Tuesday 3 July 2012
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Elections (National Assembly for Wales)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue in Westminster Hall. This debate was intended to occur two weeks ago, but as that clashed with the Welsh Grand Committee, the usual channels and I agreed to postpone it for the convenience of Members who represent Welsh constituencies, and one who does not—the Secretary of State for Wales. There has been a bit of fuss about another Welsh Grand Committee that was planned for yesterday, but for which only half a week’s notice was given. The whole thing amounts to something of a fiasco, in terms of debating the exceedingly important issue of the electoral arrangements for our Assembly in Wales. The subject has been debated at length and with great expertise and skill by those in the House of Lords, and in my view, this debate should have been held not in Westminster Hall but on the Floor of the House.
Not to me, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who will wind up for the Opposition, will touch on that. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here. I have a great deal of time and respect for the Minister, but on this occasion the Secretary of State should be present. Secretaries of State sometimes think that they are too grand to come to debates in this Chamber, but when I was Secretary of State I certainly took part in Adjournment debates. I think that she should be in this Chamber, but she is not, and we will hear what the Minister has to say.
My right hon. Friend is a distinguished Member of this House and a former Secretary of State for Wales. Does he agree that the fact that the Secretary of State is not here is totally disrespectful to Welsh Members? I venture to suggest that if we had been a group of community campaigners from Buckinghamshire who were opposed to High Speed 2, she would have been present, even if it was 6 o’clock in the morning. Is it not time for her to turn on her alarm clock and show Wales a bit more respect?
None of this is a surprise to me, because it follows the pattern of what happened when we discussed parliamentary constituencies during the progress of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There was no adequate debate on the Floor of the House; the guillotine fell, and we did not really have the chance to discuss the issues for Wales. Furthermore, the Secretary of State refused point blank to hold a Welsh Grand Committee on the issue. But enough of that; I am sure that the Minister will be able to explain the Secretary of State’s absence in his concluding remarks.
I wish to come to the essence of the debate, which is the Government’s Green Paper concerning electoral arrangements for our National Assembly in Wales. I will not touch on some of the more peripheral issues, but will rather focus on the central matter of how boundaries are configured and how constituencies are worked out in Cardiff. The Green Paper is flawed for two reasons. First, it is almost exclusively based on partisan grounds, and follows the pattern of the gerrymandering that we saw in the case of parliamentary constituencies. Secondly, that is backed up by the fact that there are only two options in the Green Paper, which is deeply wrong.
If we want a proper debate on how Welsh Assembly Members are elected, to say simply that the status quo is one option and the other is a 30-30 match—30 directly elected Members and 30 top-up Members—is not the end of the story, and other possibilities should have been included in the paper for consideration. I may disagree with most of them, but that is not the point—the option should be there. There is a genuine argument, with which I know the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and his party—and, I suspect, the Liberal Democrats—agree, regarding the single transferable vote. I do not particularly believe in that, but it should have been an option in the Green Paper.
The option that I favour should also have been considered: retaining the 60 Assembly Members and having two Assembly Members per new parliamentary constituency. I would favour the election of those two Members by first past the post, but they could be elected under the alternative vote system.
The right hon. Gentleman spent a good deal of time talking about the Secretary of State, but I am rather sad that he did not mention the full turnout of Conservative MPs from Wales. He is touching on electoral arrangements, and proposing, in essence, that we move away from the system of proportional representation. As he will know, I debated these issues with Ron Davies, then Secretary for State for Wales, during the course of the referendum campaign. Ron Davies promised the people of Wales that there would be a proportional system. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that before a change is made to any electoral arrangements, the matter should be put to the people in a referendum?
The answer to that is yes; I believe that to be the case for major electoral changes, and I will come on to that point, because it is an important part of today’s debate. I am not necessarily saying that we should move away from the proportional system. I would favour a first-past-the-post arrangement and, after the referendum that was held on the alternative vote, I think that the people of Wales would, too, but I would argue that the options should be in the Green Paper, so that the people of Wales have the opportunity to debate and discuss them, and eventually to decide on the method by which their Assembly will be elected.
We have all gone through the process of the Boundary Commission inquiry into parliamentary boundaries. Does my right hon. Friend find it extraordinary that this proposal was made after all those hearings had ended, and that the Assembly boundaries were not part of that process? Would it have been better for the issue to have been put forward for consideration at that initial stage?
My right hon. Friend is generous in giving way. To go back one step, it is my understanding that the Prime Minister told the First Minister that no constitutional issues would be sprung on him or on the National Assembly. That involved an element of trust. There is no mandate for the changes that we are discussing in the Tory manifesto. A promise was made to the First Minister that the changes would not go ahead, yet they were sprung on him. What does that do for the trust between Britain and Wales?
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the grandstanding from Opposition Members, and even some of the so-called logical arguments that he presents, are undermined by a former Secretary of State, and a former Labour Government, who went against guidance from the Electoral Commission when they changed the electoral system?
No, because I think those issues were different at the time. The other option that is not in the Green Paper is the question of whether top-up Members of the National Assembly should be elected on an all-Wales basis, as opposed to a regional basis. Personally, I think that would be more logical, and that there should be a list system for Members elected by proportional representation. My point, however, is that these debatable options should have been put to the people of Wales but were not, and that is why the Green Paper is flawed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) touched on the assurances that were given to the First Minister of Wales concerning electoral arrangements for the National Assembly. I understand that the Secretary of State said last week that no such assurances were given, but I want to provide the Chamber with two quotations from what was said when the National Assembly debated the issue some weeks ago. The first comes from the former Presiding Officer of the National Assembly, Lord Elis-Thomas:
“Would it surprise the First Minister to know that, when I was Presiding Officer…I received assurances from the Prime Minister…and the…Secretary of State that there would be no change in our boundaries to coincide with Westminster boundaries?”
The First Minister, Carwyn Jones, answered:
“I received an assurance on two occasions from the Prime Minister that there would be no change without the consent of the Assembly, and I am on record as saying that. I took that assurance in good faith and I expect it to be adhered to. However, the reality is that Scotland will continue to have different boundaries for Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament constituencies. If it works in Scotland, what evidence is there that it could not work in Wales? None is offered.”
The point is that there is obviously a huge difference of opinion between the First Minister and the former Presiding Officer on one hand, and the Secretary of State on the other. Whom are we to believe in this instance? The First Minister has made it absolutely clear to me and to others that such an assurance was given.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the First Minister’s recollection of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to him. It is important at this juncture to make it absolutely clear that that is not a recollection that is shared by the Prime Minister.
In which case someone is telling untruths. The reality is that the former Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas, confirms that he was told exactly the same thing as the First Minister. Whom are we to believe? If there are such vast differences of opinion on this matter, the Government should rethink their whole strategy on the Green Paper.
The intervention from the Minister is very significant, because when I put this question specifically to the Secretary of State last week, she said that she was not aware of the conversation between the Prime Minister and the First Minister. She was very careful in the wording that she used with me. When the Minister winds up the debate, I would like him to be very clear that the Prime Minister is denying that he said to the First Minister that the assurance was given. Will the Minister confirm that, because if that is the case, someone is not telling the truth?
Of course they are not, and the point about this whole business is that it undermines the trust between the two Governments and the two Parliaments. It cannot be the case that the First Minister did not discuss such an important issue with the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister visited Cardiff—or, indeed, with the Secretary of State. It is so fundamental to the future of the National Assembly and the way in which it is elected that it seems impossible that the issue would not have been discussed, and that assurances would not have been given. I cannot go any further, because on the one hand the Minister says that the assurance was not given, and on the other Lord Elis-Thomas and Carwyn Jones say that it was.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again, because clearly this is a matter on which Opposition Members would like further clarification. The position is clear so far as the Prime Minister is concerned: he agrees that the electoral arrangements for the Assembly are not within the Assembly’s devolved competence. That is a point on which the First Minister appears to agree. When they had their discussion, the Prime Minister said that the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process. He does not recall, as the First Minister seems to recall, saying that the matter was to be decided by the Assembly itself and, indeed, the notes of the discussion do not reflect the First Minister’s recollection of the conversation.
Whoever said what to whom, the reality is that we are now in a fine old mess over it. It seems to me that the Government should go back and rethink their whole approach, not just on the Green Paper, but on how they handle relations with the National Assembly, the Welsh Government and the First Minister.
It is inconceivable that the First Minister would not recall precisely what he was told, and what he understood he was being told, on a matter of this importance. However, I am sure that the matter is of lower importance to the Prime Minister. The point is that the integrity of discussions between Government and Ministers in the Welsh Government is in question as a result of the withdrawal from an assurance that was heard, so we understand, on more than one occasion by both the First Minister and the former Presiding Officer.
One wonders how much the Prime Minister knows about the details of these things. Sometimes confusion arises because of that. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) is right to say that this opens up a serious chasm between the Government in Wales and the Government here in London, which is highly regrettable, because that is in no one’s interest.
The point that is so important and that came through very clearly in the debate in the National Assembly is that the Government and Parliament here have the legal right to take the decision with regard to the electoral arrangements for Wales, just as they have the legal right to abolish the Welsh Assembly, but they ain’t going to do that. They have no moral right to do those things without the consent of the Welsh people, or those who represent the Welsh people.
The point has constantly been made—those of us who were about in those days will reinforce this—that, as everyone knows, the decision to establish devolution in Wales was based on a very narrow majority. Nevertheless, it was a majority. The people of Wales took part in a highly charged referendum campaign. In that campaign, what was put to the people of Wales was the electoral arrangement that now stands. They voted on it on the basis that it was part of the package. That means, in my view, that we cannot unravel such a basic platform of devolution without either asking the people of Wales about it in a referendum, as the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) said, or getting the absolute agreement, by consensus, of all the political parties in the National Assembly. That is the moral thing that should happen. It is not necessarily the legal thing that should happen, but in moral terms, it seems absolutely the case that before anything goes ahead, it should have either the approval of the people in a referendum, or the approval of the directly elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, once they have reached consensus, on the basis that no political party, and particularly not the Conservatives, went into the election—either the general election or the election for the National Assembly—with a mandate for this change.
My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I can honestly say that no one has come to me recently in my constituency clamouring for change in the electoral system or the make-up of the Welsh Assembly. Does he think it bizarre that the Secretary of State is expending energy on the Green Paper at a time when she should be concentrating on jobs and growth?
Absolutely. The Secretary of State should also be trying to ensure that she has reasonably good relations, despite the political differences, with the Government in Cardiff. It seems to me that there is almost a permanent state of civil war between the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Government on various issues. That has come to a head on this point about the electoral arrangements.
My right hon. Friend has been very generous with his time. Does he, like me, think it is significant that Conservative Members in the National Assembly for Wales have concerns about the matter? Take, for example, the statement of opinion signed by the Minister’s counterpart in Clwyd West, Mr Millar, and by Mr Paul Davies and Mr Russell George. It says:
“This Assembly recognises that there is absolutely no mandate to change the current electoral system in Wales and that any future change should be put to the people of Wales.”
I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) will be very interested to hear the Minister tell us who he thinks speaks for the people in Ruthin market on this issue—him or Mr Millar.
Indeed. My hon. Friend has pre-empted me; I intended to give a similar quote from the very same Member of the Assembly. Darren Millar said to the Western Mail some time ago that the Welsh Assembly Conservative group
“has made its position very clear. We have said we want the status quo to continue. We don’t want any change. That’s our position. We think the 40:20 position we have with the existing boundaries is perfectly adequate.”
Not even the Conservatives—the Secretary of State’s friends in the Assembly in Cardiff—agree with the Green Paper, so what is she doing this for? What is the point of it? Unless she gets consensus and agreement, this will be a running sore between the two Governments and the two Parliaments.
Reading the Green Paper, it is clear to me that the Secretary of State’s preferred option is option 2. That is rather different, particularly bearing in mind that she has been telling everyone that she has the right to do this and the right to do that, because she is the Secretary of State for Wales. So was I, but one can have a legal right to do something, but not a moral right. There certainly is no moral right to do this from Chesham and Amersham.
