of the unit. The process used to make that decision—
Order. May I draw the hon. Member’s attention to the fact that we are having a debate on the closure of acute adult mental health beds in Hampshire? I am sure that he is building his case from his experience, but it must be linked directly with the situation in Hampshire.
Forgive me, Dr McCrea. I will do exactly that and draw my speech to a close.
What I have seen is that the processes are flawed. What I have seen is that PCTs cannot be trusted to make the decision in Staffordshire and they cannot be trusted to make the decision in Hampshire. It is essential that we reassure the most vulnerable in our communities and in society. It is essential that the Minister understands their concerns properly and reassures himself that the decisions being made in Hampshire, and the decisions made in Staffordshire, are correct and are based on fact and evidence. I urge the Minister to train his laser-like vision on this important issue and to reassure himself, so that he, we and our constituents can be confident that mental health provision in Hampshire and in the rest of the country is not being jeopardised by false decisions made by people who are unaccountable, unelected and are not making those decisions in the best interests of our constituents.
I commend the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for securing the debate. Health matters are devolved in Northern Ireland and I do not have a direct input into them, but I do have compassion for those who are less well off and that is why I am here as an MP. I want to try to change lives for the better. I recognise the issues that affect the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He outlined clearly where the process works and where it has not worked, which is what we are debating today. As MPs, we look at the grand scheme of politics—we are all drawn to do that—but today I want to support the hon. Gentleman on the issue specific to his constituency and give an example from my area to illustrate the importance of acute mental bed provision.
As we all know, acute mental health bed provision is vital. Those who use it do so because they have to. The reason such provision is made is to ensure that they receive all the care they need in the best place for that care to be given. The hon. Gentleman outlined how and why the 56 acute mental health beds in his area were removed. That that should happen without full and open consultation with the MP who represents the area or with the many people who are affected greatly by the removal is nothing short of scandalous.
In my constituency, I am aware of the care that is needed for those with acute mental health problems. As you will know, Dr McCrea, the Bamford review raised awareness of mental health issues in Northern Ireland and the importance of having provision for them. It stated that nothing should happen until all the parts were in place, and that if something was to be removed there had to be something else there to take its place. The Bamford review was very important for Northern Ireland.
It has been suggested what the bed closures will mean. According to the background information, if someone is not in hospital, they will be at home. If so, has provision been made for them? The hon. Gentleman described how the system worked and how the consultation process did not involve everyone. Perhaps it did not look fully—it should have done—at how those at home, receiving care in the community, will be affected. Is that care of sufficient value and weight to fit the gap that has opened because of bed closures? I do not know whether it is or not, but back home, when there were changes, we also had to ensure that there was provision for care at home. That is important for those with acute mental health issues. I am not sure, from what I have heard so far, that that has been done in the case the hon. Gentleman has raised. I hope that the Minister can give us some idea of how that will work out.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) mentioned another problem. Sometimes, Members of Parliament think that they represent problems specific to their constituency, but they are not really, because all hon. Members represent people similarly and similar problems occur in Hampshire, Dorset, Scotland, Wales and in my constituency of Strangford in Northern Ireland. Last year, after changes were made, one of my constituents affected by mental health issues would have had to travel some 40 to 50 miles on a bus, because there was no car provision. To illustrate the point, we got on the bus and did the whole journey together, me and her, to the destination. There and back, the journey took seven hours and cost £39.40, not to mention the annoyance, hassle and problems that occurred. Whenever people talk about removing beds, they have to consider what happens outside that, including the effect on provision of care packages at home and on the families, and how they get from their home to the hospital whenever a person needs care. I am not sure that, when decisions are taken, people understand that families are also involved. It is not just about the person with the acute mental health problems, but about the families as well. When a stone is thrown into the water and it hits the centre, the ripples spread out: the centre is the person with the acute mental health needs, but the ripples spread out to the family, the community and everywhere else.
The hon. Member for New Forest East mentioned a petition with 1,000 names. I do not agree with Councillor Pat West, who commented that 1,000 names is only a small portion. A thousand names on a petition is a very great number and, I believe, represents a large part of the community.
For the sake of fairness, let me say that it was the chief executive of the NHS trust, Miss Percy, who sought to dismiss the petition in that way. The trust said that it had tried to validate it and said that a number of people professed not to know about having signed it. How big or small that number was, I have yet to discover.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. The name stands corrected in Hansard for us all, including me. I still say that 1,000 names can never be ignored. Ignore them at your peril, because those 1,000 people have families and so on, and the numbers are important.
The loss of beds puts pressure on a great many people. The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) spoke about the practicalities. It is important that we consider those, because before anything is done, people have to look at their effect further on. From what I have heard today, it is clear that this process has not been truthfully, honestly and fairly carried out.
To illustrate my point further and give examples, back home there has been pressure on mental health and acute mental health beds. I have pressed in this regard, as have other hon. Members—you have been involved as well, Dr McCrea, and the end result is a new 30-bed unit in Templepatrick, in your constituency. That is a £10 million to £15 million project undertaken in partnership with the health service, private enterprise and private monies as well. The unit is for acute mental health issues. I have become aware of some mental health issues over the years. People who have anorexia and bulimia have acute mental health issues to address; they feel that, no matter how thin they are, they are not thin enough. The 30-bed unit in your constituency, Dr McCrea, is there because of the vision of some of those in private enterprise, and individuals, who have worked with the Minister, Edwin Poots, to ensure provision.
I commend the hon. Member for New Forest East for bringing this matter to the House. Any closure or removal of mental health beds impacts not only on those who need them, but on families who have to live with their family members’ trauma and, wider afield, on the whole community, which also shoulders the burden. I look forward to the Minister’s response, which I am sure will be full and helpful. Again, I hope that we will get the answer that the hon. Member for New Forest East needs, confirming the retention of the beds, because that is the best way forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as always, Dr McCrea, and to contribute to this important debate. I commend the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for ensuring that this issue is raised in Parliament and for the comprehensive, forceful and eloquent case that he and his colleague, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), made for protecting services in Hampshire. After contributions from his colleague from the not-quite-neighbouring county of Staffordshire, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), and from Northern Ireland—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—we are indeed a United Kingdom in making the case for adult acute mental health care beds.
Given the huge changes that are going on in the NHS, it is important that we do not forget those who are genuinely most in need. Mental health services and mental health provision have often been referred to as the Cinderella service. It is crucial that the provisions for those with mental health needs do not slip down the gaps in health care provision.
The hon. Member for New Forest East forcefully raised local concerns about the plans of the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, and he is right to do so. This debate is important, because statistically one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime—an example of how we live our lives in the 21st century. Mental ill health will soon be the biggest burden on society, both economically and sociologically, costing some £105 billion a year. The World Health Organisation predicts that, by 2030, more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem.
The previous Labour Government made important progress on mental health, with the national service framework early on and the improving access to psychological therapies programme towards the end. But we must also look to the wider challenges of modern life. People are living longer, less stable, more stressful and isolated lives. It is clear that there is still a tendency not to talk openly about mental health. The stiff-upper-lip culture is ingrained in our society, at home, in our work places and, yes, even in Government and Parliament.
The challenges of 21st century living demand a rethink in our approach to mental health. We need to consider a number of issues. For people to get the support that they need from the NHS to live full and economically active lives, and if it is to be sustainable in the 21st century, mental health must move from the edges to the centre of the NHS. Also, we can no longer look at people’s physical health, social care and mental health as three separate systems. They must be part of one vision for a modern health care system. Changes in our public services will be successful only if matched by a wider change in attitudes towards mental health.
We need to pay attention to and look at the stigma surrounding mental health, because not only must people face the direct effects of depression but their problems can be compounded by the reactions of others. People do not feel able to admit to having a problem that could change their employment and prospects or lose them their friends. With most illnesses, people get a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, but with mental illness, they may get the cold shoulder. Even if people admit a problem, family and friends might not know how to advise them adequately. The public debate that has been so powerfully led by Stephen Fry, Frank Bruno and others is therefore tremendously important. It is essential that the excellent “Time to Change” campaign, led by Mind and Rethink and funded by the Department of Health, ultimately prevails.
The specific issue of today’s debate was put so eloquently by the hon. Member for New Forest East. I do not wish to stray into the politics of Hampshire’s health overview and scrutiny committee, nor into the internal politics of the local Conservative party—fun though that might be—but he made some important points. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified whether he has seen any meaningful assessment of how many mental health beds there should be in Hampshire. Of course, trusts all over the country have to make efficiency savings, but cutting front-line services and making efficiency savings are two very different things. So although I understand the need for referral from the health overview and scrutiny committee to the Minister, has he been able to analyse whether there is an adequate supply of beds for mental health patients throughout the county of Hampshire, particularly if required in an emergency admission? Is there adequate capacity? If so, has there been an assessment of future operations with the reduced beds available?
I ask those questions not least because the hon. Member for New Forest East made it clear that the statistics that he had obtained contradict the statistics that have been put forward by his local NHS trust and that are being used by the health overview and scrutiny committee. To move forward, we need certainty, clarity and confidence in those statistics, so that decisions made locally are based on sound statistics. We will see more instances of trusts forced to make difficult decisions. Indeed, we have heard what is happening in other parts of the country today. Such decisions will undoubtedly have real consequences for the care received by patients, not least because of the combined effect of the Nicholson challenge, set in train by the previous Government, and the huge top-down reorganisation pushed through by this Government under the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Finally, mental health is an equality issue, and social progress in the 21st century depends on us waking up to that fact. Children from the poorest 20% of households are at a threefold greater risk of mental health problems than children from the most affluent 20% of households. We will only have a fairer and more equal society in this century if we work to change attitudes to mental health and to look at a whole-person approach to health care, so that the problems that we might all face at some point in our lives do not stop us from reaching our potential. Again, I commend the hon. Gentleman for putting his case for mental health in Hampshire so forcefully. I, too, look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure, yet again, to attend a debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
The commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is quite evident, because not only is this the second debate on the issue in the past five months but he has had ministerial meetings. He has championed the interests of his constituents, as expected of an assiduous Member of the House. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on her speech and on how she represented the views and concerns of her constituents on a difficult and sensitive issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) managed, intriguingly, to merge Burton and Strangford into the southern county of Hampshire. To do so took political skill—debating skill—but they achieved it and made some interesting points that were a valuable contribution to the debate.
I have to say, however, that I am not quite sure what more I can say in response to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East following our meeting of 26 March, when we discussed the matter. My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously since the autumn of last year against Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust’s proposed redesign of acute adult mental health services in Hampshire, and in particular against the withdrawal of the adult in-patient mental health ward at Woodhaven hospital in his constituency. Nevertheless, in the course of my remarks, I will seek to explain and to lay out the policy towards the provision of mental health care in Hampshire and the knock-on effects elsewhere.
The debate also gives me the opportunity to thank all the NHS staff who work in the field of mental health and, in particular, the staff at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, who do a fantastic job, day in, day out, looking after some of the most vulnerable and frail members of our society with complex medical problems. Locking into the valid point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), the staff must also combat the stigma associated with mental health issues. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to congratulate Stephen Fry, Mind, Rethink and others who work continuously to break down such barriers. I will be a little more generous politically, because the Major Government in the mid-1990s and the previous Labour Governments of Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) did a tremendous amount of work to help bring down barriers and reduce stigma. The trouble is that there is still a long way to go and none of us can relax in fighting that battle.
If one suffers from an acute medical problem, people are all too willing to make hospital visits, to ring up and to inquire after someone’s general well-being, but it is a disgrace that if one’s mental health is suffering, people still too often do not want to find out or are frightened to ask. Even worse, the family and friends of people who suffer from mental illness want to ignore it or hush it up. The patients themselves are often too scared to allude to their medical problems because they are fearful of the response that they might get from family—less often—or friends and, generally, from people in the community. That is our challenge, and that is why I am so full of admiration for people in the NHS and elsewhere in the charitable and voluntary sector who do so much work, not only to look after people at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives but as ambassadors in seeking to break down the barriers and the stigma.
As I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East when we met recently, the reconfiguration of local health services is exactly that—a matter for the local NHS. Although he is calling for a halt to the closure of beds at Woodhaven, Ministers cannot and should not be seen to interfere. My hon. Friend, who is generous and courteous, tried to tempt me —he slightly sugared the pill by suggesting that, if not today, perhaps upon reflection—to send out a message, almost like the white smoke that appears from the Vatican when a new Pope is elected, to the trust, and if not to the trust, certainly to the Hampshire HOSC, saying how much I would welcome a referral to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I know that nothing would give my hon. Friend greater pleasure, but I must warn him that I have been here too long to fall into that pit. It would completely compromise the independence of local government. I am sure he agrees that all too often, Governments of different political parties have been criticised for interfering too much in local government, and that local councillors are elected to local authorities to make decisions about matters that they, because of their representation of their constituents, are most familiar with. It would not be the way forward for a heavy-handed Minister at 79 Whitehall to issue messages of welcome for things. It would compromise the ethos and independence of local democracy, and the way in which local people elect local councillors to represent their views. Therefore, I must disappoint my hon. Friend.
I am a fan of localism, and I completely support what the Minister says, but does he not recognise that there is a massive lack of democratic accountability in how PCTs operate? No one elects them. They make decisions, and they are accountable only to themselves and ultimately to the Minister.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I have total sympathy with it. It is precisely why we are abolishing PCTs on 1 April next year, and why we are creating the clinical commissioning groups under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Those groups will consist of GPs, who are most familiar with their patients’ needs and requirements, and will commission care for their patients, and create the health and wellbeing boards which will, for the first time in a generation, have democratic accountability because they will include locally elected councillors and will have responsibility under the Act and the reforms to look out for and to ensure that the needs of the local health economy are being met in local communities. That is a positive and straightforward step in addressing the very problem that my hon. Friend raised.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, decisions on reconfiguration of services will be made by the local health economy, not Ministers in Whitehall. He will be aware that planned changes to in-patient mental health beds in Hampshire have been the subject of local discussions since 2009-10. However, to reiterate the clinical case for change, it will allow investment in better alternatives to in-patient care by increasing home treatment, and developing other measures to support people outside hospital in Hampshire. The number of in-patient beds will decrease by 58, from the current total of 165, to 107. That addresses the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about how many beds were involved from the start to the finish of the process. The change will also enable growth in community reablement services in the New Forest to help and support people with longer-term mental health needs, allowing them to live a more independent and fulfilling life when that is clinically appropriate.
Doctors and other professionals, the public and service users have all been involved in this process in Hampshire from the outset, and their views have always been taken into account, even when they were not supportive of the proposals and the proposals were not radically changed or abandoned.
It is true that there has been public consultation. It is also true that soon afterwards an analysis of the responses listed concern about this, that and the other. If I remember correctly, the consultation ended in October last year, and it took me until March to get the trust to admit that the heavy majority of people who responded to the consultation were against the bed closures. It consults, and then carries on as though nothing has happened.
