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Westminster Hall

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 12 June 2012

[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

Emergency Services (Interoperability)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(James Brokenshire.)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard, and a pleasure to secure a debate on such an important subject. People might assume that because I am introducing this topic, I have a background in one of the emergency services. That is not so, although I have a brother who is a police officer. I was in business before coming to Parliament and I approach the issue of emergency services working together from the perspective of a business person in many ways, ensuring the efficiency of the operation and that public assets are used with maximum efficiency.

During my time as a Member of Parliament, I have formed the view that the emergency services are at their best when they work co-operatively and closely together. I have become aware of the benefits of that way of working since becoming an MP and have joined other hon. Members in creating a new all-party parliamentary group on emergency services. Other all-party groups support the individual services, but I remain convinced that the services need to be brought together to ensure that they work for the good of the country as a whole. It is important that each emergency service is not viewed, organised and operated in isolation. Our new all-party group was set up with the explicit objective of promoting joined-up working between the emergency services—the key word being “interoperability”. I shall cover those issues in my remarks.

Why do we need interoperability between the emergency services? History shows clearly that there can be a real danger if an emergency service looks inward on itself and operates solely in its own interests when contributing to resolving an emergency. There is grave danger if the three main emergency services—police, fire and rescue and the ambulance service—work in isolation, with little contact between them. This was borne out particularly in the emergency response to the 7 July bombings. There have been a number of reports since that event, and Lady Justice Hallett’s coroner’s report in particular highlighted interoperability between the emergency services as a major issue. The report bore out concerns that each service, when responding to that event, did not have a full grasp of what the other services were doing in response. The coroner’s report, which was published on 6 May 2011, said that there was a lack of adequate sharing of information between the emergency services’ and Transport for London’s control rooms.

One of the first issues that the all-party group considered was how many emergency services there are. I have mentioned the three blue-light services—police, fire and rescue and ambulance—which are most commonly referred to as emergency services, but they are not the only people who respond on our behalf when an emergency occurs. For example, coastguards play a vitally important role in saving lives, and orange-light services, such as the Highways Agency, assist with the day to day, smooth running of the road network. In emergencies affecting London, both Transport for London and the Port of London Authority are involved. So the response to any emergency will involve more than the traditional blue-light services. The key issue with regard to interoperability is that each service needs to know about the activity of others in responding to an emergency or the threat of loss of life.

A few weeks ago we had the unfortunate experience of the English Defence League marching in Redditch. I was impressed by the emergency services working together under the police’s gold command. Does my hon. Friend agree that as the Olympics draw closer, we need a seamless, comprehensive, integrated approach to our services, with a clear chain of command, so that everyone knows who they are reporting to?

My hon. Friend is well ahead of me. I will talk at some length about the Olympics, which is one of the biggest challenges our country faces in terms of a possible security threat. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the need for gold command, led by the police service.

On the broader issue of who responds on our behalf in an emergency, taking the simple example of a serious accident on the motorway, attendance of the police and the ambulance service, responding to dangers to life, and of the fire and rescue service—to free people trapped in vehicles—will be necessary, but it is just as crucial that the Highways Agency is there to assess the situation, to help to minimise the effect on traffic and get the motorway moving again as quickly as possible. That example shows why joint working is paramount.

If we accept that the services responding on our behalf to an emergency need to work more closely together, where does responsibility for joint working currently lie? The three main blue-light services are the responsibility of different Departments. The police service is the responsibility of the Home Office; the ambulance service is administered by the Department of Health; and the fire and rescue service is administered by local authorities, under the control of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In theory, that may be no bad thing, but in practice there is grave danger that each service is considered in isolation. Since becoming an MP, I have learnt about silo thinking, and with each emergency service attached to a Department, there is a danger of such thinking.

There are even more silos, because the health service and local government in Wales are devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and the position is similar in Scotland. The Home Office has a responsibility nationally for such matters. Rather than three silos, there are in fact five or seven.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which adds to the argument in favour of some overarching control or administration to ensure close working between the various agencies involved, so that we do not drift to silo thinking.

I welcome the fact that the Crime and Security Minister is here to respond for the Government, because the police take the lead at incidents—my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) drew attention to the police taking command—and he is best placed to speak about interoperability between the emergency services. I hope that he accepts that there must be greater focus on the need for joint working between the services and between Departments. The Government must understand and appreciate the need for greater collaboration.

Interoperability between the emergency services means that each of the three Departments that I mentioned must work together, and the Cabinet Office, which is charged with ensuring effective development, co-ordination and implementation of Government objectives across the board, must play its part in ensuring that interoperability becomes a key facet of our emergency services. For there to be a unified service response, there needs to be a unified Government response to the pressures faced by the services.

The problem was highlighted in a 2011 report by the Royal United Services Institute, “Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack”:

“Political understanding of the complexities of major incident response is critical to the future of the emergency services.”

The report also contrasted the civil situation with the military situation. In the military, all three emergency services report to one body, the Ministry of Defence, but the civil emergency services do not have an equivalent. In the absence of a Minister with specific responsibility for the broader emergency services, there is no one to argue for ring-fenced or increased budgets, making the recommendations of the report on 7 July difficult to implement.

We can see a difficult picture emerging, although given the structure of the civil service and how government is organised, there is some sense of inevitability about that. It is important, however, to understand how vital interoperability between the services is. Communications between the services—their ability to talk to and understand each other—is also a key point in joint working. Lady Justice Hallett reported:

“It is also well known, particularly as a result of the report of the 7th July Review Committee, that there were considerable failings in radio and mobile communications...The unprecedented volume of radio and mobile telephone communications caused congestion on the airwaves because of a lack of capacity. The emergency services and London Underground were further inhibited in their communications by restrictions on the coverage of their radio systems.”

My awareness of the issue arose from a visit to Airwave, a company with a substantial presence in my constituency of Rugby. The company designed, built and operates the largest public safety radio communications network in the world. It delivers voice and data communications to all the organisations involved in the public services, including the blue-light services as well as local authorities, utilities and transport providers. It has its own Tetra—terrestrial trunked radio—network in the UK, which was purpose-built to meet the needs of the emergency services, and covers 99% of the country’s landmass. Since 2008—after the 7/7 bombings, clearly—the network has included the entire London underground system. Importantly for us, given what we are discussing today, Airwave’s network is interoperable, which means that the emergency services and public safety organisations can communicate effectively with one another.

The success and importance of interoperability within the emergency services was noted in the coroner’s report on 7/7, which drew attention to the need for inter-agency liaison and communications:

“The 7th July 2005 Review Committee concluded that communications within and between the emergency services ‘did not stand up on 7 July’. It further observed that individual emergency service personnel could not communicate effectively, in some cases with each other and, in other cases, with their control rooms…There have been substantial improvements brought about by the introduction of the CONNECT and AIRWAVE radio systems.”

Where are we now? How can interoperability help? Each day, the emergency services need to ensure that they are working with each other efficiently. Furthermore, working together takes on even more importance during major events.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In addition to the Government’s emergency services, and taking into account that a serious event might take place in more than one city at once, might we not lack overall resilience training in this country? My constituency contains the Fire Service college at Moreton-in-Marsh, where a certain amount of inter-service training takes place. Could we not do much more as a nation to have interoperability and resilience training, not only for the silos that my hon. Friend mentioned but for the many more that could be involved, such as the utilities and local authorities?

I shall come to local resilience forums and the useful part that they play in bringing people together. Communications are key, with people working together and understanding the different ways of operating. Clearly, through training at an institution such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, emergency services personnel can get to understand more about the actions of colleagues not only in their own service but in other services. That understanding can be crucial in getting the right help to an incident as fast as possible. Not only must the police, fire and ambulance services be able to work with each other, but every individual force within each service needs to be able to do so as well. There are 53 police forces in the UK and their work often overlaps, most often at a force boundary but also when specialist forces such as the British Transport police are involved or when officers travel to another area to provide support at an event. Good communications are at the heart of such interoperability.

One organisation cannot work with another if it does not know what the other organisation is doing or trying to achieve. Sometimes that is straightforward, such as ensuring that all staff within a service use the same sort of language as other services. For instance, there is anecdotal evidence about the terminology used by the emergency services during the 7/7 bombings. To some, talk of “casualties” found in the tunnels meant injured people, but to those in another service a “casualty” was someone who had died, so when they heard the word, support was not prioritised because they believed it was too late. Another example—the blowing of whistles—comes from the time of the IRA bombings in Manchester in 1996. When the police blow a whistle, all available officers run towards the sound; when the military blow a whistle, everyone stands to attention; and when the fire service blows a whistle, everyone runs away because it is a sign that a building is in danger of collapse. There was no danger as a result in that particular incident, but the different responses to the sound of a whistle show how important it is to make certain that everyone responding to an emergency speaks the same language and works to the same procedures.

I am pleased to note that in July 2007 the National Policing Improvement Agency produced a guide to language to be used over the Airwave network, “AirwaveSpeak”. That was an early step to ensure that all police agencies spoke the same language. The development should be continued more broadly, to include other emergency services.

The quality of the technology is also important to ensure the achievement of interoperability. Before the Airwave network was rolled out nationally in 2005, the emergency services throughout the country used different systems and were not able to communicate easily with one another, leading to practical difficulties. For example, police officers working at force boundaries had to swap radio handsets regularly in order to keep in touch with each other. Now the situation has changed and members of all three emergency services and up to 300 other organisations have access to a common communications platform.

A recent example of the benefits of interoperability occurred last summer, during the 2011 riots, when unprecedented disorder took place in some towns and cities throughout England. An important point to note about those events was the sheer scale of the operations that the emergency services had to deal with. The number of police on duty in the capital rose from 6,000 to 16,000, and officers came to London from 25 different forces, from as far afield as Devon and Cornwall and Strathclyde. Crucially, even with such substantially increased numbers, all the forces involved were able to communicate with one another because they were operating on a common communications platform. Therefore, the necessary complex response to that event was co-ordinated and officers from different parts of the country could work together. There was criticism of the Airwave radio network—hon. Members may have read such criticism in an article in The Observer in December 2011—but the company’s rebuttal and subsequent media reporting clearly show that the network did exactly what it was created to do and supported interoperability in action.

A recent experience of our emergency services looking after a substantial number of people at an event was the diamond jubilee weekend, when the communications network helped the emergency services to work together effectively. I shall give an insight into just how many people used the network at the weekend. I have been told that, as we might expect, the key time was the river pageant on the Sunday. That was the peak day of operations, and during the 12-hour period between 6 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening, 125,315 radio handsets were used by the emergency services across the network. There were more than 1 million interactions across 135 sites. Some 74 organisations, including police, ambulance, fire and rescue services— emergency blue-light services—from all over the country were on the network and forces came from as far afield as the Isle of Wight, mid-Wales and Fife.

In addition to the police services, which were defined as clearly marked users, making use of the system, a further 93 users were recorded as having used the Airwave direct network, including groups such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Transport for London, the Highways Agency and the Port of London Authority. The fact that emergency and non-blue-light services could talk to one another therefore led to success on that day. The Olympics are just around the corner and will start in 45 days. The diamond jubilee weekend was useful, early experience for our emergency services in preparation for what will almost certainly be the biggest test of working together. They can go into the rest of the summer with confidence.

I understand that the Port of London Authority, a user of the system, is looking forward to working on the Olympics and to facilitating

“a response which is both integrated and resilient”.

The Olympics provide a fantastic opportunity for our country. The eyes of the world will be on the UK and London in particular, and excitement is rightly starting to build in London as we approach the event. However, for our emergency services, the Olympics are their biggest challenge. Having visited the Olympics site with the all-party group on emergency services earlier in the year, I am confident that our services are well prepared for the challenge, and I look forward to their success.

One feature will be the armed forces’ contribution to Olympics security, and we will start to see interoperability between the emergency services and the military. The interest in the military’s role in providing security was evidenced by questions to the Secretary of State for Defence in the House just yesterday. The armed forces will use the same communications network as the emergency services, with about 8,000 military personnel having access to that service, making up around 3% of communications network users throughout the Olympics. They will act as reservists, and 13,500 personnel will be called up for the games, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch said, the police will be the lead service in terms of security.

I was interested to attend a recent all-party group on the armed forces briefing on the military’s contribution to Olympics security. Their role is divided into three sections: safety and security; support for operations; and a wider contingency role. It is clear that the planning is detailed, and the attention to detail is impressive. I was interested in a senior naval officer’s response when asked what success would look like. He said that he hoped that the 64 days of the summer Olympics and Paralympics will be the most boring of a servicemen’s career. I think that we all endorse that. I welcome the joining up of the work of the emergency services and armed forces.

I turn to shared assets. There is a link between services working closely together and their ability to share assets. Sharing assets is a big opportunity for public services more broadly to effect financial savings. I recently spoke at a Royal United Services Institute conference entitled “Blue Light Air Assets: Future Operations”, when particular consideration was given to the future of air assets. Sharing such assets is vital in helping the emergency services to work together with the coastguard and air ambulance services.

I pay particular tribute to the air ambulance service. In recent years, I have become involved with the Warwickshire and Northampton air ambulance service, which operates in my constituency. Air assets are used extensively and to great effect by all the emergency services, and in the UK the majority of those air assets are helicopters. RUSI’s research papers all point to the importance of the blue-light air service’s contribution. Crucially, in the UK, there is currently no co-ordination of those air assets, nationally or across agencies. Sadly, individual emergency services and regional forces currently operate their own air assets in isolation, and that goes back to the issue that I referred to earlier: silo thinking.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that, as we have the great benefit throughout the country of an air ambulance service for which taxpayers pay nothing whatever, the ongoing situation whereby the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is exempt from VAT on fuel, but the air ambulance service must pay VAT on the fuel that it uses should be changed? Will he join my campaign to put the matter before the Backbench Business Committee to try to persuade the Government to review VAT on the air ambulance service?

I, too, am a great supporter of the air ambulance service as a charitable institution, and I know about its tremendous work to raise funds in and around the midlands. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that charitable funds are used to pay tax. I am more than happy to join him in his representations.

On silo thinking, the RUSI report argues that there must be much greater co-ordination in the use of our air assets. Its report on operations for the future makes it clear that the aim should be to ensure that organisations do not consider their air assets in isolation and that they investigate joint working and asset sharing with others. If those twin policies were pursued, there would be a welcome reduction in costs and improved efficiency in the use of assets. The report calls for, as I do, greater collaboration between Government agencies and asset sharing.

A helpful case study comes from Northern Ireland during the troubles when all helicopter assets were owned and operated by the Ministry of Defence in the UK in direct support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the civil authority. A single air-tasking cell enabled a helicopter in the air to switch from a life-saving mission to a police task, depending on need and urgency.

Given my background of owning and running a business over 25 years before first arriving at the House, I have always been keen to ensure the maximum use of any item of capital—effectively, to sweat the asset as much as possible—and it certainly seems that there is a great deal of sense in sharing key assets that might sometimes be idle. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on how sharing helicopter assets between police forces and other bodies could contribute to more effective working.

There are several examples of how interoperability can be a success. Existing emergency helicopter provision in north-west England contains many gaps, so there are proposals for a rescue helicopter in that area. Those looking to procure the new rescue helicopter point out that neither police helicopters nor air ambulances are equipped with a winch, and they therefore have to land to load or unload personnel and equipment. Air ambulances are classified as commercial aircraft and can therefore provide an emergency service only during daylight hours. To counter those problems, the proposal in the north-west is for a rescue helicopter that has a winch and uses night-vision devices. Such an asset will therefore have multiple roles and provide an affordable option that will allow all fire and rescue services in the north-west to enhance their response and service delivery, while providing support and resilience to other emergency services and rescue agencies. That is a good example of the widespread benefits that interoperability can bring.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned the local resilience forums that exist around the country, based on police authorities. The emergency responders—fire, police and ambulance services—meet as a group to consider the risks that affect their areas and to work out strategies to deal with them. That strikes me as an excellent example of interoperability in action that should be welcomed, and I look forward to the Minister’s remarks on how those local resilience forums can be built on.

What can we do in the future to improve interoperability? We have already seen how the adoption of a common platform for communications can significantly improve the performance of emergency services by enabling them to work together. There is, however, more that can be done. About 18 months ago, I attended a reception in the House of Commons for the emergency services. During the discussions that took place around the table between Members and representatives from all the emergency services, it struck me that it was one of only a few occasions in which members of the police had a detailed conversation with people from the ambulance and fire and rescue services. It was a great opportunity for people to network socially, and a greater understanding of each service is vital because, as we have already heard, different words mean different things to different services.

RUSI’s report on shared air assets states that, to achieve interoperability, agencies must fully understand one another if they are to work together effectively. The key question for people to understand is what their agency, and other agencies, are trying to achieve. The one-size-fits-all approach is not necessarily the best way for organisations to act in joined-up way; they need to identify which capabilities, policies, technologies and operational processes need to be shared and, of course, which are best not shared for perfectly good reasons.

We have spoken about the need for interoperability between Departments to help achieve interoperability between services. I understand that the Home Office is looking at the future of emergency services communications, and it is important that national co-ordination is maintained and strengthened to avoid any slipping back.

Interoperability can be enhanced in many ways, and I will refer to a letter that Roy Wilshire, the director of operational response at the Chief Fire Officers Association, has made publicly available to show how working together can be improved. He stated that incident commanders from all three services should train together to ensure that they understand where their procedures are the same, where there are differences, whether those differences are problematic and how they can be aligned—that returns to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds. Furthermore, we should ensure that incident commanders understand each other’s roles and that throughout each service people understand the special skills that their colleagues in other services can provide and ensure that they are used effectively.

An emergency command doctrine should be jointly developed, setting out policies for responding at the earliest stages of a major incident. We need a national, Government-funded programme of exercises to deal with the main threats faced by the country. The Government should ensure that important information, such as Ordnance Survey maps and Met Office data, continues to be available free to the emergency services, so that they all operate using the same information. Finally, the Cabinet Office and Departments that sponsor the three blue-light services—the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government—should work together to ensure greater interoperability. I hope that all those suggestions have been borne out in my remarks, and I look forward to hearing contributions from colleagues and the Minister.