A moment ago my right hon. Friend asked the rhetorical question: what is the point of all this? I suggest that the point—I hope that this is not true—is that, cynically, the Secretary of State wishes to undermine devolution. She has eloquently pointed out the background to devolution, the struggle to achieve it and the very narrow majority for it. On my right hon. Friend’s watch, and that of previous Labour Secretaries of State, we developed the strategy of partnership, and now we see it unravelled.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a third time. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) says that a reason why the Tories propose the change is to undermine devolution. I suggest a reason on top of that: it fits in with a raft of legislation. There is the equalisation of seats, for party political advantage; the bringing forward of individual electoral registration by one year, with consensus smashed, for party political advantage; and this new proposal, put forward for party political advantage. If one party acts without consensus, another party—it might be us next time, in 2015—could adopt a similar position.
In the past, issues as important as these constitutional questions have been the basis of consensus among political parties, whether in Westminster or in Cardiff. We had no consensus whatever on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That legislation was entirely for party advantage, although the boundary review in Wales turned the tables on those who thought that they would get an advantage out of it. The Prime Minister wants consensus now. On the reform of the House of Lords, for example, he wants all the parties to come together and agree on something. That is different, is it not? In that case, he wants something to happen, but there is no consensus here.
I will conclude, because many other Members want to take part in the debate. The Scotland Act 2012 was passed by this Parliament. It gave extensive new powers to the Scottish Parliament, but was also based on the consent of Members of the Scottish Parliament. Why not have that in Wales? Why not base suggestions—in the Green Paper, or elsewhere by the Secretary of State—on the consent of the National Assembly for Wales and the political parties there, or, if that does not work, the consent of the people of Wales in a referendum?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I listened to the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) with a degree of interest, but also with surprise. The implication in the comments is that the Labour party in Wales is not partisan, but anybody who lives in Wales is very aware that if there is one party in Wales that is partisan, it is Labour. The changes in 2006 were made with no consultation and the offered guidance was rejected for party political purposes, but we have already heard this morning that that was different.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. In 1997 we came in with a majority of 180, so if the Labour party was simply seeking party political advantage, we would have steamrollered the legislation through. We could have had first-past-the-post and controlled Wales for ever, but we did not do that. We introduced proportional representation, and we did the same in Scotland and for European elections. All the constitutional steps we took over 13 years were taken with consensus, but these arrangements are steamroller government on important constitutional issues.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman has not responded to the point about 2006. As a result of the changes, we lost very good Assembly Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who would have stayed with the Assembly were it not for the fact that changes were made to the rules specifically to damage the opposition parties. [Interruption.] I hear Labour Members talk about democracy, fairness and party advantage, but I will take no lessons from them whatsoever.
Another key point is that a Green Paper is all about consultation. It is part of a consultation process. Why is the Labour party so scared of consultation? Because it does not do it in a Welsh context.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the change in the Government of Wales Act 2006 with regard to Members not being able to stand as an Assembly top-up or an Assembly first-past-the-post Member was based on a Labour election pledge. There was an electoral pledge and it had a mandate.
On the point that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) raised, at the time of the referendum on creating the Assembly, was it not the case that Labour pledged that there would be a referendum? Furthermore, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats certainly would not have supported the creation of an Assembly without ensuring that there was an appropriate proportional system of election. Bearing in mind that the outcome was 4,000 votes in 1 million, is it not likely that we might not have had an Assembly at all?
Let us remind the hon. Gentleman of two things: first, as other hon. Members have pointed out, Labour created a system that deliberately went against its political interest in order to have balance and give an opportunity to smaller parties; and, secondly, in the 2005 general election Labour committed to dealing with some problems that had arisen in the Assembly, particularly the separation of government from the Assembly as the body to which the Welsh Government are accountable. That was an election issue, which was dealt with in advance of those changes being made in legislation.
I am sorry to say that the right hon. Gentleman shows the arrogance of Labour. The Labour party did not create the Assembly. The people of Wales created the Assembly. I accept the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans); the decision of the people of Wales to say yes to the Assembly was based on the offer made. It was not a gift from the Labour party. It was a decision taken by the Welsh people, and the Welsh people are not the same as Welsh Labour. Some Opposition Members should remember that.
To return to the key issue, we are discussing a Green Paper. What surprises me is the fact that the Opposition do not seem to understand the word “consultation”. They do not accept that the document is for consultation. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for example, highlights the possible difference of opinion between the Assembly Member for Clwyd West and the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones). I have not heard the Minister state his opinion on the issue, but I have seen him present the Green Paper.
I am proud to stand here on behalf of the party that has democratic debate among its members. We are willing to debate the issue and contribute to the Green Paper and consultation, because the issue is of concern to the people of Wales. We are asking whether we want a system similar to that in Scotland, with boundaries for the Scottish Parliament that are not the same as the Westminster boundaries. That question is worthy of discussion. I am the MP for Aberconwy, a constituency that, under the proposals for changes to the Westminster boundaries, will probably disappear into a seat called “North Wales Coast.” We shall see whether that is the ultimate resolution.
There is no doubt but that there was a manifesto commitment to change the Westminster boundaries, and as a result of that commitment, there is an issue as to whether constituency boundaries need to be coterminous. I need to be persuaded that the change is needed, but I am not running away from the debate, because there is a debate to be had. What is disappointing about the discussion so far today is that there seems to be unwillingness even to grasp the need to have that debate.
A key problem is the growing disconnect between the people who elect us and the democratic process. We need to think about that issue carefully. Do people want to elect a Member for Anglesey and Bangor for Westminster and for Anglesey alone for the Assembly? That discussion is worthy of this House and the wider polity in Wales.
How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that the Government have already brought forward a standing order for the delegated legislation procedure that has been agreed by the House, allowing the next Assembly elections to be fought on the existing boundaries?
I am happy for that issue to be clarified by the Minister in due course.
The key thing, in my view, is that there is a debate to be had. There are disagreements within the parties. I believe that some members of the Labour party would be fairly happy with a change. We have heard a lot from the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Torfaen, about the need for two Members to be elected from a single constituency. That view has been talked about this morning. I find it incredible that the Labour party can talk about political advantage and put forward a plan for two Members for one constituency, which would also be a partisan change.
The other thing that I am surprised by this morning is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that there were two options in the Green Paper: the status quo and the change to 30:30. In my reading of the Green Paper the status quo is not an option, because option No. 1 is to keep 40 constituencies but to have them equalised. I have some concern about that proposal: one of my key concerns about any changes to the Welsh Assembly is the need to ensure a buy-in to the concept of the Welsh Assembly in all parts of Wales. I represent a constituency in north Wales, including parts of the north Wales coast, and there is often a feeling that Cardiff does not concern itself, or take as much interest in, the affairs of north Wales as those of south Wales and Cardiff in particular. That may or may not be fair. Some past Assembly proposals have led to that perception. However, it is important to point out that equalisation, for example, would probably result in fewer Members from north Wales and west Wales.
And possibly fewer from mid-Wales as well. That would be a matter of concern to me, but, again, it would not make me oppose a discussion of the issue. It would lead me to contribute to the debate and make my views known.
I welcome the debate. It is important not only to engage parliamentarians in Westminster and Cardiff bay in the debate, but to try also to engage the people of Wales. The issue is not whether the decision can be implemented without the consent of the Welsh Assembly. It would be a mistake to implement any change without its consent. A far more important matter is that no change should be implemented without the consent of the people of Wales. We are talking about the electoral arrangements for the Welsh Assembly. The issue should be debated and discussed, and we should be willing to consider the options; but the decision should rest with them—not for any reasons of party political advantage, but because any change, if change were necessary, would be for the benefit of Welsh democracy and the further development of the Welsh Assembly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing the debate. The issue is important, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) said, it is not a priority, certainly not for constituents in Ynys Môn or, indeed, north Wales.
I want to reiterate some of the points that my right hon. Friend made, but also to take up some of the comments of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), with whom I agree on many constitutional issues. I used to agree with him on some constitutional issues when he was a member of another party; but I have been firm in my belief that changes to the electoral system should be brought about by referendum of the people of Wales. That must be the principle we stand for in this place. Only recently, the people of Wales were given a referendum on relatively small extra powers, yet when it comes to making significant changes to the boundaries on which they will elect Assembly Members, there is no question of the Conservative party offering a referendum.
The priorities for my constituents are the cuts, policing and the armed forces—all those issues—but not electoral arrangements. Yet in the short time for which they have been in office the Government have already pushed through changes to the boundaries in which Members of Parliament are elected. That must be a huge priority for them—but not, it seems, when it comes to the House of Lords. There is a possibility that changing the second Chamber could be dealt with by a referendum; but when it comes to National Assembly arrangements, then, with no mandate, the change should go through—and with little consultation too.
I want to address the Minister’s remarks about whether the Prime Minister said one thing or the First Minister said another. I assure him and the House that when I asked the Prime Minister a question in the Chamber, about the respect agenda, his response was very firm: he respected the National Assembly and the other bodies, and would listen to what they said. The First Minister has made it very clear in the National Assembly that he feels the proposal should not go ahead in the way in question. If the Prime Minister is to be taken at his word—he gave me a cast iron guarantee, as he did his Back Benchers on the European referendum—he should respect the views of the Assembly and the First Minister and withdraw the Green Paper and engage in a proper debate.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy said consultation was important. In a parliamentary democracy we have the relevant debates before a general election. We put our policies into a document called the manifesto and allow the people of Wales to judge the parties on it. That is what democracy, the voice of the people, is about. We have changed from a position where parliamentary parties seeking election put policy in their manifestos to one where they do not have a policy, but invent one when they are in office.
I do not know why the proposal has become a priority for the Minister and the Wales Office. Perhaps they have little to do, and are looking for issues to run with. No one I represent—or, indeed, who is represented by other Members of Parliament in the Chamber—has come forward to say “We need to do this.” Yes, there is an issue of coterminosity, because of the changes in the parliamentary boundaries. The hon. Member for Aberconwy said that his seat would disappear as a consequence of the proposals, and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. I can guarantee what would happen if he said to his electorate before the election, “The seat that I am standing for will be done away with, because my party will push through electoral changes.” Yes, the manifesto quite correctly said there would be a change of boundaries, but nowhere did it say that a quarter of the seats in Wales were to disappear. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to intervene, if he feels it necessary, because that is what he voted for.
The manifesto commitment was for an equalisation of the seats in the United Kingdom. I fail to see how anyone would not have seen that as a change that would result in a proportionately larger fall in the number of seats in Wales, because Wales has traditionally been over-represented in comparison with the population. That over-representation was justified in historical terms, but with the existence of a law-making Welsh Assembly I fail to see how the issue could have been a surprise to anyone in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman might feel that that is a good academic argument, but it was not the outcome of the Act of Parliament. When it came to the Isle of Wight or the Western Isles, or many parts of the United Kingdom with strong Liberal representation, there was consensus. There was no equal representation across the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) would be well advised to read the Westminster Hall debate initiated by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who castigated the Government for the way in which the size of constituencies in Wales had been downgraded because of the relationship between Wales and England. Reading that speech might be an education for the hon. Gentleman.
I often agree with the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. In his most recent pronouncement he criticises Defence Ministers—I am sure that the Minister wants to hear this because he always criticises Assembly Members for not coming before the Welsh Affairs Committee—for not coming forward when radical changes are being made to regiments in Wales. There is inconsistency in the Government’s stance.
Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept that there is a distinction between the Government and the Boundary Commission? The Government passed legislation that a constituency should be 75,000, or 5% either way, but it was the independent Boundary Commission that actually drew the lines.
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is really apportioning blame to the Boundary Commission. He and his party voted on strict criteria, which were then imposed on the Boundary Commission. First, they allowed exemptions in some areas, which means that the argument that the hon. Member for Aberconwy made about equalisation across the entire United Kingdom is a false one. Secondly, the Boundary Commission was given no room for manoeuvre, which is why we will end up with this Government doing away with a quarter of the seats in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a degree of nonsense in what certain Conservative Members are saying? It seems that they want fewer Conservative Members of Parliament in Wales as long as it does not affect their own seats. In his role as Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has to sit silently, but he has described the changes as the death of parliamentary democracy in mid-Wales. Although he is not allowed to speak, he can nod—he is not even nodding this morning. Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is real inconsistency in what the Conservatives are arguing on this point?