I appreciate that point, and I will come to it.
I must reiterate that decisions on the reconfiguration of services are, as with all reconfiguration, for the local health economy to make, led by local people, local GPs and local clinicians. I have been assured that the proposed changes are supported by the majority of GPs, most but not all clinicians and the clinical commissioning group in the New Forest, as well as the Hampshire HOSC. I listened to the procedures and activities of the Hampshire HOSC and what happened at its meetings, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that those decisions do not come within Ministers’ responsibilities.
The Hampshire HOSC consists of elected county councillors who are responsible for and accountable to their local communities, and they made the decision not to refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that my hon. Friend accepts that I cannot dictate—I would not seek to, because it would be inappropriate—what an HOSC should do. It is an independent body with democratic accountability, and it will consider the sort of complaints that my hon. Friend and others have raised to see whether, on balance, it believes that they could lead to its deciding that the proposed reconfiguration is inappropriate and that it should be referred to my right hon. Friend with a request that it is then sent to the independent reconfiguration panel.
The problem for my hon. Friend and others who oppose the proposal is that that body, which has the power to seek a referral, has so far refused to do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that not only do I have no right or power to do that, but it would be totally inappropriate for me as a Minister to seek to interfere with the working of that local government committee and its decisions.
I can reiterate that if the HOSC decides—my hon. Friend said during his eloquent speech that there will be a further meeting in May—that there is new evidence, or whatever, and that it wants to reverse that decision, nothing in the rules and procedures prevents it from doing so. However, it has had two meetings and has heard the evidence and arguments, and the pros and cons, and has not decided so far to take that decision. It has decided not to make a referral to my right hon. Friend. I do not know whether it will change its mind at the meeting in May, and it is not for me to speculate, or to try to influence it. However, in theory, if it wished to make that referral, it could.
I understand that the trust is investing more than £1.3 million in community services and developing alternative patient care in Hampshire. For example, four new specialist liaison staff will help service users to move more easily from in-patient care to the community, and crisis funds will help service users who may struggle to pay things such as deposits on accommodation and household items, or electricity and gas charge cards. As my hon. Friend will accept, it is important to have plans and measures in place so that those people for whom treatment is more appropriate in the home or the community have the structures to help them ensure that that happens. Mental health services are no different from those for acute care, and no one wants to be in hospital for a day longer than they have to be. If it is more appropriate to care for someone in a home setting, with proper support and access to services, or in the community, that is better for the patient. However, such care must be based on a clinical decision about what is most appropriate.
More than 50 staff will form part of hospital-at-home teams, providing intensive support to people where they live and helping them to remain or return to their homes. They will also help to prevent readmission to hospital. In the west of Hampshire, three members of staff will work to support service users who have more complex mental health needs and to help them to gain emotional and vocational skills that will support their recovery and health.
The launch of those services, which are still in their early days, has shown that service users are able to re-establish links with their community and gain the confidence to adapt to home and family life. As a result of the investment, the trust has seen people staying in hospital for a shorter period of time because they receive more intensive support both before they leave hospital and afterwards in the community.
Independent service user and carer groups—for example, the west Hants area service user involvement project or the Princess Royal Trust for Carers—have worked closely with the trust to develop plans, and they have been supportive of the changes. The service user-led recovery philosophy for mental health services has underpinned many of those proposed changes.
As I said earlier, the proposed changes have had throughout the full support of GPs, most clinicians, service users and the HOSC, thereby demonstrating the importance of locally led change at the heart of our NHS. As my hon. Friend alluded to, the Hampshire HOSC last met on 27 March, and its chair wrote to Katrina Percy, the chief executive at the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, advising her that pausing the proposed changes would not be in the best interests of local people who were affected by them.
Of course, the HOSC recognises that local people are worried about the changes, and that is why it has agreed to set up a small task and finish group to discuss the concerns raised at the meeting on 27 March. The group will report its findings at the HOSC meeting scheduled for 22 May 2012. In the meantime, let me say that the changes proposed in Hampshire are not unusual—we got a flavour of that from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, who I know has conducted a vigorous campaign about elements of the proposals in his county that he considers to be deeply flawed.
On a slightly lighter note, the Minister may be interested to know that the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust appears to think that what it has been doing is a suitable model and template for the whole country. It has applied for NHS funding because it wants to design a
“comprehensive, independent service evaluation...to inform day-to-day operational business context”
“future modelling of service changes.”
Instead of giving the trust more NHS money, perhaps the Minister should provide it with a link to today’s debate, which will show everyone exactly how such trusts go about their reconfigurations.
That is an interesting point that gives one side of the argument. I do not want to labour the point, but unfortunately the other side of the argument suggests that most GPs and clinicians, together with many service users and the HOSC, have so far not shared that view because in various ways they have been supportive of what the trust is doing. That is a serious problem for my hon. Friend, because the nub of the argument is that the democratically elected overview and scrutiny committee has so far refused, or felt it unnecessary, to decide that the trust’s proposals should be referred to the Secretary of State and then to the independent reconfiguration panel. That is the mountain that my hon. Friend has to climb, and as with most arguments there are two views about the effectiveness, efficiency and correctness of the proposals. So far, he is on the losing side within the rules and the way that things are done locally.
Hampshire is not unusual, but the important point is to achieve the best possible outcomes for people in mental health crisis. Significant changes have been made to community and hospital services, so that they become more responsive to people’s needs and more attentive to the physical environments in which care is received.
Other mental health trusts in England have already reduced the number of in-patient beds, so that more support can be given to people in familiar and appropriate surroundings, such as their own homes. Local changes are in line with the “no health without mental health” strategy that was launched on 2 February 2011. As my hon. Friend will know, that is a cross-governmental mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages, with the twin aims of improving the population’s mental health and improving mental health services. The strategy takes a life course approach and sends the message that prevention and early intervention are key priorities. It also stresses the interdependence of mental and physical health—a point raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.
The bulk of the strategy will be delivered locally—as it should be—by experts on the ground working with service users and their families and carers. At national level, our early years policies, including health visitors and the pupil premium, are about helping children and young families to get the best start. We expect that investment to save the NHS £272 million, which will then be available to doctors and nurses for reinvestment in front-line services. That will save the public sector £704 million over the next six years—again, that money can be reinvested in front-line services, which I am sure all hon. Members would agree is where it should go.
As the Department of Health completes the nationwide roll-out of psychological therapy services for adults who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, we will pay particular attention to ensuring appropriate access for people over 65 years of age. We have also committed an extra £7.2 million for mental health services for veterans—a key point given what is happening in that area of mental health.
Many patients who suffer from long-term conditions do not expect a long stay in hospital. They expect to be treated promptly and then discharged, so that they can go home and continue to recover with proper support and access to proper care and treatment. That is the most important thing. Patients in my hon. Friend’s constituency, those of all Hampshire MPs or, indeed, throughout the country who suffer from mental health problems must receive appropriate and swift care and be looked after to the highest standards and in the most appropriate setting. That lies at the heart of the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend should continue his discussions not with a Minister with a heavy-handed approach who dictates things from Whitehall, but with democratically elected councillors and others on the ground in his constituency and in Hampshire.
I called for this debate on encouraging young entrepreneurs in order to focus our support for business on the next potential generation of wealth creators. During my time as an MP, I have focused much effort on supporting businesses. That is based on my experience of owning my own company and the regular business and retail forums that I organise in Swindon. I myself was a real wheeler-dealer when I was at school—if someone needed football stickers, comics or school lockers, I was their man. I want that type of young entrepreneurial flair to be promoted and supported.
I note that in the debates on business and enterprise, we often do not focus on encouraging young people to consider, as a career path, setting up their own business. When I go round talking to young people in schools and colleges, I find that they are incentivised by incredibly popular television programmes such as “The Apprentice” and “Dragons’ Den”. When I ask them to put their hands up if they would be interested in setting up their own business, the hands shoot up. In many ways, that is the perfect time for people to start their own business. Once people are a bit older and have children and a mortgage, they have a lot to lose. For a young person with a good idea, often the worst that can happen is that they will blow their savings.
When hands are thrust up into the air enthusiastically to show that those young people are keen to follow in the footsteps of those they have seen on “The Apprentice” and “Dragons’ Den”, I ask a follow-up question: “How many of you will take this up as a career?” Immediately, the hands go down, there is a deafening silence and tumbleweed rolls across the room. I ask why that is the case and it transpires that they simply do not know how to turn those ideas and that enthusiasm into setting up a business. It is crucial that we change that, because just over 1 million 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed and 25% of graduates cannot find work. Many of the graduates who do find work do not necessarily use their degrees; they do not necessarily work in the areas in which they gained their qualifications. In addition, we as a nation are seeking to rebalance the economy.
Those are clear reasons why we should be supporting young entrepreneurs. I am delighted that the Government are right behind that. The decision to create 40,000 business mentors is key. I will come on to that. We have also had the exciting announcement of the £10 million pilot of an enterprise loan scheme that will give young people access to finance in a similar way to the student loan concept.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I remember well starting my own company some 32 years ago. I do not claim to be a wheeler-dealer like the hon. Gentleman; nevertheless, we managed to succeed. Does he agree that although it is important to encourage young entrepreneurs, we need to get to grips with the issues of financing young entrepreneurs and the bureaucracy and form-filling that they have to go through, which puts many young people off?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for being someone who took the plunge and set up his own business. I will say that when I was at school, not all my businesses went according to plan. A thriving comic business was thwarted when my friend William’s yoghurt pot exploded in his bag, destroying our entire back collection of comics, so we do not always succeed. The hon. Gentleman is right, and I want to focus later on some of the ways in which we can help people.
With regard to schools and colleges, I want as many schools as possible to encourage entrepreneurial opportunities. That can be done in a variety of ways. For example, there are a number of courses that schools could offer students. Those courses include the ifs School of Finance certificate and diploma in financial studies and the finance baccalaureate being piloted at King Edward VI college in Stourbridge, backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland. They are examples of where young people can do courses to encourage entrepreneurial flair. In some schools, that could be an appropriate way to encourage it.
We should also get schools to embrace the opportunities given to them by the fantastic young enterprise scheme. That gave me my first proper taste of running a business while I was at school. I understand that 250,000 students a year have the chance to try their hand at making money. I want to encourage every school possible to take that up and give their young people that brilliant opportunity. We should give students the chance to do that and we should also support them by getting lots of mentors who are connected to the school to support the young enterprise scheme. For example, a simple letter could be sent to all the parents saying, “Are any of you business people? Can you come and help with the young enterprise scheme?”
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about the need for support and for mentoring. Is he aware of the work that NACUE, the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, is doing? With regard to the point that he is making about schools, does he agree that similar support needs to be provided as people exit schools? This issue should not be considered only when young people are leaving universities and colleges. The concepts of mentoring, advice and business incubators should be considered at school, not just at university.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful intervention. I will refer to that organisation later, but she is spot-on, because what I will talk about in relation to universities can be replicated to boost the young enterprise scheme.
I have seen a number of young enterprise schemes in action—partly when I was a student myself, but also while visiting schools and colleges since becoming an MP. I have only one slight issue with some of the schemes that I see. They are set up so that young people raise money from their friends. They sell goods to their friends—they know what their friends want to buy—and they sell them in their friends’ environment. That means that they can cash in a favour, as it were. They can say, “Look, I’ll go to the cinema with you on Friday if you’ll buy my T-shirt off me today.” That is great, but I want young people to have more real-life experience, so I have struck up a deal in my constituency with the Blunsdon indoor market. That is a challenging market environment in which price is key and the customers are very savvy about haggling.
New college, in the South Swindon constituency, which many of my local students attend, is involved. The young people will take their young enterprise business and have three days of trading—a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. They have to comply with strict rules. If they have not set up their pitch by 9 in the morning, they lose that day’s trading. They get only a table, so they have to dress that table up, but of course if they get too carried away with that, they will have no money left and will not make a profit. They have to do research to see which products are already being sold, where the gap in the market is and what they can do. They have to stand on their own two feet—and trade on their feet all day long. They have to be able to do mental arithmetic, because the customers will haggle. This is something in which the local media are particularly interested. I am delighted to say that the market will then identify the businesses that do well and say to them, “You can come back in the summer holidays at a discounted rate.”
That scheme could be the first door opening to young people starting their own businesses. The owner of the Superdry clothing company started on a market stall and is now turning over £165 million a day. The Mary Portas high street review said that every town centre should have market stall days, although there are not enough market stall traders. I have now asked Swindon borough council to identify which retail premises in the town centre it cannot lease out at the moment in order to look at giving short-term leases to allow young entrepreneurs just to dabble. Those types of short-term contract can always be found in office blocks. People pay a little more rent, so they would do it only short term, but it enables them to test the water. We need to see the same in retail. I hope that the concept involving New college and Blunsdon market will be a success and provide a model for others to follow.
Turning to universities, I did a business and marketing degree. There were 350 of us and, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only one of those 350 who went on to set up their own business, which ultimately employed people, which is what this country needs. That is in part because 29 of the 30-odd modules that I did focused my mind on how to be good on the corporate ladder. My work placement year was spent in the corporate environment. Entrepreneurial risk taking and flair was in a way educated out of me.
On that point, my old university was Oxford Brookes and I am delighted to say that having met some Virgin Media pioneers—I will say more about them later—they showed me some of their peer-to-peer mentors and I stumbled across Rebecca Hunter, the vice-president of the Oxford Brookes society for entrepreneurs. This scheme has been set up at a number of universities across the country by NACUE, the organisation highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris). It is a fantastic scheme. I spoke to Rebecca last night and asked her how it works. She told me that there are 3,000 people on the mailing list at Oxford Brookes university and 600 people attended the events last year. It is about business mentors coming in and giving people practical advice. The best part is that a number of the students involved in the society are already operating their own businesses. Some are doing so to pay for their university costs and some are setting themselves up for their lives post university. That is absolutely fantastic, and I would urge as many universities as possible to make time available for these things and to encourage people to do them. When it comes to the work-placement years, we should look at how students can run their own businesses, rather than simply be a marketing assistant in a sandpaper department, as I was.
I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the number of fantastic outside organisations that are doing their bit to support young entrepreneurs. I do not have time to mention them all, so I will pick just a few. Perhaps surprisingly, the first is the Scouts. My fiancée, Jo, and I had the pleasure of being invited to act, in effect, as “Dragons’ Den” business mentors and advisers to the Stratton St Margaret first scout group. The entrepreneurs badge is new, but 10,000 children have already taken it, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who I share an office with, will be encouraging his son, George, to take it as soon as he joins the Scouts.
I learned two things from my experience. First, the kids absolutely loved doing the badge. They spent the first three weeks raising money. In a similar way to people on the young enterprise scheme, they came up with their business concepts. There were two teams, which Jo and I had to judge. They were both very creative. Indeed, as soon as we arrived, the first team said, “You look thirsty. Can we make you a cup of tea?” Spotting a way to influence our decision, the second team then said, “You look hungry. Here’s a cake.” That worked, and we were impressed.