In conclusion, it is clear that interoperability between the emergency services has come a long way. The response to the 7/7 bombing and the riots in London last year showed that, by working together, emergency services can respond effectively to crucial events as they occur. I am pleased that the introduction of a common communications platform—currently through a company based in my constituency—has had a positive impact on the ability of the emergency services to work together. In future, each emergency service will greatly benefit from a greater understanding of the role played by their colleagues in other services. I look forward to greater departmental interoperability. If the Government have a concerted interoperable approach, a fully interoperable emergency service will be that much closer.

I suggest that we all owe a huge debt to our emergency services. Would we be able to deal with an ambulance situation, cope with an arrest or fight a fire? I suggest not. Those men and women are the cornerstone of our country and the cream of the crop whom we should support, laud and applaud. I am proud to record my thanks to them, both nationally and locally in my constituency.

This is an issue of great importance, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing the debate. With the forthcoming Olympics, we have one of the most serious security operations ever mounted in this country, and credit must go to the many security and emergency forces that are preparing for the ultimate test. I have a friend who was trained as a senior nurse in the bulky green chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear event outfits that make people look like something from Mars. They are extremely useful against nuclear attack, although they will not be troubling Usain Bolt during the 100-metre dash. Such things are good preparation, and as my hon. Friend said, it is clear that the emergency services are working much better together. As various events have tested them over the past five to 10 years, their ability to co-ordinate—under successive Governments—has much improved.

I applaud and welcome all the points raised by my hon. Friend, but most of the issues that I wish to address concern non-life-threatening scenarios. It is clear that we are getting better at dealing with very serious events—the 7/7 bombings are a good example—but I suggest that, in 2012, we are still manifestly struggling to deal with the day-to-day interaction between police, fire and ambulance paramedics. That is not working as it should. It is a question not just of how the services co-ordinate with one another on a day-to-day basis, but of the sharing of buildings, how the location issue is addressed and how people who represent the individual emergency services work together.

Questions asked in the House provide a telling illustration. My hon. Friend has made the fair point that the ambulance service is the responsibility of one Department, the fire service is the responsibility of another Department and the police service, of course, is represented by my hon. Friend the Minister responding to the debate today. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) asked a question of the Department of Health on 23 March 2011. She asked the Secretary of State for Health what discussions he had had with ministerial colleagues on

“arrangements to improve liaison between ambulance services and other emergency responders”.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), said:

“The Department of Health, along with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, continues to encourage and support regular communication across all emergency services.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 1195W.]

It is laudable that there is support for communication across all emergency services. Everyone would understand that, but I do not get the impression that it is actually happening.

The hon. Lady also asked a question of the Home Office, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice replied. The hon. Lady asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what discussions she had had with ministerial colleagues on

“arrangements to improve liaison between police services and other emergency responders”.

The answer was:

“The strategic defence and security review records Ministers’ agreed intention to improve the ability of the emergency services to work together during emergencies.”—[Official Report, 1 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 556W.]

Again, it is wonderful that there is an agreed intention to work together.

Undaunted, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) asked this question:

“Is the Minister satisfied that local forces are doing enough to share the costs of facilities such as human resources and IT with other public bodies and other emergency services?”

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice also replied on that occasion:

“It is important that police forces do more to take up such opportunities. We have already seen an increase in the collaboration between police forces over operational matters, but there are valuable opportunities to collaborate and share services for the back-office functions such as IT and human resources, which would result in significant savings.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 504.]

I endorse all those comments. I come now to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on 24 January 2012. He asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government whether he planned

“to review the level of joint training undertaken by fire and ambulance services.”

The answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), was:

“My Department is working with other Government Departments and the emergency services to improve joint ways of working in response to particular identified risks. In particular, in response to the Report of the Coroner’s Inquests into the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the Government agreed that it would co-ordinate a wider review of multi-agency considerations in single-service training. The Cabinet Office”—

another Department—

“are co-ordinating this review and will ensure that results are made available once it is completed.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2012; Vol. 539. c. 137W.]

I accept entirely that efforts are being made and that steps are being taken down the road, but if ever there was an example of why we have this problem, it is the fact that I have just managed to cite four different Departments, including the Cabinet Office, of all people, having overall control of the review and implementation of the changes. I suggest that unless the Government—successive Governments have failed on this; let us be honest—take control of how we mesh the services together, we will struggle going forward.

This issue is particularly important in a time of austerity. In other countries, the main emergency services share buildings. It might be hard for some people to believe, but in other countries there might be a fire station, an ambulance station and a police station all in the same building, all working together without any fundamental problems from a union that says, “We can’t possibly co-exist with this other organisation,” without any particular problems of individual commanders saying, “We can’t possibly share a building,” and without the problem of Government being told, “We can’t possibly have a situation in which the IT is provided to this organisation but not paid for by this organisation; it’s going to come out of my budget.” There is a possibility that we can amalgamate the services and run them at far less cost to the taxpayer and with much greater efficacy.

I commend to my hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Minister the example of what happens in Gloucestershire, where all three services have a common call centre at Quedgeley. Not only does that save costs; it works incredibly efficiently.

Clearly, in relation to call centres and IT, we are taking steps. There is clearly a positive way forward. However, in broad terms, we have got into a situation in which individual parts of the emergency services in local areas are fighting for their own turf to much too great a degree. It is perfectly understandable that people wish to have an all-singing, all-dancing fire service, ambulance service and police stations. We might totally endorse that, but we have to ask, given that taxpayers’ money is paying for it all, how can we integrate matters better? I suggest that we look not only at the example cited by my hon. Friend, but at examples from overseas, where progress on these matters has been made.

I have the great good fortune to represent more than 1,000 square miles of Northumberland. Parts of the area are semi-urban, but to the west and the north of Hexham is a vast expanse of territory that genuinely suffers from a lack of emergency services. Let me give an example. One of my local schools, a secondary school, has a catchment area bigger than the area covered by the M25. That will enable people to grasp just how large that area is. It is centred around the town of Bellingham, a place where I have spent a great deal of time assisting the Friends of Bellingham Surgery and attempting to understand how we can have ambulance, police and fire services in that location. Currently, we have a police station. I credit the chief constable of Northumberland for retaining that police station. We also have a fire station, but we do not have an ambulance facility. As everyone knows, ambulances are required to have a 75% reach to patients who need urgent medical assistance within eight minutes. In relation to places in the far west of Northumberland, it is patently extremely difficult for the ambulance service to provide that. There are, however, examples of how that situation could be changed. For example, the Friends of Bellingham Surgery and the practice itself have been working extensively—for years, I suggest—to try to get a localised ambulance service. It could be located on the site of the fire station. One would think that that was not a very radical step, but it is clearly quite radical when one considers that these examples are only just being considered at this stage.

Just a mile over the border in Cumbria, there are two examples of local success that I should like to share with the House. In Alston, which my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) represents so successfully, the community is setting up a community-run ambulance, with the backing of the league of friends of the local hospital, but also working with their local health trust and local GPs. The impression given—the project is at an early stage—is that that community ambulance would provide a rural area with a facility that is currently lacking.

Also in Cumbria, last December, the county council, the fire and rescue service and the police have come to an arrangement whereby the emergency services will operate from seven fire stations. Cumbria police have cut back the number of police stations, so the police and the fire services are working in the same building. In a large number of areas, the police have set up in fire stations, with cost savings to both parties and the benefit of interoperability. I suggest that that is clearly the way forward and something that, as police and crime commissioners come into being, individual commissioner candidates will need to consider.

On Saturday, I was delighted to select Mr Phil Butler, a former police officer from Northumbria, as the police and crime commissioner candidate on behalf of the Conservative party for Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner election. The candidates will need to look at the provision of individual police services in a rural area, how they interlink and the funds for the local community going forward.

I look at the individual examples of success in Cumbria and suggest that they are manifestly a good thing. We have to put them in the context of the disastrous FiReControl project. If ever there were an example of a disastrous Government project to provide a single-issue service without integrating it into other services, surely the fire service project—introduced, I am sad to say, by the previous Government—is it. The National Audit Office assessment, issued on 1 July 2011, of the FiReControl programme said:

“The FiReControl project was flawed from the outset because it did not have the support of those essential to its success—local fire and rescue services. The Department rushed the start of the project”

and failed

“to follow proper procedures. Ineffective checks and balances during initiation and early stages meant the Department committed itself to the project on the basis of broad-brush and inaccurate estimates of costs and benefits and an unrealistic delivery timetable, and agreed an inadequate contract with its IT supplier. The Department under-appreciated the project’s complexity, and then mismanaged the IT contractor’s performance and delivery. The Department failed to provide the necessary leadership to make the project successful, over-relying on poorly managed consultants and failing to sort out early problems with delivery by the contractor. The Department took a firmer grip of the project from 2009 and terminated the contract in December 2010 to avoid even more money being wasted”.

That is a classic example of a failure to take one service and work with the other services. That project was introduced at a time, not necessarily of plenty, but when there was an awful lot of money in the Government’s coffers. Notwithstanding the efforts of the Department for Communities and Local Government to fund projects on an ongoing basis, as it has successfully done this year—certainly in my part of the world—it is patently clear that, in times of austerity, it is vital that the emergency services work together.

I will go into the detail of that with an example from my constituency. Setting aside the amazing efforts of the GP’s practice and the fact that the paramedics are increasingly situated in the location of the practice—in other words, in Wooler, and in Bellingham going forward, a paramedic is working with the GP—if an ambulance was required and a paramedic was not available, for whatever reason, we would wait for the ambulance. I have met the area’s paramedic, who is outstanding. Why could not the individual police officer or fireman, with improved, suitable training, step in and act as first responder? It is manifestly wrong not to train individual firefighters and police officers to address such issues on an ongoing basis.

Aside from being a very fat jockey, I was formerly a business man. Just as in business there can be one man, two jobs and everyone works together and can mesh and interlink their respective jobs, so it should be with the individual firefighter, police officer and ambulance man. Another example is the community support officers who we already have in the police. They perform a manifestly brilliant role throughout the country. They are able to assist the police in the performance of their duties, but are fundamentally members of the public given basic training. Why can we not have a community support fireman or paramedic? Why is the fireman unable to interlink with individual police officers and assist the police officer as a CSO? I see absolutely no reason whatsoever why that cannot be the case. Surely, these things must be done in future.

I have discussed the suggestion with my local emergency services. Without naming the individual organisations, it is fair to say that there may be somewhat of a turf war and an issue with individuals protecting their domains. Whether that is about unions or about power, it is not the way forward. Given that these are shared services that we all need and enjoy, there must be a better way going forward. Speaking for myself, if I could secure the construction of one substantial building for the future—for example, in Bellingham—that housed police, fire and ambulance services, I would regard that as a major success.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on raising this important subject. He made some very sound points about the need for national co-ordination, efficiencies and interoperability between emergency services. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Co-ordination is vital.

I am reminded, as you will be, too, Mr Havard, that only this weekend there were very difficult circumstances of flooding throughout mid and west Wales. Looking at the reports from places not too far from my constituency or yours, we see that major rescues were undertaken involving Royal Air Force Sea King helicopters from the military, inshore lifeboats, fire service rescue boats, Dyfed-Powys police, the Environment Agency, Ceredigion local council and voluntary agencies, all working together to respond to an emergency that flared up in a very short time.

A lot of planning is done for events such as flooding, major aircraft disasters, fires, building collapse, and indeed terrorist incidents. That planning is vital. Interoperability of the emergency services and the need to co-ordinate their efforts is an important part of the planning process, but, as the hon. Member for Rugby highlighted, it can be improved. Whatever any Government do, now and in the future, there are always efficiencies, improvements and information exchanges that can help those services to be provided in a much stronger and more efficient way and to prevent failures. I echo the tribute paid to those who put their lives on the line on any occasion. It is valued by all Members.

The flooding happened this weekend, but as has been mentioned, a simple, regular, unfortunate incident, such as a road crash, involves operability between services. Major events such as the recent jubilee weekend, the forthcoming Olympics and the events of 7/7 also demand responses from a range of agencies across the board. The riots of last summer involved police forces coming into London and needing to work with other police forces. I can recall as a Minister being in Cobra for 7/7, for fuel and prison strikes, and to look at the question of riots and services in Northern Ireland. There is a need for planning, but it is also vital that operability and information flow requirements are met.

The landscape that the hon. Gentleman outlined is indeed complicated. There are not only the three UK Government Departments that he mentioned, but, as I said in my intervention, the devolved Administrations, which deal with health and the fire service in Wales and Scotland and with much of everything in Northern Ireland. We have a range of bodies—the national health service, the coastguard, the police, the British Transport police, the Army and voluntary agencies outside Government, such as the air ambulance service, St John Ambulance and the Red Cross—that very often deal with emergency response.

The hon. Gentleman made some valid points, and I agree with him on the need for the dissemination of common language and an examination of efficiencies in equipment, and to ensure common equipment that is compatible with all services. I will return to Airwave in a moment, but I want to talk about common practices. I was struck by the example of arguments about whistles and what they mean. Common practice is important, and common information should be provided. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) that there should be a drive toward shared facilities by Government and local authorities. The ambulance service in one town in my constituency is considering removing its station and sharing a facility with the police and fire service, to provide a better service—the same level of service but provided more efficiently. We can look forward to that.

In the few minutes available, I want to focus on the dichotomy highlighted by the debate between the need for greater central planning and control, with efficiencies driven from the centre through the Cabinet Office, Government co-operation and work with devolved Administrations, and the present Government agenda. I do not say that to be critical, because this is not the time to be critical; but it is fair to say that the Government agenda is driving many services into a more local context. That is true of a range of issues highlighted by the hon. Member for Rugby. Cobra will have an overarching view from the Cabinet Office, as Ministers and officials look at major international and national events, and there will be co-operation between the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and others at national level, but I want to put things into context and get a feeling from the Minister about how things fit together.

For example, on 15 November, England and Wales will get 43 police and crime commissioners, who will be able to set their budgets, issues and agendas locally. The National Policing Improvement Agency will soon be disbanded, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It recently issued guidance on issues pertinent to this debate. There is also the potential for the abolition of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has a co-ordinating, overarching responsibility for many policing issues. The Government have not yet made it clear to me what will replace it for the co-ordination of operational policing services and the provision of operational guidance on the issues we are debating today. In the context of search and rescue and coastal agencies, the Government recently split and put out to tender private contracts covering two different parts of the country. As I understand it, the Government have so far failed to provide the assurances needed about how that will work operationally. Major changes are being made to the coastguard service at local level—again, devolving downs and removing services.

For me, there is the smidgin of a question about how things will fit in together at the local level, when the Government’s agenda, rightly or wrongly—I have my own views—is driving things down locally. How can the co-ordination that the hon. Member for Rugby so eloquently advocated be required when police and crime commissioners decide their budgets, the National Policing Improvement Agency has disappeared and ACPO is no longer in place? How can it be achieved when contracts are let to the private sector for coastguard services and local government is under pressure in relation to fire services, reportedly resulting in, at the last count, more than 2,200 firefighters being cut, 50 stations being closed and 1,000 non-operational staff being lost? A separate issue is the loss of 16,000 police officers, which I shall always mention, in every debate about emergency services.

The localism agenda needs to be examined in the light of how we co-ordinate services nationally. What are the Government’s thoughts when the demands of operational activity are becoming ever more national and regional—including the Olympics, the jubilee, the terrorist threat and major operational challenges such as the flooding at the weekend? Set against those are the Government’s drive to localism—local decisions and local budget control. How will the Minister and his Department deal with mandating services and co-ordinating the efficiencies to which the hon. Members for Rugby and for Hexham rightly drew attention, when the localism agenda says, “Do what you want in the regions and nationally we will stand back a little bit more than perhaps we have in the past”?

Airwave is an important topic in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rugby, and I have also taken an interest in it, both as a Minister in the Department and, recently, shadowing that Department. The Minister will know that the current contract for Airwave comes to an end in 2016. In a written statement on 26 March the Home Secretary said that the

“management of the contract for the Airwave radio system and its replacement (including associated staff)”—[Official Report, 26 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 95WS.]

will be further considered by the Home Office shortly. She said that the matter will be transferred into the Home Office later this year. I have tabled questions to the Minister, and the answer I have had is:

“The programme is at an early stage and is in consultation with all stakeholders, including the police, to define their requirements.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 305W.]

I should be interested to know the Minister’s current thinking on Airwave, because in Government terms 2016 is not that far away. What is the Minister’s vision of Airwave’s replacement, post-2016? How does he envisage the replacement being commissioned? What does he think about the requirements for the system, taking on board the points that the hon. Member for Rugby made about operability, and the devolved Administrations and Government Departments? Does the Minister plan to have management of the system located in the Home Office permanently? What representations has he had from outside groups about the post-2016 contract? What discussion is engaged in with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the national health service, Scotland and Wales and other colleagues in his Department about the system requirements? It is important that there is efficiency in the system and value for money for the taxpayer, but it is also important to have something that works and meets the needs of the whole community.

I am anxious to give the Minister time to reply to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Rugby, but I want to mention the three driving forces that should come into play in his consideration. The first is effectiveness. The speed and type of response that the emergency services give save lives and prevent injury and are incredibly important. We need to ensure that whatever we do, and however we organise the system—I have some worries about the localism agenda supplanting the national and regional ones—there is a speedy and effective response to all incidents, and that it is planned in advance, measured on delivery, and evaluated afterwards for continuous improvement. There is a need for efficiency and cost to be considered by Ministers in relation to such matters as the potential helicopter contract now coming to light, and in terms of contracts generally. We need to consider how we drive efficiency and cost improvements in national contracts. Again I ask how, with 43 police and crime commissioners, the changes in the NHS and the localism agenda, the Minister believes we can drive the value for money agenda forward and make savings. Even more than in the past, the Minister will not be in control of how budgets are spent, unless he mandates forces and organisations to sign up to contracts, in which case he will have to set their criteria, and co-ordinate and oversee them.

The right hon. Gentleman is making an impressive speech, but I am a little curious about a couple of points. Clearly, there would always have been reductions and changes, even under the Opposition’s budgetary proposals. What would you have done differently to avoid the impacts that you describe as the Minister’s problem?

I could outline what I would have done, but the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt want to say what he thinks.