I have highlighted the inconsistencies of the Conservative party on these issues, but I now want to move to some of the important points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made in his opening remarks. I have dealt with the first point: there was no mandate for the change. There is no respect for the National Assembly as a body and for the First Minister as a leader of that body. That is absolutely clear from what has come out of this debate and from the way in which the matter is moving forward. As for the idea that there is dialogue among people through a Green Paper—the hon. Member for Aberconwy gave me the ammunition to go after this one—I have to say that not many people concentrate on a Green Paper. Many people concentrate on manifestos. That is the difference.
The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is what parliamentary democracy is based on. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here this morning. She was the one who said at Welsh questions that she wanted to lead this debate. This was the opportunity for her to do so. Perhaps 9.30 is a little too early in the morning for her to turn up to lead a debate, but at 11.30 on Monday she wanted to do so. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has given us this opportunity at 9.30 on Tuesday.
I do not take notice of what my Front Bench colleagues say on every occasion, but they were absolutely right about this. What they said—if the Minister is going to quote them, he should do so correctly—was that they wanted a debate on the Floor of the House, in the main Chamber. Changing the way in which people are elected and the numbers who can be elected to the National Assembly are important issues. I welcome a debate, but not after the event.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy said that the status quo is not an option, so the only option left is 30:30. Those are the only two options presented by the Government. We stay with the status quo, which will not be an option, or we go for 30:30. I have concerns about equal weighting between regional Members and constituency Members. Members of the Assembly and Members of Parliament serve a community. There is a link with the individual who is elected. He or she represents the views of the people and they can be voted out. When we increase the regional lists—this is another inconsistency among some Government Members—we make things less representative. The power goes not to the people but to the party managers, which is something I disagree with, whether for the European elections, the Assembly elections or any other election. In this Chamber today, there are three Members who were regional Assembly Members, and I have respect for all of them as individuals, but they have all chosen to come here and to be elected on a constituency basis. I take from that that they favour that form of election.
I realise that there is a convention that Parliamentary Private Secretaries do not speak in a debate, but I do not want the hon. Gentleman’s point to pass unchallenged. As an individual Member, I certainly did not decide to move from the Assembly to Westminster; it was the election result that decided that.
I did not single out the hon. Gentleman, but I am glad that he has intervened, because we miss his contributions. The fact that he is a PPS and is unable to contribute to debate is a sorry thing for this Parliament and this Chamber.
There is an important point about the lack of democracy when there are list Members. If we go to 30 seats in the parliamentary boundaries and they are coterminous, we should have dual membership. I disagree that it will give an advantage to the Labour party, because the electorate are sophisticated in Wales and they will make their choices. They have limited choices as to who their regional Members are. That is decided by party managers, which is what this Government want; they want to strengthen their grip over who gets elected to the Welsh Assembly.
In my own region and in the region of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), in south-east Wales, Labour consistently tops the poll on the regional list yet we do not have a single Labour regional AM. Is that democratic? Is that not ignoring the democratic will of the people?
No, it is not democratic, but it was accepted by the electorate in Wales when we had a referendum. I accept that members of the public in Wales knew what they were voting for, but I do not accept having radical changes without going back to the people of Wales and having another referendum so that they can endorse or disagree with the principles. That would be real democracy.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could calm his colleague, the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who has such a sense of injustice, by reminding him that in the Assembly elections last year, Labour got 43% of the constituency vote and 70% of the constituency Members. I say that in case he feels hard done by.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out, and for once again putting on his record his disagreement with the Conservative party on the way we elect Members. He has been honest and consistent that he wants greater representation through proportional representation, and I give him credit for that. Indeed, I am at one with him. We should elect all our Assembly Members on the basis that they serve their constituencies and that the constituents have the right, every four or five years, to turf them out if they think that they are not doing a good job, or re-elect them if they think that they are doing a good job. We should strive for having a named person and a named party, which is open democracy, not for increasing the list proportion, which does away with that and gives party managers a greater responsibility that they do not deserve.
Why is the issue a priority? It was not in the Conservative manifesto. I do not believe—I will take an intervention if it is not the case—that it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. We had a referendum on the alternative vote, which I support and would do so in the future if we had a proper Green Paper to advance it. Why did we have a referendum on the alternative vote but not on changing the boundaries for the Assembly? Why are we pushing this forward? The reason why we pushed AV up the parliamentary timetable was because it was the cement that kept the coalition together. Perhaps, this is cement, too. I will take an intervention from the Liberal Democrats, although I know the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) is going to speak in a minute, to hear whether they have been pushing for the measure. I have not seen any political party pushing it in this place.
Going back to the respect agenda, there needs to be real respect for elected bodies, whether they are in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister should check his notes and look for what he actually said in the meeting, because two against one is a democratic vote in my thinking, and two people remember one thing and one does not. I rather suspect that the Prime Minister’s memory is failing him or that he has done another U-turn. He is very good at doing U-turns; he has done dozens of U-turns. I remember him telling the electorate in Wales that he would not, in any circumstances, put VAT up, yet he did so as a priority when he came into office. I say to him, “Check your notes, certainly show respect for the First Minister and the people of Wales and let’s have a proper debate on this before we move forward.”
I believe that there is no consensus to be built around this narrow Green Paper. What we need is a proper debate in both institutions; indeed, we have had an excellent one in the House of Lords. I hope the Minister will reflect on what has been said by far more independent-minded people in the House of Lords on the issue. We need a proper debate in which we have the choices in front of us: whether we really want to be radical and move forward, or just to edge forward, giving more power to party managers rather than to the people of Wales.
Can the Minister clarify some points in his winding-up speech? What mandate does he have for the changes? I think I know the answer to that question. What are the views of the Assembly and does he respect them? Indeed, does he respect the views of the Welsh Conservative group within the Assembly, who have made it quite clear that they do not want these changes? How did the Government build the consensus that they put into the Green Paper and how do they hope to move forward?
I suggest that the only way forward is to scrap the proposed changes; to get the parliamentary boundaries firmed up, with Parliament’s will; and to look at the issue properly and give the people of Wales the chance either to endorse it or kick it out.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me this opportunity to speak. I believe that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.
Once again, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has shown his splendid independence, which has won him so much popularity and support in his constituency. He is right to say that there is very little appetite among the population of Wales—certainly among my constituents—for further constitutional change. Indeed, there would be even less appetite for it if they saw us trying to debate whether we should debate, or when we should debate, constitutional issues. We are a relatively small congregation in Wales of 40 MPs. There must be more consultation in future about when and how we can discuss these important issues, because it does us no good to be seen to be rowing about things that are viewed by the people we serve as of little importance.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) secured the debate and I congratulate him on doing so. He introduced it in a very statesmanlike way. Unfortunately, however, there were some rather partisan interventions, which sometimes forced him to divert from his decided path. Nevertheless, the debate has thrown up some sharing of views; I would not say that we have gone so far as consensus, but debates such as this one help to firm up ideas, and the pros and cons of particular proposals.
From my point of view, it is a very happy occasion when we can debate these things against a background of acceptance in Wales of the Assembly. At one time, a lot of people thought that the Assembly would not play a constructive part in the governance of Wales, yet the evidence of the recent referendum, when a considerable majority of people voted for extra powers, demonstrates the support that the Assembly receives from the Welsh people.
As far as that support is concerned, one of the key issues—yes, we would all like a better health service and better education for our young people—that attracts the people of Wales to the Assembly is the way Assembly Members are elected and that the Assembly is a body that reflects opinion within Wales. I have been given a little quote by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans); I think that it was Ron Davies who said that he did not want the Assembly to be
“Mid Glamorgan council on stilts”,
so that it was completely dominated by Labour. It was on that basis that Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats were attracted to the cause of the Assembly for Wales.
In considering these issues, we must understand that the people of Wales accept the Assembly and they like the electoral system that we have. Yes, the Liberal Democrats would like to have the single transferable vote and we share that view with Plaid Cymru. However, we made the concession and reached agreement on that issue, so that the referendum on the Assembly could be carried; we think that is a good thing. Over time, we will again put forward the case for STV, but we will look at the proposals in the Green Paper and decide whether any of them are helpful to us and helpful to the people of Wales.
We would support the 30:30 option. We would perhaps look at the election of regional Members on a whole-Wales basis. We believe that there could be dual candidacy, so that people can stand in both the regional and the constituency part of the elections. Indeed, we believe that these issues should be debated in Wales and should have an airing. This debate has been the start of that process, as far as the House of Commons is concerned; we have already had the debate in the House of Lords. I look forward to continuing the debate, particularly with the people of Wales as well as among ourselves in Westminster.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I will keep my comments brief. I just want to make one essential point: that the whole consultation on this issue is partisan. It is skewed to the benefit of the Conservative party, and the sooner the Liberal Democrats wake up to that reality, the better. I will quote a few passages from the Green Paper to support that contention. The first relates to preventing an individual from standing for the list and for a constituency. The Green Paper says that the proposal to end that prohibition
“should help smaller parties in particular”.
It goes on to say:
“It may also have a positive effect on representation in the Assembly; currently high quality candidates who stand as a constituency candidate…are lost to the Assembly”.
Well, that is democracy. People lose elections; that is not something that we should be against, although the Green Paper is against it. We should say, “Fair enough, that’s the democratic process.” Why on earth do we want to prevent that from happening by having this skewed approach towards democracy?
My second point is on the all-important issue of the Assembly boundaries. We all know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was a partisan document. It reduced the number of MPs across the UK by 50, but the largest reduction was in Wales; it was a reduction of 25%. It is likely that the Labour party will suffer most from that reduction. According to that Act, geography is now a minor consideration in determining parliamentary boundaries, as are topography, history, community and sense of identity; it is all down to a rough equality of numbers.
If anyone has any doubt at all about whether that Act is a partisan piece of legislation, they should compare the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Anglesey. Under the Act, the Isle of Wight is to have two MPs. Why? To keep Conservative English Back Benchers happy. Yet Anglesey will not even have one. That is crudely partisan. The Government are even distorting their own legislation to keep the Conservative party happy, and that is no way to enhance democracy or introduce constitutional change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) says, change must be on the basis of consensus. That is how it always has been done, and how it should be done.
Regarding the boundaries, the Green Paper states:
“These developments mean that we need to change the present arrangements for Assembly constituencies”,
because of the 2011 Act. That is wrong. They do not need to be changed. In fact, the 2011 legislation contained a decoupling clause, which made it absolutely clear that the Assembly boundaries would not depend on parliamentary boundaries, so the Government want to revise their own legislation. To complicate things even more, bizarrely, the Government introduced a statutory instrument confirming the existing Assembly boundaries for the 2016 elections. They intend to rescind their own statutory instrument and contradict their 2011 legislation, and that is extremely confused, to say the least.
Option 1 of the two options outlined states that continuing with 40 Assembly constituencies
“would require a new system of boundary reviews”,
but a boundary review system is already in place, and the Government have confirmed the boundaries for the next Assembly elections. That statement might be referring to a system for the future but, on the basis of what we have had already, the changes are likely to be minor if we stick with the status quo. The Government’s arguments are false and superficial, and what is really behind the changes is a partisan approach to constitutional change.
The Government believe that this is about consultation, but I suggest that it is all about gerrymandering. To take up a point made by a number of Members, the approach taken shows an unbelievable—I will be kind—misunderstanding between the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister of Wales. That is no way in which to approach an issue as important as representation and democracy, and I urge the Government to recognise that they have been ham-fisted. They need to recognise that there are fundamental flaws in the Green Paper, say that it is a mistake, and recognise that the way forward is on the existing boundaries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing this useful and important debate. It is a profound matter of regret to me, and to my right hon. Friend, that the Secretary of State is not here to listen to the arguments on both sides, not least because the Minister’s comments, and their further underlining of the clear disagreement between the Prime Minister and the First Minister, are a matter of the utmost seriousness. The word of either the Prime Minister or the First Minister is being called into question, and as the Secretary of State is at the heart of that unfortunate disagreement, it ill behoves her not to engage in the debate today.
It is no surprise, however, that the Secretary of State is not here, because that is in keeping with the ham-fisted, high-handed manner in which she has dealt with the matter over recent weeks. She has accused me of playing games. I put it to her that we are not playing games but merely articulating the views of Opposition Members and, I suggest, the National Assembly, which are already on record. This is a matter of profound significance to the National Assembly and the people of Wales. I ask whether there is any other Welsh issue of this significance being debated in the House this morning. I did not see anything on the Order Paper that should be detaining the Secretary of State. I certainly felt that my attendance here was important enough to warrant my sending my apologies to the shadow Cabinet, which meets as we speak.