We had to choose which team was likely to be the most successful, and that team was then given a £50 boost. The teams’ ideas were brilliant. We were able to advise them. For example, one team had secured a pitch in front of the big screen in the town centre. The team was really excited, but I asked what would happen if it rained, because the pitch was not properly covered. That was the sort of advice the teams needed before they started.
I also met people from Virgin Media Pioneers, a brilliant scheme that allows young people to upload videos asking questions and seeking advice from other young people taking their first tentative steps into business. The scheme is a wonderful resource. I took time to look at some of the videos and at some of the questions people were asking. Underneath, there were reams of comments and helpful suggestions. The person who asked the original question would come back and say, “Thank you. That’s what I’m going to try.” I am delighted that such things are there, because young people get technology.
On Monday, I met Miles Jacobson, the main guy at Sports Interactive. For those who are not computer geeks, like myself, I should explain that Sports Interactive creates Football Manager, which sells more than 1 million copies a year. We had a good, productive meeting, at which we talked about how easy it is in theory to get young people to start technology businesses creating apps and computer games. Miles Jacobson believes that, for as little as £10,000, people can have all the licences and equipment they need to get going. We are looking to embrace high-tech industries, and the one thing young people certainly understand are the mobile phones we all carry around and get confused by. I therefore encourage the Government to look at that issue.
In summary, I want to highlight my three key requests. I have met so many young people who are keen to be entrepreneurs, and they just need that extra bit of help. I welcome the provision of access to finance, but the single most important thing we can do is provide mentors and advice. Where there are opportunities such as those offered by the young enterprise scheme and the Scouts, they should be built on. These things are not simply fun exercises that can be put away and forgotten in the back of people’s minds. People who take part in such schemes should be told, “You’ve done really well. This is your No. 1 choice as a career path. You should think about it.”
I want the Government to do everything they can to accelerate the delivery of the business mentor programme, to encourage the organisations that take part in it, such as Virgin Media Pioneers, and to give young people the opportunity to access the programme. I also want Ministers to do all they can to encourage schools, colleges and universities to promote the opportunities offered by entrepreneurial schemes, which give young people real life experience.
Finally, I make a direct plea to the Minister. I want him annually to celebrate and highlight the best young entrepreneurs from across the country and to support the organisations that help them achieve what they do. In that way, we—the key decision makers in Parliament—will understand these issues, demand support for those involved and push entrepreneurism as hard as we can as a real career path for young people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I was not quite as successful as he was in my wheeler-dealer days. At one point, I did corner the market in Curly Wurlys, but I should perhaps cast a veil over that. It was only a couple of years ago—actually, I am teasing.
What is exciting when we engage with young people is that we immediately see their sense of inspiration when they realise they can make money by understanding the people around them, by thinking laterally and by solving problems. Those are really important skills, whether or not they go on to become the next Sir Richard Branson. I really like the market idea that my hon. Friend highlighted. I would like to have a closer look at it with him, because I think it sounds like an exciting initiative that we will want to talk to market traders and others about. The Scouts initiative is great. I was aware that the Scouts were doing that. We should not assume that it is only college and university students who do these things; often, it is the youngest students who recognise that the moment they become their own boss is important.
Before I come to the question of young enterprise, however, let me go to what for me is the heart of the broader debate. Enterprise and entrepreneurship are vital to the economy, but they also have an important social message. “It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you went to school. If you have ability, ambition and the will to work, you can be your own boss and make your own fortune,” is a really powerful message, especially for the next generation. I applaud my hon. Friend’s work because in addition to what the Government are doing, all of us as Members of Parliament have a useful role to play in encouraging young people to see the range of opportunities before them. Even if people go into a salaried career for the first 20 years of their working life, many of them will still have those opportunities in the back of their mind. If they are shown what paths there are when they are young, their chances of progressing down them will be much greater. The number of start-ups in the UK is an encouraging sign: between 2003 and 2010, the number of business start-ups was static, but last year it jumped. I look at those numbers and see an encouraging shift in people’s ambition and aspiration to start their own business.
Alongside conventional economic reforms, we have tried to ensure that people have, as my hon. Friend said, the tools to turn their dream into a reality. We started by reforming all the business information the Government provide, putting it in a usable form and making sure it is where people want it, when they want it. We are looking to develop it in an app-based form, which is especially important for young people. We then looked to establish the principle of mentoring and money through the new enterprise allowance, mirroring what the Prince’s Trust has done in the past. That is important, because it will help unemployed people to become self-employed, creating up to 40,000 new businesses.
The broader question is how to get the advice right. I am absolutely committed to the principle of good business mentoring. That is why we have replaced the 1,600 state- paid business advisers with real business people: we have not even got to the end of the first year of the Mentor Me programme and 15,000 such people are already in place and helping many others to start businesses. We want to increase their number to 26,000 this year and, yes, we aim to get to 40,000, but I want make sure we get the quality right. I have that target in my mind, but I want to make sure that I do not race for 40,000 and get the quality wrong. That is an important issue. Mentoring is absolutely fundamental.
I want to focus on helping young people in particular. I will come to the enterprise loan for young people, but I cannot talk about start-ups and enterprise without briefly mentioning the importance of being able to access finance. That will never be easy following the 2008 crisis, but we have tried to think about it in the round. We are trying to improve debt finance and ease lending, which is what the enterprise finance guarantee and the national loan guarantee scheme are about, but we also need to think about the use of the tax system, and that is what the enterprise investment scheme is about. A key measure is the development of business angels, which to my mind are the logical next step for business mentors. If we nurture the community of mentors, we are more likely to generate more business angels, so alongside the mentoring programme, we are also putting in place the co-investment fund to expand the number of business angels, so that we get an underlying network to help people to start up.
What can we do and what are we doing to help young people to turn a bright idea into a real venture? Enterprise education has real benefits. My hon. Friend mentioned the young enterprise scheme; the evidence that it and other such programmes have produced shows that in almost every case when people engage in enterprise education, the proportion who actually start up a business doubles. However, there is an added benefit: even those who do not immediately go on to start up often demonstrate a greater appreciation of those skills and are better able to fulfil their career potential, so that they may go on to become successful in a salaried career. In other words, such education helps people to reassess what they are capable of and gives them the confidence to think in the round.
We have tried to foster enterprise education across the education system. Hon. Members have all said, “Let’s not just think about universities. Let’s think about schools, colleges and universities.” That is absolutely right, and that is why we are doing work in each of those areas. We want to enable most students, wherever they are in the education system, to learn about the opportunities and practicalities while they are still in learning. In schools we have established Enterprise Village, an online resource that has been up and running for the past few months, which aims to help teachers and students to start a business in the school. The Norwegians are good at that, and have established a principle of running a business in every school. We want to foster and encourage the same here. The importance of role models at local level was rightly mentioned, and alongside the Enterprise Village programme we have established Inspiring the Future, an army of 2,500 business champions or local entrepreneurs who fulfil an ambassadorial role in a formal sense, but, more important, provide inspiration. Those two elements are very important.
We have also thought about those who are struggling on the edge of the school system, and we were delighted to support the Premier League Enterprise Academy, a good programme that uses the draw of premier league clubs to get young people engaged in the process of entrepreneurship. We should not ignore a fact that I discovered by accident a few years ago, which is that many entrepreneurs struggled at school far more than the average student. Routinely, if I were to ask a group of entrepreneurs whether they had dyslexia or significant problems at school, about 40% would put up their hand. Whether that is because entrepreneurs are wired differently, or because the struggle at school made them entrepreneurial, I do not know. I do know that we need to think about that side of people’s learning alongside the conventional academic route.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon took us on a wonderful trek through his educational and entrepreneurial career, and he rightly highlighted his university experience. I am a few years older than he is, and when I was at university the clubs, societies and networks were not oriented towards business—and I was doing a vocational degree. I felt strongly that we needed significantly to expand opportunity during learning, regardless of the subject students were taking—so not going down the exclusive business school route, but saying, “I don’t care whether you are studying land management or classics: you have the opportunity to be part of an entrepreneurial network on campus.” While my party was in opposition, I came across the nascent National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, which in government we have been able to turn into a formal charitable group. This year we will put more than £1 million into NACUE, to make sure that the number of entrepreneurial clubs goes up from 40 or 50 to 90 during this Parliament. That is important, because they are not just clubs: they are the focal point for setting up competitions and other entrepreneurial opportunities, and for bringing in the other things that universities can do, such as establishing incubators, which has rightly been highlighted. I have seen that for myself at the university of Hertfordshire, where a youngster in his first term started a photography business. He has a space there and is studying, learning and earning. That is a wonderful combination, and, my golly, he is a mature and capable young man.
We want to make sure that alongside such programmes we build other networks, because where entrepreneurship really flourishes is where people group together and then bring in people with the business finance. It may involve academics, who have an invention that they are not sure how to commercialise. That fusion—whether in silicon valley or, indeed, Boston—lets people really make things happen. That is why we have actively been supporting such programmes as StartUp Britain, involving people who are dynamic, engaged, and of the relevant age group. They see universities as a place in which to put their business, although they may be well past the university stage. What I think of as a sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem is bringing finance, invention and the entrepreneur together. That is where we find the best opportunity.
We also wanted with NACUE to think not just about our friends at universities, but about the many people at further education colleges. We should not ignore the fact that if we help young people to gain a trade or craft that is crucial to the economy and to their ability to earn, we need also to ensure they know how to be self-employed in those trades and crafts. That is why, partly at the behest of Doug Richard, who bent my ear on the subject, we have also given NACUE the task of rolling out entrepreneur clubs to about 160 campuses by the end of this Parliament, so that we will be dealing with schools, universities and colleges.
My hon. Friend mentioned finance, which is important. It is especially challenging for young people. When I was a mentor for the Prince’s Trust, I learned that the combination that we often see in the context of micro-loans—money and a little grey hair—is the mix that helps a business to succeed, especially over a two or three-year period. We wanted to get the infrastructure ready on college campuses and so on, and then think about the finance side, and that is why we announced in the Budget a £10 million programme, to which my hon. Friend alluded, to provide enterprise loans to 18 to 24-year-olds. In a sense that mirrors what is available in the market for other entrepreneurs, but it is an exciting concept because it will provide the means to take a nice idea that needs to be tested in the market through to a business plan, and then on to becoming a real business. I can tell the House that we will start the pilot next month, and this morning I had a meeting with many of the private sector partners who want to participate. I am particularly grateful to Lord Young, who has been leading on the matter and advising the Prime Minister and the Government. He has brought real enthusiasm and energy to the work.
On a broader point, my hon. Friend mentioned the need to engage lots of people, and I have always taken the view that the Government’s job is not to try to run all this. If we did try, we would do it badly. We want to create the environment in which a thousand flowers can indeed bloom in the entrepreneurial community. That is the nature of entrepreneurs. Some will fail, and some will not. Some will bloom and go to great heights, and others will nearly disappear but come back next year. That is fine. That is why, to celebrate entrepreneurship, we have taken the concept we inherited of the global entrepreneurship week—it started in this country and now encompasses more than 120 countries—and set the ambition of having an entrepreneurial week every week. I have got together all the different entrepreneurial partners in Young Enterprise and beyond to produce something that is more focused and that builds on the things that Young Enterprise, the Prince’s Trust and many others already do. That is what StartUp Britain is doing, in part, through the year-long calendar it has just launched, which shows people the fantastic array of events taking place in this country. We are the most entrepreneurial country in Europe, but I want us to be the most entrepreneurial country in the world. We have to make sure that we help young people in that process.
I am excited by the ideas that my hon. Friend suggested. In a way they reflect the broader activity that is going on in many of our constituencies. Entrepreneurship is a positive message for young people. Our job is to enable all students, whatever stage they are at in their school or university career, to get access to the right information, advice and networks, so that they can take their bright idea and turn it into a successful business for the future.
MOD Logistics (Bicester)
[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]
I am pleased to have secured this debate. I raised the issue last year when I asked the Prime Minister about a pair of £44 boots that MOD logistics at Bicester had shipped to Northern Ireland at a cost of nearly £800. That is not the only example of MOD Bicester’s excessive spending, excessive pricing and excessive commissioning that has come my way in the intervening months. The scale of management error is so large and so endemic that, to my eyes, it almost looks systematic. In a nutshell, we believe that the logistics operation is having its costs inflated in order to hive it off into the private sector. I also believe that MOD logistics is being fattened for that purpose.
First, I am making attacks not on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but on some people who might not be completely open in the way in which they deal with matters at MOD logistics at Bicester. Secondly, those who advise me are included in the “we”—I do not pretend to be of any royal stock. I hope that I have made my position clear. The hon. Gentleman knows that my argument is not with him or his constituents, but with the MOD logistics department, which is the whole purpose of this debate.
I believe that the officials responsible for this are perhaps positioning themselves to make a fortune out of it in due course; and that, to make that operation less apparent, misled the Minister, who has in turn, unintentionally, perhaps misled the Commons. I have evidence and a confession from the head of logistics, who said on Monday night that all the information that I had been asking for over the last six or eight months was available, but had been declared to the Minister to be unavailable. There was a repetition of the word “unfortunate” when he said that the Minister had been misled.
The same official told me that there are plans to restructure the department, which may be announced in the coming weeks, so the debate is timely. I did not ask for this debate to make any particular political point, nor do I want to embarrass the Minister, who I know is a man of integrity and who may well have been placed in the unhappy position of unintentionally misleading Parliament on one occasion at least. He did indeed correct himself in due course, which is what I would expect of him.
This is a debate about administrative propriety upon which all parties in this Chamber agree, about a specific exercise in holding the Government to account and about the spending of public money. It is also a debate that asks, “Does Parliament have any power to hold the Government to account? Does the Government have the necessary control over their civil service in this area, or are we all to be treated as nothing more than a nuisance by officials who spend £27 million a year of the public’s money?”
I suspect that what we have here may be a fraudulent operation. It needs urgent and perhaps unusual treatment by the Minister’s office. My suggestion is that the Minister appoints a small team of two or three who will be given access for 48 hours to the TMS—transport management system—computer system that records the logistics operation and who will then report to him in due course. They should be the Minister’s own team, because there are some in senior management positions who are perhaps not worthy of complete trust. Information has been concealed, withheld and manipulated. Those people now have no incentive to do anything else. Most important, there is a proposal for further restructuring
“to bring together the component parts of the logistics organisation into site-based groups.”
That sounds like a return to the structure before the last restructuring. There is also a rumour of a management buy-out. The idea that the same management who created this mare’s nest can then profit from it will cause revulsion in anyone not directly benefiting from it.