I could argue about funding for ever, but this is not the time for such a discussion. The hon. Member for Rugby talked about the need for national standards, national training, national examination and national co-ordination, but the Government’s agenda is to drive things locally, with the new police and crime commissioners, a national health service that is freer from the Government, and a general lack of target setting. There is a dichotomy. Although I would happily debate at any time the difference between the 12% cuts that I proposed as Minister and the 20% cuts in police that the Government are introducing, my question is how, when the challenges are regional and national, the Minister intends to meet the challenges of greater co-ordination during a period of localism, when the levers he has available are becoming ever more distant from his Department. There is a real challenge there that he must address. How will he drive forward that agenda? How will he make those efficiencies and savings, and who ultimately retains accountability in that changing landscape?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Havard. I echo the clear and common message that has emerged from this debate, which is to thank the emergency services for their contribution, day in, day out, to keeping us safe. I thank them for their significant professionalism and bravery, examples of which have been cited during the debate. I am sure that the House would underline that clear message of gratitude for the work of our blue-light emergency services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing the debate and on chairing the all-party parliamentary group on the emergency services, following that work through and facilitating a good and constructive discussion on the issues that are relevant to interoperability, to which I will seek to respond in my comments. I am certainly pleased to have this opportunity to update the House on some of the work that we have been doing to support the emergency services and to promote a better joined-up working approach.

It is clear that police, fire and ambulance teams work together on a daily basis with successful outcomes. Although the response to major incidents from our emergency services is among the best in the world, we are not complacent. The emergency services face significant challenges in responding to major incidents, particularly in the initial stages of a complex and fast-moving situation when the picture can be confusing and there may be unseen dangers. The three services must be able to come together as quickly as possible to share information about what is going on, to manage the risks and rescue any casualties. When the emergency services work together in that way, they save lives.

We continue to learn from events, such as the 7/7 London bombings and the shootings in Cumbria, and from regular national exercises designed to test the joint response. The severe impact and complexity of major incidents and other civil emergencies mean that we must strive for continuous improvement in the combined performance of the emergency services in joint operations.

The Home Secretary has asked the emergency services to set up a new programme of work designed to further improve our joint response to emergencies. The overall aim is to ensure that the blue-light services are trained and exercised to work together as effectively as possible in response to a major incident, including fast-moving terrorist scenarios, so that as many lives as possible can be saved.

The programme will be led by the emergency services through a joint forum, which will enable them systematically to plan, test and learn together. We fully support the delivery of the programme and have provided dedicated resources to look at how future improvements can be made.

I am conscious that a number of contributions highlighted the need for effective co-ordination and joined-up working at national level. Let me assure my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Hexham (Guy Opperman) that the Government are working collectively on this important issue. There have been a number of cross-departmental ministerial meetings to agree how to promote interoperability. The most recent was last month when the Home Secretary and her colleagues met senior representatives from the emergency services to discuss the plan for the new joint emergency services interoperability programme, which I will talk about in more detail shortly.

It is also worth highlighting that the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government are working closely together on a daily basis. The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Health, the Minister for the fire and rescue service, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and the Minister for the Cabinet Office will oversee that work through a cross-departmental ministerial board. We understand that we cannot work in silos and that a unified Government response is required.

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) rightly highlights the need for engagement with the devolved Administrations, as policing, health and fire and rescue are devolved matters. We continue to work with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations, as do our emergency service partners, on the breadth of the programme, to promote a consistent approach to the development of responses and response capabilities and to facilitate the sharing of best practice.

At local level, the local resilience forums have an important role to play. Emergency services are required by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to come together with other organisations defined as Category 1 or Category 2 responders to identify and assess the risks in the area and develop and validate plans to respond to them.

Let me talk a bit more about how we will address the need for overarching co-ordination. At national level, the Government have set out in both the draft strategic policing requirement and the draft fire and rescue national framework, the requirement for connectivity between the emergency services. The strategic policing requirement will, for the first time, set out the national threats and the appropriate national policing capabilities that are required to counter them. The election of police and crime commissioners allows Government to get out of the way of local policing, rightly putting accountability in the hands of local people. The strategic policing requirement demonstrates our commitment to get a better grip on the national threats that we face and to ensure a unified approach. Under the strategic policing requirement, police forces will consider consistency between forces and connectivity with other emergency services so that we can improve interoperability between the police, other blue-light emergency responders and other partners in responding to significant emergencies.

The new police professional body will take on the policy functions of the Association of Chief Police Officers and set standards for police professionals. It will ensure that police officers and police staff have a common skill-set and common tactics, where appropriate.

We have talked about the need for interoperability. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said that it was important to recognise joint working between individual agencies: the fire service, the ambulance service, the police and other agencies. Equally, there is a need for individual agencies to operate effectively themselves, and communication is certainly one element of that. I shall highlight some of the work that has been done around communication.

At this stage of the programme, our highest priority is the interoperability of police, fire and ambulance responders operating in a time-critical environment, where speed and accuracy of information are fundamental to the saving of life. However, we accept that the requirement for interoperability extends to a wider group of emergency responders and other agencies, who will be involved in and consulted on the development and implementation of the programme. I join right hon. and hon. Members in praising the work of local resilience forums, including their efforts to bring local responders together and to plan for risks that local communities might need to deal with, and I agree that such forums are a strong example of interoperability in action.

Future work, led by the joint emergency services interoperability programme, will ensure that responders have effective communications, guidance, training and exercises to support their response to a major incident. In response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, the programme will also consider opportunities for equipment and procurement sharing.

There are three key priority areas for the programme. The first is communications. Rapid sharing of information and intelligence is at the core of an effective response. It is needed to establish the type of incident, and to mobilise and co-ordinate the appropriate response. Ongoing communication within and between the emergency services will support on-scene commanders, who need to work together to make decisions and take urgent action.

The sharing of information within and between the emergency services is supported by Airwave radio communications. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby clearly highlighted the importance of strengthened joint communication. The programme will seek to ensure a common approach to the use of mobile communications during major incidents. Effective communications will also be enabled by the national resilience extranet, which is an information-sharing tool. In addition, the Government are working to pilot the direct electronic incident transfer, which will allow the electronic exchange of incident logs between front-line responders.

The right hon. Member for Delyn highlighted the future of Airwave and it might assist him if I gave a further response on that subject. The Airwave contract across the police and other emergency services expires between 2016 and 2020; I think that the right hon. Gentleman himself indicated that that was the case. As a consequence, the emergency services mobile communications programme has been commissioned by the Home Office to examine potential replacement solutions for the emergency services post-Airwave. Future service provision will be based on a review of the anticipated operational needs of the emergency services, and the technical capabilities and commercial opportunities available. Various technologies are being considered, but at the moment the programme is at an early stage of technology evaluation, with the first version of the strategic outline business case due in October.

For the future, interdependent relationships with the emergency services mobile communications programme will ensure that interoperability is a central feature of the future replacement for the Airwave service, when the current commercial contract expires. We will certainly provide further details to the House, as and when they are available.

I seek clarification from the Minister on just one point. Will it be mandated that police commissioners have to allocate budgets to purchase the system replacing Airwave? Is that the plan?

As I think I have already indicated in my comments thus far, the work is ongoing. It is important to recognise—as I think I have done—the need to join up the emergency services, and to consider that broader context for the use of Airwave and its replacement in the future. Therefore, it is clear that careful consideration will be given to the implementation of the new emergency services mobile communications programme.

I am conscious of the need to deal with guidance or doctrine, which is the second element of the joint emergency services interoperability programme. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby pointed out that there is a requirement for a well understood set of joint operating principles that apply to all major incidents and risks, including terrorism, public order incidents and civil emergencies. That is exactly what the programme will seek to develop. I should point out that currently there is not an absence of emergency command doctrine, but we agree that doctrine and guidance is a priority area, which is essential to support the emergency services working together to use a common approach.

If my hon. Friend reads the Government’s response to Lady Justice Hallett’s recommendations following the 7/7 inquest, he will perhaps note that the use of plain English was a key element that was highlighted. Although it was not a recommendation, it is something that the Government have been taking forward in providing an updated lexicon. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Government’s response, which was published a month ago.

I have been listening carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. It is all very well putting all these protocols and procedures in place, but does he agree that emergency planning, emergency training and interoperability between all the emergency services—not only between the blue-light services but between the blue-light services and those in all the other silos that he has mentioned—are equally important?

I absolutely agree; indeed, my hon. Friend’s intervention is timely, because I was about to come to that precise point. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, joint training and exercising is a key part of the joint emergency services interoperability programme. It will be at the front and centre of all our future work. We strongly believe that interoperability comes down to individual behaviour—knowing fellow commanders and responders. These foundations are built through joint training and exercising. Of course, interoperability needs to be supported by the right equipment and assets, but at its heart it is about working together at the scene of an incident. Training and exercising work will build on the programmes that already exist, including the counter-terrorism national exercise programme, which involves the blue-light emergency responders. Forward Defensive, conducted in February, was part of a series of exercises to test and rehearse Government and police readiness for the Paralympic and Olympic games, ensuring that the joint operation—going all the way up to how the Government, through Cobra, operate—is followed through and tested.

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that interoperability training is taking place this week in Moreton-in-Marsh, involving the police, fire and ambulance services, specifically training for the response to a firearms attack and examining how such major incidents occur. That is the third set of exercises that we have run to test the joint response since January 2010. I hope he will be reassured by that, and by the emphasis that we absolutely give to the issue.

I shall talk briefly about the co-ordination of air assets. We have developed a project that is scheduled to become operational later this year. The National Police Air Service is a police aviation service designed to provide centralised air support to the 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales, replacing the current structure. The creation of the NPAS demonstrates co-ordination of air assets within the police service.

In conclusion, I hope that my comments this morning have underlined the importance that we attach to interoperability between the emergency services. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby for securing the debate, and I again thank the emergency services for their continued commitment to public protection, reducing harm and, of course, saving lives.


The Minister for Housing and Local Government is caught in some flooding—an emergency with which he is no doubt getting assistance from the emergency services. In the meantime, the Whip, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), will sit in his chair and the Minister will take part in the debate as soon as he arrives.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. The Minister rang me to explain that he is, I think, paddling across the flooded Thames plain in a small coracle and that he will get here as soon as he possibly can.

Exactly. I entirely understand his predicament.

We all know from official figures that the pressures of homelessness are rising, and sharply. Homelessness, along with unemployment, is one of the most devastating events that can happen in a person’s life, and I want to talk for a minute or two about its definition. It is important to stress that it is not, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sought to justify on the “Today” programme, a predicament that simply involves having children sharing a bedroom. He told the programme in January:

“The homelessness definition…is in fact very misleading for the public. The public thinks that homelessness is about not having any accommodation; reasonable accommodation to go to. That’s not the definition. The definition inside Government and places like Shelter is that children have to share rooms. Now for most people who are working whose children share rooms they would find that a strange definition.”

That definition is simply wrong. It is simply and profoundly misleading, and it is important that this House corrects that misapprehension. Homelessness has, in fact, a very strict and clear legal meaning, and it is interpreted as such by the courts and local authorities alike every day and can be seen in some of the judgments and statistics on intentional homelessness.

I would very much like the Minister, when he arrives, to respond to this interesting point: the variation in local authorities’ performance regarding accepting homelessness applications is striking. Figures for boroughs such as mine show that about 40% of people who apply as homeless are accepted. Westminster city council is in a tri-borough arrangement with Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, and last year Westminster accepted an average of about 40% of all homelessness applications, whereas the figure from Hammersmith and Fulham that I have just seen is only 6.5%. That is truly extraordinary, and it is for the Department and the Minister to explain how it is that there can be such variation in performance. Although it is absolutely beyond dispute—it has always been the case—that homelessness applications can be found to be incorrect in law, because people are satisfactorily housed or at a wrong stage in the process and it is therefore right that a local authority finds against them, many applications are refused on technical or incorrect grounds. Above all, the nature of the applications should be roughly consistent between local authorities, and certainly within a region—in London, say. There is no reason for such variation in performance between local authorities.

The public perception, as fuelled by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, would be that people made applications simply because their children were forced to share a bedroom. In fact, on the day of that “Today” programme, the press asked the Prime Minister whether he considered, according to the Secretary of State’s definition, his children to be homeless because they shared a bedroom. However, if that were so, people in cases such as the one I am about to outline would not be found to be intentionally homeless.

I shall read into the record from a letter from the charity Action for Children in support of a case that we have recently dealt with in my office:

“C was referred by his school to have a mentor because his mother is seriously unwell and he has significant behavioural difficulties. She is partially disabled down one side of her body and she lost her speech following a large stroke in May 2011. She suffered another stroke last month because of the stress of being made homeless. Ms A is being supported by her family to meet the needs of her medical condition, which includes someone to be with her for 24 hrs a day. In February the family were evicted from the house they were living in in North Paddington and put in temporary accommodation”—

elsewhere in the borough. Following that, Action for Children started to become involved. The letter continues:

“Since this time I have referred C to an Educational Psychologist and to Children’s Social Care…I informed both social workers who were allocated to the case about the gravity of the situation…In April the family were given notice to move out of the hotel they had been placed in. The social work manager also told me that they were referring the case back to Adult Social Services as they should be supporting the family. In addition the cap on housing benefits will make it”

impossible for them

“to find a suitable property in Westminster.”

Following their eviction from the hotel, the family were found to be intentionally homeless because the mother had moved, briefly, out of the borough that had been her lifelong home into a relationship, which broke down. The family ended up

“sleeping on the floor of the sister’s, wherever they can find space. Their clothes and belongings are spread all over and the situation is not suitable for the family’s wellbeing at all.

This family need a place to live near to their wider family. C has witnessed his mother go from a healthy adult to a disabled parent who he now has to help care for. He has extreme behavioural problems at school, for example he has recently banged a child’s head on a concrete wall and is also becoming really obsessive. His school and I have made a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service…all of these services need to continue. Being moved out of the borough will mean the cancellation of all of these services. He will be thrown into a totally new school and situation, where it will take months to get these services in place again and…to build positive working relationships.

Ms A needs someone to be with her 24 hrs a day and help with child care. It is therefore important for her to remain close enough for her family to care for her. They are doing this at no cost to the state. If Ms A and her family are moved to a borough that is too far for her family to support her, as now seems likely, that borough will have to provide 24 hr care and…support for the children as well.”

The family were found to be intentionally homeless. Despite all those circumstances and all those traumas, they were unable to persuade the local authority that it had a duty to care for them. Also, because of the new housing benefit cap they are unable to afford a home in the private rented sector large enough to enable them to stay near the grandmother and the rest of the family who provide informal support, so the entire family has now been moved into a one-bedroomed flat, in an attempt to find a property within the housing benefit cap, despite the fact that the school and the agencies involved are concerned that it is a wholly inappropriate form of accommodation.

I have explained that case at some length because it seems that before we even get into homelessness and what is happening with the rise in accepted cases and local authorities’ responses, we need a clear understanding that the majority of people who make applications and do not even get through the narrow gateway are not people whose children are sharing a bedroom, whether in Downing street or elsewhere. They are frequently highly traumatised, highly vulnerable and highly damaged families.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. She is correct that homelessness is not just about sharing a bedroom. We have this problem of homelessness across the whole United Kingdom. Surely there is an onus on the authorities to provide proper advice for families such as the one she has just talked about, to help them to achieve a proper home. Also, there are a lot of empty homes across the United Kingdom that authorities should bring back into use.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a matter of great concern, although not central to this debate, that advice services are being cut all over the country. It does not help that legislation that this Government passed in the previous parliamentary Session removes almost all housing support from the scope of legal aid. Advice services all over the country are reducing their hours and their capacity. Indeed, Westminster city council, which is at the heart of my concerns about homelessness, has just announced plans for a further 10% cut in its advice services, which will inevitably affect such families. On the specific point about intentionality, I have absolutely no doubt from my office’s experience that many families and individuals who apply unsuccessfully to a local authority for appropriate housing support are turned away because they have made a simple error in their application. If they had been given good advice and support through the process, it would have led to a different and more satisfactory outcome.

Like unemployment, losing the roof over one’s head is traumatic and can have deep and damaging consequences, particularly for children. Evidence is growing about the impact of homelessness and enforced mobility on vulnerable families, their well-being and their educational outcomes. Nearly half a century ago, the campaigning organisation Shelter grew from one particularly vivid representation of what homelessness could do to a family: the film “Cathy Come Home” exposed its devastating consequences. We have come a long way in our attitudes since then. We have also come a long way since the homelessness catastrophe that engulfed this country during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when 1,000 home owners a week were losing their homes, and there was an extraordinary escalation in the number of families found homeless or in temporary accommodation. However, we have not come far enough. By the late 1990s, the number of people treated as homeless was declining significantly from that peak, but even so, when I was first elected to Parliament, families were spending months and sometimes more than a year trapped in a single bedroom in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with no facilities, sometimes in the most shocking conditions, involving pest infestations, violence and disruption.

I was delighted by the Labour Government’s decision in the early part of the last decade to limit the time that any family with children could spend in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I hope that I made a small contribution to that decision by taking the then Minister around a hotel in Bayswater to meet families caught in those unfortunate circumstances. However, the truth, then as now, was that bearing down on one manifestation of the problem—in that case, bed-and-breakfast accommodation—does not resolve the underlying problem if other factors are not dealt with, in particular the supply of affordable housing. We accept the Government’s criticism that one thing that the Labour Government did not do as well as we should have was build a sufficient supply of affordable homes. We built homes and introduced the decent homes initiative, and much progress was made during our later years in Government, but we did not build enough homes. However, the bed-and-breakfast crisis was largely resolved by legislation and support. It did not lead to a knock-on catastrophe, as happened in the previous decade, because other economic and social conditions did not underpin a worsening of the problem.

Where the last Government went wrong, I am afraid, is in deciding to seek to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation. It was an arbitrary decision that would have knock-on consequences, which are part of the problem that we are dealing with now. The Government made a well intentioned decision to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation by diverting families and vulnerable individuals into the private rented sector under the prevention and relief of homelessness duties. Cumulatively, 200,000 or so families have been placed in the private rented sector as a consequence.

This Government have made that reorientation of homelessness duties into a crisis by restricting housing benefit. Unquestionably, we would all like the housing benefit bill to be cut, families to be housed in lower-rent accommodation and rents to come down, but if the Government choose to place vulnerable and low-income families in the private rented sector while at the same time removing the means for them to sustain their tenancies, it will be no surprise to anyone that the consequence is a rise in homelessness, which is exactly what has happened.