I want to make something clear about the debate that we did not have this week. I wrote to the Secretary of State several weeks ago, telling her that I thought this such an important issue that it ought to be debated on the Floor of the House. She did not have the courtesy to write back with her opinion but merely tabled, through the usual channels, a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee. That was why we objected to the debate; it was nothing to do with the timing, but because we felt it ill-considered and ill-judged to debate something of this significance in Committee, and not to expose a constitutional matter to wider discussion.
This is a high-handed and ham-fisted way of going about things. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made clear in his eloquent remarks, the Green Paper is highly partisan. It represents a barely veiled political agenda of increasing representation for minority parties in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, that agenda is, incredibly enough, there in black and white in the Green Paper. I include among those minority parties the Welsh Tory party and Plaid Cymru, a party that, extraordinarily, is not represented in this debate about the National Assembly for Wales.
No, it very clearly does not. The Labour party is here today speaking for Wales, and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman sought earlier to misrepresent the options in the Green Paper. He suggested that on the table was one option of keeping the status quo, and he knows that that is not straightforwardly true. The option is to keep 40-20, but to shift to a more equalised block of constituencies by changing all the constituencies across Wales, with none of the benefits of retaining coterminosity with the parliamentary boundaries. Even that minor change is so significant that the consent of the National Assembly for Wales, as proxy for the people of Wales, ought to be sought.
The Green Paper is partisan, and also arrogant, in that it completely eschews the tradition of seeking consensus on issues such as constitutional change. When in office, the Labour party sought change through cross-party consensus, including when we proposed changes to the National Assembly for Wales in election manifestos. Amusingly enough, even the Tory party is split on this issue, with the party in Westminster taking one position in documents, and the party in Wales, which is perhaps more in touch with the people of Wales, taking an alternative one.
This is essentially an anti-devolution Green Paper, at odds with the spirit, if not the law, of devolution, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said. How else can we describe a proposal from a Westminster-based, Tory-led Government for changes to both constituencies and elections to the National Assembly for Wales—a proposal that does not require the consent of the Assembly or the people of Wales? The proposal lacks even a modicum of a mandate, and thus lacks legitimacy, and it should be called out for what it is.
The two options are clear. One is to keep the 40-20 split but change the nature of the boundaries. That has all the disbenefits of reorganisation and none of the benefits of retaining coterminosity. That is why, of course, the Secretary of State is not minded to take the option forward. It is a red herring, designed to deceive. The second option is to shift to 30 on a list and 30 first past the post, increasing the number of Members elected via proportional representation, and decreasing the number directly elected by 10.
No one is suggesting that the nature of the National Assembly should be set in stone or fixed in aspic. Nobody is suggesting that no changes should be proposed and no reforms undertaken. Many people in Wales have lots of ideas—we have heard some suggestions today—about how the National Assembly could be reformed, but few of those people would have the temerity to propose imposing those changes on the National Assembly and the people of Wales without seeking their consent in any meaningful fashion. Fewer still would have the nerve to propose changes without any real evidence or impact assessment of how they will affect voting patterns or election turnout in Wales.
However, our absent Secretary of State proposes to do just that, giving effectively one option, the justification for which is cut and pasted from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, with nothing to back up either that or the alternative except the threat that if the option she favours is not adopted, the other even more destructive and disruptive option will be adopted. So much for the respect agenda.
That is happening despite the fact that in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs last year, when I suggested that the Secretary of State had precisely such a plan in the back of her mind and warned her not to try to gerrymander the map in Wales, she told me that
“before anything goes forward to do with boundaries there would be a loud, long and large period of consultation”.
Consulting on a flimsy Green Paper for a few months over the summer, and treating the National Assembly as a consultee like any other individual or institutional consultee in Wales, while the Secretary of State for Wales refuses to submit to any meaningful scrutiny, does not constitute a loud, long or large consultation to my mind. It is certainly not appropriate to the changes proposed.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, consider the contrast between that and the attitude taken by this Tory Government when they sought to introduce changes to the nature of the voting arrangements for Parliament in Westminster. We had a three-month, significantly contested and well-resourced campaign, followed by a national referendum. I am not necessarily suggesting that that is comparable to the changes proposed in the Green Paper, nor am I necessarily suggesting, as some have done, that the changes necessitate a referendum. However, I put it to Members that at the very least, the consent of the National Assembly must be obtained as a proxy for that of the people of Wales if there is to be no referendum on the changes.
Consider, too, the changes mentioned in this debate in respect of the passage of the Scotland Act 2012. This Government explicitly accepted that the Scottish Parliament should have to consent to the views included in the Bill before it could become law in Scotland. Why does this Welsh Secretary, parachuted into Wales, not feel that a similar job should be done for Wales? Why does she treat the National Assembly for Wales with such disdain when her counterpart in Scotland treated the Scottish Parliament with such respect?
All that prompts the question: why these changes, and why now? Like others here, I cannot but conclude that it is about narrow party self-interest for smaller parties that will benefit from an increased proportion of Members in the National Assembly being elected by proportional representation. To proffer a piece of evidence in support of that contention, think back to 1999, when the Labour party was well supported by the people of Wales and did well at the elections, with the Tories winning just one seat by first past the post. What was the impact for them on the list? Eight seats were delivered. I suggest that a similar position might well come about, with similarly happy benefit for Conservative Members, if the proposals are adopted.
One cannot help thinking that the reason why Plaid Cymru is so quiet on the issue is that the party has cooked up a deal with the Conservative Secretary of State to accept the proposals, because it knows that they will benefit Plaid Cymru, too. The people of Wales will note Plaid Cymru Members’ absence from this debate and understand precisely what they are about.
I find it absolutely amazing that Members from the so-called party of Wales should be absent from a debate on electoral arrangements for the people of Wales alone. It is an absolute dereliction of duty for them not to be here engaging in this debate.
Suspicions only harden when we consider the fact that No. 10 has now been dragged into the debate about Wales. That too strikes me as extraordinary. No. 10 is now reduced to the kind of weasel words that we read in the newspaper this morning and heard repeated by the Minister earlier today:
“the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process of deciding its future electoral arrangements”.
What does “fully engaged” mean? Does it mean consulted with, like any Tom, Dick and Harry in Wales, any public body or any MP? I suggest that that is not full engagement. Equally weaselly is the Prime Minister’s letter to the First Minister. He did not say that the changes in Wales should be decided by the people of Wales, but he certainly said, in the words of the First Minister, that the people of Wales should agree with the changes through the National Assembly. That is a bone of contention to which we will need to return later.
In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister sent here today by his extremely busy Secretary of State to represent the Wales Office. First, what exactly does No. 10 mean by “fully engaging” with the National Assembly? Does it mean anything more than consulting with it, as with others in Wales?
What weight will the consultation accord the views of the National Assembly? To quote the motion passed there by the Tories, Plaid Cymru and Labour, it has already voted to:
“This Assembly recognises that there is absolutely no mandate to change the current electoral system in Wales and that any future change should be put to the people of Wales.”
Given this Government’s complexion, what notice will be paid in particular to the views of the leader of the Welsh Tories, Andrew R.T. Davies? He said:
“I think the Assembly should determine its own boundaries”.
In another interview, he said:
“I am in favour of the status quo”.
Ultimately, what will this Government do if, as seems likely, the National Assembly holds to its course and continues to submit evidence to the consultation saying that it does not believe that there is a mandate for the changes and does not support them? Will the Secretary of State for Wales continue to drive through the changes in the teeth of clear opposition from the National Assembly? If so, something has gone badly awry in the arrangements between Wales and Westminster. The Minister and his Secretary of State would do extremely well to consider the damage that will be done to that relationship if they press ahead. Devolution was intended not to diminish the voice of Wales within the UK, but to amplify it. It was intended to grant greater control over national affairs to the people of Wales via the National Assembly, within the framework of the UK. That framework is delicate, as events in Scotland are displaying only too clearly. All of us who believe that we in the UK are better together should reflect on that, and on the impact on that delicate framework.
Imposing ill-considered and ill-judged changes from Westminster on the National Assembly will only damage it. I am not playing games; I am simply stating the facts. I hope that the Minister has some answers on behalf of his Secretary of State.
Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. In the brief time available to me—some 11 minutes—I will do my best to answer many of the questions posed in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on initiating this debate. He was kind enough to say during his remarks that he had considerable respect for me. I must tell him that as a lawyer, I am always suspicious when told that people have respect for me, because the expression “with great respect” is the greatest insult in the legal profession. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s compliment was, in fact, meant as a back-handed insult to the Secretary of State for Wales, and that insult was echoed by many Opposition Members. Frankly, the personal nature of their criticism does them little credit.
It is important that the facts are set out clearly on the record. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, although we have had the benefit of a one-and-a-half-hour debate today, the Secretary of State had offered to hold a Grand Committee on the issue. The right hon. Gentleman is an important supporter of the Grand Committee system and, had that offer been accepted, we would have had a three-and-a-half-hour debate yesterday morning. For the life of me, I cannot understand why his party’s Front-Bench representatives refused that offer. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was made on short notice, but as he will know there is little time left in this parliamentary term to hold such a debate. I hope that I am not being unfair to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), but I think that, had the right hon. Member for Torfaen been in his position, that offer would have been accepted and we would have had a Grand Committee debate yesterday, led by the Secretary of State, and not the attenuated process that we have gone through today.
The hon. Lady’s personal animosity towards the Secretary of State is well known, so I will not grace her comments with any further response.
This debate is about the Government’s Green Paper on the future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales, but the Labour party appears to spend most of its time agonising about process. Having hacked through that undergrowth of process, its principal complaint seems to be that it is the Assembly, not Parliament, that should be responsible for determining those electoral arrangements. The position, however, is absolutely clear: this Government can only work within the devolution settlement that was put in place by the Government of Wales Act 2006. That Act was implemented by the Labour party, so it is rather rich that its Members are now complaining about the arrangements that they thought perfectly adequate back in 2006. I witnessed the passage of the Bill through Parliament, and I cannot recall any of those Members suggesting at the time that the arrangements should be anything other than those that we are pursuing.
No, I will not, because I have been left very little time by the hon. Member for Pontypridd.
Under the settlement, the Assembly’s electoral arrangements are not a devolved issue, so constitutionally it is entirely proper for Parliament to consider the question. The issue of the First Minister’s conversation with the Prime Minister has been raised. Let me make the position clear for the record: the Prime Minister’s recollection is that, when he met the First Minister at the Broughton aircraft factory, he told him that the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process. He did not say that the matter was to be decided by the Assembly itself. Frankly, it would have been extraordinary if he had done so, because that is not an option under the devolution settlement. As I have said, the notes from the meeting do not reflect the First Minister’s recollection of what was said.
I repeat that this debate is about a Green Paper, in which the Government are asking important questions about the future conduct of Assembly elections and the make-up of the Assembly itself. It is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has pointed out, a consultative document, and the Assembly, the Assembly Government, Opposition Members—in fact, everybody—are not only free but positively encouraged to play into that process. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Torfaen will himself play into it and make submissions to the consultation, which will continue until 13 August.
The Government are seeking to establish whether people think that the Assembly constituency boundaries should reflect the 30 proposed new parliamentary boundaries in Wales, or whether there should remain 40 constituencies, which would have to be of equal, or nearly equal, size. I find it extraordinary when Opposition Members criticise the principle of equality of vote, because it was my understanding that the Labour party—we have been reminded of this by several Opposition Members, most notably the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—considers democracy to be important. It is wrong, according to the values of any democracy, that a vote in the constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth should be worth almost twice the value of a vote in Arfon. What is sauce for the parliamentary goose is sauce for the Assembly gander, and that is precisely what we seek to achieve—fairness and equality within the voting system.
We have made it clear, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has pointed out, that we favour a move to 30 constituencies that are coterminous with parliamentary constituencies, because that would be cleaner and clearer for the people of Wales. Under such a system, they would know which constituency they were casting their vote in, whether it was at a Westminster or an Assembly election. I do not believe that there is anything controversial about that.