Before I lay out a summary of the case, I ask the Minister for assurances that the people, however senior, who have supplied me with information will not suffer from proceedings by their managers or from other parts of the MOD hierarchy. I have no doubt that the Minister will respond to that in due course.
Military logistics planning is usually conducted in acronyms and the language of consultants. For the convenience of the House, I will present the case in layman’s terms. Ministry of Defence logistics is the term used for transporting equipment for the Army, Navy and Air Force round Britain and overseas. The main southern distribution hubs from which supplies originate are Bicester and, secondarily, Donnington. Bicester stores and sends equipment to our forces nationwide and worldwide, via RAF Brize Norton or Heathrow. It was from Bicester that the equipment for Iraq was delivered, for example. The main day-to-day task in peace time is resupply: Bicester transports everything from ship engines and heavy machinery to documents, toilet paper, body armour and ration packs and, yes, the famous boots going to Northern Ireland. There are flight steps from the Falklands, equipment, kit, documents, jiffy bags and pallets—all are ferried round the UK and round the world largely from the two centres.
Let me describe succinctly the operational structure before and after the restructuring—how it was done then and how it is done now. Before restructuring, supplies were transported out from Bicester in one of three classes of vehicle: a Luton van size; a removal truck size and a standard articulated lorry—a 44-tonne truck. Those vehicles carried supplies from Bicester to one of the regional centres around the country, from where supplies were sent on in smaller vehicles to their final destination. It is the hub system by which all major transport companies, such as FedEx, United Parcel Service and the Royal Mail, work. There is a universal logic to the system: the large trucks carry larger quantities of goods longer distances more cheaply, and the smaller vehicles conclude the delivery with a short local journey.
That conventional model was abandoned in 2008 and a new system was put in place. The managing director of Bicester was at that time, and is now, Steve Brannigan. He decided to close these regional distribution centres, to reduce the fleet and number of drivers, and to make up the shortfall in in-house capacity by greater use of private hauliers, contractors and couriers—generically called third party logistics, or 3PL for short. As a result of that new structure, it was said, the cost of the regional distribution centres—nearly £4 million a year—was saved. In a letter dated 28 July 2011, the Minister describes those as “net savings”, but my understanding is that that is very far from the truth. Again, I stress that I do not impugn the hon. Gentleman’s veracity over any action that he has taken. The crucial figure has been concealed and withheld.
What is the total sum paid to private transport? That figure is not yet forthcoming. We are told the total budget for transport, but not the total budget for private transport, and I believe that it is much higher than has been reported by senior people. The restructuring of the system reduced the number of in-house trucks and drivers and contracted their replacements from outside the Department. The idea behind the restructuring was to outsource much of the driving work and make efficiencies by competitive tendering. Palletways, the trucking firm, now does much of the work that the MOD used to do itself. Thus Bicester sends four or five articulated trucks carrying the supplies that it needs to have delivered to the Palletways centre in Staffordshire. Palletways then does the job that Bicester used to do in precisely the same way that Bicester used to do it, by sending the supplies out to its own regional distribution centres.
It is said that contracting out has a good reputation in management circles. The use of private contractors promises greater flexibility, lower overheads and more competitive tendering. Paid staff are not idle when there is no work. Contractors are assumed to have a commercial incentive to work harder than employees as their position is less secure. That is the theory. Often it works, but it does not translate into good practice automatically.
Has the restructuring of Bicester MOD logistics been a success? Has the evaluation process worked? The results should be apparent in the accounts, including the total operating sum spent on logistics before restructuring and the total operating sum afterwards. Those figures have been held very close by the Bicester MOD logistics management. In fact, they refuse to reveal them. Why is that? I believe that it is because the total cost of private transport makes a nonsense of the outsourcing, that total third party logistics costs show that no savings have been made, and that the restructuring has actually resulted in net losses.
It is easy to see how private contractors would struggle to match in-house costs: private sector drivers have a higher cost per hour than public sector drivers; there is the cost of operating licences and there is VAT on agency driver fees. Compare that with the defence infrastructure of bases and personnel, which can be used intelligently at low, or even no, marginal cost. There is also the need to transport MOD supplies to the main contractor’s depot 75 miles away from Bicester.
Those factors prompt questions that need to be answered. Did the restructuring work? Have the new arrangements saved money? Were the highly paid consultants who devised the new system worth their fee? The fact is we do not know whether the business operation has been analysed to show whether it works better or not. The figures have been arranged to show a financial benefit from the new structure. Real-time reports from the computer system, as well as common sense, present a very different picture.
The Minister will remember the question that started this process off last year; it was about the famous pair of boots that were transported from Bicester to Northern Ireland at a cost of almost £800. At that point, we were trying to establish the ongoing costs of the restructuring and we asked what those costs were. However, the costs of couriers were left out of the answer, when they are about a third of the total. The Minister said:
“I have been categorically assured about the omission of the courier costs.”
He also said that the error was
“a result of human error rather than any intent to mislead”.
That is what the Minister said.
If I had let an inaccurate answer lie on the record, I would have been criticised. It was a genuine clerical error—a mistake. There is no conspiracy behind those figures at all. It was an error that we corrected as soon as we became aware of it. In my experience, it has happened two or three times. It was an error—no conspiracy.
As I have already said, I do not have any real argument with the Minister about this matter, and I accept what he says. However, we are told that there was “a formatting error.” I must remind the House that the MOD is responsible for transporting nuclear missiles around the country and that “a formatting error” could have incalculable consequences.
The Minister has been assured that there was an “error” and I accept what he says. In addition to the “formatting error”, however, the bill for private contractors is not merely the bill for Palletways, private couriers and agency drivers from Pertemps. I know that there are as many as 25 private trucks a day coming in and out of Bicester MOD that are not Palletways trucks or trucks used by private couriers—25 trucks a day that have not appeared in any explanations or admissions.
As I have already said, the Minister has been told that there were £4 million of net savings from the closure of regional distribution centres. The figures given by Logistic Commodities and Services Bicester show that £7,535,000 was spent on private contractors, private drivers and private couriers in 2008-09, and in 2009-10 £6,305,000 was spent on private transporters. That is a palpable reduction, but those figures do not include the cost of private hauliers—those 25 trucks a day. Where do the costs incurred by those private hauliers appear? They include Hacklings, Metcalfe Farms Haulage, Kenyons, Newsomes, Reason Transport, Andover Transport—the list goes on. Who is paying for those trucks? Out of what budget are they paid? There is some “find the lady” trick going on here, or some accounting sleight of hand to hide the costs of between 6,000 and 10,000 trips a year. Where are those hidden journeys accounted for? Who has paid for them, and how much? What does it do to the net saving figure claimed by officials? These questions must be answered.
I tabled a series of parliamentary questions asking for basic management information. I was trying to determine whether the restructuring has been a success. I asked the pertinent questions about how many miles were driven, the number of trips that were made, the hours that were taken, the class of vehicle driven and the cost per mile. I was told that the information was not held centrally and was not available, except at disproportionate cost. That is not true. The Minister was also told that the information was not available, but he was misled. The information is available within half a dozen keystrokes on the TMS computer system, assuming it has not been deleted—I have evidence of deletions from the central computer, so I do not dismiss that possibility. The TMS system records every journey, every driver and every distance. All the information is there within half a dozen keystrokes and we would hope that it is there. Otherwise how could the Department know what it was actually spending and what it was doing?
I had believed that the information was readily available, centrally held and available at almost no cost—and so it was admitted to me by Neil Firth, the head of logistics, on Monday. He repeated that it was “unfortunate” that the information was not provided. First, it was a “formatting error”; then it was “unfortunate”; and next it will be “the dog ate it”. The Minister and Parliament are being taken for a ride. That is not “unfortunate”; it has put a Government Minister in the position of misleading Parliament. In my experience, that is a very serious matter. Again, I stress that I am not impugning the Minister.
I have other examples of that type of activity. People can see courier vans lined up on the A34 outside MOD Bicester in the dead of night waiting for a job to be called. They pick up, they drive to their destination before 6 am, the unit is shut and the courier drives back to Bicester with the parcel, saying that it was undeliverable. Then the courier gets to deliver it again in daylight hours. That means one job, two charges. It happens all the time. Couriers pick up at night and deliver before the depot is open. There are days, weeks and years of it. Every Christmas and every Easter, deliveries are sent out and returned on the first day of the holiday. They come back marked, “Unable to deliver”, as the unit is “closed for the holiday”, so the courier tries to deliver it the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. “Closed for the holiday”, “Closed for the holiday”—one job, three charges, every year.
There are many other examples of couriers being contracted at £100, £125 or £150 to take small parcels here and there, even though MOD trucks are going to the exact same destination at the exact same time—that, too, was admitted to me on Monday. It is suggested that half a trailer of failed deliveries comes back every night from Palletways to Bicester, to be redispatched and recharged again and again. We have seen examples of MOD trucks and drivers standing idle while commercial trucks and drivers are paid to do the work that could be done in-house.
I understand that the MOD units can pitch for MOD jobs, but they have to quote using a kerbside price for fuel, which is around £1.45 a litre. For the same job, Eddie Stobart can quote using his bulk price in Belgium of 80p a litre. Who made that decision? Why is the MOD systematically instructed to price itself out of competition with the private sector? I believe that the costs are being increased superficially and drastically, and that the goose is being fattened.
The Minister is categorically assured, and so assures the House, that there have been net savings of £4 million, but the evidence is not available, apparently, except at a disproportionate cost. I believe that there have not been net savings, but that the same people who carried out the disastrous restructuring are quietly trying to conceal their errors in another one. I repeat: it is also possible that the costs are being allowed to escalate through daily inefficiencies, to make a management buy-out seem like a good idea and demonstrate palpable savings. This might be straying into other forms of liability, but it is possible that the management are tolerating, and in some cases promoting, such inefficiency and cost inflation in order to buy out the business and make a fortune from it.
It is in the interests of good government, in the interests of the public and in the interests of accountability and transparency that a fast, urgent investigation is undertaken, perhaps with two or three investigators, with a report prepared for the Minister. If there is to be another restructuring, it is essential that it is done properly and openly, and in a way that permits challenge and scrutiny, especially in these days when cuts are being made in every service and the armed forces are at full stretch. I hope that this debate will put things right. I feel sure that the Minister will investigate the matter thoroughly and urgently, because nothing else will do.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), like me, is a lawyer, and his speech was long on assertion and short on evidence. Indeed, it seemed more appropriate for the inside back pages of Private Eye than as a sensible contribution to Hansard and parliamentary debate.
It might be convenient for the House to know that I have represented Bicester for nearly 30 years—some three decades. During that time, the logistics depot has gone through a number of names, so for convenience I shall refer to it as the Bicester depot.
The Bicester depot has working at and within it a number of trade unions: Unite—previously the Transport and General Workers Union—and the Public and Commercial Services Union, or PCS. Over the years, I have developed a practical working relationship with them, and I stress that because they are clearly not necessarily political friends of mine. The convenor of the Whitley council at Bicester and of the International Telecommunication Union, Les Sibley, has been my Labour opponent at the past three general elections, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that if either Unite or PCS thought that something untoward was happening at Bicester, they would be shouting it from the rooftops.
I wonder why an hon. Gentleman from a Welsh constituency is seeking to investigate, by assertion, what is happening in a military depot in Bicester. The hon. Gentleman did not answer when I asked him who the “we” was who had been advising him. The answer probably lies in the first lines of the Library briefing for the debate. The first newspaper article in the briefing, from the Oxford Mail, has the headline, “Bicester can be ‘heart of MOD’”, and continues:
“Bicester’s MP has called for the Ministry of Defence to consolidate its UK logistic operations in Bicester.”
I am pleased that the hon. Member for the Wrekin is here because I would not want to make these comments without him being present.
I apologise: the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). At the moment, there are a number of logistic centres for the Ministry of Defence, including one at Donnington. It is no secret that the Ministry has for some time been considering whether Donnington, Ashchurch and other logistic bases should be consolidated, and it is no secret that my submission to Ministers has always been that if one is to consolidate defence logistics, the logical place—the only place—to do so is at Bicester. Bicester is in the heart of the country, near Brize Norton, which is now the major air gateway, and the M40. The east-west rail link is being developed, which will connect Southampton to Felixstowe. Given all that and the Bicester’s internal railway connections, it is the ideal location in which to consolidate defence logistics. That is not just my view; it is that of the trade unions at Bicester.
Richard Kelsall, who represents the PCS, says:
“Over many years and many in-depth studies it has been concluded that Bicester is the only site that can fulfil the MOD’s strategic aims; meeting its customers’ needs whilst safeguarding the Public purse.”
I hope that the Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) will listen to this with care. Les Sibley who, as I said, has been the Labour parliamentary candidate for three successive general elections and is a former mayor of Bicester, a current district and town councillor and a former county councillor, says:
“The pivotal role that MOD Bicester has played throughout its long history in its provision and delivery of services to the Armed Fortes worldwide over many decades is well documented.
The MOD is a large organisation and by the very nature of its role, it is inevitable that sometimes mistakes happen because we are not infallible and as such we rectify any mistakes as quickly as is humanly possible.
We have built an enviable reputation of expertise over time, and this expertise is still readily available to the MOD for future Logistics and Distribution purposes. Therefore, the most logical way forward is that these attributes can be offered to the MoD by the loyal and long serving civil service workforce whenever called upon. By utilising these skills together with the centralised location of MOD Bicester offers a winning formula for future excellence of delivery to the Armed Forces when considering any future operational requirements.”
I fully recognise that Members of Parliament who represent Donnington, Ashchurch or other locations and depots will have different arguments. I accept that, but in the context of this debate my point is that the House can be assured that if the trade unions at Bicester felt that something was systemically wrong with how the depot was being run they would be making it clear, not just to me but to Labour Front-Bench colleagues—people such as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who used to be assistant general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and visited Bicester regularly during that time. I am quite sure that if the trade unions felt that something was going systemically wrong at Bicester they would have made it clear to leading members of the Labour party and to the Labour Front-Bench team.
I am the MP for Telford. Donnington falls within the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), but is about 150 yards from the boundary of mine, and many of my constituents work at what I will call the depot at Donnington, mirroring what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) calls the depot at Bicester. Clearly, he is making a pitch for Bicester, but I argue that Donnington is an ideal location for the work.
It is important that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has secured this debate. I am interested in the fact that, if further changes are made to how logistics operate in this country, they must be considered on a level playing field. If we are to make decisions about the future location of logistics work, we must use information that is even and level across the sites and easily understandable. We must be able to compare sites properly. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that will be done.
I do not think that the Minister or any of us would disagree with that. The point that I am making is that the hon. Gentleman who introduced this debate did so on the basis that systemic failures and abuses of practice were occurring at Bicester. My response is that he has not produced any evidence. Further, if there were any such evidence, I assure him that that it would have been drawn to the attention of management, politicians, the House and me by the trade unions and that it would have been investigated.