Some £2 billion in cuts have been made to housing benefit, the number of working people relying on Government help to pay their rent has increased dramatically and the number of affordable homes being built has collapsed. New statistics just released confirm a 68% fall in affordable housing starts in the year 2011-12, the first full year for which the Government are responsible. The Government are now reaping what they sowed. They were warned in a letter sent by the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Prime Minister last year saying that the housing benefit cuts would lead to a rise in homelessness, which was adamantly denied.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one factor in making those on housing benefit less attractive to private landlords has been the decision to give rent directly to the tenant? Therefore, unfortunately, in some cases, it is not passed on to the landlord.

The Government were warned that direct payment in a housing market as unstable as ours now is would have exactly those consequences. Yes, direct payment is a concern. It is of grave concern to social landlords, who need a reliable income stream against which they can borrow to invest, and it is of concern to private landlords, but it is not the only problem.

Part of the problem—it is particularly pronounced in London—is that the private rental market is booming. Huge numbers of people can no longer afford to buy their own homes, so they are moving into the private rented sector. Competition is strong for homes there, and low-income families whose only bargaining tool is housing benefit can no longer compete. That is the absolute opposite of what we were told by Ministers. We were told, particularly by Lord Freud, that because housing benefit is such a major purchaser in the private rented sector, rents would fall for people on low incomes. That has not happened. Westminster council has managed to reduce the number of families on housing benefit in the private rented sector by only 52, from 6,000. It is a complete and catastrophic failure of the policy, and the Government were warned about it.

What are the statistics? In 2011, 106,070 people approached their councils as homeless—an increase of 10% from the previous year. Of those, 48,510 households were accepted as being owed a homelessness duty—a 14% increase from 2010. Government street counts and estimates show that 2,181 people across England sleep rough on any given night—a rise of 23% from the previous year. Homelessness agencies report that 3,975 people were seen sleeping rough in London in 2010-11—an 8% rise from the previous year. The number of new rough sleepers rose by 73% compared with the same period last year. The number of people in London living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation increased by 26% last year. The number of families now forced to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than the maximum of six weeks increased threefold between 2010 and 2011.

London Councils warns that housing benefit restrictions are

“leading to a lack of private rented supply in which to place homeless or potential homeless households…which results in an increased number of borough placements in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation. This situation is deteriorating and is expected to continue to deteriorate”,

and the introduction of the universal credit is expected to worsen the scenario further.

We cannot say that the Government have been idle in responding to the situation. They have written a letter to local authorities in breach of the six-week limit on families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The Minister, whom I am sorry is not in his place, wrote to my council and others saying:

“Whilst this Government has removed targets in the area of homelessness and elsewhere, this does not mean that I am relaxed about local authorities placing families in B and B for extended periods. The detrimental effects of B and B on families are well documented… I do understand that some local authorities are facing increasing homelessness pressures… However, I urge you to prioritise this issue.”

Westminster council—a cheerleader for the restrictions on housing benefit and other measures supported by the Government—is understandably irked at having received that letter. It points out, not unreasonably, that the increase in bed and breakfast is due exclusively to a set of measures introduced, not, to be fair, by the Department for Communities and Local Government, but by its evil twin, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Westminster council said in its response:

“The use of non-self-contained TA—Bed and Breakfast—is the result of demand for housing from homeless households outstripping supply and a shortage of accommodation for households where a duty has been accepted… When Housing Benefit caps were introduced, the Council planned for an increase in homelessness applications”.

That is strange, because Ministers were arguing at that point that there was not the slightest risk that there would be any increase in homelessness as a result of the housing benefit caps. Westminster council was telling us something completely different, as were most other local authorities. Westminster council went on to say that

“it is proving very challenging to procure new units in sufficient volumes to meet demand. The fact that the current funding framework runs out in 9 months and there has been no announcement of any replacement formula and how the LHA and household benefit caps will be applied in practice means it is difficult to provide landlords with surety of income.

The market for properties available for letting within the funding framework is reducing as landlords move away from letting to benefit dependent groups and have alternative markets”.

Stripped of the diplomatic language, that means that homelessness is rising, as families lose their private rented homes because of housing benefit cuts, that the council cannot find anywhere to put them, because homelessness accommodation is also being capped, and that landlords are leaving the market. On top of that, on the one hand, local authorities are being told by the DCLG that they are not supposed to send their homeless households to other parts of the country, while on the other hand, they are being told by DWP that they cannot afford to keep them where they are. Those two Departments are fighting each other in the trenches, leaving vulnerable families caught in the middle.

It gets worse. Even if it is possible to put households in temporary accommodation, under the household benefit cap, which will be introduced in a few months, they will not be able to pay their rent. This is a mystery to everyone. I have not found a single person—I would love it if the Minister, who is not yet in his place, could answer this question—who has been able to tell me what will happen. Last week, two families approached me—they were the first of many—because when their housing benefit is deducted they will be left with nothing. They will not have a single penny to pay for the temporary accommodation that the council has placed them in. They will not be left with £50 to buy food, or £30 to pay their electricity bill and for food. They will be left with nothing. That cannot happen, but nobody has been able to tell me what will happen in those circumstances.

In practice, families who have lost their homes because of a benefit shortfall of £50 or £100 a week are now spending months—I know of families who are spending 10 months—in bed and breakfast accommodation, which is costing the state far more than the amount saved by the cap on housing benefit. That is madness. The situation also means that councils are being forced, with varying degrees of reluctance, to choose which order they break—the time limit on the use of bed and breakfast, or the guidance on local connection, even for those families with many years residency, jobs, children in schools and other family ties.

I will highlight a few cases to illustrate that point. The first reads:

“I am a single mother with a hearing impaired 4 year old and a 6 month old baby girl with hemangioma on her back which is badly ulcerated. I can’t work to rent a flat as my deaf son has speech therapy and audiology appointments at least twice a week, and when I’m not attending therapy or appointments, I’m at Great Ormond Street Hospital for my daughters back.”

She goes on to say that her mother, with whom she was living until being made homeless recently, is a very sick lady. She has cancer and multiple sclerosis and has recently been diagnosed with diabetes. As a consequence, my correspondent and her two sick children were unable to remaining living with her mother. She goes on to say that, fortunately, the council

“put me in a hotel in Victoria which isn’t too far from my sons school, but unfortunately, it’s literally one room with a bathroom”.

There is no fridge or cooking facilities, which is

“very difficult as I’ve been having to go out every time my children get hungry. This is very expensive and even if I can afford it now, in a couple of days I won’t be able to.”

She called the council’s housing department

“and asked them how do they expect me to feed my children if I haven’t got a cooker or a fridge in my room. They said they can’t do anything. Do you know if that’s true? All I want is a self contained place so I can feed the children.”

That letter was written at the end of March; at the end of May, the family were still there. In April, when I asked the council whether they could be moved into self-contained accommodation with cooking facilities, it told me:

“Unfortunately we have had to use the 2 self-contained units which have become available in Westminster or surrounds since your email for even more pressing cases”.

The second case involves Ms E, who was in a privately rented flat off the Harrow road in Westminster. Sadly, she suffered a stroke, was in hospital for seven weeks and is now restricted to a wheelchair. She is 81 years old. During her stay in hospital she was evicted from her home for non-payment of rent. Since being discharged she has had to spend one month in a hotel in the west end, six weeks in a hotel in Kensington, and she is now in another hotel. I am told that housing options is trying to find somewhere suitable for that wheelchair user, who is 81 years old and has suffered a stroke, but surely, after almost 14 weeks, the search should be complete.

In another case, a lady wrote to me:

“I need your help, I am in a complex situation. I am in a private flat and housing benefit will be cut by 30th July 2012.”

She is a single mother with three children, aged nine, seven and six. The oldest is disabled: he has severe sickle cell disease, chronic hypoxaemia and low oxygen. He is at high risk of a stroke and has abnormal transcranial dopplers, and a hospital is monitoring him closely during his painful crises. They have been in their flat since 2009 and in the Westminster borough for 10 years. She continued:

“On 5th March I went to housing options, I asked the housing adviser for them to find us a property because the land lord is not going to accept the new housing benefit rate. He also phoned the land lord and he told me he is not going to lower the price. He told me that I can apply for the DISCRETIONARY HOUSING BENEFIT, but if it is awarded it will be for a limited period till November 2012.


Those are random examples of the kinds of cases that we have been dealing with over the past few weeks, but there are many more.

I am glad to see that the Minister is now in his place. I have talked so far about the pressures driving the increase in homelessness and the increased reliance on bed and breakfast, but I want to turn now to local connection. It has always been my belief that we should find a way to share responsibility for families with no local connections to any area—they should be more fairly distributed among different local authorities—and that we should also make it easier for families who want to move to other parts of the United Kingdom to do so. I know of families who would love to move. They tell me that they have family members in Manchester or elsewhere in the north of England and that they would love to be able to move there, but that there is no mechanism available for them to do so. I know of the HomeSwapper scheme, but if that does not work, there is no statutory framework available that allows people to move.

Those people who have local connections, such as children settled in schools, work—it is a complete myth that everybody who is homeless or on housing benefit is workless; that is not the case—caring responsibilities or other family and voluntary duties, should be supported, and that duty should not cease simply because the home borough happens to be in central London.

I am talking about people like Carol—I have not used anyone’s real name—who is a lifelong Westminster resident. She became homeless after suffering domestic violence and was given temporary accommodation in Dagenham. Her three children attend a school on Church street, where one of them, who has a speech problem, sees a speech therapist, and another receives additional, special learning support. Moving school is therefore not an option. Carol travels from Dagenham to Church street every day to take her children to school and to care for her disabled grandmother and agoraphobic mother. She spends four hours a day travelling, with her small children, from and to her temporary accommodation in east London.

Maryan is homeless due to the housing benefit cuts and currently lives in a hotel in Barnet. She is 29 weeks pregnant and suffers from endometrioses and related problems, which recently resulted in the removal of part of her bowel. Her placenta is not located correctly and moving around or taking the stairs is risky, but she has no choice because her room is on the hotel’s second floor.

Ms T was placed in private accommodation three years ago by housing support. It had an extra and illegal bedroom that was only discovered when we sent an environmental health officer to visit. Her violent ex-partner found out where she lived. She therefore had to make a second homelessness application, and at the time of writing, she was in a hotel where she has been for 10 weeks with her young son and newborn baby.

Family V are homeless owing to housing benefits caps. They have one child with hemiplegic cerebral palsy who attends St Mary’s hospital and is at a special school in Hammersmith. The family have two babies at home and a child at school in Paddington. They are in east London, and they are getting up every morning at 5 am to get to school.

Those are the kinds of cases where families have been located in other London boroughs. Local connection is very strictly defined and usually applies only to people who are taking public exams. That is not right and is not in line with DCLG guidance. The impact of that issue on families is devastating and counter-productive. Yet everything that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing, and that it is underpinning the DCLG to do in terms of housing supply and the weakness of the guidance for local authorities, is driving more and more councils to place their disabled and vulnerable families miles from their schools, caring responsibilities and work. That makes any attempt to rebuild their lives impossible.

Hammersmith council’s draft homelessness strategy has just been published and confirms that point even more strongly. Absolutely in contravention of the Minister’s words and flying in the face of the guidance given to local authorities, that strategy states:

“There is expected to be a reduction in the amount of locally available temporary accommodation… Due to rising local private rents”—

I thought that the Minister told us that they were not rising, but Hammersmith council does not agree—

“and the change in the Local Housing Allowance methodology, the private rented sector outside the borough will be increasingly used to meet the council’s statutory homelessness duties and other housing obligations”.

Considering those words from the mouth of the local authority and the cases that I and other Members increasingly have coming to our doors, it cannot be the case that the Minister is correct in saying that there is a duty to maintain local connection. He cannot be correct in saying that, other than in the case of genuine and short-term emergencies, local authorities are not placing families far outside their local authority and that families are not staying for more than six weeks in bed-and- breakfast accommodation, because all those things are happening.

Everyone we talk to in London Councils, local authorities, the housing sector and the specialist agencies that deal with homeless families tells us that the problem will get significantly and possibly dramatically worse in the coming months. Hardly anyone affected by the housing benefit cap has lost their home yet. A very small proportion of those people have got to the end of their lease, gone to court, perhaps seen a bailiff and ended up making a homeless application. The worst is very much still to come, because temporary accommodation has not yet been brought into the housing benefit regime. That is why local authorities are struggling so hard. In addition, the household benefit cap has not come into effect, which will make it impossible for families even to pay the rent for the accommodation that the local authority has placed them in. It is time for the two Departments to sit down, work this out, get a grip and prevent what is currently a crisis from turning into a catastrophe.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for securing this important debate on homelessness.

I have two basic reasons for wanting to speak in the debate. First, I have some knowledge of the subject, which I will touch on in a moment. Secondly, as has already been indicated, the increase in homelessness both locally in Rochdale—I will come to that—and across the country will have a devastating effect. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is no doubt that the situation is getting worse.

I worked as a social researcher for about 10 years from 1997 until 2007. I started off with the Big Issue in the North, which is a homelessness agency and charity. From there, I went on to do lots of homelessness research projects across the country for a variety of agencies; for example, Crisis, the Rough Sleepers Unit, Shelter and local authorities such as Camden, Islington and many others. There is probably not an elected Member who has visited more homelessness projects than me right across the UK over a 10-year period.

I mention that because I made three significant observations while doing that research. First, it will not surprise anyone who has an interest in the subject to hear that homelessness is not just about housing; it is about drug treatment, mental health, alcohol and a whole range of different issues. We must not forget that. As we are now seeing, housing—the number of houses, flats and different types of accommodation provided—is critical, but it is not the only issue. That is my first observation.

From the research I have conducted, my second observation is about clustering. I have seen very little on that subject, but the clustering of homelessness services in a particular area for historical reasons is significant. Let me give three examples. In south Yorkshire—with the exception of Sheffield, which has many homelessness services—Doncaster has a lot of homelessness services, while Barnsley and Rotherham have very few. So Doncaster is an area where there is clustering in the provision of homelessness services. Another example is Blackburn, where there is a disproportionately high number of homelessness services. However, in Accrington, Burnley and other surrounding towns, there are fewer such services. Rochdale is another place where there is a high proportion of homelessness services, whereas the number in Bury and Oldham is disproportionately low.

The clustering of homelessness provision is important. I am not being partisan in saying that; I am making an important observation. We should either celebrate the fact that those towns and cities are providing homelessness services, hold them up as beacons and give them additional resources because they are carrying a disproportionate responsibility for homelessness in that sub-region, or we should try to ensure that local authorities who are not doing as much increase provision. It should be one or the other. That is an important observation that people have tended to miss in such debates.

By coincidence, I started social research into homelessness in 1997 and continued right up to 2007. My third observation is that, as has been pointed out, there is no doubt that the Labour Government were very successful during that time. First, they tackled the critical issue of rough sleeping. They appointed Louise Casey, who is a great civil servant, to deal with the problem. I am pleased that the Government have chosen her to lead the challenge on troubled families.

The Labour Government dramatically reduced rough sleeping, and they then moved on to the issue of bed- and-breakfast accommodation. Through a systematic approach, homelessness was reduced by 70% during the Labour Government. I am not being partisan about it; those are the facts. I studied the subject during that time and we could see homelessness reduced to the point that the Labour Government were moving on to try to address other issues, such as people in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfasts. As with unemployment, some people will always fall into homelessness. There is some inevitability about that, and people will inevitably find themselves sleeping rough on the streets. However, we can reduce the problem. The Labour Government did a fantastic job of reducing homelessness to somewhere near the lowest level it could be, and we should give them credit for that.

There is no doubt that homelessness is increasing again. The statistics and the facts show that we are going backwards. In 2011, homelessness increased by 14% and rough sleeping by 23%. As I mentioned, the number of houses being built is a significant problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North mentioned the Homes and Communities Agency figures. There has been a 68% reduction in the building of affordable houses in the past financial year. That, in addition to the cuts and the Government’s inability to get the economy going, is absolutely devastating news for the homeless.

I talked earlier about other factors that push people into homelessness. There has been an increase in unemployment, lower living standards and house repossessions, all of which move people toward homelessness. As a consequence, the number of people who are homeless and sleeping rough is increasing. My hon. Friend mentioned benefits. This morning I spoke with Dennis Skelton, the co-ordinator of Petrus, a Rochdale-based homelessness charity. Shared-room rents and the reduction of housing benefit are a massive concern, and perpetuate the problem of increased homelessness.

Homelessness is not just a national issue; cuts to local government and related agencies are having a significant impact. Drug treatment provision is being cut. Provision for mental health services, hostels and day care centres is being stretched. Homeless Link’s most recent survey shows that the number of clients using homeless day centres has risen by nearly a third. On average, there are 22% fewer empty beds in emergency accommodation for homeless people, per night. Charities, voluntary groups and other agencies that support and provide assistance to homeless people are being affected by the cuts. We are seeing a return to the 1980s, with more people sleeping rough, more people going into bed and breakfast, and more people sofa-surfing. That is the reality of how the Government’s policies are affecting people at the bottom of the pile who are struggling and finding things really difficult.

We should not politicise or play politics with homelessness. In May 2008, before he was Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:

“I think that it is simply a disgrace that in the fifth-biggest economy in the world that we have people homeless, people sleeping on the streets, sofa-surfers, people in hospitals.”

He said it was a disgrace. The problem with playing politics with this type of issue is becoming a hostage to fortune. He made those comments when the previous Government had taken radical steps forward to reduce homelessness and it was probably at an all-time low. In 2012, as Prime Minister he is overseeing a dramatic increase in homelessness, yet he is doing very little to stop the problem. In fact, all indications suggest that it will get worse. There are no indications that the problem will stop.

According to research undertaken by Shelter last year, my constituency of Rochdale is the 10th-worst place in the country for repossessions. In December 2010, 53 people presented to the local authority as homeless. In December 2011, the number had gone up to 160—a 200% increase, and the biggest rise in Greater Manchester. We are seeing real problems. Thirteen local agencies that provide homelessness services have had their contracts cut, and their services are being reduced. More people going into bed and breakfast in Manchester and Burnley are being placed outside the borough.