This has been an extraordinary debate, because it should have taken place yesterday in Grand Committee, and it should have lasted for three and a half hours, rather than an hour and a half. I must say that it is because of the ineptitude of the shadow Secretary of State in opposing the motion for a Grand Committee when it was made on the Floor of the House that we did not have the debate yesterday. I do not believe that his party’s Back Benchers are idle or cowardly, but that the hon. Gentleman has completely mishandled the process.
It is also extraordinary that Opposition Members appear to be clamouring for a debate on the Floor of the House about a consultation paper. When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was progressing through the House, they clamoured for a Grand Committee on the issue, yet when they were offered a Grand Committee on the Green Paper, they refused it because they wanted a debate on the Floor of the House. This is a question of utter, shambolic inconsistency on the part of Opposition Members in general and the hon. Member for Pontypridd specifically. I realise that he is very new to the job and that he is inexperienced, but it would have been more beneficial to him if he had sought the counsel of the right hon. Members for Torfaen and for Neath (Mr Hain) before he decided, in such a cack-handed manner, to refuse the offer of a debate in Grand Committee.
The Green Paper is an important document. I hope that Opposition Members will play into the process and that the hon. Member for Pontypridd will learn from this experience and exercise a little more caution before shouting, “Object”, on the Floor of the House.
Order. As Members who have just arrived to take part in the next debate will note, we have had a very interesting and lively debate on the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales. We are now going to have an equally interesting and fascinating debate about East Anglia rail. It gives me great pleasure to call the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).
Rail (East Anglia)
Mr Hollobone, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am delighted that many colleagues from our counties are here today. I extend a warm welcome to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who will be alone on her side of the Chamber because East Anglia has not a single Labour Member of Parliament. However, she will be pleased to know that Labour councillors have worked through their district and other councils, local enterprise partnerships, rail passenger groups and MPs to put together a vision, so she should not feel completely alone. I was delighted to be able to send both her and the Minister a copy of the prospectus before today’s debate.
Investing in East Anglia’s rail will benefit local residents and the national economy. Connecting our economic hubs, moving freight on to rail and improving our branch line services, alongside smarter ticketing, new and refurbished trains and better stations, will make a huge difference to people in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. That is why we are all united with the people I mentioned earlier to try to deliver a document, “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia”, which was launched yesterday. I am delighted that many MPs were able to put their name to our proposals.
I know that some colleagues are planning to speak and some are planning to intervene. I will indicate the appropriate point, if that is okay, because I will be referring to some colleagues who are not able to be here today. That will be clearly signalled, and I hope that the signalling is better than that which we experience on the great eastern main line.
In putting the matter into context, if I paint a negative picture, I am afraid that it is, sadly, a true one—poor reliability, cramped commuters, old stock, unsmart ticketing and a poor deal for East Anglian rail passengers, who, with the premium in the last franchise, are net contributors to rail services in the rest of the country. However, I am delighted that we have come together to say that we can have a better service. It is possible and feasible, and there is a genuine commitment to try to ensure that the infrastructure for East Anglia is among the best, so that we can harness the economic benefits and a better quality of life for people.
I have just dashed from a meeting of my Select Committee, in which we were interrogating Broadband Delivery UK and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who has responsibility for broadband. Broadband is another key asset, but better broadband for our counties will not replace the need for people to travel to work and for investors to come out to our communities.
I have mentioned the prospectus already, and I am not planning to regurgitate every single priority in the document. I will try to give an overview and focus on Suffolk.
Some colleagues are not able to attend today—some are ministerial colleagues who approached me to say that unfortunately they have meetings and cannot attend. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), whom I think should be given great credit for trying to pull together, on a long journey—even longer than from my local station at Darsham—the different interests into one compelling vision for our counties and for growth. She has led the way, and she should be thanked for trying to ensure that her constituents will get a better service out of the vision.
Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) is also unable to be here today. He wanted me to stress the importance of the Ely North junction. I am sure the Minister will hear the words “Ely North” many times in today’s debate, as it is a key interchange, not only for residents in Ely and north Cambridgeshire, but for unlocking our freight corridor and services to Cambridge and the other hubs of Norwich and Ipswich. It is also important to an east-west link so that, instead of going via London, commuters can go from Oxford to Cambridge to Norwich, linking three great universities of knowledge and investment.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) cannot be here, sadly, because he is trying to run the national health service, but he has been pressing for greater capacity, a new station in his constituency and the track improvements that are required on the great eastern main line to make a difference for passengers.
My hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) wanted to remind us that we need green transport, enabling green growth in the green enterprise zone shared between Norfolk and Suffolk. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) wanted to remind us about increasing connectivity in the key east-west interchange. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), who is in a Select Committee meeting, has been pivotal in trying to improve investment into Ipswich and surrounding constituencies, including mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is present. My hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who are also in Select Committee meetings, continued to stress, quite rightly, the importance of Manningtree as a commuter station and key attributes such as the investment in the station, but also the important need for accessible platforms.
I will happily welcome interventions from colleagues now.
The hon. Lady is probably thinking, “What is a Northern Ireland Member going to say about East Anglia rail?”, but I would like her to take on board my point. A great number of Army camps are stationed in Norfolk, and service personnel use trains to get from base to camp—one of them reported to me last week that it took an hour and a half extra to get from A to Z. Does the hon. Lady feel that the usage of trains by Army personnel puts a greater onus on rail improvement in the area?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have not considered military travel, although there is an Army regiment in my constituency. However, we should ensure, through our county councils and as Members, that the document—which, although it is a prospectus, is not exhaustive—includes such considerations. I note that the constituency of the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who is present, has a significant Army presence, which is quite close to the railway station, but I am sure that other colleagues whose constituencies have RAF bases, including Marham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and Wattisham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), will want to follow that issue up.
Other Members present are from different counties, so they will talk about specific lines or issues there in more detail. For investors, including in tourism, the issue is capacity to get out of London to our different economic hubs. We should ensure that it is as easy as possible to get on the train to come to some of our beautiful beaches and our cultural highlights in different parts of our counties. Commuting into London is also an issue. There is no doubt, particularly in Essex, that people are fed up of terrible trains, having to stand for a long time and being crammed in. It is not fair on them. There is a two-way process: one thing that we need to do is boost off-peak services through tourism initiatives. LEPs and our county and district councils are keen to ensure more frequent and reliable services.
There is no question but that Cambridge with its research centre and development of capital, Norwich with the knowledge base in its university, especially in life sciences, and Ipswich and surrounding areas and their software development industry, provide a big opportunity for expanding connections between the counties. The risk is that the Government get it that the east of England is already a net contributor to the national economy and, therefore, do not think it needs investment, but we can generate a lot more investment as a consequence of such improvements.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on her speech. For the benefit of the Minister, will she confirm that there has been detailed discussion among hon. Members from across the four counties? We were not united at the start of the journey; we are now united. I hope that I will have an opportunity to expand on that later.
That is a fair point. We have all been united in our vision of wanting better services for our constituents. We may have been less united, in our discussions with Network Rail and LEPs, on what that meant. I would like to think that the intentions of hon. Members across the counties have always been clear. This is not about trying to reduce services for our constituents, but improving them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has not mentioned the pre-eminent city in Cambridgeshire—Peterborough, as opposed to Cambridge. I jest. Does she agree that the great advantage of this prospectus, apart from its ambition, is that it is comprehensive and holistic? It integrates different modes of transport. It is not just a list of discrete transport schemes. There are references to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight corridor, taking the pressure off the A14 and the A11, and traffic movements to Stansted airport, all of which show that the prospectus is ambitious and, in the long run, will be good for the taxpayer as well as the local people in East Anglia.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and reinforces the point that investment in our rail infrastructure could mean that our region, rather than other parts of the country, can be a huge multiplier. The idea that people want to travel up to Lowestoft by car to have a look at investment is ridiculous. Along the east Suffolk line, sitting in a one-carriage train, perhaps after making the connection at Ipswich, is not always the most attractive way to arrive for an investors’ meeting.
For a quicker service on the great eastern main line, we need to speed up the trains. One way to do that is to focus on level crossings. I will refer to this again when I come on to the issue of branch lines, but we need to ensure that there are stretches where trains are unhindered. We also need to open up capacity at Liverpool Street station. Certain things have to happen before any of that can take place. Crossrail will have to be completed, which we hope will happen by 2018. We have to continue the work at Bow Junction to ensure that those lines can be used and that we get those slots. Peak services along the great eastern main line are already at full capacity. Although freight currently runs on the line, it does not do so during peak times. Extra capacity, therefore, is critical.
I do not pretend to be a rail specialist. I do not know the difference between four-tracking, the clever loops that Network Rail is now thinking about, or the extra bit of track that is needed in that stretch near Chelmsford. What I do know, however, is that there are clever brains working on solutions that will mean that we can open up vital capacity. By doing so, we can increase reliability and speed.
What a vision of loveliness my hon. Friend is, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. To cut to the chase, many MPs and many of our constituents believe that, in the past, neither Network Rail nor the franchisees have taken East Anglia seriously. We have the impression that previous franchisees have asset stripped. We have been dumped on with out-of-date rolling stock, and capacity has never been properly considered. The key question is this: is she confident that Network Rail and the new franchisees will take this seriously? If they do not, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Government do not have a priority.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We have to be serious and we need to ensure that the Government are serious, so that when the new tender is put out for 2014, the very exacting standards that we are demanding, exemplified by the prospectus, are delivered. Nothing less than that will be good enough. My hon. Friend mentioned rolling stock, and I agree with him. I will come on to the issue of traveller experience later. Yesterday, some hon. Members were on the same train as me travelling to London Liverpool Street. I am convinced that they are the same trains I used to travel on as a student between Liverpool and London, back in the early ’90s. To simply recycle stock when, on average, our carriages are 25 years old, makes me wonder how old some of our stock actually is.
We have a large number of unstaffed stations. Abellio is the current franchisee. It has a very short franchise, and has made some real improvements. We now have print-at-home and mobile phone ticketing. That might not suit every single passenger, with the demographic of our constituents, but it is a huge step forward. Instead of paying the full price, customers can now print at home or get a neighbour to do it for them. That is a big improvement, and I give credit for that to Abellio.
From the point of view of my constituency, I emphasise the unity behind the proposals. My hon. Friend mentioned bottlenecks. She must agree that unblocking bottlenecks, especially at Ely, is a vital part of the prospectus, not least because increasing the amount of trains to Brandon, with stronger links to Cambridge and Norwich, is vital for its economic future. Therefore, it is not just on the east coast, but throughout East Anglia, that unblocking bottlenecks is critical for our economic future.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Perhaps we should have started a book on how many times Ely North junction was going to be mentioned. I am sure that the Minister will be fully aware, by the end of the debate, of how important Ely North junction is across the county.
On other aspects of reliability, returning to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), Abellio is currently upgrading some locomotives to try and address short-term reliability challenges. There is nothing more frustrating than a lack of reliability. People may be happy with a slower service as long as it is reliable and on time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) alluded to the issue of freight. I represent Felixstowe, which has the largest container port in the UK. Placing more freight on to rail is a key strategic priority. Indeed, it is part of the A14 challenge, which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is leading on behalf of the Department for Transport. We can get more freight on to rail. I am delighted that the Department had already confirmed the funding for the Ipswich north curve, which will mean that instead of trains going into London, they will be able to go straight across Ipswich and on to those lines. In the next franchise, in the longer term, we want to see the electrification of the track, which will improve connectivity, reliability and speed. It is critical for both Felixstowe and Harwich to remove some lorry traffic from the A14. The Ely North junction is key part for further developments up into the midlands. It would make such a difference for quite a small amount of money. To develop both junctions at the same time would make a lot of economic sense. My understanding is that the cost is approximately £41 million. I am a great believer in challenging Network Rail to do work more cheaply. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who feels that Network Rail mentions costs in units of £1 million, whether for a lift, bridge or whatever. With the McNulty review, I am sure better ways will be found to bring those bills down.
I am sure that hon. Members from different counties will refer to their own branch lines. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) has already done so by mentioning Brandon, and the need to ensure that it becomes an inter-county line, not just a humble branch line. I have nine stations in my constituency. In the past year, when the service went up from two-hourly to hourly from Ipswich up to Saxmundham, we saw an increase in the number of passengers. We know that improving services will provide a return to the Government and to rail companies in terms of fares.