I understand, of course, that in the run-up to ministerial decisions about the future of defence logistics, there are some around the country who will have an interest in rubbishing Bicester, but I am sorry that it has been done in such a way. I will come to what I think would have been the correct way to deal with the matter.
It is no part of my function to rubbish Bicester. I came across something that looked doubtful, and I raised it appropriately. Let us be fair: the hon. Gentleman was with me when I met the head of logistics. When I put the accusations to him, he said, “That may well have happened, yes; we’re not perfect,” and so on. They are not groundless. By the way, I am a Privy Counsellor.
I apologise if I did not refer to the right hon. Gentleman as such. He should not be quite so touchy. What Neil Firth said at that meeting was, as everyone would concede, that thousands of items go out from Bicester each day, and errors are always possible, particularly as priority is set not by Bicester but by the requesting unit.
A little while ago, a constituent of mine, who left Bicester shortly afterwards on voluntary agreement, made allegations not dissimilar to those made by the right hon. Gentleman, relating to boots and one or two other items. He did not assert that there were systemic failures at Bicester, but he thought that occasionally, boots and other things were made more costly than necessary. I immediately took up the matter with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence, and the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) responded. In fairness, in response to my letter, a full investigation was carried out at Bicester. The Minister for the Armed Forces said, perfectly fairly:
“Every day, consignments and routes are developed to ensure that freight carriage is optimised and the use of commercial hauliers balanced against in-house resources. Of course, from time to time, routing errors do occur, but this must be placed in context. On a daily basis the JSCS”,
joint support chain services,
“handles between 8,000 and 10,000 transactions, of which the large majority are delivered on time and in the most cost-effective way. Indeed, the costs of transport have been reduced by £10 million in the past two years against 2008 operating costs and the level of service improved from a success rate of 80% of transactions completed on time based on 10 working days to a success rate of 95% based on seven working days.”
Suggestions were made about agency staff. The Minister for the Armed Forces said:
“Of course there are occasions when agency staff will be required to supplement existing staff resources, for example to respond to increases in demand and to meet operational needs. In such cases, existing MOD-wide commercial arrangements are used which ensure that agency staff are employed at the most cost-effective rate.”
He went on to conclude:
“JSCS is an operational organisation that exists to meet the often urgent requirements of the armed forces. The organisation, therefore, has to balance these demands against achieving value for money for the taxpayer. The 2009-10 annual report and accounts clearly demonstrate that operating costs are now 28% less than they were six years ago, but that service delivery has significantly improved.”
I suspect that if every public service could show a 28% improvement over six years, we would all be grateful.
There are two issues in respect of Bicester that I should like the Minister to hear. First, I genuinely believe that defence logistics should be consolidated at Bicester, for the reasons that I have said. I also suspect that, as part of that, the private sector will increasingly need to be involved, as it is currently involved, not least when investing in new logistics sheds, warehousing and equipment at Bicester. However, age is an issue. Bicester’s existing work force are loyal and have worked there for a long time, and being civil servants is an important part of their lives. I hope that if changes are made at Bicester, transitional changes will be possible whereby those with civil service status can retain it if new private sector investors and partners start to work more with the MOD on logistics handling, support and delivery. I am sure that that is possible.
I invite the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to come to Bicester. He is welcome to visit, and to come with me to meet the trade unions of Bicester, so that he can put his allegations and assertions to them and the work force at first hand. I think that he would be interested in their detailed response, but he would also see the huge land footprint at Bicester. It has a lot of surplus space that is not being used as effectively as it might be. I have no idea why, in the first world war, such a huge area of land was taken for those purposes at Bicester. The rumour is that it was to resist zeppelin attacks. That is a matter of history, but we have an enormous amount of space; we are at the heart of the country; and we have excellent rail and road connections.
Rather than an investigation into unfounded allegations about what is said to have gone wrong at Bicester, it would be more helpful to have a review of how to get the maximum potential for the country out of the Bicester estate, both for the defence industries and in terms of releasing surplus land for other commercial and residential use. The potential is considerable.
I do not think that the assertions made by the right hon. Gentleman have any substance. There is no smoking gun. In an operation as large as that at Bicester, things will occasionally go wrong, but I suspect that other logistics operations such as DHL, the Post Office and Amazon are not always perfect. I do not think that the percentage of error is greater in defence logistics than in any other major logistics operation.
To conclude, I return to the first line of the Library briefing for the debate:
“Bicester’s MP has called for the Ministry of Defence to consolidate its UK logistic operations in Bicester.”
No, certainly not. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has raised issues that give serious cause for concern, and I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response. Many of his allegations are entirely new, and his written questions have obviously started the ball rolling.
The reform of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency at Bicester and in other parts of the country, including Plymouth, has not been straightforward. Problems have arisen along the way, and the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) alluded to some of them.
From meetings and correspondence I had with the MOD and trade unions in my constituency, I know there were concerns at the time about how the new set-up would operate and—this relates particularly to the weapons operating centre at Plymouth—about the care taken over the management and movement of explosives. In Plymouth, genuine concerns were raised about how the new, more centralised logistics arrangements and the transport of explosives—perhaps by less experienced operatives—would operate and about what safety procedures would be put in place. There were also concerns about stock levels and value for money.
The unions in Plymouth worked not only to inform those involved in the decision-making process of where they saw weaknesses, but to protect their members. Locally, they highlighted areas where efficiency could be improved and waste could be prevented. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the unions worked with the changes to make sure there was no waste.
Under the Government’s proposals, there is the potential for further changes at Bicester. The debate revolves around the competition introduced under the previous Government and the introduction of couriers through the outsourcing of transportation. There is also the issue of the apparent mismanagement at Bicester, which the right hon. Gentleman suggested could be on an industrial scale and with the purpose of fattening up the organisation for a sell-off to the private sector.
Clearly, what has happened must be urgently reviewed given the seriousness of what has been said, and particularly given that the Government will want to be able to take their logistics commodities transformation programme forward as planned. Failure to answer some of the questions that have been raised could lead to uncertainty about the plans for the Bicester site.
One such question is just how open the discussion of the options has been. Will the Bicester distribution centre be revamped and become much larger? Could it disappear altogether and become a housing estate? Such questions have been, and are indeed being, asked, and they lead to insecurity and uncertainty for those still employed at Bicester. Are there other options, perhaps including Donnington or Marchwood, which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) mentioned?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I will come back to later.
The Government must be concerned that other factors, such as the drop in land values, are not helping their decision making, and nor is the fact that parts of the Bicester site are contaminated. Such factors have contributed to the MOD’s apparently defensive mindset over the future of the site and the work that goes on there. However, there appears to be much more behind such concerns, as we have heard today.
As the hon. Member for Banbury made clear, we need evidence, so transparency is hugely important. We need transparency in the relationship between the civil service and Ministers. Obviously, there are constraints regarding commercially sensitive material, and there are wider security concerns. However, one or more whistleblowers have come forward, and the right hon. Gentleman has asked written questions.
The “whistleblowers” do not come from Bicester; indeed, they would not need to be whistleblowers. I can assure the hon. Lady that if those working at Bicester thought there was a concern, they would be on the telephone to her, as fellow members of the Labour party, explaining that something was wrong.
The hon. Gentleman has a fair point: if such people were trade union members, they might well have come to members of the Labour party. However, I do not know who has spoken to the right hon. Gentleman, and I assume the hon. Gentleman does not know either. I am talking generally about people who feel they have seen something in their workplace that is inappropriate or that constitutes extreme waste. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman, from his perspective, has not had adequate answers to the written questions he tabled. This process started more than a year ago, and these issues were highlighted a year ago, so why do some of these things appear to have been pushed under the carpet?
Obviously, I will check what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I think he did not get the statistics he asked for because they went back to 2005, and we did not have them. I think that will be the reason, but I will check. However, I reject the claim that there was any lack of transparency.
The Minister is a decent man, and I take his response absolutely at face value. However, it would be helpful if he could check. No one takes becoming a whistleblower lightly, so if somebody felt strongly enough to become one, it is important that their allegations are fully investigated.
In written answers to the right hon. Gentleman over the past year, the Minister has indicated that savings had been achieved or were expected to be achieved at MOD Bicester. However, as we have heard, the right hon. Gentleman feels that those figures are inaccurate, and they are being seriously questioned. Indeed, inefficiencies such as Government trucks turning up at the same time as outsourced vehicles cannot be right, and I ask the Minister what monitoring is, or could be, undertaken to check on such things so that we can take action if there are, in fact, discrepancies.
How much duplication has there been? Have costs been inflated? Those are perfectly reasonable questions, and they deserve an answer. I assume the Minister is confident of the veracity of the information he has received. We need to have confidence in the data we are given. When Ministers make decisions—this reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford—the data they base them on should be factually correct.
My next question is slightly tangential. Has there been any Cabinet Office involvement in this matter, given that it concerns civil servants and data? There is a Cabinet Office responsibility in there somewhere, particularly if a civil servant is involved in whistleblowing. As I say, that is a small point, but I would be interested to know the answer.
There is an issue here that transcends Governments; it was a problem for the Labour Government, and it is clearly an ongoing problem for the current Government. Waste and cost overruns happen, but Ministers—of whatever party—have a duty to the public, as well as to those they work with, to ensure that we understand how they happen.
The Government’s role as a client is also important, and there is the issue of how goods and services are procured. The Minister knows better than most that he is working towards a procurement strategy. I hope—I am sure the Chief of Defence Matériel wants this, too—that there will be a degree of openness and transparency to ensure that value-for-money benchmarks, which look attractive at first sight, actually deliver the savings the Government want further down the line.
I could go on about worries about loss of experienced civil servants and skills in the Department, but that would be extremely tangential to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman. We want to avoid a reoccurrence of the concerns that he raised. Therefore, in closing, apart from reiterating the importance of transparency, I want to ask the Minister what processes the Department will now follow to ensure that the evidence is gleaned from the right hon. Gentleman, if he has it, and that it is properly investigated. We need to find out why and how information appears to have been distorted through the process in question, and whether that was by accident or intent. It is important to understand it, and I hope that the Minister can offer us not only an explanation but some reassurance.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) on securing the debate. He was kind enough to say some generous things about me, and I say them back to him. He is a gentleman whom I respect very much, and we have worked together for many years in the House—for more than 20 years, to be precise. All that I would say to him is that I think there is a scandal in logistics, but it is not the one that he thinks. I shall come on to that.
I reject the right hon. Gentleman’s underlying assumption. He sees a conspiracy where there is none. The suggestion of fattening up for some kind of killing is just wrong. We had an opportunity to discuss these matters yesterday, but he pulled that meeting, having had a meeting with Neil Firth and colleagues. I think that he has misrepresented what he was told at that meeting, although I was not there, so I cannot be sure. From what I heard, he got a very different story from the one he has reported to the House today.
In that case, I will make the specific rebuttal now. It is true that the right hon. Gentleman was told that mistakes are likely to be made. There are 8,000 deliveries a day across the logistics operation. If 99% of them go right and 1% go wrong, that is 80 a day that go wrong. That is a lot of anecdotal attacks to make on an organisation that is basically being well run. He was told that mistakes are inevitably made, but against a background of 8,000 daily deliveries, it is unfair to assert some kind of systematic error, inefficiency or corruption. That is the problem that we have.
I will study the detailed assertions made by the right hon. Gentleman. I will not be able to respond to them all during the debate. I shall write to him and to the other hon. Members who have participated in the debate, as best I can, as I look at the matters individually, though I think that I shall be able to satisfy him on all questions—at least if he is prepared to be open-minded about the answers. I assure him that if any company or Ministry of Defence official has acted inappropriately, it will not be tolerated, and action will be taken. We have a zero-tolerance policy on those matters, as I know from several occasions during my two years in my post.
I would say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) that there is an inefficiency and fraud hotline at the Ministry of Defence, so that anyone with a concern about inefficiency or fraud can ring up, completely securely—whistleblowing is entirely encouraged in the Ministry of Defence—and make the allegation. I am aware of no such allegation of impropriety in the logistics organisation being made on the hotline. If someone has gone to the right hon. Gentleman with specific allegations that is their democratic right—I do not want to stop them doing that—but I wish that they had come to me through the fraud hotline and enabled me to address such concerns sooner, if they exist.
To be fair to the hon. Lady, I did not ask. I will check that, but I am sure that they would have been drawn to my attention had they been made. It is a fair question to ask, and I cannot give her a guarantee. There has been no Cabinet Office involvement, though; I assure her of that.
I will not arbitrate on Donnington and Bicester today. I have been to Bicester. I shall go to Donnington in July. I shall be even-handed, entirely, I promise both the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I shall not be arbitrating there. I think that I shall be able to give the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View the reassurance that she wanted on all the fundamental points she made in her speech, because this is a bipartisan issue.
Successive Governments over decades have dealt with problems with logistics, which is often the Cinderella of defence, and to which insufficient political attention is often given. That is one reason why I welcome the debate. It is good that the subject should be exposed in the House, and good to have the opportunity to record some of the remarkable achievements of people who work in logistics, often in adverse circumstances.
I think that I detected in the speech of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd—if I am wrong I apologise to him straight away—an underlying hostility to the role that the private sector can play in delivering defence outputs more effectively. We, like the previous Government—it is a bipartisan policy—have found that using the private sector appropriately enables significantly better outcomes to be achieved for defence. Many of the things that we are doing in the logistics operation build on decisions made by the previous Government. We understand the role that the private sector can play.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no information that it is proper to put in the public domain, within the limits of commercial confidentiality, has been concealed. Detailed information is available, for example, on each and every contractor involved—I think that 17 are on the list—including exactly how much money they are paid and exactly what they do. I have written to members of the Public Accounts Committee with that information. I have the schedule here, and if we have time before the Division in the House is called, I may even read out all 17 names, what the contractors do and how much they were paid in 2010-11. I shall make sure that the information is available to the right hon. Gentleman after the debate.
No information is concealed. Indeed, the National Audit Office rightly goes over logistics regularly, and another NAO report is due out in the fairly near future. If the NAO has not spotted such things as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about, and all the information is genuinely available, I am frankly suspicious about whether the allegations have any foundation. However, I will double check. Question after question has been answered, and nothing that it would be improper to conceal will be concealed. Some information, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View was kind enough to note, sometimes must be kept private for reasons of commercial confidentiality. That is frustrating for politicians and democrats, but sometimes it is important. However, we shall be as open as we possibly can.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and will address some of his points in my speech—I have already done so in part; but I want to explain a little more about logistics commodities and services at Bicester, and the wider operation, to put his remarks in context. The organisation provides remarkable support to the UK armed forces, particularly to those serving on deployed operations, not just in Afghanistan but particularly there. LCS Bicester is one of three main storage and distribution depots for non-explosive stores, operated by Defence Equipment and Support. The other two are LCS Donnington, in Shropshire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Telford, where I am going in July, and LCS Dulmen, in Germany. The role of those sites is to receive, store, maintain, issue and distribute non-explosive matériel on behalf of the UK armed forces and other Departments.