I am not saying that the council has got it exactly right. It has had a very difficult time, with one of the worst settlements from central Government, compared with some of the more leafy suburbs in Conservative-controlled local authorities in the south of England. Where we have poverty and difficulty, we have seen some of the worst cuts to local authorities; Rochdale is an example. The council has removed the ring-fence from the Supporting People programme budget and it has been salami-slicing homelessness budgets, so it has not got it exactly right. I am happy to be critical of the local authority—even a Labour-controlled authority; it should have awarded more contracts to local charities, which have a better grass-roots understanding of homelessness, yet some contracts have been awarded to national homeless charities. That is a mistake, but there is no doubt that Rochdale council, like many other local authorities, is operating in an exceptionally difficult climate that has been created by the Government. If the Government are genuinely serious about tackling homelessness—there are no indications yet that they are—they have to do something radically different to get on top of the issue.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who has been a remarkable and outstanding champion of homeless people for many years. In a most dramatic and vivid way, she has brought home the sheer scale of human misery felt by hundreds of thousands of those we represent. The voice of homeless people has been heard in Parliament today.

Like my hon. Friend, I see the ever-lengthening queues of the desperate in my constituency: families trying to get a decent home at a price that they can afford who are being evicted; and those whose lives have come apart, who have spiralled down and ended up homeless on the streets. They are good men and women who deserve better in 21st-century England.

Homelessness and rough sleeping in 21st-century Britain, the seventh-richest nation on earth, are a disgrace and a scar on our society. Those were the sentiments of the Prime Minister when he was in opposition in 2009. Indeed, in August 2011, the Housing Minister said:

“Tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is what first got me into politics”.

No one doubts the Minister’s desire to bring an end to homelessness and rough sleeping. In opposition, he set up the Conservative homelessness foundation. In government, he has set up a cross-Government working group on homelessness and introduced a “no second night out” policy. However, with sadness I have to say that as we have seen all too often with the Minister and the Government, the rhetoric and the reality are very different indeed.

On the Minister’s watch, the consequences of the Government’s economic, housing and benefits policies have been devastating. We now have the biggest housing crisis in a generation, and, at its heart, the depressing statistics of homelessness up by 14% and rough sleeping up by 23%. The truth is that homelessness is rising precisely because their economic and housing policies are failing.

I have some questions for the Housing Minister. Does he accept that the Government were warned that the 60% cut in investment in the 2010 comprehensive spending review would have catastrophic consequences and that they have led, as today’s figures from the Homes and Communities Agency have demonstrated, to a 68% collapse in the building of affordable houses? Does he accept that the Government were warned that the toxic combination of increasing rents in the private sector, collapsing affordable house building and ill-thought-through changes to the benefits system would mean thousands of families being uprooted, particularly in London? The private secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote last year that the cap and other housing benefit reforms could result in 40,000 people being made homeless and that the policy could cost more than it saved. Does the Minister accept that the Government were warned about the consequences of the biggest cuts to local government expenditure in history and the cuts to Supporting People?

As we have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) say eloquently, the consequences have been serious. The city of Birmingham, which I am proud to represent, has had the biggest cuts in local government history in the past two years: £312 million, including £15 million in cuts to the big society through cuts to the charitable and voluntary sectors.

In Birmingham, and throughout Britain, there have been cutbacks in services to homeless people. Again, the statistics are depressing; 58% of projects have received reduced funding, leading to a reduction of one in 10 staff— 1,400 people—caring for the homeless. The number of clients using day centres for the homeless has risen by nearly a third and there are 22% fewer empty beds on an average night. The research report, “SNAP 2012”, produced by Homeless Link, shows that there are 1,544 fewer bed spaces in 2012, compared to the previous year.

As a result of the Government’s actions—their failed economic policies—there is higher unemployment and the greatest squeeze on living standards in a generation, with families and individuals struggling to stay in their homes, whether owned or rented. Increasing numbers of people are presenting as homeless or are out on the street, not to mention the cuts to services that provide the safety net. There has been a catastrophic fall in construction, which is at the heart of the double-dip recession made in Downing street.

The Government’s failed housing policies are contributing to the growing housing crisis and the collapse in affordable house building. The private rented sector is defined by ever-increasing rents and, all too often, poor standards, with one in two homes in the sector not meeting the decent homes standard. Social housing providers are increasingly unsupported and their tenants shamefully demonised by Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North used powerful case studies to demonstrate eloquently that the combination of the Government’s failing housing and economic policies and their benefit changes is leading, as the Housing Minister was warned, to misery on a grand scale. Tenants are forced out of their private rented homes because of the housing benefit changes and councils cannot find anywhere to put them. Many landlords are increasingly leaving the housing benefit tenant market. Councils are told by the Government that tenants should not be sent elsewhere in the country, but councils cannot keep them locally, so tenants end up in hotels paid for by the taxpayer, costing the taxpayer more and leading to more misery for the tenants. That is the economics of the madhouse.

We Labour Members learnt in government that homelessness can only be tackled by addressing all the factors contributing to it. Above all, more homes are needed. In government, Labour delivered 2 million new homes—500,000 affordable homes—and introduced Supporting People, bringing together seven income streams from across central Government to give the necessary housing and related support, particularly for vulnerable people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale is right to say that as a consequence of Labour’s determination to tackle the scandal of homelessness and bad housing, there was, progressively, a 70% reduction in homelessness. That reduction has gone dramatically into reverse under this Government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an incomprehensible lack of logic in the Government’s now telling local authorities that they cannot transfer people to other local authorities, when that is the inevitable conclusion of the Government’s policies? Indeed, Ministers highlighted that conclusion in respect of the welfare reform and housing benefit changes of the past two years.

My hon. Friend is right. I have seen at first hand some utterly tragic cases resulting from those policies. For example, a young woman, who understandably chose to remain anonymous, appeared on the “Today” programme. She lived in Waltham Forest, was married to a professional man and they had a nine-year-old. The couple broke up and stayed close, but sadly he died. She then lost her home and ended up in temporary accommodation and was told that because there was no available alternative accommodation that the council could provide for her, she would have to go from Waltham Forest to Walsall. She said, “I can’t do it. My nine-year-old is distraught because of her dad’s death. She hasn’t gone to school for the last three months, with the agreement of the school, as she recovers. I go every day to my mum, who looks after her granddaughter while I train to get back into the world of work.” I do not mind admitting that after she told me that story, with its consequences and the pain that she felt, I was in tears. It is about time that Ministers faced up to the consequences experienced by the victims of their policies.

It appears that there is consensus in this Government that housing does not matter and should not be centre stage. Labour believes strongly—we know—that it does matter. Does the Housing Minister accept how important housing is to the economy? Construction accounts for 3% of gross domestic product, £91 billion of economic output and 1.5 million jobs. Does the Minister accept that it matters to health? The annual costs to the national health service of poor housing and homelessness have been assessed at £2.5 billion. Another depressing statistic shows that, on average, the homeless on the streets die 30 years younger.

Does the Minister accept that homelessness matters with regard to educational attainment? Again, the depressing evidence shows the impact on a generation of young people brought up in poor housing or temporary accommodation.

My predecessor and I have stood up for all that is decent in terms of putting housing centre stage, and fought hard on behalf of the homeless, the badly housed and the millions who need a decent home at a price that they can afford, whether to buy or to rent. The Housing Minister should not make flippant comments but, instead, take his responsibilities seriously, as Labour is doing.

We have—as the Government have not—put housing at the heart of our economic recovery plan to kick-start the economy and get it moving.

We might reflect on the fact that, in a full-day Opposition debate, we discussed the impact of the housing benefit cuts on housing, in the context of the collapse in housing supply. We warned of the interaction of the policies bringing about exactly the conditions that we have been debating today.

My hon. Friend is right, and I would compare our record with that of this Government at any time, including on what kind of action should be taken now. When there was global collapse in 2008, did we stand back? No, we did not. We acted on the one hand to keep people in their homes, avoiding the tide of repossessions to which my hon. Friend referred earlier, and on the other hand by way of the kick-start programme, which saw 110,000 homes built and 70,000 jobs and 3,000 apprenticeships created. To this day, the benefits of that programme are feeding through.

What do we see now? We see the reverse. We see a Government who have done scarcely anything, as a consequence of which we see today the depressing statistic that there has been a 68% fall in affordable house building. That is why we want the Minister to listen to our case for a repeat of the bank bonus tax, enabling us to start with 25,000 badly needed affordable homes, the creation of jobs for 100,000 young people and a cut in VAT on home improvements, which will both upgrade housing stock and create jobs in the economy. If we were in government, our argument is that we would do what this Government are refusing to do, which is to act: to raise standards in the rapidly growing private rented sector, protecting tenants and good landlords alike, to create a more stable, secure and affordable sector and to encourage investment in major new build in that sector. The Housing Minister has gone in exactly the opposite direction; for example, repealing crucial protections that Labour put in place when in government, dismissing them as red tape. Much needed protection for tenants, many of whom are suffering in the private rented sector, is not red tape.

In conclusion, what strikes me as the most shocking thing about homelessness is not that it exists in a rich nation such as ours but that we know how to solve it. Therefore, I hope that the Minister has not completely forgotten what brought him into politics and that, instead, he listens to the voice of those concerned, such as the verdict on homelessness in the second edition of the powerful “Housing Report” produced by the National Housing Federation, Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing, whose annual conference he and I will be addressing later this week. I hope that the Minister hears the report’s assessment:

“The large increase in homeless acceptances and rough sleepers is deeply troubling. Ministers need to respond urgently to this growing problem, which could be exacerbated by further cuts to Housing Benefit in 2013.”

It is true that there was once a noble tradition in the Conservative party that took housing obligations seriously. It was the tradition of Harold Macmillan. Sadly, that tradition now appears to be all but extinct in the modern Conservative party.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate, as well as my thanks to her for understanding my predicament this morning, trapped as I was when trying to reach the House, our inclement summer weather not letting me make the journey.

The housing debate is incredibly important, and homelessness even more so. I pay huge tribute to the hon. Lady for her long-term commitment to this subject, going back many years. Housing does not always get the attention that it rightly deserves, whether from Government or Opposition—I will say more about that in a moment—but not so with the hon. Lady, who is a passionate advocate on housing and in particular on homelessness, on which I have heard her speak often over many years.

We need to set the context. Far from being a recession “made in Downing street”, as the rather glib soundbite from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) suggests, sensible people looking at today’s circumstances appreciate that we need only to look across the water to see what is happening in Europe—the bail-out in Spain and events in France, Greece and so many other places—to understand that the problem is global and not one experienced only in the UK. In fact, the problem has a source, a reason, a cause, which was spending money that we did not have today and expecting our children to pay it back in the future. That was unsustainable; it could not be maintained forever. Only a fool imagines that we can spend money that we do not have forever. We had to do something about it, which means reducing the deficit in every area of the economy. Yes, that includes reducing the capital available to build homes—there is no point pretending that that has not been affected. Our great challenge has been to reduce the deficit while finding ways to increase the amount of house building, which, as we would not know from the contributions of the Opposition Members, fell to its lowest level since the 1920s under the previous Administration’s plans, resulting in a huge housing crisis.

We must look at the overall housing picture to understand the situation in a bit more detail. We have such enormous pressure on housing in this country because house prices were able to double in only 10 years, which is precisely what happened between 1997 and 2007. Lo and behold, what a great surprise, we end up with a large proportion of our fellow citizens finding it almost impossible to buy a house. As a result, rents and the number of people trapped in their housing position grow and grow exponentially. That did not happen overnight but over a decade and more. A lack of house building is at the very heart and is the very root of the problems of homelessness.

I am aware that the Minister struggles with his statistics, but perhaps he can take the opportunity today to confirm his Department’s own statistics. Under a Labour Government, there were 2 million new homes, 1 million more mortgage holders, 0.5 million affordable homes and, as a consequence of the kick-start programme in precisely the same kind of difficult economic circumstances as we now face, 110,000 new homes, 70,000 jobs and 3,000 apprenticeships. That is a record to be proud of. Can the Minister confirm those statistics?

The problem with statistics, as the hon. Gentleman should know, is that they can be played any which way we choose. For example, six months ago, when the Home and Communities Agency produced the house building figures for the previous six months, the hon. Gentleman made great play of a 97% reduction in the amount of affordable housing starts, although it was a natural consequence of the switch from the old programme to the new affordable rent programme. In the light of analysis of the figures six months on, he has failed to come to the House to explain that there has been 3,500% increase in starts based on his measure. I agree that we are not building sufficient homes in this country, but I am not happy with him ducking and weaving and using one set of figures six months ago and a different set of figures today in order to make a point.

I would like to make progress on the essence of this debate, because I have a feeling that we will never agree on the housing stats, although it is undeniable that house building had slumped to its lowest level since the 1920s, and starts were up by 29% in 2011 compared with 2009, so some progress has been made.

I want to focus on the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Westminster North—I have caught up on the notes—and to address some of the issues. I heard clearly her description of some of the people who are trapped in homelessness, and there is no doubt that the anxiety and pressure is immense. We have all seen that in our constituencies. I have been the Housing Minister or the shadow Minister for five years, and I challenge the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on who has visited the most homelessness projects. However, he is spot on to say that when one hears such stories and understands what is going on in people’s lives, it is often surprising and even shocking to realise how little of the problem is simply down to the roof over one’s head. I have yet to meet someone who is homeless and who does not have a catastrophic tale of complex circumstances such as family break-up, financial problems, health problems, sometimes mental health problems, having been in prison and not having got their life back together, and sometimes following active service. There is almost always a combination of some of those contributory factors.

I decided early on, following our work with the Homelessness Foundation, which was set up in 2008, that we need to make Government Departments work better together. That is why I set up the ministerial working group on homelessness. It is the first time that Ministers from different Departments—eight of them—have come together to work on these issues. They include the Department for Work and Pensions, which works closely with us.

I think we must accept that the Government and the Opposition start from slightly different positions. I passionately believe in a safety net to ensure that people are not made homeless, and Members on both sides of the House can be proud that this country probably has the best safety net in the entire world.

I will give way in a moment. It is a tribute to the Opposition as well as the Government that in this country we do not see families and children homeless on the streets. We do see single people homeless on the streets, and I will talk about the measures that I am taking to try to address that problem.

When people talk about homelessness, there is a confusing set of definitions; that has come out in our debate today. For example, when we talk about homelessness, we are usually talking about homelessness acceptances: people who have been accepted as having a right to be helped and who, in other words, will not be homeless because they will be provided with a home. Until now, that has been an offer in the social sector of a home for life, which more often than not can be passed on to a future generation.

It is still true, although one would not know it from the Opposition’s comments—I even wonder whether they are aware of it—that homelessness today is lower than it has been in 28 of the past 30 years, and half the average level during the 13 years of the previous Administration. I do not want to paint an overly rosy picture, because I am alive to the many real pressures and difficulties for families and family budgets posed by the extended downturn and the world economic problems. Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Rochdale, rightly talked about not playing politics with these issues, but he then proceeded to play politics. It is not simple to resolve the problems, and the Government must find the right responses.

Does the Minister accept that his statement is misleading, because where we are now is a consequence of the 70% reduction under a Labour Government, and that is now in reverse with a 14% increase in statutory homelessness and a 23% increase in rough sleeping?

One of the problems is that it depends where the figures are taken from. The high point in the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation was in 2004, which was a long time—seven years—into the previous Administration. We may say that there was a big reduction in, for example, the number of homeless people in temporary accommodation, and that may have been from halfway through the previous Labour Administration, but we must be very careful when trading figures. I am much more concerned about the outcome for people on the ground, and when I talk about people on the ground, I sometimes mean people at the bottom of the pile who are sleeping on the streets.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and other Labour Members feel some shame that the true size of the cohort of people living on the nation’s streets was buried under the previous system of counting. For example, if someone was sitting upright in a sleeping bag, they were not counted, and they had to be there at a certain time and so on to be counted. One of the first things I did was rip up the system that tried to claim that only 424 people in the country were sleeping rough. Any observer with any knowledge of the system, let alone hon. Members who had spent a lot of time studying homelessness, knew that that was nonsense. I have tried to reveal the true size and scale of the problem and not to bury it or hide it away, but I want to go further.

Reference has been made to the importance of the Supporting People budget. Despite the enormous pressure on reducing budgets to deal with the record deficit, we have kept almost the entire cash amount for the Supporting People programme. In fact, there was a 1% reduction in Supporting People over four years—£6.5 billion. I know that there have been problems on the ground—the hon. Member for Westminster North described them clearly—about the way in which Supporting People money has been spent. I understand that there are challenges when such funding is not ring-fenced—it was not ring-fenced in 2009—and that with other pressures the Supporting People budget has been pressurised on the ground, but it is not that the money has not been going in. Nor is it the case that we have reduced by even a penny support for homelessness. The homelessness budget was £400 million—£100 million a year—for the spending review period, and that has not been reduced.

I do not know whether it has escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, but during the past year, I took another £70 million, which was not in the spending review and aimed at homelessness, and put it into homelessness programmes, because I passionately believe in maintaining that fantastic homelessness support in this country. When we talk about people being homeless, we generally mean that they have been accepted as being homeless so that they can get a home, but there is a category of single people who do not receive help and support through our system. If a single person—the sort of people we are familiar with from our constituency surgeries—turns up at their local authority, under the rules that have applied until now they would simply be told, “I’m sorry, you are not covered as a preference category. We can do nothing for you.” That is not good enough, and I am sure that other hon. Members agree, so I have made £18.5 million available in the last few months to ensure that tailored advice is available for individuals, in addition to £10 million to Crisis to do the same.

I would dearly like to make the category of single people without dependants a preference category, and that should be the objective of any Government when money allows. I have not only protected all the preference categories that Opposition Members talked about—the work of Louise Casey was praised, and I echo that—I have added to those preference categories and I am trying to go further.

It is crazy that anyone who sees someone sleeping rough in this country must call the local authority; they may or may not get a response, and will not know what has happened afterwards. That is not good enough, so I am setting up a national helpline and a website to ensure that assistance can be brought directly to that individual. It will be run with the assistance of Homeless Link and will be in place by Christmas, and I hope that the whole House will join me in supporting it. When we see somebody sleeping rough, we have a terrible moment of dilemma about whether we should try to assist them directly—even if we do not know whether the money will be used in that person’s best interest—or do something else for them. Now we will be able to use the helpline, and information will be available so that people can see whether that person was helped and in what way. I think that is important.