I was delighted to work recently with my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney ) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich on pressing the Government for funding for the Beccles loop. I am delighted that £3 million was confirmed a couple of years ago and that Suffolk county council came up with the other £1 million. We broke the ground not too many months ago and work is under way. In December, we will finally have an hourly service. That is compensation for there no longer being any through trains from Lowestoft to London. That sacrifice—made before we became MPs—allows more trains on the line between Ipswich, Colchester and London to increase capacity, preventing a slow diesel train, for example, holding other trains up. My constituents have paid a fairly heavy price until now, but I am sure that we will all be rejoicing in December; it will be a nice Christmas present for rail passengers in my county.
I have already mentioned the Beccles loop. Our county council’s ambition is a loop near Wickham Market station so that more freight can go to Sizewell C during its construction. It is important that we do as much as we can to get lorries carrying freight—construction materials—into the site and removing spoil from it off the mainly single-track roads in Suffolk.
I have already mentioned Felixstowe. I shall mention it again in relation to passengers. The port is keen to move more into freight and is legally obliged to dual the track between Felixstowe and Ipswich. My right hon. Friend the Minister is already aware of this and was kind enough to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and I last week to talk about it. It is crucial that we continue not to reduce passenger services, but to ensure that obligations are kept and that the outcomes for passengers are the same, if not better.
Some colleagues from elsewhere may regard this as a wish list: it is a wish list, but it is a credible one. East Anglia has been the Cinderella of British rail for too long. With a commitment to railways not seen in a century, the coalition Government have the chance to be our Prince Charming, or Princess Charming, depending on legislation next year. I should like the Minister to accept our proposal and let East Anglian passengers travel happily ever after. However, this is no fairy tale; it is a real vision and a tale with a moral. When MPs, councils, businesses and passenger groups come together, we can achieve together, and that matters for passengers, for economic growth and for jobs, which is all great news for our constituents.
East Anglia can provide a huge economic benefit to the country, but we need infrastructure. Broadband is under way and we now need rail to complete the green dream and ensure that East Anglia rail delivers.
If hon. Members would like to resume their seats, let me say that there is a wealth of East Anglian talent before me. The running order, since we are talking about railways, will be Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss, Sir Bob Russell, George Freeman and Daniel Poulter. The wind-ups will start no later than 12.10 pm, so we have about 50 minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this timely and important debate on rail services and infrastructure in the East Anglian region. She has clearly outlined the case for rail investment throughout the region, which is set out in the prospectus, and has given a strong explanation of the reasons for this debate today and the development of the “Once in a generation” prospectus, which was launched yesterday.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members from the region who have come together on a cross-party basis to draw up the document, because every colleague has had an input. This has been a labour of love, involving many stakeholders throughout the region. I put on record my particular gratitude to Chris Starkie of the New Anglia LEP for putting the prospectus together, corralling most of us to work on it and receiving our input.
I pay tribute to all Essex Members of Parliament who contributed to the document, to Alastair Southgate of Essex county council and to representatives from the Essex Rail Users Federation, particularly Derek Monnery and Mark Leslie, who have been stalwart in representing the voices of local consumers. For once, they have taken the voice of Essex on rail to the heart of the Department. They played a big role in overseeing the document—scrutinising many drafts of the prospectus and making strong contributions to ensure that our needs were met. Indeed, the work put into this prospectus and the big vision that it outlines for rail travel in the region has exceeded any previous endeavour. The outcome produced by the LEPs, councils and MPs is a collective effort that we can all be proud of.
The prospectus is ambitious, innovative and sets out comprehensive policies that are grounded in reality and achievable. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister agrees that those policies are all deliverable—the new post-2014 franchise coincides with Network Rail’s control period 5 for investment—including new trains, improved services for all our commuters, better stations and modern facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal has already mentioned many examples of the poor and inadequate facilities for all our commuters. Those have to be dealt with.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for always engaging constructively with many hon. Members, including me, on rail issues. Previous Westminster Hall debates were held in 2010 about the poor services to Essex commuters provided at the time by National Express East Anglia. She understood much of the frustration and dissatisfaction felt by our rail users. Of course, the franchise went to Abellio. I trust that she will continue to show understanding of the problems that our commuters face, and that she will support the measures that hon. Members from the region advocate.
Speaking as an Essex MP, it is in the best interests of Essex, the region and the country for the Government to adopt this prospectus and ensure that Network Rail and the future operator of the post-2014 franchise deliver the measures. First, the prospectus is a robust economic and business case in support of rail improvements. Secondly, it advances proposals that will provide commuters with long-overdue value for money.
There is a compelling economic case for new rail investment in Essex and the Anglia region. Essex is England’s economic growth engine and, as many hon. Members have heard me say before, it is the county of entrepreneurs. Despite the current economic climate, some 6,000 new enterprises a year are set up in Essex, creating jobs, growth and prosperity. These businesses need good rail links, and commuters need punctual, prompt rail services to open up employment opportunities in London as well as across the region.
With an enterprise zone in Harlow set to generate almost 5,000 new jobs, a new business park in Chelmsford, freight and passenger growth at Stansted airport and DP World investing £1.5 billion in creating a world-leading modern deep-sea container port in the London gateway, it is vital that our vibrant, entrepreneurial economy benefits from a modern rail network fit to ensure that the county can achieve its full potential, not just today and tomorrow but in 10, 15 and 20 years.
Let us be in no doubt that if rail improvements are made to support increased freight and passenger capacity, Essex will continue to be the gateway for trade and investment throughout the region and in Europe and the world. However, if our railway infrastructure continues to be overlooked—which is unjustifiable in my view and that of all colleagues—there will be serious consequences not only for the Essex economy but for UK plc. A commitment to investing in railways in Essex and implementing the proposals in the rail prospectus will send out a strong, clear signal to entrepreneurs and investors who come to the county, and Essex will become an even greater place to set up and run a business.
The costs of providing a modern rail service in the regions will be repaid many times over through fares and through the benefits of the extra economic growth that is generated. It is, for want of a better term, a no-brainer. There will be a long-term return on this investment. Increased rail capacity and better services are also needed to support our local population growth. Over the next 20 years alone, it is estimated that the current population of 1.4 million will grow by 14%. To accommodate those new people, who will of course flock to Essex, in the three local planning authorities that cover my constituency the construction of 60,000 new homes is anticipated. Many thousands more homes will be built throughout the county and the region, which will mean more demand for the railways. Moreover, more people are already using the railways. In the Braintree district alone, last year there were 4.2 million passenger journeys, which represented a rise of more than 130,000 on the previous year. More than half of those journeys—almost 2.2 million in total—came from Witham station in the heart of my constituency.
After years of poor service and under-investment for all commuters, many of whom are paying between £4,000 and £5,000 a year to commute into London, people deserve to start seeing some of that money put back into their infrastructure and service. Commuters currently feel as though they are being used as cash cows, with little coming back in return, although their fares have made the Greater Anglia franchise one of the most valuable and profitable, for train operators and the Government. We are pleading for something to be given back to our commuters. In 2010-11, the last year for which figures are available, the Office of Rail Regulation confirmed that the franchise raised £108.9 million for the Treasury, as commuters travelled almost 4 billion passenger kilometres. Despite all that money going in, however, our commuters have faced miserable journeys and an appalling customer experience, in particular in years such as 2010 and 2009. When National Express East Anglia ran the franchise, the customer experience was terrible and, according to the correspondence we were all receiving, customer satisfaction was at a low. In one study, 62% of passengers revealed that they arrived in London on time while only 48% travelling from London did so. In addition, the overcrowded conditions were horrendous, and they remain so because more and more people are using the service.
I am optimistic that Abellio can make some improvements during its current, short, two-year franchise. It has also been able to press Network Rail again on many of the delays, which is positive. We cannot, however, continue to tinker at the edges, with this sticking-plaster approach. It is all about investment and long-term future-proofing, which is why the implementation of the rail prospectus for East Anglia is so important to commuters in the region.
The prospectus gives all our commuters genuine hope and optimism. It demonstrates a commitment to give them, finally, the 21st-century rail services that they deserve and, to be frank, that they have been paying through the roof for. I urge the Minister to study the prospectus closely and to engage with us all. I know that she will; she is highly accommodating and has been constructive in all our dialogues so far. In my view, the costs will be relatively modest while the benefits will revolutionise our region, travel for commuters and businesses, and the whole economy. It will be worth it for us all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate. It was tremendous when we all met yesterday at Liverpool Street station—commuters saw the swarm of East Anglian MPs launching the manifesto that we had put together. This is the first time that all of the MPs from East Anglia have agreed on a common platform from which to make progress, which is highly important and significant.
I cannot compete with my hon. Friend, who has nine stations in her constituency. I represent only five, although they are five important stations: Watlington and Downham Market on the Fen line; and Brandon, Thetford and Harling Road on the Norwich to Cambridge line. Those stations are incredibly popular and, over the past four years, we have seen a rise in passenger numbers of 20% at both Thetford and Downham Market, which outstrips the national rise. The reason is the strong growth in employment in Cambridge and throughout the region—Norfolk has bucked the trend in manufacturing, and we are also doing well in the food and farming industries—so we see a growing number of people using the train to get to and from work.
Having used the services many a time, I can testify that the carriages are getting more and more packed, in particular at peak hours, going both ways; an interesting thing about the Fen line is that it has almost as many people travelling out of London as into London, so the route is well balanced. That is only the start of what we are about to see, with massive growth in population throughout Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. We will see another 200,000 homes by 2021, so it is vital to have the rail services to deal with that increased capacity, because by then the congestion in our region will cost the economy an estimated £1 billion.
At the moment on those lines, we have hourly services, with a few additional services in peak hours, and that simply is not enough with the increased employment, housing and growth in the area. With my fellow local MPs, I have been calling for half-hourly services. The current work that we are doing to understand the effect of improvements to the Ely North junction indicates that investment in it would have a positive net present value of £260 million to our local economy, which is huge.
The Ely North junction is becoming famous in debates on East Anglian rail. It is a small area from which tracks were removed in the early 1980s, making it only a single-track junction. I recently visited it with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). Sadly, due to health and safety reasons, we were not allowed to walk along the tracks to see the junction, but we made do with kneeling at the level crossing, such was our commitment to see the junction improved, and driving around the Ely area, which is in neither of our constituencies. We wanted to visit to ensure that we understood the logistics.
To upgrade the junction would be a relatively low-cost endeavour, but the effect would be felt on a vast number of lines; my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal spoke about freight services but, likewise, journeys to Ipswich, Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Norwich would all be improved. The critical importance of the junction came to light in May last year when I had a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) and Network Rail. That key bottleneck was identified as what stood between us and getting a half-hourly service.
There are other issues on the line, such as the single track between Littleport and Downham Market, which often causes delays; likewise, a lot of level crossings ought to be dealt with by Network Rail. In the short term, however, opening up the Ely North junction would make half-hourly services possible on the line. In December 2011 my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) organised a rail summit, at which the issue was highlighted. We had a further summit in January, specifically to discuss the junction.
My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Norfolk and for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) also held a meeting with the Transport Secretary in May. She very much agreed that we needed to see expenditure evened out across the country. She understands, as we do, that for a long time East Anglia has paid into the pot while other parts of the country have taken out of it. Given the economic potential in our area, that is damaging not only for local passengers and commuters but for the economic growth potential of the country as a whole.
One of the sectors of the economy that has not been mentioned yet but is incredibly important to Norwich is the retail sector. It is worth more than £1 billion every year, and one of the biggest complaints that I receive from shoppers is lack of parking. Does my hon. Friend agree that encouraging more shoppers to use rail, which we can do by improving the service, will unleash the current block on growing the retail sector of the economy, so ensuring that Norwich will continue to be one of the UK’s top 10 retail destinations?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is also huge tourism potential in the region. Along the Norwich-Cambridge line, stations such as Thetford and Brandon could provide a good base for tourism in the Brecks if services were more frequent. People could also go shopping in Norwich when visiting the area.
At the moment, not only do we have unprecedented agreement among MPs of the region but we have a golden opportunity, with the Thameslink franchise coming up in 2013 and the Greater Anglia franchise coming up in 2013, to ensure that we specify the services we want. I encourage the Minister to ensure that half-hourly services are specified in both franchises. Demand exists from passengers, and the train operating companies have the ability to deliver, but it would be helpful to have a resolution from the Department for Transport that it will ask for that level of service, which our local commuters need, so that we have real value.