Last year, the National Audit Office published a report called “The use of information to manage the logistics supply chain”. In that report, the NAO—it is not I, a Minister, saying this, but the NAO—acknowledged the improved performance of the MOD’s supply chain and its effectiveness in supporting our forces in Afghanistan. In particular, the NAO’s report noted that the operational supply chain is more complex than the standard industry supply chain, which is not something that people often acknowledge.
To pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, the UK’s delivery performance is comparable with that of commercial operators. We are doing as well as the commercial sector, which is a great tribute to all those involved, and a significant achievement. That is why I am suspicious about the allegations made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.
The defence equipment and support logistics commodities and services operating centre, of which MOD Bicester is a part, is key to the successful delivery of those services. The defence inventory is huge, complex and comprehensive. As at 31 December 2011, the gross book value of the inventory, excluding explosive stores, was about £29 billion. That represents 500,000 different line items, covering everything from clothing to medical supplies and engine parts. Those items are distributed to approximately 3,500 sites across the UK and around the world. Up to 8,000 issues are sent every day—some 1.2 million every year—ranging from small washers to aircraft wings. That is indeed a huge and complex operation. Given the sheer volume of items moved by the organisation—I am in no way complacent, because we do not tolerate error, either—it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made.
Turning to one mistake in particular that the right hon. Gentleman has made much of in the past, there is an appropriate saying: a lie is around the world while the truth is getting its boots on. Let us look at those boots once more. An item that should be routinely requested is sometimes marked as urgent by the unit itself; or items may be sent individually when they could be packaged together. That is normally the fault of the requesting unit.
In the specific case of the boots couriered to a unit in Northern Ireland, which the right hon. Gentleman raised at Prime Minister’s questions, that is exactly what happened. The unit used the wrong process to order the boots. It realised the mistake too late. I am not going to allow civil servants to override front-line decisions and say, “We do not think that is urgent. The officers in charge might think it is urgent, but we disagree.” That would not be right. The responsibility lies with the unit to use the appropriate requesting process.
What happened in this instance was a regrettable mistake, which the unit tried to correct too late. It was not corruption; it was not fraud; and it was not improper. It was a straightforward human error. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not repeat his assertion. I am entirely satisfied that there was no fraud involved at all. The mistake was made by the Army, which it regretted and tried to correct.
I cannot guarantee that such mistakes will not happen again—we are all human beings who have feet of clay and who make mistakes—but I am absolutely confident that this is not a systematic problem. The right hon. Gentleman made that assertion in his speech, but I dissent from that view firmly and absolutely.
LCS Bicester is a well-run operation, which I am sure is also true of Donnington. The restructuring of the former Defence Storage and Distribution Agency—DSDA, of which LCS Bicester was a part—has produced significant savings. The FDSCi—future defence supply chain initiative—report, which followed the DSDA restructuring, was published in November 2009 by the previous Government and presented to the House, and I would be happy to send the right hon. Gentleman a copy. It forms the basis of my remarks today and represents more information in the public domain, which I hope will reassure him.
Between 31 March 2008 and 31 March 2012, the operating costs of DSDA and its defence equipment and support units fell from £285 million to £231 million a year. That represents a reduction of nearly 20% over four years. When calculated on a like-for-like basis, taking into account inflation, the cost of improved service and other exceptional one-off costs, the saving is 26%. That is an impressive achievement for which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View should take her fair share of credit, on behalf of the previous Government, who initiated some of the changes.
Similarly, the cost of transporting MOD equipment has fallen by 21% over the same five-period period. I repeat that I have the detailed information on the use of companies and couriers that I would be happy to share with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I will resist the temptation to read them all into the record, because it is a long list. I am surprised that he highlighted Palletways in particular. I assure him that there are people on the distribution list who get paid more than Palletways. Again, on a like-for-like basis, allowing for the impact of inflation and so on, the saving on the transport costs is 29%. It is 29% cheaper in real terms, which is a big achievement. A key performance is the average cost per transaction—the processing of an issue of receipt. The equivalent cost has fallen from £103 per transaction for the financial year ending 31 March 2008 to £79 per transaction in the year ending 31 March 2012. That is an increase in efficiency of 23%. Those are good and impressive figures.
Over the same period—I appreciate that this is a good news, bad news story—manpower numbers have reduced by more than 2,100 posts and the service to the customer has significantly improved. The average customer wait time—this is a really impressive statistic—has fallen from about 49 days to four days. That is an important figure, considering that our armed forces are heavily committed in operations in, for example, Afghanistan. I pay an even-handed tribute to both Bicester and Donnington in that respect. The operation of LCS Bicester and the two other main storage and distribution depots is a genuine success story. If there were an hon. Member for a German constituency and if they were present, I would congratulate him or her as well, although storage and distribution represent only one element of the management of our equipment.
We are proud of the spares and equipment availability in operational theatres such as Afghanistan, as it ensures that commanders are not constrained in conducting their missions. The same could be said for the manner in which we supported Operation Ellamy in Libya, which was another success for a logistics operation. Support for such operations must be our first priority.
Nevertheless—this is the scandal to which I alluded in my opening remarks—there is no disputing the fact that the defence inventory is, and has been for many years, too large in both value and volume and that any avoidable delay in reducing it will create many future challenges. We have to deal with the issue. There are a number of reasons for this situation. Many items are bespoke and have been purchased in bulk, based on an estimate of need stretching across several years, even decades in some cases. Other items are purchased with a view to ensuring that sufficient stocks are available to deal with a sudden surge for a short-notice or large-scale military deployment. However, that is far from the whole story.
There is a legacy—I am not making a point about the previous Government—of under-investment in the information systems to track and manage stores. The truth, as I said during my opening remarks, is that logistics is the Cinderella of defence, and that is manifest in this case. It does not seem to be a priority for investment, but it should be. Too often, the Department is unable to locate with confidence what it holds. It thinks and is reasonably sure that it has something, but it just cannot prove it to accounting standards quality when it should be able to. Moreover, it has often held too much just in case something happens.
I visited some of the warehouses in Bicester recently—I met my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury immediately before I saw them—and they are jaw-dropping. Stuff is being held that simply should not be held and it should be disposed of. The £29 billion stock holding is far too high. Too much inventory is stored for too long and at too great a cost to the taxpayer.
This is not just a British problem. Army surplus stores exist around the world. The situation seems endemic to defence, but we must cope with it. The inventory is large and it is growing, and we are determined to tackle it head-on. We have not been idle. The Department is making progress in improving inventory disposal through the stock transition programme, which was set up to meet Treasury targets to reduce inventory holdings in our main storage and distribution depots. We have arrested the rate of growth—it is still growing—in the defence inventory as a result of those disposal measures, and we are committed to bringing purchasing activity under much stricter control.
In December 2010, I announced to the House the introduction of the future logistics information services project, which represents a step-change improvement to the quality of logistics information available to the armed forces. It will ensure the long-term delivery of operationally essential logistics information to both the MOD and industry, and the significant financial efficiencies will contribute to the Government’s strategic deficit reduction programme, without reducing operational capability.
One of the logistics information systems that will be managed under FLIS is the management of the joint deployed inventory, or MJDI—I love these acronyms—which is now up and running and has reached its initial operating capability. MJDI will bring huge improvements, enabling the entire deployed inventory—the inventory that is overseas on service—to be seen on one system. It will encourage better use of stock, which in turn will lead to reduced repeat demands, lower stock levels and saved costs in storage and transport, all generating improved operational performance. Importantly, it will enable operational commanders to make informed decisions based on accurate and timely information.
To give a specific and important example, a four-year Bowman radio equipment asset management improvement programme was introduced in 2010. Since then, we have made good progress and a coherent and auditable inventory baseline has been established. It is not rocket science, but it is hugely important and we are doing it. Process improvement in the way in which the data are captured and managed will in future enable the Department to identify and track assets more effectively. This is really important stuff.
We recognise the importance of having a comprehensive corporate strategy to tackle the myriad complex issues, and have commissioned the development of a strategic plan for the management of the defence inventory. It is intended to deliver the correct conditions to incentivise and mandate improved inventory purchasing and disposal behaviours. We have a lot of attics at the MOD, and they are too full of stuff. We need to get rid of stuff, as well as acquire stuff more thoughtfully. The strategic plan is a significant piece of work and it has just completed phase 1 of its milestone.
The financial savings and efficiencies secured by LCS Bicester and all the storage and distribution sites over the past five years are impressive, but, as I have already said, there is a long way to go if we are to provide the best possible support to military operations and maintain the agreed quality and service to our armed forces.
In response to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, in August 2010, I announced that DSDA would renounce its agency status and that a new organisation, the logistics commodities and services operating centre, which brings together the key commodities purchasing, storage and distribution elements of the Department into one organisation, had been created. LCS Bicester is part of the LCS operating centre. The primary role for LCS is to provide support to military operation and force generation by undertaking procurement and inventory management of all non-explosive commodity items, including food, clothing, fuel and medical supplies; the storage and distribution of those commodity items, together with all other non-explosive stock across defence; the disposal of surplus MOD equipment and the operation of the British Forces Post Office.
LCS is currently developing a transformation project, which aims to consider how we can improve further our inventory management and stock control, rationalise current stock holdings—we are trying to thin them down, rather than fatten them up—and improve and rationalise storage infrastructure. That will include releasing surplus for disposal, which will be of interest to the hon. Member for Telford and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. The project will also seek to improve commodity procurement and logistic processes, and optimise the size of the LCS organisation itself. The storage infrastructure requires investment to improve its condition and to rationalise the numerous dispersed locations.
Should the programme be taken forward—frankly, I expect that it will be—the first step will be to initiate an assessment phase, to explore the alternative delivery models available and whether they represent value for money, which I think addresses one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. The work would explore two options for delivering support in the future: industry integration and an in-house developed value for money benchmark. That review will consider all existing facilities. I emphasise that it is far too early to say what the implications will be for individual sites and that no decisions have been made.
In advance of the work at Bicester, however, a planning application for the retained footprint and for the sale and development of surplus land has been submitted to Cherwell district council, to prepare the way to the approach to defence logistics and to secure the value of the surplus land.
We must not forget that it is the people who work at LCS Bicester, Donnington and the other sites associated with it who make logistics operations succeed. The efficiencies and improvements that have been implemented at those sites are testimony to the quality of the people whom we employ, and I am grateful to them for what they do. I have met many of them and know that they are focused on providing the best support to our service personnel deployed on operations. I fully understand the vital role that they play. They are rightly proud of what they have achieved, and they continue to achieve a great deal.
I am enormously grateful for the commitment and dedication of all those who work to ensure that our armed forces receive the best logistics support possible. It is our job to ensure that the right framework is in place to make it work. That challenge has been ducked for too long—for decades, not just in recent years. Indeed, arguably we are addressing decades of neglect in these issues, and it will take time to deal with them. The change will come, but it will come slowly and incrementally. I am determined that we should improve the way that we do things.
If the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd contain any significant truth, I will, of course, want to address them very honestly and frankly. We need to do the best we possibly can to ensure that our armed forces can fight and defend our freedom as effectively as they have done in the past.
High Speed 2 (Scotland)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this short debate, Mr Havard. I thank hon. Members for their attendance this afternoon and for their possible participation but, given the short time, I hope there will be only a few interventions.
To assist, I will briefly set out what I plan to cover. First, I will make a short reference to progress made in other countries, but principally I will put forward a case for the extension of High Speed 2 to Scotland, highlight some of the underpinning issues and, finally, pose some fundamental questions to the Minister.
High-speed rail is almost 50 years old, having been initiated in Japan in 1964, from Tokyo to Osaka. In its first year it carried 23 million passengers. Thirty years ago, France, Spain and Germany followed suit with HSR connections between and within those countries. There has been a quantum modal shift from aviation to rail, which has brought economic and environmental benefits. In those countries, passenger percentage to rail has increased dramatically and overall numbers have mushroomed. In addition to addressing capacity shortages successfully, new HSR demonstrated what can be achieved with economic growth and regeneration. In France, for example, HSR not only supported growth in already highly competitive cities such as Lyons, but improved the economic potential of previously declining urban centres such as Lille. There has been a big dividend to those cities and to Paris itself, and expanded tourist travel to Mediterranean countries.
Throughout that period, sadly, the UK seems to have existed in some kind of time warp, which beggars belief. The UK seems to have suffered from a condition called simultanagnosia, more commonly referred to as vision blindness or, as we say in Scotland, “cannae see the wood for the trees”. Despite the undoubted success of HSR in many countries over the past 30 years, successive UK Governments have been reluctant—indeed, remarkably resistant—to grasp the opportunities and undoubted dividends that HSR can bring. The only UK investment in HSR is the 69 miles from London to the channel tunnel.
The fact that the UK has been so slow to adopt more high-speed rail is surely a strong argument for starting to plan work for HS2 to Scotland. If it is left somewhere down the line for planning to start in 15 years, it will be the end of the century before HS2 goes to Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not agree more with his sentiments. There is huge potential in opening up the gateway to continental Europe, but we have failed so far to fulfil that potential.
It was refreshing to read in the coalition’s programme for government in May 2010:
“We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy. Our vision is of a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain.”
I emphasise the words “truly national network”. I welcome the belated commitment by the Government, and not just the present Government, to the programme, but the current programme seems to lack ambition in both the extent of the network and the time scale for implementation. As my hon. Friend said, now is the time to be bold, decisive and determined to deliver a high-speed rail service that meets the needs of the whole UK, not just south and middle England. Vision without action is sometimes described as daydreaming, so let us be clear that the vision is of an inclusive, first-class, high-speed rail service for the UK as a whole and in a much tighter time scale than has been proposed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him before the debate. He has proposed a powerful case for HS2 to Scotland, and the need for a connection to Stranraer. That is important because it would provide a connection to Northern Ireland from Stranraer via Larne. That high-speed connection would be an advantage for everyone in the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. The Minister will no doubt want to respond to his suggestion, because high-speed rail should be for the whole UK, not just part of it.
Any interim measures to speed up conventional transport links on the west coast main line will be welcome, but high-speed rail north of Manchester must be a priority. The second-class hybrid system that was mooted recently will not meet the key objectives of increasing capacity, reducing congestion and reducing passenger travel times to just over 2 hours. Routes to and from Scotland are already significantly constrained, and running hybrid trains will not improve that. Furthermore, if Scotland is not included, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be comparatively further away than their main competitors, which will be served by truly high-speed lines. As the Minister said,
“If we sit back and fail to deal with the capacity time bomb set to explode within the next 10 to 20 years, we will do lasting damage to our economy.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 319WH.]