We have also announced the “no second night out” initiative nationwide. “No second night out” came from the first cross-ministerial working group report, and I hope that Opposition Members will welcome it. The £70 million that I mentioned includes £20 million to back that programme, and it means that nobody in this country who is found sleeping on the street should ever experience a second night in that situation. I slept rough for a night to see what it was like: it is frightening and one feels vulnerable. We do not want any of our citizens to be in that position, and there is no reason for them to be because we have also allocated £42.5 million of funding to the hostel system, to ensure that new and refurbished hostel places are available.

The problem in this country, and particularly in London where we have the excellent combined homelessness and information network—CHAIN—database, is generally not about whether a hostel place is available on any given night, but about finding the individual, connecting them with the hostel, and sometimes persuading them to go into it. “No second night out” and the national reporting line is designed to help deal with that, and I am pleased to say that it has been taken up in Merseyside, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. It is an excellent, practical example of the way that we are trying to work.

The Minister mentions telephone lines, advice and websites, but people need houses. In particular, those who are homeless, as well as those living in overcrowded and poor conditions, need new social rented homes. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). I understand that she mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham—perhaps the worst housing authority in the country—which builds no social rented homes. As a consequence of that, its homelessness strategy, which I commend to the Minister and ask him to read, states that anybody who needs a three-bedroomed house, or bigger, should be discharged to the private rented sector outside the borough. That is contrary to the housing policy of the Government and the Mayor, but is it something that the Minister supports?

No contribution from the hon. Gentleman would be complete without a reference to his own time as leader of housing in Hammersmith and Fulham. I think, however, that that council has a good record of looking for constructive measures that help to take people off the housing waiting list. For example, it was one of the forerunners in a programme that I launched recently with the Prime Minister to sell 100,000 homes under the right-to-buy programme. Critically, and unlike the previous programme, every penny of that money will be used to build more homes for affordable rent, and that seems to be a great solution. Not only can a family achieve their aspiration of purchasing their own property, but they can do so in the knowledge that somebody else is being taken off the housing waiting list. I have yet to hear whether the Opposition support the return to the right to buy, with the money going towards affordable houses.

A straight answer to a straight question. Labour has supported the right to buy, but—crucially—we are not convinced about the bogus figures put forward that somehow suggest there will be one-for-one replacement. Councils are not able to retain the bulk of the receipts, and there is no guarantee that if a home is sold in a local authority area, a matching home will be built in the same area. We therefore fear that we will see a significant reduction in available social council stock, without any new build to compensate. Time will tell, but the sad reality will soon dawn.

I am still not entirely sure whether the Opposition support the initiative, but one-for-one replacement is part of the policy and is what we intend. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) challenges the Government by saying that the answer is to build more homes. I absolutely agree.

A question has been posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Slaughter) and by me, and I am anxious to have a response. What are the Government going to do about the two rules that are being breached and, indeed, are in conflict with each other? The maximum time that local authorities are supposed to keep families in bed and breakfasts is increasingly being breached, and the respect of local connection rule has been breached in the examples that my hon. Friend and I described. Will the Government enforce those orders?

As the hon. Lady knows, I have written to the 20 authorities that were responsible for 80% of the breaches of the six-week bed-and-breakfast rule. I pointed out that they are in breach of the law and asked for their plan or strategy to resolve the issue. It involves a small number of authorities, although I share her concern. I make no distinction politically or otherwise—the authorities concerned come from across the board—and I expect them to put plans in place to deal with the issue.

As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) noted in her intervention, there are enormous pressures in every direction and the problem is not simple to resolve. None the less, the changes we are making are designed to make it easier for authorities to discharge those all-important homelessness duties. Through the Localism Act 2011, we are allowing a discharge of those duties into the private rented sector on a fixed-term lease, with protections in place, which I think is an utterly sensible approach. Quality homes in the private rented sector could massively expand our capacity to deal with families who require assistance. Again, I have not heard—although on this occasion, I do not think I will provide them with the opportunity—what the Opposition think of discharging that homelessness responsibility into the private rented sector, but I think it is an important element.

This issue goes to the heart of the debate, and I do not feel that we have had a response. In order to comply with the Minister’s request, local authorities that have exceeded the limit for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation need to find somewhere to place them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned guidance from Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster’s response to increasing demand states:

“Increasing procurement of family-sized properties in East London where the council has focused its out of borough procurement. Investigating procuring new properties in areas outside of London…a number of properties within Kent and Essex and we consider other proposals from organisations who approach us, including areas outside London.”

Does the Minister agree with that or not?

Guidance is already in place, which I am strengthening, to make it clear that local connections are critical and that people should never be shipped hundreds of miles away. There will, however, be cases where somebody may move from one borough to the next—the local housing area can encompass one, two or three boroughs, depending on location. I have been clear, however, that the kind of Newham games of writing and threatening to send 500 residents across the country are neither fair nor right. I was absolutely appalled by that approach. Interestingly, when I was approached by the leader of that council some time afterwards, he sort of half apologised and suggested that those letters should never have gone out.

In the last minute or two I will return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He says that housing has never been a priority for this Government, but he is absolutely wrong. The truth is that housing was never a priority for the previous Government. Those are not my views, and when the Leader of the Opposition stated:

“We refused to prioritise the building of new social housing”

he was absolutely right. The critical figure that nobody in this House and beyond should ever forget, is that after 13 years there was a net loss in the number of affordable homes for rent in this country. That is a terrible, disastrous record that we are in the process of turning round, with 170,000 new affordable homes for rent that, as shown by HCA figures published today, are on track to be built by the end of this Parliament. I would have thought that that would be welcomed across the House, although bizarrely it is not. The idea that the Labour party is interested in housing is belied by that quote from the Leader of the Opposition and by the nine people who occupied the position of Housing Minister when Labour were in government. It is belied by the fact that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington is the eighth shadow Housing Minister I have faced. This Government are prioritising housing and doing something about getting homes built, which is the best way to prevent people from entering the world of homelessness.

Homophobic Bullying (Schools)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, for what I think is the first time. Why do we need a debate on homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools? Is it not the case that any form of bullying is bad and should be tackled? I agree with that up to a point. Bullying is not a new phenomenon. It has always been the case that some children are cruel and will pick on others because they are perceived to be different in some way. Perhaps they are not wearing trendy clothes; they wear glasses; they are overweight; they have acne—there are all sorts of reasons. Schools should have in place effective anti-bullying policies, both to foster a general culture of respect, so that the likelihood of bullying is diminished in the first place, and to be able to nip bullying in the bud quickly when it does take place. That is certainly true, but I want to demonstrate today why I believe that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying that needs to be tackled.

Research commissioned by Stonewall in 2009 and conducted by YouGov found that 90% of secondary school teachers and 40% of primary school teachers had regularly witnessed homophobic bullying in schools. An earlier survey of young gay people found that 65% had been bullied themselves and 98% were aware of homophobic language being used. Although we do not yet have the figures, Stonewall is carrying out a major research programme and will publish an updated set of figures in the next few weeks. That will demonstrate—I had a meeting with Stonewall last week—that the problem very much remains.

There is clearly a problem to be tackled, but statistics do not convey the human cost of bullying. I want to draw attention to the case of the Crouch family, which has been covered in the press in the past few months and certainly does show the human cost of bullying. Dominic Crouch was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Gloucestershire. During a school trip in 2010, he played a game of spin the bottle with his classmates. As a forfeit, he had to kiss another boy. That event was videoed on a mobile phone and quickly spread virally round the school. Dominic suffered severe taunting for being gay. It is not actually known whether he was gay, but the intensity of the bullying was so great that Dominic committed suicide by jumping off a tall building. His father, Roger, commendably and bravely, spoke up publicly about his son’s suicide, to help to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage people to take action. However, Roger’s grief was so intense that he could not cope and he took his own life last November. Those two lives were lost utterly needlessly.

Sadly, the Crouch family’s story is not an isolated case. Last year in my area of Milton Keynes, there were four teenage suicides. Of those, three were young gay men. Does that not tell us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed?

Homophobic bullying can leave very deep emotional scars that can take a long time to heal and sometimes will never heal. I know that from personal experience. At school, I knew that I was gay, but I did not dare admit it, either to myself or to others. It was inconceivable for me to do that as a teenager growing up in the west of Scotland in the mid-1980s. Indeed, with you, Mr Robertson, in the Chair, I will say that it was easier for me to admit that I was a Tory in Glasgow than it was to come clean about my sexual orientation.

I do not want to over-egg things. I was not physically bullied and the verbal bullying that I experienced was very mild and short-lived, but I was perceived to be different and it left deep scars. It was enough to make me feel isolated and introverted, and it took me a very long time to overcome. It is clear from the research that Stonewall and others have done that those consequences of bullying can severely impair a young person’s academic and social development. Further evidence shows that, where there is a culture of bullying in schools and particularly homophobic bullying, it drags down the performance of the class and the school as a whole, so it is not just those who are bullied who suffer; it is their classmates as well.

Social attitudes have changed enormously in the two decades or so since I was at school. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times. However, it is wrong to think that homophobia does not exist among young people. I challenge hon. Members to read some of the horrifying stories in the recent special youth edition of Attitude magazine. Some pretty appalling things have gone on and are going on in classrooms in our schools today.

In preparing for this speech, I took the time to speak to some of the pupils in my constituency to find out what their experience of bullying in schools was. I found some pretty surprising and appalling things. One girl told me that she was doing a media studies class and part of the research involved looking at the portrayal of homosexuality in the media. The class had to view an episode of, I think, “EastEnders” in which two men were kissing. The phrase “dirty faggot” was shouted out in the classroom and clearly heard by the teacher, but the teacher did nothing about it. Such incidents take place; they are happening today. The girl also told me that a Facebook page was set up so that pupils at the school who were thought to be gay could be outed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on talking so personally about this issue. Bullying, in whatever form, is a terrifying experience for those who suffer it. Sadly, one of my friends committed suicide because of bullying, although it was not homophobic bullying, and that had a profound effect on me personally. My hon. Friend mentions Facebook, and there is also Twitter. In this age of modern technology, there seems to be no escape for some bullying victims, because even when they go home, whether through the mobile phone in their pocket or the laptop in their bedroom, the bullies are ever present. Does my hon. Friend think that that is another aspect of the issue that needs serious consideration?

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an important point. Cyber-bullying is very much with us. It takes place in many different forms. It extends the boundaries and the times of the school, as my hon. Friend said, so that pupils feel victimised in their own homes and not just when they are within the school gates. From what I have been able to research, I do not think that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying in cyberspace—it is just another vehicle through which homophobia and homophobic bullying can take place—but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it needs to be part of our response to the problem.

What can we do to tackle this important problem? The Government have made a good start. It was very good that the schools White Paper included a specific reference to preventing and tackling homophobic bullying in schools. I am aware that new anti-bullying guidance has been produced for schools to use. I am glad that within the Ofsted inspection framework is the expectation that schools should create a safe learning environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. I certainly applaud all those initiatives, but more needs to be done.

For all the toolkits available, research by Stonewall found that the vast majority of teachers want to combat homophobic bullying but do not feel that they have the appropriate training or support. If we isolate only one thing that needs to be done—many more things need to be done—it is to improve training for teachers, so that they have the skills to prevent bullying from happening in the first place and to tackle it when it does.

I apologise for arriving late, but I have been attacking the Church of England on a very similar issue.

An organisation called Diversity Role Models, which plays an important role in London schools, would like to be able to play a role more widely around the country. It provides role models to go into schools who are expert at talking about such issues. In one class, 95% of the kids at the beginning of a session said that they would never have a gay or lesbian friend, but by the end, only 20% said that they would not have one. That is the kind of difference that we need to make, is it not?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; indeed, he has anticipated my mentioning Diversity Role Models. I spoke to it yesterday and it sent me some reports about its work. I agree that it performs an excellent role by going into schools, as does Stonewall.

Sometimes, it is not that schools do not want to tackle such bullying, but that they do not perceive it as an issue that they have to deal with. Part of my reason for initiating the debate today is to put on record that there is a problem that should be tackled. Every school will have gay pupils who need support. I want schools to realise that there is help from the Government and organisations such as Stonewall and Diversity Role Models to assist them in tackling the problem.

The record in schools is mixed. There are some very good schools, with very effective policies. The evidence shows that when schools have good policies in place, instances of bullying drop dramatically, so it is not some airy-fairy idea that would be nice, but something that shows tangible results. I do not have a preconceived idea of how this should be done, but we need to do more to share best practice from the schools that have policies to those that either do not have such policies or have policies that are not delivering.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On his point about teachers, in the 1970s and ’80s, teachers faced the same problem with a different issue—racism in schools—and it was dealt with. It was not just about training, which he alludes to and is fundamental, but about teachers feeling that they had the support of the wider community, whether governors, education authorities, councillors or Members of Parliament. In a classroom, teachers need to feel that they have the support of wider society to be able to deal with the issue. We dealt with racism in schools in the ’70s and ’80s, and we can deal with this.

My hon. Friend makes an important point and brings considerable experience as a teacher to the debate. The analogy with racist bullying is powerful. It goes back to my opening remarks about why we need a specific policy on homophobic bullying. No one would dare to argue now that we did not need a specific policy to tackle racist bullying; the same can be said for homophobic and transphobic bullying. His point about the reflection of wider social norms is important. Teachers cannot exist in isolation; they are part of the broader community. Tackling such bullying requires everyone—parents, teachers and everyone in society—to challenge it and say that it is not right and cannot be allowed.

Sport has an important role to play. Rightly, there are lots of campaigns to stop racist abuse on the terraces at football games, and we have seen some of the controversy with Euro 2012 at the moment. We do not hear as much about homophobic chants at grounds. If young people go to football, they will pick up on it and think that it is acceptable, so this is not only about schools; there is a broader challenge to society to say that homophobia is not acceptable, because not doing so creates the breeding ground for such sentiments.

I will conclude my remarks now, because I want to give the Minister enough time to respond. I hope that by securing the debate today, I have helped to give the issue the publicity that it deserves and that more schools will take steps to address bullying, which blights far too many young lives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing a debate on an issue of great importance and on his very moving and powerful speech. I know that this is a matter of interest to him; he asked the Secretary of State for Education about the Government’s plans to tackle homophobic bullying in the debate on the schools White Paper in November 2010. In reply, my right hon. Friend said:

“Homophobic bullying is on the rise in our schools, and homophobic terms are increasingly used towards gay students and straight students in a way that seeks to undermine the tolerance that we have built up over the past 15 years. We therefore need to work with organisations such as Stonewall and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and to shine the light on schools such as St George’s Church of England school, which has done a fantastic job in tackling homophobic bullying. This requires work not only by school leaders but by political leaders and all of society to tackle a growing prejudice that is scarring our tolerant society.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 278.]

The Government are committed to tackling this issue. In the coalition programme for Government, we said:

“We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.”

In the White Paper that my hon. Friend referred to—“The Importance of Teaching”—we said that we would

“empower head teachers to take a strong stand against bullying, especially racist, homophobic and other prejudice-based bullying.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) was right to equate pejorative terms used against gay people, or the pejorative use of terms such as “gay”, with the racist phrases that we have almost managed to eliminate from schools owing to the action taken in the ’70s and ’80s. We now need the same approach to the use of phrases directed against gay people.

Bullying, for whatever reason, is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated in our schools. It can have a devastating effect on individuals. It can bring misery, distress, fear and in extreme cases, such as the tragic case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South, suicide. It has no place either in our schools or in wider society. The figures tell their own story: according to the TellUs survey data published in February 2010, 26% of children had been bullied in school in the preceding year and 21% had been bullied outside school. Overall, 46% of pupils experienced bullying at school at some point in their lives.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance in 2011 found that a quarter of 11 to 16-year-olds have directly experienced verbal bullying, with the vast majority of it—79%—happening at school. Almost 40% reported being bullied online or by mobile phone. In 2011, Beatbullying figures showed that more than a third of young people aged between 16 and 25 reported having suffered a severe physical or sexual attack during childhood by a fellow young person. Beatbullying’s 2009 research of 11 to 18-year-olds found that more than 60% had witnessed some form of cyber-bullying. Stonewall reported that two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been victims of bullying.

Homophobic bullying is often directed at heterosexual pupils as well. Stonewall found that 98% of young gay pupils hear the word “gay” used as a form of abuse at school. Even when the language is used pejoratively without thinking, it is still offensive and still unacceptable. I expect teachers to react in the same way as they would to an offensive racial slur.

We know that poor behaviour can affect attainment. Pupils who said that they had misbehaved in most classes had lower predicted key stage 4 attainment—predicting a capped GCSE score 29 points lower than those who said that they had not misbehaved. Bullying can have a serious effect on the education of children and young people, as my hon. Friend said. Our schools must be safe and calm places where pupils can study free from disruption, and that includes being free from the distraction and distress that comes with being the target of bullying. Ensuring good behaviour and tackling bullying is therefore central to meeting the Government’s priority of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

It is important that schools take the necessary action to ensure good behaviour and to prevent and tackle bullying. We cannot dictate how they should do that, but we have made available clear and succinct advice. That includes the checklist prepared by Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour, of the key principles that head teachers may wish to follow to improve behaviour in their schools. In addition, we have updated our advice to schools on preventing and tackling bullying. Schools have a specific legal duty to tackle bullying, and we know that they need clear anti-bullying policies and procedures. Our advice gives information on how to prevent and deal with bullying. It sets out the action that schools can consider when determining their approach to bullying, and it explains the legal powers that schools have to discipline pupils when bullying incidents occur off the school premises. It signposts schools to specialist organisations that can provide further help, such as Stonewall and Beatbullying.

I should like to recognise the work of organisations such as Stonewall, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Beatbullying, Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and the Diana Award in highlighting this important issue. In April, I was pleased to be invited to speak at an event that the Diana Award had organised for its anti-bullying ambassadors. Those young people play an important part in tackling bullying in their schools and communities and set an example to others.

Alongside our advice and guidance for schools, we have given teachers the legal powers that they need to ensure good behaviour. Under the Education Act 2011, we have strengthened their powers to search pupils. New search powers have given teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by providing a specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate images on electronic devices, including mobile phones. We have removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of a detention. We have banned items such as tobacco and fireworks, which have no place in our schools; and from October, we are granting teachers anonymity when they are accused by pupils of abuse. In addition, the new system of independent review panels will ensure that decisions by schools permanently to exclude a pupil can no longer be overturned by an appeal process that can force reinstatement against the best interests of the school.