The other concern that I want to raise is intercity express programme trains, which were scheduled to go to King’s Lynn as part of the Thameslink franchise. Is that still the case, and can the Minister guarantee that we will see the new rolling stock on the line; that if we are successful in securing a half-hourly service we will not have a shuttle service from Cambridge to King’s Lynn, and that direct services to London will continue? Direct services are important for many local residents who either commute to London, or must travel there for business reasons. I would like answers to those specific points, but I am encouraged by the level of engagement of the Department. I hope that that will bring to an end years of under-investment in East Anglian rail, and that we are about to see a new golden era for our transportation. This is a huge opportunity to support a growing part of the country, and I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for this debate.
I declare an interest because of my rail ticket from Colchester to London. I believe that Colchester is the sixth busiest commuter station in the home counties, so I have more than a passing interest in the matter. I think my constituents who are commuters would say that at the moment they are not receiving value for money.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate, and on all her hard work. I endorse every word that my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said, with her pan-Essex approach to the driving force of the economy in the east of England.
I would like the Minister fully to appreciate how unanimous MPs from the east of England are. I stress that because a lot of hard work has been done. When the journey started, not everyone was on board, and I plead guilty to being one of those who kicked up a fuss. One of the weaknesses and strengths of the new Anglia local enterprise partnership is that it is concentrated on Suffolk and Norfolk. It does an excellent job, but in my opinion the initial prospectus was silent on Essex. Others disagreed, and thought that the silence was covered, but I did not think it was. The prospectus now is fully focused on the whole of the great eastern main line from Norwich to London through the three counties. The guarantee in the prospectus is that there will be no reduction in the frequency of inter-city trains stopping at Colchester. I leave other MPs with stations in their constituencies to make their case.
There is a feeling in north Essex, of which Colchester is the obvious capital, that we are a neglected part of the county, because we are not in the new Anglia LEP. We are in the same LEP as Kent and East Sussex. In north Essex, we barely acknowledge Southend, let alone Kent and the outer reaches of Brighton. It is a credit to those who drew up the final prospectus that they widened their horizons beyond Suffolk and Norfolk, and recognised that we are all in this together—to coin a phrase. I regard myself as East Anglian before Essex, being only 5 miles from the Suffolk border. I urge the Minister to appreciate that, as we heard from previous speakers, we are East Anglia-orientated, not south Essex and not London. We are East Anglian in culture. I am delighted that the new Anglia LEP is adopting us, because we will get a better deal from the new LEP than we got from whatever the name is of the one we are in. We are a neglected corner.
I appreciate that others want to speak, so I shall be brief. I endorse the comments of the three previous speakers, but I want to put on the record that the guarantee in the prospectus of no reduction in the frequency of inter-city trains is important. We all have wish lists, and I also want to put on the record my four domestic wishes. I would very much like a direct service from Colchester to Cambridge via Ipswich; we must acknowledge that Cambridge is the central place in the six counties of east England. I would very much like a Sudbury to Colchester Town direct service. I do not have five or nine stations in my tight, urban constituency, but I have three. I would also like direct services from Colchester Town to London. That is not impossible, and additional capacity and the speeding up of services that others have mentioned is necessary. Finally, we are approaching the summer season, and I would like, if possible, Sunday services to the Essex coast from Colchester Town and my third station, Colchester Hythe.
I thank everyone involved in the issue and, to emphasise the point for the Minister, I repeat that this is the unanimous voice of East Anglia.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I add my voice to those congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on our behalf. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) on leading the choreography to pull us all together, which is no easy task. I add my name to those of hon. Members who mentioned the local enterprise partnership, Abellio and Network Rail, who have all worked closely with us to make sure that the document has their active support and their approval of the measures within it as realistic. Jonathan Denby of Abellio has been a powerful force in helping to shape and drive the matter.
The prospectus sets out an ambitious, long-term vision for the East Anglian rail network. First and foremost, for far too long, commuters have had to put up with unacceptable under-investment in a network that they have paid for many times over. I want to focus on the importance of the East Anglia rail network in underpinning our modern economy.
Before coming to Parliament, I spent 15 years in East Anglia helping to build, finance and manage fast-growth science and technology businesses around Cambridge and Norwich. I know well and can testify to the growth potential in the area to which other hon. Members have referred, and which the Government are recognising in a number of their initiatives for an innovation-led recovery. They have powerfully—rightly in my view—set out the need for us to adopt a different model of economic growth and development in the light of the crisis that we inherited. It is a more balanced model of development driven much more from the regions and by business with finance following business growth, and without everyone having to commute to London to feed the banking machine, which is free to support and grow real businesses around the country, particularly drawing on our skills in the knowledge economy, whether life sciences, the digital economy, clean energy, food, nutrition or agriculture.
As hon. Members know, no region is better equipped than East Anglia to grab that opportunity, and to lead a new model of economic growth. Since the war—for far too long—East Anglia has been treated, seemingly, by successive Administrations as an area that can be taken for granted and from which people will commute to London, however poor the investment. Alternatively, it is seen as something of a rural backwater for retirees and house dumping when London targets need to be accommodated.
The area is ready to rise and do something more for this country. It is building great businesses across the board, but it cannot do that without infrastructure. That is why a coalition of Norfolk MPs, and those from across East Anglia more widely, are coming to the Government with a central message: we do not want a handout; give us a way in and a way out and we will deliver sustainable growth.
Fast modern rail is crucial to modern economies around the world for a number of reasons. We live in a global economy, and every start-up business in our area needs to think globally. Fast rail is a crucial link to our airports at Stansted and Norwich, as well as other London hubs, and it is crucial if we are to link the City of London’s world-class financial expertise to businesses in those clusters. In life sciences, for example—my area of expertise—if we do not link better Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich to London, so that people can fly in from around the world to visit companies, scientists and investors in these areas, we will not unlock our full potential. I like to think that in due course, our Cambridge-Norwich line might be part of a wider emphasis on a Oxford-Cambridge-Norwich railway that links the life sciences.
As we heard in an eloquent speech from my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the cost of the gridlock that is East Anglia on an average morning or evening comes to £1 billion a year. People are sitting in cars and trains going nowhere in an area that has a lot more to offer.
Finally, Cambridge sits at the heart of the region that has the potential to drive global growth. As I know well because I was working there at the time, perhaps the most powerful thing that happened to unlock Cambridge’s growth—described eloquently as the “Cambridge phenomenon”—was the improvement of fast rail links to London, and principally the two hourly non-stop service. It became known as the “VC Express” or the “Cambridge Flyer”, and it dramatically shortened not only travel times, but cultural perceptions of the distance between Cambridge and London. Investors in London started jumping on the train and popping up to Cambridge for a morning to meet and view interesting companies. That is not happening at the moment in Ipswich, Norwich and other areas, but it could.
As we have heard, our region has been woefully neglected over the years. It was heartening to hear the Minister and the Secretary of State recognise at the highest level the need to balance rail expenditure between areas and tackle regional discrimination. It has also been recognised that the area is a net contributor to the Treasury, and with infrastructure we could deliver growth and sustainable development.
I would like to put down a marker. If the Government are thinking about pilot schemes for integrating the train operating companies with Network Rail to drive new models of more integrated planning, as we mention in the prospectus, we would like East Anglia to be considered for any such initiative.
We will not build a high-quality economy and attract and retain world-class talent if we allow our area to become a giant housing estate, with commuters condemned to traffic and gridlock. That is especially important to residents in my constituency of Mid Norfolk which sits, as the Minister may know, between Cambridge and Thetford on the Cambridge to Norwich line. Average incomes in my constituency are below £20,000—well below the national average. It is a very rural area that some might describe as something of a backwater in terms of national communications. It sits in the middle of the only county that is not yet connected to the national trunk road system, but it is zoned for massive housing growth, particularly in Wymondham and Attleborough, as well as further down the Cambridge-Norwich line in Thetford and Brandon.
The towns of Wymondham and Attleborough are happy to grow, but they want infrastructure so that growth is sustainable and will not be allowed to damage and undermine their quality of life. The railway sits at the heart of that challenge. If we simply build houses, and plan on the basis that everybody will drive, the morning after our beloved A11 is opened in its newly dualled state, it will quickly become a car park. The A11 needs to be the artery of East Anglia, but that will require more people in new homes to jump on the train to Cambridge, Norwich, Thetford or Ely in the morning.
The Minister will not be surprised that I mention the Ely North junction. It is the key bottleneck in plans to unlock the Cambridge-Norwich railway that was reopened less than a decade ago. The plans have strong cross-party support, but the junction is a bottleneck on the Cambridge-Norwich line, the Fen line and the freight line. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State have been at pains to listen to the problem, and we are grateful for the time and trouble that they have taken. The Minister’s support on this issue has been crucial, and we hugely look forward to her reply.
Many key points have already been touched on, and we have heard a lot from hon. Members about the historical under-investment in the East Anglian rail network. We heard in a well articulated speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) that although fares continue to increase, the reliability of the service continues to be a problem, and there has been consistently poor value for money for passengers who use the line.
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) rightly highlighted the fact that if we want a first-class business environment in the east of England and East Anglia, we need first-class infrastructure. We are pleased with the strong Government support for investment in high-speed broadband in rural areas in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and other counties, but a key part of a first-rate business infrastructure involves a first-class railway. That is important for agriculture, life sciences, retail and the tourism industry, which is growing throughout our region. It is also vital for every passenger who uses the railways in East Anglia on a daily—or in some cases weekly—basis; we have seen a growing number of passengers throughout our region.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I, too, congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate. I want briefly to highlight three key issues. We can all talk about important stations and branch lines in our constituencies. I have one station in my constituency—Westerfield—but I will not talk about it today. That does not mean that the station and those who use it are not important, but we need to highlight the key considerations. Improving the great eastern main line will benefit every branch line and station that comes off it. The Government have already listened to that key message, and we are grateful.
Commuters have suffered from lack of reliability on the service. My constituents who use the railways in East Anglia tell me that if they could have one thing, it would be a more reliable service that does not break down but ensures that people get to where they are going on time. That is vital for businesses and for each and every passenger on a daily basis. The lack of reliability of railways in East Anglia has undermined the service that they provide to their passengers. At the heart of the prospectus launched this week is a request that before we see increases in speed, reliability of the service must be the priority.
A key part of improving reliability involves improving capacity, and the prospectus rightly outlines the need for additional track capacity, particularly on the great eastern main line. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) highlighted earlier in the debate, we must ensure that businesses are supported correctly and that more track capacity is freed up on the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight rail link, which is an important part of this debate. As the prospectus highlighted, if we want to support businesses in East Anglia, a first-class rail link between the midlands—one of the manufacturing engine rooms of the British economy—and Felixstowe, which takes 46% of the UK’s container traffic, is vital.
Furthermore, in terms of the passenger arguments that we are advocating today and the increased reliability of service, it is not desirable for freight to travel from the midlands into London and then back out, as happens at the moment. That slows down the passage of freight and is bad for business, but it also clogs up passenger capacity on the lines, which would be much better used to support improved reliability—a more reliable passenger service. Therefore, a key part of the rail prospectus is about ensuring not just that business is supported through the Felixstowe-Nuneaton freight rail link, but that there is recognition of the importance of that link to the passenger service. I am talking about the freeing up of passenger capacity on the rest of the rail network in East Anglia and particularly on the great eastern main line.
The primary issues are reliability of service and capacity, but it is also desirable to increase, where possible, the speed of service. However, we will get a faster service only if we deal with reliability and capacity as the first priorities. Reliability and capacity improvements will of course lead to greater train speed. If we want to achieve Norwich in 90, Ipswich in 60 and all the other key considerations, the only way we can do so is by focusing on reliability and capacity of service.
All the MPs present at the debate are very grateful for the support that the Department has given us in our fight for improved rail services in our own constituencies, but all of us are also aware that the issue is much bigger than any individual station or branch line. It is about improving the overall reliability and capacity of the service in East Anglia, with a focus—a laudable focus—on the great eastern main line as the primary driver for delivering that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for her support for all that we have been doing. I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for securing the debate. I look forward to the Minister’s supportive comments when she responds to it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the launch that took place yesterday at Liverpool Street station showed the sense of purpose of all the MPs of East Anglia in putting their names to a new manifesto, and does he think that that should be taken very seriously by the Department for Transport when it is considering our overall national transport strategy?