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate, and I take on board fully his point that a hybrid system is wholly inadequate. Nevertheless, there are some issues, particularly for those of us on the east coast, because the suggestion seems to be that in the first phase the hybrid trains would run from Birmingham up the west coast. I am interested in his views on that. Would it be reasonable to reroute services to the east coast via that route because even a 30-minute reduction would make a substantial difference to some of the environmental choices that people make between rail and air?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comment, and no doubt the Minister will want to pick that up. My view is certainly that we must consider not just the west coast main line option, but the whole UK. The case for high-speed rail is central not peripheral, and is overwhelming. US Vice-President Joe Biden reminded us recently that
“Public infrastructure investment raises private sector productivity”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree that extending high-speed rail to Scotland is central and not peripheral. Indeed, I have made similar comments in the House. It is a UK project, and we are in a United Kingdom, so we have the critical mass to ensure that we can deliver it and that it reaches into Scotland to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Does he share my fear that if we ever faced the prospect of Scotland being separated, this UK project would not happen, and we in Scotland could lose out?
My hon. Friend anticipates part of my argument. I will cover that later.
Turning to public sector infrastructure, there has been criticism about Scotland being overdependent on the public sector. Surely a high-speed link to Scotland would enhance the opportunities for the private sector and provide a greater balance within the economy. In essence, if we want to shape the future, we must create it. There is certainly unanimity in Scotland that high-speed rail that reaches the parts that others cannot reach must be a priority—I believe that is called the Heineken factor.
When the Government announced that HS2 would go ahead, a commitment was given to work with the Scottish Government and others on how to improve capacity between north and south. There is overwhelming consensus for HSR in Scotland across the political spectrum, including transport bodies, local, national and multinational businesses, civic society, trade unions and environmental groups. That unity of spirit and purpose stems from clarity about the perceived benefits.
Fundamentally, high-speed rail will bring three dividends to Scotland. First, there is capacity: as well as providing new services for passengers, it will free up space on traditional lines for freight and local passenger trains, reducing delays and congestion. Increased pressure on capacity is already impacting on service reliability and punctuality. Despite the welcome improvements that might be made, there will not be radical improvement on the existing framework. Secondly, high-speed rail would offer huge environmental benefits, because the modal shift from air to rail will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. It would also ensure adequate air slots for planes from the more peripheral parts of the UK, at a time when our airports are experiencing further congestion. In written evidence to the Transport Committee, Transport Scotland and Network Rail stated, significantly, that
“our evidence indicates that the extension of HSR to Scotland would significantly improve the benefit to costs ratio.”
There therefore appear to be huge dividends for the UK as a whole, and a high-speed rail link would also reduce our unhealthy overdependence on oil fuelled transport—a welcome strategic shift that would reduce relative transport costs.
Thirdly, HSR would contribute significantly to stimulating Scotland’s economy and promoting new business growth and regeneration. It would attract inward investment to Scotland, stimulate industry and be a further catalyst to tourism. The central belt contains more than 3.5 million people, a population similar in magnitude to that of the west midlands and Manchester. High-speed connectivity with other major population centres in the UK will be vital to sustain economic activity and promote growth.
Edinburgh is the second most popular destination for tourists from overseas after London, and it hosts a vibrant financial services sector that is the seventh most competitive in Europe. The area is home to a wide array of innovative companies that are investing in research and new technologies such as biotechnology, electronics and renewables. The economy of the Glasgow region accounts for 36% of Scottish exports. Glasgow is the second most popular city in the UK for inward investment, and contains the second largest retail sector. It retains a strong manufacturing base in aerospace, defence and marine industries, and accounts for one in three jobs in the tourism, food and drink and construction sectors.
High-speed rail could play a vital role in making innovative developments in Scotland and ensuring that we champion the business opportunities that we could expect within a new framework. Evidence clearly indicates that the case for high-speed rail in the UK is stronger when Scotland is included. The Scottish Partnership Group, which has representatives from across business, trade unions and the transport industry, reinforces the economic dividends. Iain McMillan from CBI Scotland notes the positive business case for ensuring Scotland’s inclusion in HSR:
“Good transport links and external connectivity to principal markets are vital to Scotland’s economic success. We are encouraged by the report’s focus on ensuring the development of this key infrastructure project, conscious of Scotland’s physical position on the periphery of Europe and the greater consequential need to provide key links to hubs and markets.”
Colin Borland from the Federation of Small Businesses indicates that
“productivity will increase and it will help Scottish businesses to compete.”
Liz Cameron from the Scottish chamber of commerce emphasises that
“we must be beneficiaries, not victims of HSR.”
A host of highly respected companies have added their unqualified support to the extension of HSR to the central belt. They include Dell, Siemens, Barclays and Sistemic, to name but a few. Some 75% of businesses that were recently canvassed were strongly in support of the extension of HS2 to Scotland.
High-speed rail would bring huge economic and environmental benefits to Scotland and the UK, but although there is a strong consensus on the need for HSR, there is, regrettably, huge uncertainty about the future of such a rail link to Scotland. There has been some support for the idea of starting a high-speed link from Scotland at the same time as building from London as a sign of good faith and commitment, but there is a major stumbling block because if Scotland voted for separation, HSR would surely remain on the drawing board. Even if an independent Scotland were to find the resources to finance HSR from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the border, who would pay for the high-speed link from Manchester to Carlisle and beyond? There would be no economic imperative for the UK taxpayer, and no political incentive for UK MPs to extend HS2 beyond Manchester.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I agree with every word he said. What concerns me is what will happen if the Scottish National party gets its way in Scotland. As a Conservative and Unionist politician, I want a national UK rail network. Is this not a real opportunity for us all to work together? We have had many debates on HS2 in the House, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that it goes ahead from London to Birmingham to Manchester and to Leeds, and indeed up to Scotland.
Absolutely; I could not agree more. HS2 should be a phased programme, hopefully with an accelerated time scale.
The Scottish Minister for Housing and Transport, Keith Brown, is right about the need for HSR to reach Scotland, but he is clearly stronger in economics than in politics. By implication, he concedes that Scotland would become an economic backwater if it becomes a separate nation, and that it could not deliver a vital link to our biggest export market.
Does the Minister accept that political certainty—in so far as that can ever be achieved—is essential to ensure that any future HSR development comes to fruition as quickly as possible? Completion of HS2 is likely to span the lifetime of several Parliaments, and achieving the vision of a high-speed network will require cross-party political support, a clear commitment from the Government about their intention to proceed north of Manchester, and clarity about Scotland’s position on whether it is to become a separate state or remain within the UK. The key question for the UK Government is whether they would invest beyond Manchester and Leeds if Scotland were to become a separate nation.
What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about high-speed rail? Does she accept the various research findings that indicate clearly that connectivity to Scotland would make the UK business case for HSR stronger rather than weaker, because the maximum dividends would occur with the potential modal shift from air to train? Does she agree that HS2 will bring significant economic benefits to Scotland in particular in terms of inward investment, regeneration and tourism? A two-hour journey time from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London is attractive, particularly in terms of the effective use of precious time.
I have already mentioned the view that without HS2 Scotland could become an economic backwater, and I reinforce the point that although upgrading the west coast main line would be helpful in its initial stages, it is not an overall solution to the problems in the system. Indeed, some would argue that that would be merely tinkering with the system and a token gesture.
To conclude, does the Minister agree that what is now required is a commitment and the tenacity to achieve the preferred network in as short a time as possible? That will strengthen our international economic competitiveness, reduce carbon emissions, transform our internal strategic network and meet capacity demands. For too long we have suffered from what I would call vision blight, and we need such a commitment to take things forward. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the UK Government and businesses to work together with other political parties and businesses to turn into reality the vision of an interconnected high-speed rail network that encompasses Scotland and other areas, and provide a commitment to achieve that well before 2033. Given the weight of evidence, I trust that the Minister will confirm her commitment to considering the extension of HS2 in a more appropriate time scale.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Havard, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) on a thoughtful and well informed speech on an important topic. I, too, thank other hon. Members for attending the debate. I agreed with almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, in particular that successfully delivering a high-speed rail network is in large part assisted by and dependent on maintaining cross-party consensus. We are grateful for the consensus that we have seen on this matter to date, and the attendance at today’s debate demonstrates the support for high-speed rail across parties and in different parts of the United Kingdom.
The ability to travel quickly and efficiently between the UK’s productive centres is vital for commerce to thrive and for businesses to create jobs and invest in our country. High Speed 2 is a core element of the Government’s vision for a transport system that is an engine of economic growth, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted. A new national high-speed rail network will deliver massive benefits in capacity, connectivity and reliability, which will help to underpin prosperity right across Britain and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.
I fully recognise that there is tremendous support for high-speed rail in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, recent evidence for that is provided by the “Fast Track Scotland” report of the Scottish Partnership Group, which comprises a wide range of business groups, local authorities and the Scottish Government. We all share a vision for faster journeys that bring the constituent parts of our island closer together.
The hon. Gentleman focused strongly on the need to take high-speed rail to Scotland as soon as possible. The coalition agreement makes it clear that our ultimate goal is a genuinely national network, with high-speed services from London to the midlands and the north, including Scotland. We see phases 1 and 2 of the High Speed 2 project as the best way to make progress towards that goal. If we look back over our transport history—we can look at the construction of the first railways, the London underground or the motorway network, for example—we see that major networks have invariably been delivered in phases over a number of years. For high-speed rail in Britain to be an affordable and manageable proposition, the only viable option is a phased approach. Our priority is therefore delivery of the Y network, with London to the west midlands as the first phase.
However, the day after we announced our decision on phase 1 of the network, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was north of the border at a meeting arranged by Transport Scotland to outline the details of the announcement and to discuss the next steps with key Scottish stakeholders; and last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended a round table with Scottish businesses. She also had very constructive discussions with Keith Brown, the Minister for Housing and Transport in Scotland. She has agreed that the two Governments will step up their engagement on this issue, with a view to establishing an appropriate division of responsibility and putting the necessary governance in place to work through potential solutions.
Working with the Scottish Government, we hope to develop a mutually agreed timetable over the summer for our plans to consider progressing HS2 further. Officials from the two Governments are due to meet within the next few weeks to start that new strand of work. Care is needed in considering the case for extensions. All relevant evidence and options need to be properly assessed. It would be in no one’s interest if work on possible extensions slowed down progress on the Y network. Moreover, it will be difficult to look seriously at the route of potential extensions until we are much closer than we are now to a decision on routes to Manchester and Leeds—something on which the Government have only just received the advice of HS2 Ltd.
Undoubtedly, therefore, there are some practical constraints on the extent of the work that can be done at this stage, but I assure the hon. Member for Glenrothes and others attending the debate that those practical considerations do not mean that the Government will sit back until the full Y network is completed before looking seriously at how high-speed services could be extended.
We are all very conscious that the Government have come in for criticism. People have said, “Why bother taking high-speed rail to Birmingham when it will lop such a small amount off journey times?” Given that the real benefits, both economic and environmental, will come when we get the extension to Scotland, is there not a great deal of value in progressing those plans as quickly as possible, because that will reinforce the argument for the first part of the scheme?
As I have said, we are certainly prepared to start considering the future development and expansion of the network while still in the process of delivering the initial phases. The question has often been asked, including by the hon. Member for Glenrothes today, about who would pay for what were there to be extensions. It is too early to start to design funding packages, although I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the devolution settlement gives the Scottish Government the responsibility for funding rail infrastructure that is north of the border.
The hon. Gentleman also expressed concern about the impact that a vote for separation and division of our nation would have. I agree that such a huge constitutional change would make it much more difficult to deliver major improvements to our transport network, if only because of the distraction that it would cause. If the entirety of the Government machine is focused on separating itself from the rest of the United Kingdom, that will inevitably have a detrimental effect on efforts to stimulate the economy and to improve the transport infrastructure.
We have already begun work with partners north of the border to ensure that Scotland gets the most out of our current plans for HS2, as well as to explore fully Scotland’s future aspirations for even faster connectivity. We should not underestimate the benefits that Scotland will get from the Y network, which we are already taking forward. It is a fact that the benefits of HS2 will extend far beyond the cities directly served by the Y network. HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the £44 billion economic boost that high-speed rail could produce is a cautious one, and the boost will be felt in Scotland and the north of England as well as in the south.
HS2 will increase capacity and enhance connectivity all the way to Scotland by relieving pressure on the most congested, southern end of the west coast line. The seamless transition of trains on to the east and west coast main lines from the Y network will deliver faster journeys to destinations the length of Britain. Completion of the Y network is expected to slash the journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow and London to about three and a half hours. That will deliver very significant connectivity and economic benefits. We want those benefits to be delivered as soon as possible—a number of hon. Members mentioned the time of delivery—which is why we are exploring options for bringing forward formal public consultation on phase 2 of the Y network. We will set out our proposed timetable later this year.
The evidence indicates quite clearly that a quantum modal shift from air to train would be achieved if the journey time could be two to two and a half hours. With a journey time of three and a half hours, there would still be a propensity to go for air transport.
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Given the experience with high-speed rail in the rest of Europe, I think that a journey time of three and a half hours will make rail a very attractive alternative to flying, particularly when one factors in the increased time at either end of an air journey. There is quite an intense debate on the issue of an air-to-rail switch, but experience in the rest of Europe shows that a high-speed rail journey of three and a half hours is generally an attractive alternative to the plane.
The claim by opponents of HS2 that better, faster transport between north and south will see economic activity pulled into London and away from the UK’s other great cities is misguided. I have every confidence that bringing Edinburgh and Glasgow closer to London with the Y network—a journey time of three and a half hours—will be a real boost for those cities, as well as for the cities of the midlands and the north of England. That confidence is based on the evidence from our European neighbours, who began their high-speed rail journey a generation before we had even started arguing about the first 67-mile stretch of track from the channel tunnel. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about how slow Governments have been to take up that challenge.
Faster journeys will see more extensive modal shift between air and rail as the train becomes the mode of choice for more travellers, countering the allegation made by opponents that HS2 is not green. High-speed rail is already greener than flying, but the difference between the two modes will widen as we clean up our sources of electricity generation.
A crucial point to underline is that we are not pursuing HS2 just because of the positive benefits that we believe it will generate. The case for HS2 also rests on the pressing need to head off big problems that are heading towards us and will affect the whole of Britain. The simple fact is that the demand for inter-city transport capacity is growing strongly and has been for many years. If we fail to deal with the capacity pressure that we will face in future years, we will do lasting damage to our economy and competitiveness.
I emphasise that HS2 does not mean that we will stop investing in and improving our current transport networks. We fully recognise the importance of continuing to enhance our existing rail network, and that includes improving links between England and Scotland, not least because of how determined we are that the benefits of the Y network must be felt well beyond the cities that it serves directly. We have therefore embarked on a major programme of rail improvements, including the inter-city express project, which will create new jobs in the north-east and deliver a new fleet of trains for the east coast line. Those trains will start operating in 2018, offering faster, greener, higher-capacity and better-quality services, boosting fast-line capacity from Scotland into King’s Cross and cutting journey times.