Schools are now held more closely to account for the way that they tackle bullying. New school inspection arrangements, which took effect in January, focus on four core areas: teaching, achievement, leadership, and behaviour and safety. When evaluating the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school, inspectors must consider pupils’ behaviour towards and respect for other pupils and adults. That will include freedom from bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation and all other kinds of prejudice-based bullying.

It is all sounding a bit rosy, and, much as I recognise all that the Government are trying to do, the experience in many schools is still pretty awful. In some schools, that is because there is no proper sex and relationship education, teachers are not prepared to talk about the issues openly and properly, and there is inadequate preparation. Sometimes, school governors impede the development of proper policies. How are we going to ensure that we address those issues?

The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are important. The issue cannot be tackled overnight with any instant panacea. We have made it clear that the Government regard any form of prejudice-based bullying in schools as unacceptable. We expect teachers to take action when pejorative phrases are used, or when a pupil shouts out in the way that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South. Teachers should take action against pupils who use those words in the same way that they would against a racial slur. Those things will not be dealt with overnight. There is no clear and simple solution, such as the solutions proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We need a range of answers. However, one of the relevant issues is ensuring that schools have proper behaviour policies and that there is an intolerant approach to poor behaviour and bullying, from whatever cause and of whatever type. That is a key priority of the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) pointed out, widespread access to technology such as the internet and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have provided another avenue by which bullying can occur. Such bullying is not confined to the school site or day, but can happen at any time. As has been mentioned, there is no escape from bullying. Going home is no longer a safe haven from bullying for pupils.

To help children and young people to use the internet safely, the Department supports the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—a voluntary organisation that works to protect children from risks including cyber-bullying as well as harmful content, sexual images, grooming, loss of privacy and scams. Earlier this year, UKCCIS launched child internet safety guidance, including on the theme of cyberbullying. Facebook, the BBC and others are using the guidance, which should ensure that, whichever online service children use, they receive sound and consistent messages about what to do if they want to prevent harm or if they have become upset by something online.

In addition, children’s charities such as Childnet and Beatbullying, which are active UKCCIS members, offer expert advice on cyber-bullying for young people to raise awareness of online safety and how to protect themselves. Beatbullying has developed the CyberMentors peer support programme, with dedicated websites using a social networking model to allow young people to help and support one another.

Bullying is not an issue that is just for the bully and the bullied. It can affect a whole school and so can need a whole school to create an environment that prevents bullying from being a problem in the first place. Each pupil has a part to play in preventing and tackling bullying. All pupils should show respect and courtesy towards one another and should be encouraged in that by their parents. Pupils can demonstrate that attitude by not going along with a bully. As Stonewall would put it, “Don’t be a bystander.” That applies of course to teachers as well—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about a teacher who failed to admonish pupils for making anti-gay remarks. Prejudice-based bullying in schools, such as homophobic bullying, is unacceptable. When I spoke last July at the Stonewall “Education for All” conference I said:

“We need to send a message that homophobic bullying, of any kind and of any child, is unacceptable.”

I am happy to restate that message today and will continue to send as clear a signal as I can that we cannot and should not tolerate homophobic bullying.

I have set out our expectations of schools and what they should do to prevent and tackle bullying. We have taken action to support them by ensuring that they have the powers that they need to maintain good behaviour and discipline. We have taken action by giving them clear advice on their duties and their powers. We continue to work with specialist organisations that can provide help and advice, not just to schools, but to those who experience bullying. Schools now need to be able to demonstrate the impact of their anti-bullying policies to Ofsted. I believe that that provides a comprehensive approach to ending not just homophobic bullying, but all bullying in our schools.

Sitting suspended.

Food Crisis (The Sahel)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am delighted to have secured this debate. I also thank my colleagues for joining me here this afternoon.

To put the debate in context, 18 million people across seven countries, from Senegal to Eritrea, are now feeling the effects of food shortages. The horn of Africa crisis is beginning to fade in our memories, and as it is not the force it was in the media, our attentions start to turn to another crisis. Although we have an opportunity to do better this time, I am concerned that the world community is not acting swiftly enough. These crises illustrate how food security is a growing problem, which will show no sign of lessening unless there is a global commitment to tackle the issues. That global commitment must deliver its promises to the world’s poor.

I want to focus on a few issues, including children’s welfare during food crises, long-term investment and short-term recovery, and funding and the international community. Living in the region when times are not too bad is difficult. Four of the Sahel countries, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, are in the bottom 15 human development index countries. Even in a very good year, Oxfam says, 300,000 children die from malnutrition. These communities are some of the most vulnerable in the world and they lack almost all of life’s most basic requirements. To meet the millennium development goals, the Government must work to protect these people by investing in their future and protecting their present.

The current crisis has recognisable traits plus the added complication of conflict. We have seen it before, but this time we must deal with it differently and better. Cereal production across the Sahel in autumn 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. A change in the climate can be an inconvenience here in the UK. We saw that with the Queen’s jubilee when it rained throughout the pageant. When we have water shortages, we might not be able to bowl on our favourite bowling green because it has not been watered. In the Sahel, however, such shortages can be a matter of life and death.

One of the most dangerous consequences of a food crisis is malnutrition, which often hits children first, and the most vulnerable children at that. Malnutrition is destroying the potential of thousands of children across Africa. In early May, UNICEF warned that 1 million children could die from malnutrition in the Sahel. We have been warned and we continue to be warned about the ramifications of not acting. The Government must act now to prevent not only deaths but the spread of malnutrition.

The Save the Children report, “A Dangerous Delay” highlights how damaging malnutrition can be, as it directly affects education and future earning power. The impact of not acting now will affect generations to come. Oxfam estimated that it cost $1 a day to protect a child from malnutrition before the 2005 food crisis in Niger, but $80 a day to save a child’s life from severe malnutrition once the crisis had peaked. It makes sense both morally and economically to act now.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. We are all aware of the number of debates that have taken place on this matter in this Chamber and elsewhere in the House. There is a problem of food security right across the globe, but in these countries some 300,000 children will die from malnutrition. Of course there is an issue of aid, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is good not only that we send aid to those regions but that the aid reaches the people who need it? There is also an issue of education and, where possible, irrigation should be introduced. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on the need for security of food.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on this problem over many years. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more, but the problem is broader than just malnutrition; lots of other factors are involved as well.

Although some money has been pledged to Save the Children, UNICEF and elsewhere, not nearly enough is being spent to protect children from the harmful effects of long-term malnutrition. World Vision estimates that in Niger nearly 50,000 children have dropped out of school since the crisis began, and that 44% of school-aged children are migrating for work. The food crisis is not just about food; it affects a child’s health, mental well-being, education and future. We sometimes forget that education is a once in a lifetime thing. Malnutrition does not just affect the child while they are hungry; it is a life sentence. If a child misses out on education at a vital period in their life because of malnutrition, they never recover. Malnutrition is a life sentence for many people in this region.

Although UK funding has increased, it has not taken into consideration that the need has grown since 2010, when funding was £20 million. I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. On the point about contributions, the Department for International Development has already made significant contributions of food, water, seeds, medicines and vaccinations for cattle, and the Minister will have even more details. Some 1.4 million people are being helped at the moment. Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that this humanitarian crisis is so grave that we need leadership and involvement from the entire international community, and that further assistance and contribution from some of the wealthier middle east countries would not go amiss?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and pay tribute to her for her work on this matter over a long period of time. I noticed that the Minister was shaking his head. I do pay tribute to the Government for what they are doing and I will come on to say that we very much welcome the extra money. The point that I was trying to make was that we need to be doing more on a world community basis. We need to involve Europe and other bodies. I certainly was not minimising what the Government are doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Following on from the hon. Lady’s point about global leadership, does he agree that it was disappointing that the G8 leaders did not take a stance similar to the one taken in L’Aguila in 2009? We need a global response to food security, ensuring that we tackle not only the urgent crisis in Sahel but future crises in other parts of the world.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The UK Government can do their bit and provide support and additional funding, but unless we get a global commitment and involve multilateral institutions, we will not solve the problem.

As I have already said, I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities. The long-term investment should include investment to build capacity and resilience within those communities. The region’s long-term problems must be tackled before a crisis emerges; it is so important to deal with crises before they happen, rather than wait until they happen to act. Not only do we risk lives if we wait but the cost of the delay will also be huge; that was another point that I made before.

Recent humanitarian disasters have shown the importance of heeding early warning systems and not delaying before taking action. “A Dangerous Delay”, the report produced by Oxfam and Save the Children, highlighted the mistakes that were made in the response to the east African crisis. The report said that national Governments, donors, NGOs and the UN needed to

“act decisively on information from early warning systems and not wait for certainty before responding”


“actively seek to reduce drought risk in all activities, ensuring that long-term development interventions increase resilience and adapt to the changing context”.

I am sure that the Minister has been waiting to hear my next point: I very much welcome the news that the Department for International Development has increased funding. However, what I am saying is that the Sahel crisis is so huge that we need even more money, and we also need the UK Government to make sure that everyone else is pulling their weight too. The extra £10 million from DFID could not have come at a more important time, but the UN states that we are still missing £300 million to fight the worst of the crisis. Food security is no longer just about the human imperative of having enough to eat; it also impacts on government and on the very structures of the societies in which these people live.

I will conclude as quickly as I can, because I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to tell us what he is doing—not only what he is doing as part of the UK Government’s efforts, but what he is doing in relation to the actions of international organisations, other donors and other countries. I hope that he will paint a picture of the UK being hugely active in trying to deal with an incredibly difficult crisis.

As I have said, Oxfam has warned that 400,000 children may need life-saving treatment for malnutrition. A donor-pledging conference is crucial. Can the Minister comment on the possibility of having such a conference? Is a conference feasible? I would very much welcome one as soon as possible, because the crisis is getting worse as we speak. We need a donor-pledging conference to minimise the risk that the crisis poses to children and severely affected communities.

The UK is respected worldwide for its commitment to aid and for the difference that it makes globally. That was the case under the last Labour Government and I hope that it will be the case under this Government too. I hope that they will make a commitment to do the best they can for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I hope that this Government will continue the UK’s work in this area and, as I have already said, that they will encourage as many other individuals and organisations as possible to get involved. What role can the UK play to encourage more funding? That is the key question for the Minister. The Government must increase their own funding, but they must also encourage more funding from other organisations. That additional funding is desperately needed.

I thank Members for being here in Westminster Hall today and I thank the Minister for coming along. I am sure that we are all hugely concerned about the growing crisis in the Sahel, but this is a debate. We have uttered warm words; we have all said how vital it is to act and how desperate the crisis is, but those are simply words. What we need now is action, and I hope that action is what we get.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to ensure that we give a high degree of attention and recognition to what is unquestionably one of the most pressing issues facing the people of our planet today. It is therefore very timely that the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) has secured this debate. I saw it listed on the Order Paper some time ago, and I think that it has been brought forward to today, when Parliament has reconvened. I am glad that we now all have the opportunity not only to catch up with the facts on the ground as we now best understand them, but to understand what our response on behalf of the British people has been to date.

I particularly seek to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s questions about where we go from here. We are not only focused on the immediate humanitarian needs, although we are rightly focused on them at this stage, but on the resilience issues highlighted by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). Indeed, we also focus on the year-on-year challenges that face that area of the world.

The crisis in the Sahel is something that we need to debate, to ensure that it is kept in the public eye. As the hon. Member for Workington said, it is currently estimated that about 18 million people are at risk of food shortages, of whom 8 million need immediate assistance. We are witnessing exceptional circumstances, as almost 1.5 million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year, which is obviously a large increase on the number of children affected by food insecurity in the Sahel year on year. The worst affected countries are Niger, Chad and Mali, where 72% of those who are affected by the crisis live, but a huge swathe of land is affected, from Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as areas to the north and east of those areas.

The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel is getting worse. Increasing numbers of people are being forced to resort to coping mechanisms that store up trouble for the future, such as reducing the number of meals each day or going without food altogether for days at a time. The physical condition of the livestock that provide the livelihoods for many families in the Sahel is beginning to deteriorate, and some animals are now too weak to reach pasturelands. Admission rates of severely malnourished children to therapeutic treatment centres are on the rise, and greater numbers are being admitted to treatment centres in Niger than at the same stage of the 2010 crisis.

I will respond in particular to a point made by the hon. Gentleman about the cereal deficit. He said that cereal production in 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. That is certainly factually true, but 2010 was actually a bumper year, so we need to be extremely careful about how we understand the phenomenon for the resilience argument going forward. In 2011, cereal production in the Sahel was actually about 3% in deficit compared to the overall running average. There is, of course, a structural problem about what that average represents in terms of meeting the ongoing and continuing need.

Does the Minister accept my point that, even in the good years, life is desperately hard for people in the Sahel?

Absolutely; I was seeking to make that point. It is helpful to reinforce the point that, in any event, we are dealing with an extraordinarily challenged area of the world, which has a year-on-year crisis; that is no exaggeration. However, as I have just pointed out, we have an exceptional situation now—this minute, this year—and a fairly tight window in which to do something about it before the weather conditions in the normal weather patterns arise in the next few weeks and make it even more difficult to gain access to the area and deliver aid, even where security issues do not make that more difficult than it already is climatically and geographically.

That is why, as Ministers in the Department for International Development and on behalf of the British people through the coalition Government, we announced yesterday an additional £10 million to be provided immediately, to help just over 1 million people in six countries of the Sahel, by giving food, health care, clean water, animal feed, treatment for children and aid to refugees. That brings our total funding commitment to the region to date to £20 million, which will assist more than 1.4 million people at risk of hunger in the Sahel—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in her intervention.

The UK has shown leadership by being one of the first international donors to respond to this crisis, at the same time as we have pushed others to do more. Our initial £10 million, which was given some weeks back, is already starting to demonstrate results. An example of UK aid impact in April includes assistance to more than 43,000 men, women and children. Of those 43,000 people, 15,000 people in Niger have received food; 27,000 people, or approximately 3,464 families—that is a rather precise number for an approximation—in Niger and Mali have received inflation-proof cash vouchers to purchase food and other critical supplies; and 1,700 Nigerien children have been vaccinated against measles.

In addition to our direct support, the UK has provided a substantial share of multilateral contributions to the response to the crisis in the Sahel. The UN’s central emergency response fund has released £57 million, and the European Community Humanitarian Office has provided £105 million. So the UK is taking its fair share of the burden. But for our intervention and contribution, the situation would unquestionably have become even more serious at an even earlier stage. Families would have used up seeds and plants, and breeding animals would have been eaten and household assets sold to meet immediate food needs.

We have to be clear, however, that our links with the Sahel are not as strong as those that we have with other areas of Africa. We do not have the local presence or knowledge to take a lead in the Sahel, as we have done in the horn of Africa, for instance. Therefore, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s urging on this point, it is vital that we get other donors to be encouraged to step forward to carry their share of the international response, particularly those that have the shared history, the knowledge and the presence on the ground in the countries of the Sahel that the UK does not. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I continue to lobby our counterparts in other Governments, to urge them to increase their support.

Things are made even more difficult, of course, by things such as the coup in Mali. The rebellion in the north of the country has added a new and potentially dangerous dimension. More than 300,000 people have been directly affected by the conflict. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly concerned by reports of human rights violations, of increasing malnutrition and of armed groups seeking to place restrictions on humanitarian access. We have witnessed the effects of the deadly combination of drought, food insecurity and conflict in Somalia.

Now that the Minister has mentioned conflict complicating things, does he also accept that what has happened in Libya has had an impact on the Sahel region, with returning soldiers and so on? That does not help at all.

I absolutely agree. I prefer in this debate not to get too far down into the security implications, but suffice it to say that, perhaps a little unusually for a Minister of the Crown, I have driven right the way through the Sahara and this area and know the geography well. It was many years ago, but in the years when I was going there, it was seen as relatively safe, without the pressures that have come from returnees from some of the conflicts—in Libya, for instance—and the access to cut-price AK47s and other munitions. There were already very insecure parts to the region, because it has always been borderless from the perspective of how people perceive and identify themselves and adhere to various ways of life. That presents additional challenges. We have already closely monitored, and will continue to monitor, the humanitarian situation in northern Mali, to the extent that access and information are obtainable, and encouraged the Economic Community of West African States to continue with its efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

The international community has learnt from previous crises in the area in 2005 and 2010 and has brought those lessons to bear, as best it can, this year. Early interventions have helped many people to cope, including the UK’s cash voucher programme, which has enabled more than 3,400 families to hold on to their livestock during the start of the hunger season. However, we are now approaching a critical point in the crisis, with historical experience suggesting that acute malnutrition rates will rise to reach a peak in July and August. The rains expected to start this month will make it more difficult for aid agencies to deliver supplies across the region and will increase the risk of diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.

The urgency of the situation requires an intensified and co-ordinated international response. The UN’s appointment of a regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel will support a more coherent and prioritised response, and that is welcome. The UN has revised its estimate of the funding needed to meet humanitarian requirements to almost £1 billion, which is more than double its initial needs estimate and is an indication of the growing seriousness of the situation. It is therefore right to put pressure on other donors, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we speak, calls are being placed—I happen to know because I am personally involved—through to Germany, Norway and Canada. There are, of course, continuing and very active discussions with ECHO, through Brussels and through our French counterparts, as they have the strength of historical connection that perhaps replicate ours in the east and in the horn of Africa.

It is right that we focus our attention on meeting the immediate needs of people in distress, but at the same time we must continue to learn lessons from the Sahel’s third humanitarian crisis in less than a decade, so that there is much less likelihood of a repeat in the coming years. The underlying causes of the crisis are deeply rooted and long-standing.

The Sahel is a climatically vulnerable area and its vulnerability will be exacerbated by climate change. Even in so-called good years, some areas have rates of acute malnutrition chronically above 15%. It takes only a year of below average rainfall to push many more people over the edge; many poor households are still recovering from the 2010 crisis. It is not, however, simply a problem of uncertain climate; it is one of poverty, rooted in poor governance, political instability, endemic conflict and weak economies.

The key point is that there is enough food to feed the people of west Africa in 2012, and in many areas of the Sahel food is available but at prices that the poor cannot afford. In the markets of Mali, Mauritania and the north of Burkina Faso, food prices are historically high—more than double the five-year average for this time of year in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and 85% higher in Ouagadougou. It is a problem of economic access made worse by protectionist measures of Governments, such as restrictions on grain exports and border closures. We must continue—I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are continuing—to support the free movement of trade and food affordability to ensure that even the poorest can eat. At the same time, we must help Governments and communities to withstand a harsher and more uncertain climate, unlocking the region’s economic potential and helping to build a stronger contract between peoples and states.

The coalition Government are implementing recommendations from the humanitarian emergency response review to strengthen the resilience of poor people in Africa to withstand and recover from future shocks and to increase food security. We are developing safety net programmes, supporting work to improve agricultural livelihoods, funding research into higher-yielding and drought-resistant staple crops, and building stronger health and education systems. By 2015, 20 million young children around the developing world will benefit from our nutrition programmes.

Although we do not have a bilateral programme in the Sahel, the UK retains significant development investment in the region through our contributions to the multilateral development organisations. The European Union’s security and development strategy for the Sahel will commit €600 million over the next 10 years to provide basic services, increase economic opportunities and rebuild the contract between state and communities. The UK is also the second largest contributor to the World Bank’s global facility for disaster risk reduction and recovery, which is helping 20 developing countries, including Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to cope with disasters, adapt to climate change and build long-term resilience.

In picking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, I remind the House that the meeting of the G8 identified food security as a major theme that it wished now to focus on, and we are not only fully behind that but have had some help in ensuring that it is the focus of the agenda. We will continue to push that, both at the G20 and at other gatherings. It is vital that we recognise that worldwide, as a top development, humanitarian and aid issue—whichever way we define it—addressing food insecurity through resilience and other food security measures is now a huge and important priority for us, as the UK Government, with our development programme and humanitarian response, but also increasingly among the international interlocutors and partners.

The long-term investments in resilience and development not only are needed to give poor people in the Sahel and other vulnerable regions the means to take control of their lives again, but represent far better value for money than emergency humanitarian aid alone—a point underlined by the hon. Gentleman. So now that we have made our commitment clear and have stepped up not only bilaterally but particularly and equally through the multilaterals, urging the prioritisation that is required, it is the moment to build on working with others to try to get them to make up their equal shares. I am pleased to see that the responses are beginning to come forward and that we are seeing much greater prioritisation of, and focus on, this very immediate crisis that we all face.

Will the Minister please assure me that he will take a personal interest in monitoring the situation as the days, weeks and months go on?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance because for the past 14 weeks I have been making sure that I have a daily report. For reasons that he will understand, plans about how close I can get to having eyes on are in development.

In the meantime, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to update the House on the significant work that the coalition Government, on behalf of the British people, are doing to encourage the rest of the international community, as well as to contribute our fair share to what is a very difficult crisis that the world faces today.

Rail Infrastructure (Merseyside)

I thank the Speaker for providing me with the opportunity to hold this debate. I am a railwayman’s daughter. I am also a railwayman’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and had the opportunity to work for Network Rail for a few years myself.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech and congratulate her on securing the debate. On the subject of fatherhood, is she aware that Merseyrail provides free travel for pensioners travelling from the Merseyside area to Chester, but that pensioners who catch the train at Hooton must pay to travel to Chester?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is always important to speak up for pensioners, especially those related to us. I am sure that people outside this place will take note of his comments.

As I was saying, I come from a long line of railway people. I mention that not to emphasise a lack of imagination in the McGovern family but to say that in this debate, I will be demanding in speaking for the future of rail in Merseyside. However, I do so in the knowledge of how difficult questions of investment can be.

For reasons that I will suggest shortly, public transport should be central to the current national debate about the economic future of our country. This afternoon’s debate focuses on Merseyside and the surrounding areas of north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire, but my point—that infrastructure planning is at the heart of economic development and poverty alleviation—could be made about many places in our country.

This year, the Secretary of State for Transport will set out the Government’s investment priorities for our rail network for the five-year period from 2014 to 2019. It is a significant opportunity. It will set the agenda for investment and begin thousands of conversations about how we can speed up, increase capacity and provide access to markets for our many citizens who are looking for a job or need access to parts of our economy.

I am pleased to be here as the MP for Wrexham and to support my hon. Friend in her debate. Many big businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover, General Motors in Ellesmere Port and Airbus provide jobs not just across Merseyside but in north Wales. It is important to enable access to those jobs for people who do not have private transport. We need a good public transport network in the region.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He and I have tried to work closely together on these issues, for the reasons that he mentions. People do not respect administrative boundaries when it comes to getting a job. We must ensure that people in residential areas, a lot of whom need work, have access to big businesses such as the ones that he mentioned. I hope that I can suggest exactly how we might do so.

Hopefully, my hon. Friend will agree that many people separate, isolate or segregate transport as just a means of moving goods or individuals from one place to another. Does she agree that there are also massive economic, health and well-being and social benefits to infrastructure, and that it creates the sorts of job and employment opportunity that she will know are all too needed on Merseyside?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is quite right. If we consider the body of evidence produced by, for example, the Thameslink and Crossrail projects in London, we find exactly what he suggests. Transport infrastructure underpins economic development, but it also gives access to employment, and to the personal dignity involved, to those who currently do not have it. With that point in mind—

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in her speech. Does she agree that for places such as Skelmersdale, the most populous town in my constituency, not to have a rail service in the 21st century places the town and its residents at a massive disadvantage and reflects the desperate need for investment in local rail services? To amplify the comments made so far, communities such as Skelmersdale must have rail services, which will deliver significant regeneration benefits socially, economically and culturally—

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I promise not to test your patience any more by taking further interventions. My hon. Friend and I have mentioned Skelmersdale in this Chamber before. She will correct me if I am not right, but I believe that the reduction in rail service happened just before Skelmersdale became a new town. How ironic that such a residential centre should not have a rail link. That must be addressed as well.

Absolutely. There will now be significant investment in the new town centre in Skelmersdale. It would be a travesty if that development were to go ahead without some land being reserved for a prospective rail station.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

With all those points in mind, the test that I would set the Government for their priorities is this. First, whatever those priorities are, will they help rebalance the UK economy? Secondly, will those priorities address existing pockets of poverty in the UK? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed those points of principle.

I remind everybody that Merseyside has an important place in rail history. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record at Rainhill in Merseyside. One year later, the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened as the world’s first steam passenger service. However, wonderful though that history is, it is not enough. We need a fantastic economic future as well. Luckily, that seems to be happening for Merseyside. We have a brilliant, burgeoning visitor economy.

During the recent “Sea Odyssey”, I am told, hotels in the city were at 99% occupancy, against the backdrop of a large increase in the number of hotels. We have a successful visitor economy on our hands. Our port is also growing, and more development is possible through the Wirral Waters schemes and others. What infrastructure does Merseyside require to ensure that economic growth is achieved, and that growth, when it comes, significantly benefits the least well off?

Turning to the specifics, Merseyside’s rail network is very busy already, and it is well used. Especially through the east side of my constituency, services are busy and getting busier by the day. However, a key problem is the existence of what I call railway black holes. That was not always the case. Many parts of Merseyside and the surrounding area suffer from poor connectivity because their railway station was closed or their service reduced many years ago, when it was not clear that railways would be as popular and necessary as they now clearly are. There are public transport gaps across Merseyside. As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most disadvantaged communities in our region are in those blackspots. We have already mentioned Skelmersdale and the surrounding area, just across the border in Lancashire. Parts of north Liverpool also suffer. They are important population centres. Parts of the Wirral, such as the Woodchurch estate, which need a railway station within a short distance so that people can get to work do not have that connectivity.

There are some important issues for the Government to consider. The Minister might mention the northern hub. It is important to finish the northern hub in order to get the full benefit. Only through quick links—four trains an hour between Liverpool and Manchester—will we open up the commuting area. We also need to look at the Halton curve, which could provide two routes into Liverpool and help with managing the west coast main line.

Parts of my constituency of Wirral South are very well connected to employment centres in Liverpool and Chester, and onwards to Warrington and Manchester, but other parts are less fortunate. They are served by a railway running from Bidston, on the Wirral, through Heswall, Neston and Deeside to Wrexham in north Wales. I stand to be corrected, but I believe the route has received little or no significant investment for years. The unreliable and infrequent service means that those of my constituents in Heswall who have the choice tend to opt for their cars rather than the train. Members representing constituencies in north Wales tell me that it is also common in Flintshire and Deeside for people to opt automatically for their car rather than the train. Those without access to private transport are then left with either rail services that are not as good as in other places, or slow buses. Electrifying the line, which is fewer than 30 miles in length, would tie it in and provide through services to Liverpool and more frequent trains.

I know that these are difficult times and I understand that even if we were to start planning for further electrification, it would be a long process to find funding over a number of years. During the economic instability of the 1980s, however, the then Government electrified parts of the Merseyside rail network, namely the line through Rock Ferry, on the other side of my constituency. That has underpinned today’s economic development, so investing in rail, even at times like these, really works. Unfortunately, some parts were left out and those areas form today’s gaps, but if it was possible to invest in our rail network in the 1980s, I am sure that it should be possible to do so again today. There are long-term benefits to electrification.

I would like to add, as a slight caveat, that we need rolling stock as well as infrastructure. There will be a cascade of new rolling stock as the Thameslink programme comes online. Will the Minister comment on how that is proceeding? It would be helpful if the rolling stock could make more trains available.

In my test for the Government’s priorities, how will my proposal for extra electrification help? First, it must be recognised that the railway line happens to link the potential of Wirral Waters, in north Wirral, with industry in Deeside, where we hope to see much growth. It runs between those two flagship zones for economic development. North Wales and Liverpool have a historic connection: many people from one area visit the other on holiday, and vice versa, and more people from Merseyside now want to visit the beautiful surroundings of north Wales. We want a direct rail link between the two to serve those people well.

Secondly, on poverty reduction, we know that we have to tackle worklessness by reducing travel-to-work barriers. This is not a “get-on-your-bike” mentality; people are already trying to make journeys between centres of population and centres of employment. We have to plan for how we can support them to do that in a way that will give businesses the confidence to invest because they know that there are skilled people available to hire. This is about addressing historic imbalances in rail investment and seeing whether we can do some infilling of pockets with a relatively modest investment that could have a long-term impact on economic development.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will plot a journey for us on how we can make progress with this project, which has been an aspiration for many years. My predecessor worked on it and other Members present have spent a great deal of time promoting it. On economic development and the difficulties that we face, especially in an area where a large number of people are employed in businesses that export to the eurozone, we need to continue to support the underlying infrastructure investment that will keep our industry strong.

More than simply arguing for the investment from which my own constituents could benefit—I do not apologise for doing so, although it is not enough to do just that—I hope that I have made a case for the potential in Merseyside and its surrounding areas in north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire. Our region has much to offer a rebalanced UK economy. I hope that the Government will seize tomorrow’s opportunities and, by doing so, set in progress some of the answers to today’s economic strife.

I am pleased to be able to respond to this important debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing it. I concur with her that Liverpool’s real place in railway history is as the home of the first passenger railway. On the railway’s opening day, an MP got run over, which was a little unfortunate, but I will try to avoid such an incident in the future. Today, the city of Liverpool has one of the most intensive and busiest suburban networks outside London. A number of rail improvements have been delivered or are due to be delivered in the coming years and I will discuss them in a moment, but first I will address some the hon. Lady’s general points.

The coalition fully agrees that investment in our transport network is crucial. It can help to generate growth and improve competitiveness, which is why, despite the difficult public finances relating to the deficit, we have prioritised investment in our road and rail network. Our programme of rail improvements is bigger than any since the Victorian era. I agree that providing opportunities for employment, as well as widening labour pools and access to jobs and employment, is one of the key benefits of rail improvement schemes.

The hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to the previous Conservative Government’s activities in electrifying lines in the 1980s. The coalition Government also recognise the benefits of electrification, which is why we have a programme to roll it out in the north-west and on the Great Western line. We will also consider what more can be done. The hon. Lady asked about rolling stock cascade. Network Rail is programmed to deliver the electrification in the north-west and on the Great Western line that will start to deliver that cascade. The work is going well and is on schedule. We are also making progress on the Thameslink procurement, which is a key trigger for making available rolling stock to be cascaded elsewhere in the country, potentially to Merseyside.

The hon. Lady mentioned the aspiration to electrify the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am, of course, aware of the scheme and have discussed it with Merseytravel. I acknowledge its potential in relation to the economies of Wirral and Deeside, and she is right to mention the potential benefits of better links between north Wales and Merseyside. She will probably be aware that, a few years ago, Merseytravel and the Welsh Government asked Network Rail to undertake a study outlining the costs of the electrification proposal, and the figure produced was £207 million, so it is quite a high-cost scheme, which makes delivery a challenge. There was little follow-up on the study, and it must be recognised that, although we support electrification, if schemes are to go ahead they need to demonstrate value for money and be affordable.

Does the Minister agree that although railways are not cheap, compared with the billions that have been provided for Thameslink, which will have a great impact on London, the proposed investment is modest; that what matters is the resulting cost-benefit ratio; and that we need to clarify exactly what those benefits will be?

I agree that we need to assess carefully the value for money of every scheme, but we also need to look at overall affordability. I am afraid that even when one is talking about Government spending, £200 million is a significant amount. I am impressed with the work that Network Rail is doing, for example, on how to get the costs of delivering electrification down. I hope that there is scope to see whether there might be a more affordable scheme in the future.

For a local line, we, like the previous Government, would normally look to the local authorities to seek out the funding to realise such a scheme. We know that such schemes are important to the local authorities and, if they attach a priority to them, we would expect them to consider their options for funding. That might include the major local scheme, which will reopen in 2015. That has funded some very important improvements, for example, at Kirkstall Forge and in Coventry. There are options open to Merseytravel and the Welsh Government. As we have done in the past, the Government are prepared to engage with them if they want to do further work.

We take broadly the same position on some of the other improvements mentioned in today’s debate. On proposals to upgrade the Halton curve, we recognise the potential local benefits and we would be happy to work with the local authorities on their aspirations. However, again, the local authorities need to identify the funding.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady, like all Ministers, is used to special pleading and everyone thinking that their project is the most important, but is she aware of the huge increase in visitor numbers to Liverpool and the importance of the extra connectivity my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about to the future of the city and to growing the local economy? That is what the Government keep telling us that they want to see in relation to rebalancing the economy.

We fully agree that improving our rail network can help us to achieve our aspiration to rebalance the economy and close the prosperity gap between north and south. That is why we are investing in a major programme of rail improvements, a number of which will benefit Liverpool—I am about to come on to those—including the announcements we have already made about the northern hub.

It is very important that we consider how to get the maximum benefits from rail investment to help to provide the jobs and prosperity that I think everyone in this Chamber wants. I acknowledge that rail has been key to Liverpool’s success as a port. In recent years, there have been a number of measures to improve rail freight connectivity. Under the previous Government, the Olive Mount chord was reopened to facilitate better freight train access to the port. The upgrade of the west coast main line has cut journey times between London and Liverpool, and a total of 106 new Pendolino carriages will be in use on the line by December, amounting to a 20% uplift in capacity, which obviously benefits many people in Merseyside travelling between Liverpool and London.

A competition for the next west coast franchise is under way. We are emphasising the importance of raising passenger satisfaction and service quality and improving punctuality. However, I fully agree that it is not only north-south connections we need to focus on. It is vital that we improve connectivity between our great cities of the north of England, because that is another way we will achieve the goals, rightly set out by the hon. Member for Wirral South, of rebalancing the economy and boosting the economy of the north of England.

In our spending review, we confirmed the control period 4 programme of rail improvements, including line speed improvements between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Electrification in the north-west, which was another programme we inherited from the previous Government, was also given the go-ahead. That includes electrification of the line to Wigan via St Helens, which will benefit commuter services in Merseyside. The Ordsall chord recently got the go-ahead, which is a key part of the northern hub scheme.

I am sorry, but I need to conclude now.

Although located in Manchester, that scheme will benefit Liverpool because it will deliver those faster journey times between Liverpool and Manchester that the hon. Member for Wirral South rightly identified as very important. The combination of that with the electrification of the north trans-Pennine line to York means that we will see improvements to journey times between Liverpool and Leeds. When those very important improvements are complete, journey times will decrease from around 109 minutes to 77 minutes.

In the meantime, TransPennine Express is consulting on a new timetable that could result in an additional service between Liverpool and Newcastle. We welcome that because it could increase capacity on the route and deliver some journey time savings early, in advance of those infrastructure upgrades that are also going ahead. As I have many times before, I assure hon. Members that we are considering all the remaining schemes in the northern hub, including increasing the capacity of the Chat Moss route. That is very relevant to Merseyside. We will assess what is affordable and what can be included in the high-level output specification that we will publish over the summer.

I will end by referring to some of the real successes we have seen on the Merseyrail Electrics network, which was devolved to Merseytravel and supported by a grant of around £70 million a year from the Government. Passenger satisfaction ratings have risen significantly to 93% in autumn 2011 and high levels of reliability have been achieved. All the trains have been refurbished and automatic ticket barriers have been introduced in many stations. All of Liverpool’s five underground stations are to receive a £40 million overhaul in the next few years, and £20 million is being spent on refurbishing Liverpool Central station, which forms a key hub of the Merseyrail network. Merseytravel is putting together plans to replace every train on the Merseyrail network. That is an ambitious programme and my Department is happy to provide advice on developing the case for replacement rolling stock.

That programme provides an illustration of what the devolution of transport decision making can achieve. We have consulted on our proposals to devolve the local major scheme to local transport bodies. Local authorities might like to consider the scheme I mentioned in relation to their aspirations to improve local rail services. We are also discussing a city deal with the Liverpool city region, which has identified improving connectivity as essential to its future economic growth.

Last but certainly not least, our HS2 plans will see classic compatible high-speed trains running off the new network on to the west coast line to serve Liverpool directly. That will provide improved connectivity to London and faster journey times and will further assist in achieving the goals, which I am sure the hon. Member for Wirral South and I share, of regenerating the economy around Merseyside, promoting growth in the north of England and rebalancing our economy. A high-quality rail network is one of the means we can use to achieve those objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.