On the west coast route, the long-awaited new Pendolino carriages have started service on the Birmingham-to-Scotland corridor. The Manchester-Scotland route is also due to get new trains, with delivery complete by May 2014. The new east coast timetable introduced last May increased the number of through-services between—
It is a great pleasure to be holding this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. We are running slightly late because of the Divisions in the main Chamber, but such is the way of parliamentary life. I thank the Minister for making such progress on the issue of flooding in my constituency. He has brokered a useful dialogue between the Environment Agency and the various communities in the area, particularly those along the Severn estuary, and we are immensely grateful to him for that achievement.
Before I put one or two questions to the Minister, I want to talk about three aspects of flooding: consultation on the policy drivers behind the actions being proposed along the Severn estuary; the implementation of flood attenuation in the valley in my constituency; and, finally, insurance.
Stroud is a beautiful place, but it is vulnerable to flooding, especially in the vale, which is flat, and along some of the valleys, which are quite steep. Indeed, we have a variety of characteristics that can cause flooding. We must bear in mind the issues relating not just to Severn estuary flooding but to surface water flooding, which is a problem in my constituency.
Let me turn first to the Severn estuary. With localism in mind, it is important that villagers, farmers, property owners, dwellers and anybody who will be affected by the changes proposed by the Environment Agency should feel that they have had their say, that they are being fully consulted, that they are part of a dialogue and that their concerns are being properly covered. As I have already said, the Minister’s actions have led to such a consultation.
None the less, there are policy drivers behind this complex issue which interest many of my constituents. Not least of course there is the issue of the habitat and the scale of the need for it, which is effectively conditioned by various policy drivers. Concerns have been expressed in my constituency about the new information, new changes and new facts that are now on the table. People would like more clarity and consistency in how the Environment Agency operates. That is not to say that the Environment Agency has not been extraordinarily helpful in many ways, and I personally have a good relationship with its team. I also know that it has honoured its commitment to have people effectively working as communications officers, keeping the local community informed. The Environment Agency has also answered a number of questions posed by the action group, Severn Voice, about the concerns.
Let me stress though that there is a need for the Environment Agency to be absolutely clear about its understanding and interpretation of the policy drivers behind some of the actions being proposed. It is well understood that sea levels might well rise and that measures have to be considered and planned. However, it is equally important to recognise that owners of farmland, houses and so forth need to be treated properly and fairly in the overall scheme of things.
We have an obvious and persistent problem with Slad valley. Water comes streaming down the valley and ends up in Stroud, causing difficulties and hardships for owners of a small number of properties. A group called Vision 21, which is led by Julian Jones, is working hard on the issue of attenuation. It has proposed using various old mill ponds further up the Slad valley as storage areas for when there is a lot of water. The water can thus be dealt with in a managed way without allowing it all to collect at the bottom and cause mayhem. Coupled with that is the proposal for better irrigation and better land use management. Various landowners have expressed interest in such schemes not just because they would prevent flooding in Stroud and Stonehouse but because they would improve drainage and irrigation further up the valley.
It is worth noting here that there would be the opportunity for small-scale hydro power developments, which we have already managed to achieve in one or two parts of my constituency, and that is excellent. There would be further opportunities for such developments if we had a flexible way of dealing with water storage and so forth.
I ask the Minister to encourage the Environment Agency to be less controlling and less directive and a little bit more open-minded about the possibilities that exist in the Slad valley so that flood attenuation can be properly implemented. Such a scheme would be a useful and valuable experiment in this important area. Moreover, it would provide a good example of working with the environment and with the history of Slad valley, with all its mills. The area has all the characteristics of a fantastic place.
We must combine the empowerment of local people with careful planning, which should be conducted through the auspices of the Environment Agency, as interesting, new and innovative measures to deal with water management and flood control are introduced.
I have a similar situation in my constituency. Landowners would like to have the flexibility to do more to protect local sea walls. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need flexibility and that much of this matter needs to be resolved by the Environment Agency. I urge the Minister to see what he can do to remove some of the barriers that prevent landowners and local residents from taking the actions that my hon. Friend has highlighted.
My hon. Friend is right. Removing barriers to deal with other barriers is an interesting concept, but it is absolutely right and quite in line with my approach to the conduct, behaviour and plans of the Environment Agency. It is also in line with the general feeling that the Environment Agency does not always get down to the local level and respond to local needs and local requirements in a flexible enough way.
I will move on to the third issue that I want to talk about, which is home insurance. We have a real problem, because the flood maps available on the Environment Agency website sometimes suggest that people’s homes will be flooded when actually they will not. Also, the maps do not reflect the consequences of natural barriers and, even more importantly, man-made barriers. There are one or two areas in my constituency that prove that point quite well. People could look at a flood map and think to themselves, “Well, the whole place is doomed”, but actually it is not doomed because there are canals and other barriers that will prevent flooding. In fact, the areas that I have in mind, such as Frampton on Severn, have not been flooded in that way, so the flood maps need to be up to date and homeowners need to be assured that they are devised in such a way as to reflect what will actually happen and to show a proper understanding of the type of flood defences that I have just described.
Flood maps are a key issue. I have discussed them with the Association of British Insurers, which has also noted that it is important to keep them up to date. I have suggested that the Environment Agency might like to be more thorough in updating its maps and that it should do so more often—that is effectively the message that I have received—and if it did so, it would be of great assistance. It is also very important for individual insurers to have access to the correct information, so that people who need to gain access to home insurance can do so on the basis of information that is indeed accurate.
That brings me to the new approach that is needed following the statement of principles on flood insurance, which I know is coming to an end. Clearly, that issue is exercising both the insurance industry and, obviously, homeowners. They need some information, guidance and encouragement on how that process is going and where we can expect to be in terms of home insurance in flood areas. That information and guidance would be extremely useful.
In essence, what we are looking for is more transparency and more accuracy in flood mapping, so that home owners, insurers and anybody else who is interested can have more confidence in the maps that they are looking at.
Those are the three key issues. First, it is basically a question of communication and ensuring that people are involved and included. Secondly, it is a question of being innovative and confident about the options that are available, including encouraging the Environment Agency to set those things in motion or at least to allow them to happen. Thirdly, it is a question of having more information for everybody concerned, to give them confidence and comfort as appropriate.
Having made those three points, I will end my remarks by reiterating my thanks to the Minister, both for being here today in Westminster Hall and for the work that he has already done in the interests of people in my constituency who are vulnerable to flooding. I also reiterate that I fully intend to pursue this matter and ensure that we get some solutions that are lasting and worth while.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate and on proving, yet again, that he is one of the most assiduous of our colleagues in raising such issues on behalf of his constituents. I am very keen to respond to the points that he has made, but before I do so, I want to touch on those made by another assiduous colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who talked about the Environment Agency and the sea defences in Essex.
I assure my hon. Friend that that is a matter of real interest to me. I want to ensure that all interested parties work extremely closely together on those defences and that any perceived or actual difficulties in securing and protecting farmland and properties are overcome. A protocol is in place to ensure that the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association work closely with the Environment Agency.
My hon. Friend has had meetings with all concerned, but I want to keep in touch with her and ensure that every effort is being made. I came across difficulties further north from her constituency when I came into this job. A few months later, I found a completely different attitude that was based on the concept of total environment but that was really just close working together of the parties involved. I give her the assurance that I will visit her constituency in the future if I can do so, so that I can see things for myself and try to take matters forward.
With sea level rises, climate changes and extremes of weather, we will have a lot of these debates in the House and I want to ensure that everything is being done as properly as it can be, that any protocols that exist are working and that we work closely together to resolve these issues, because they are of fundamental importance to the lives of our constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who secured this debate, represents one of the most special parts of this country and one that I have some familiarity with. I find the Severn estuary, including the area of his constituency that is adjacent to the Severn estuary, to be one of the most mystical and beautiful places, with some wonderful farmland. There is no doubt that there are some communities in that area that look at issues such as climate change and sea level rises with a degree of concern for their future. I remember the village of Arlingham, which is surrounded on three sides by the River Severn. We have in mind communities such as the one in Arlingham when we try to plan for the future. I understand that we have to get the language right and that we do not create undue concern, or even undue scares, but at the same time we have to address the real issue of sea level rises and the impact that it is having.
My hon. Friend made a very sensible point about the rational view that most people have about these matters. They just want to ensure that all forms of government are doing what they can, when they can, to assist them. I hope that what I am about to say will give them the necessary reassurance. I will go on to talk about the Slad valley and the concerns about insurance that he raised.
Work on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy is ongoing at community level. A draft strategy was prepared and put to the public for consultation last year. The aim was to establish the most effective and sustainable way to manage flood risk in the estuary during the next century. The Environment Agency is currently reviewing and assessing all responses to its consultation on the draft strategy. It will not implement the strategy as it stands. Instead, it is actively involving the local community in considering the future options for managing flood risk in the Severn estuary. As part of that approach, it regularly meets Gloucestershire NFU to ensure that landowners are involved in developing the strategy for the area.
Where the Environment Agency can no longer justify maintaining the current standard or line of defence, it will work with those affected to consider the other options, including landowners maintaining their own defences. Also, in circumstances where managed realignment or habitat creation could be an option, the agency will seek to work with those affected and implement schemes with their agreement. In the future, the agency plans to go to public consultation again. It will take forward the draft strategy for the Severn estuary once the proposals have been discussed in detail.
I should say that the current defences and planning are based on perceived sea level rises, but they are designed in such a way as to be extended as time goes on and if sea levels rise faster than expected. That is a really important point for my hon. Friend’s constituents; the approach is called adaptive management. What concerns people is when they see arbitrary lines drawn on maps that reflect perceived sea level rises that might or might not occur. We have already seen some variation in the predictions of sea level rises that were made some years ago; those rises have not happened. We want to ensure that we base the information on sound knowledge and evidence.
My hon. Friend has raised some important points about the Slad valley. Flood defences form a major element of how we manage flood risk, but they are only part of the solution. As my hon. Friend knows, 1,602 properties in his Stroud constituency are at risk from river and tidal flooding. There is currently no cost-effective way of further reducing the risk at the community level by way of major schemes, but the Environment Agency is still keen to take an active approach to managing flood risk in the community. On average, £190,000 a year is spent on maintaining the existing system of culverts and mills in the Slad valley to make the most use of the existing assets.
The Environment Agency was this very week removing vegetation and fallen trees, which could have caused blockages, from river channels. A considerable amount of ongoing river channel and culvert maintenance work takes place to keep the river systems flowing effectively, and that work is supplemented by individual property protection and resilience grants, which have been made available to the communities along the Slad brook and in Bridgend. So far, 10 properties from Slad have taken up the offer, which is still open.
A further proposal is being developed by the Slad brook action group, to which my hon. Friend referred, which is working closely with local authorities, the Environment Agency and a local water environment group—Water21—to encourage and construct land management measures upstream of Slad to reduce and slow down water run-off. By slowing down water in certain circumstances, we can protect a great many properties. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about using existing assets, some of which were created more than a century ago, in a modern and innovative way to ensure that we provide cost-effective defences for people’s homes. We must never forget that we are talking about the most important asset in people’s lives—the roof over their head.
The Environment Agency has £300,000 of local levy money to implement land management measures. It is also working closely with the local authority on development planning to address flood risk management in the Slad valley on an incremental basis. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency will continue to work with local people and groups, and with him as their local representative, and that we will consider any measure that we can fund with others, or that we can assist any organisation in providing, to protect people for the future.
I hear what my hon. Friend says about using such areas to test innovative ideas that can be used elsewhere. There is good cross-working in the Environment Agency, and we have an understanding of how to deal with the kind of flash floods that are now a feature of our lives because of changes to the climate. We must be aware of the fact that no one is a repository of all the wisdom here, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely with his constituents to use best practice and come up with new ideas that may assist us with the problem.
My hon. Friend raised the important point of insurance. I recognise that insurance for properties in flood risk areas is of concern to many people. The Government have continued to listen to, and closely involve, organisations that represent insurers and communities at flood risk. We are in the advanced stages of developing a new shared understanding, which sets out more clearly what individual customers can expect from their insurers. An announcement will be made in the near future to reflect the continued responsibility of the Government and insurers and their commitment to ensuring that insurance for flood risk remains widely available.
We are actively exploring value-for-money ways to target support at households that might struggle with premium increases. It is also worth putting on record that the Government’s prime responsibility here is building flood defences, whether for coastal erosion or for surface water or fluvial flooding. We must continue to invest, and we are spending a lot of taxpayers’ money— £2.13 billion over this spending period—to protect people’s homes from flooding. There are many things that we can do with insurers, and we are working closely with them to achieve those aims.
The debate has raised important issues. Engaging with local communities, developing innovative solutions to flood risk management and protecting the most vulnerable from flooding, whether through new defences or insurance, are key principles of our new partnership funding system. The reforms provide improved transparency and greater certainty for communities about the potential funding from the general taxpayer for every flood and coastal defence project. They also allow local areas to have a bigger say in what is done to protect them. Therefore, over time, local ambitions for protection no longer need to be constrained by what national budgets can afford, and innovative, cost-effective solutions will be encouraged, in which civil society may play a greater role. With contributions under the new funding system, combined with efficiency savings, the Environment Agency and other risk management authorities are on course to exceed their goal to better protect 145,000 households by March 2015.
My hon. Friend referred to flood maps, and I want to get this on the record as well. The Environment Agency updates flood maps every three months. The data are provided to all local authorities and to the Association of British Insurers, and they are on the Environment Agency’s website. We are considering new approaches to communicating the information. I understand the frustration that many constituents feel—mine included—when they are wrongly assessed, usually over the telephone and often on a postcode basis, as being at flood risk, when the insurance company or the broker has access to the information. We are not talking about national secrets; we are proud to share the information, particularly when new assets are constructed. We must find better, more innovative ways to ensure that we inform people. Some insurance companies are good at uploading the information but others are not, and we are working closely with a number of organisations to achieve a better result for people at flood risk.
Managing the risk of flooding to communities remains an absolute priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we do it not only by trying to minimise the chance of flooding in our communities, but through reducing the impacts should flooding occur. Our new approach to funding allows local communities to have greater control over how flood risk is managed in their area. Maintaining existing flood risk management systems, as well as investing in improved protection, reduces the chance of floods affecting our communities. Flood insurance is an important element in reducing the impacts of floods on communities and in giving reassurance and peace of mind to those at risk. The Government remain committed to ensuring that cover for flooding remains widely available once the statement of principles agreement with the insurance industry comes to an end next year.
I shall end where I began, by assuring my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with him to ensure that the issues that he has raised are worked through and that we can face the future, which is uncertain because of weather patterns and sea risk, on the basis of the best knowledge available through open and clear consultation. In that way, we can achieve the best result for his constituents.
Question put and agreed to.