I agree. My hon. Friend will know and I am sure that you, Mr Bone, will know very well that that sense of purpose is unusual in the east of England. When first the railway was driven up to Norwich, the good people of Norwich tried very hard to ensure that it did not go through Ipswich. They preferred a route that went via Cambridge. In the end, they got something approaching both. At that time, the town and the city were at war with each other for the privilege of having the railway. Happily, sense prevailed, but such was the animosity during that period—there is a serious point to this—that the quality of the infrastructure laid down suffered; investment was not forthcoming because there was no political direction to facilitate the backing required. That is why only two lines go between Chelmsford and Ipswich and then from Ipswich to Norwich. The result of that and the rather substandard nature of the track itself in places is that it has never fulfilled the desires and wishes even of the Victorian builders. We have constantly had to catch up since in terms of infrastructure improvements.
We start, therefore, from the position of having a poor railway in our region. It has had running repairs and second-hand rolling stock at every point; it has never had new rolling stock, apart from at its inception in the 1830s and 1840s. That is why all of us coming together as Members of Parliament, county councils, borough councils and local enterprise partnerships across the region is so important. We have established that sense of purpose with a view to obtaining what is a rather modest amount of investment compared with other infrastructure projects across the country.
I impress on my right hon. Friend the Minister both our unity and the fact that what we are asking for is very small compared with the release of economic growth and the possibilities for jobs and prosperity that the investment would give our region. I was not here earlier in the debate, but I am sure that the issue has been brought up. All of us have a vision not just for the railway, but for our region as a whole. It should be the California of Europe. It has a knowledge base that is certainly comparable with that in California, if not greater. It is a place where people want to live; it is a very attractive place in which to live and work. It is also close to the largest finance centre in the world. There is no reason at all why the eastern region should not achieve double-digit growth.
The reason why we are so keen to see that growth is that it will unlock potential for our constituents, especially those in certain areas. In our region—you, Mr Bone, will see this in your own constituency—there are significant pockets of severe deprivation, some of which are in my constituency. If we are to offer the people living there the opportunities that the Government are keen to extend to larger areas of deprivation in London and the north and in the nations of Scotland and Wales, we should also consider areas that may be smaller but suffer from similar levels of deprivation and require the assistance that the Government can provide in terms of investment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as the importance of the commuter lines down to London, the regional links, not least between Ipswich, Cambridge and Norwich, are very important? We could combine Cambridge’s bioscience and digital and Norwich’s agricultural science, cleantech and food and medical science with Ipswich’s wonderful West Suffolk college and the Martlesham BT digital centre of excellence. If we put those together, we would build a very powerful triangle of innovation, to the benefit of all the villages and towns in the area.
I entirely agree. It is remarkable—a wonder—to see what has been achieved in Cambridge. It is remarkable also to see what is happening in Norwich—20 years of life science investment and innovation coming right. That is why it is so exciting to see some of the incipient projects in Ipswich. I was at University Campus Suffolk a few weeks ago to hear about some of the joint research projects that it is undertaking with significant universities around the country. It is a brand-new university—the youngest in the country—and it is already doing exciting advanced research. Some of the research, as my hon. Friend will know, involves geriatric science and the life sciences connected with that.
In Ipswich, there is an incipient life sciences industry, based around the largest software research centre in the country—Martlesham, just outside Ipswich, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Together with a very significantly growing food and drink sector and a large tourism sector in the county as a whole, it should contribute to remarkable growth, which could be released to the UK economy. East Anglia is already one of only two regions that are net contributors to the UK economy. Its contribution could be made even more significant.
We hope soon to get the Cambridge Flyer extended to King’s Lynn and Norwich. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there was a train like the Cambridge Flyer to Ipswich—the Ipswich Flyer—it would help to drive growth in a similar way to what we have seen in Cambridge?
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Bone. I am glad that I have no more than a minute left to contribute to the debate.
I will make one final point because I agree with every point my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) made. It is important that the line from Ipswich should benefit towns nearby, such as Colchester, and continue across the east-west link, from Cambridge to Bedford and thence to Oxford, creating an arc of knowledge across the country.
The Minister knows that travellers in East Anglia pay some of highest premiums in the railway industry. That money goes out of the region to subsidise loss-making lines elsewhere. We need to retain some of that money to invest in our area. It is only right that our constituents— not only the fortunate and well-off, but those who lack opportunities—can retain a bit more of that investment in our area, so that we can improve our rail links and make the contribution to our local, national and European economy that we aspire to make.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am sorry that Mr Hollobone had to leave, because I know that we share a particular interest in rail investment.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate and co-ordinating it so well with the publication of “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia”. She made an eloquent case on behalf of her constituents and the wider region. There may be competition for the title of the Cinderella of the railways—I am thinking of my midland main line—but the importance of improving Ely North junction has been put across strongly today.
The prospectus is a substantial document that presents strong arguments for future transport investment in East Anglia. I congratulate those involved in producing it. The east of England needs and deserves better transport links, particularly given the anticipated population growth, which hon. Members described. As a shadow Transport Minister, I welcome the prospectus’s publication, and I hope that it receives a sympathetic hearing within the Department for Transport. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As many have said, the east of England is a net contributor to the Treasury, and better transport links could enhance that contribution. The prospectus reveals the patchwork of provision across East Anglia. Too many lines suffer restrictions on capacity, with passenger numbers on the west Anglia route alone expected to increase by 42% by 2021, leaving 59% of trains overcrowded. With the Government set to allow fares to increase by up to 11% next year, passengers expect and deserve better. As the hon. Members for Suffolk Coastal and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) rightly said, improving links to Felixstowe is vital for the expansion of rail freight, and to reduce congestion on the roads, cut carbon emissions and free up extra capacity for passenger services.
The proposals set out today would strengthen East Anglia’s vital economic links to London, but the document’s ambition does not stop there. The previous Government undertook improvements to lines and stations between Oxford and Cambridge, and the prospect of a reopened and revitalised varsity line is worth looking at in detail. The prospectus also presents a strong case for looking at modernisation of stock and track, including electrification, in East Anglia.
There is a compelling case for investment that meets local need and supports wider economic growth. The hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel) and for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) made a strong case on behalf of Essex and its potential for generating jobs through inward investment and business expansion. The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) set out clearly how Norfolk and East Anglia can contribute to sustainable growth if properly linked to key centres, including the City of London. Perhaps next time I am on a windy Norfolk beach, I will try to remember that East Anglia is the California of Europe. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) made an important point about the development of high-tech industries in that part of the country, particularly around Cambridge.
I agree that better infrastructure is needed to drive up passenger satisfaction rates, which are the lowest in the country. Unfortunately, I am concerned that Government policy may end up holding the proposals back. Labour Members have supported £528 million of efficiency savings in rail, but the Government have pushed ahead with a further £759 million cut to capital spending.
Labour took action in government, and I am happy to say that transport spending in the eastern region increased in real terms during our time in power. In our last year in office, it stood at £1.494 billion, but I do not deny that a new approach is needed. That is why I will set out our proposals for a real devolution programme with transparent and fair regional funding. Unlike the Government’s proposals on devolution, ours include democratic accountability.
The prospectus makes a powerful case for investment in East Anglia’s rail network, but Government cuts have made it less likely that the funding will be found.
It is simply not true that the Government are slashing spending on our railways. We have embarked on the biggest programme of capacity expansion in the rail network since the Victorian era. The hon. Lady should get her facts right.
I am sorry that the Minister felt the need to spell that out, because she is wrong. She is cutting money from planned rail investment, and there will be an impact when hon. Members seek investment. I look forward to hearing what she has to say on the high-level output specification and what it means for not only East Anglia, but other parts of the country.
The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal has said that she was reassured that
“it is not on the Government’s Agenda to reduce passenger rail services.”
She will surely hope, therefore, that the Government do not follow the model they adopted when they issued the west coast invitation to tender. The document allowed bidders to reduce daily stops at stations by up to 10%. Any reduction in service would be compounded by the McNulty report’s ticket office closures in the counties represented here today. Colchester Town in Essex, Thetford in Norfolk, and Whittlesford Parkway in Cambridgeshire, to give just a few examples, all face having their staff withdrawn. I am sure that the hon. Lady, having secured the debate, will also put pressure on her Government to ensure that existing services in East Anglia are protected. [Interruption.]
Passengers are already feeling the pinch. Services are overcrowded, and the Government have decided to increase fares by 3% above the retail prices index for the remainder of the Parliament. They have also given train operating companies the freedom to average out the rise, leading to fare rises of up to 11% next January. When personal and family budgets are under great pressure, with some commuters paying as much as £4,000 or £5,000 for their annual travel, the Government should be on the side of East Anglia’s commuters, not vested interests in the rail industry. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Bone.
It is regrettable that the Government have added to the uncertainty about the future of East Anglia’s rail network. When National Express ceased to operate East Anglia rail earlier this year, the Government should have entrusted the franchise to public ownership through Directly Operated Railways, thereby providing stability in the run up to the Olympics. A two-year private tender with no long-term security or incentive for investment was not the solution East Anglia needed.
The Government’s tendering process in East Anglia also raises questions about their commitment to devolution. It is clear from the prospectus, and hon. Members’ contributions today, that there is local appetite for greater involvement in guiding infrastructure spending and delivery in East Anglia. We, in Labour, wish to promote that spirit by working more closely with local authorities to deliver a better transport system. The Government have already entered into negotiations with transport authorities in the north of England on potentially devolving responsibility for railway operations in that region. Why not do the same in East Anglia?
I urge the Government to listen to the calls in the prospectus to strengthen transport links to Stansted airport. Half of all passengers arrive at Stansted by public transport—the highest proportion for any major airport in the UK. Better transport links could help to relieve airport capacity constraints in Greater London without the environmental costs associated with other proposals. The Government are locked in distracting internal arguments on Heathrow expansion and fantasy islands in the middle of the Thames, but would it not be better to listen to those arguments instead?
In conclusion, I welcome the publication of the document and the spirit in which it was compiled. We want closer working between local authorities and other representatives, and we would back them with genuine devolved powers over transport spending. Discussions with the Department for Transport must now begin. There are many other worthy projects to consider at a time when capital budgets have been cut too far and too fast. Nevertheless, the report’s authors must be commended for the case that they have made on behalf of East Anglia, and I wish them all the best in their endeavours.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate and providing a timely and valuable opportunity to discuss the future of rail services in East Anglia. I take on board the points that many of my hon. Friends made about the unity behind the prospectus that was published yesterday. I am well aware that regional rivalries go back to before the time when Boudiccan hordes burned down Colchester, so it is no mean feat to unite Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, and the whole of East Anglia.
We fully recognise the importance of good transport links in East Anglia; that is why the vital dualling of the A11 got the go-ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and others were right to highlight the importance of housing growth and the provision of infrastructure to support it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), with his characteristic insight, analysed the economic benefits of transport improvements and the potential for expanding life sciences in East Anglia. Like everyone else on the coalition side of the House, I acknowledge the importance of getting the cost of running the railways down, so that we can take the pressure off fares and respond to the kinds of points that have been made by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel).
Punctuality and reliability, which are obviously crucial, were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Suffolk Coastal, for Witham, for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). The period of poor service that came about with the start of the franchise was very unfortunate. Abellio has apologised to its customers. I am hopeful that lessons have been learned. Performance has improved significantly since a problematic start. I welcome the collaborative work that is now under way between Abellio and Network Rail, with a view to improving infrastructure performance and ensuring that possessions are managed more efficiently.
The resilience and reliability of the infrastructure remains a concern. I have no doubt that the rail regulator will continue to scrutinise Network Rail’s record and press for improvement. Network Rail is, however, working hard to address the problems, with a major renewal of the overhead line equipment, which has been one of the greatest sources of vulnerability over recent years. The Government are also taking action to crack down on cable theft, which Network Rail highlighted for me as a key problem for the reliability of the network.
Improvements are on the way. Parts of the east of England will benefit from Thameslink. Others, in Essex, will benefit from Crossrail, as we have heard. The work on Beccles loop is happening, thanks partly to support from Suffolk county council. I recognise the aspirations for progress on the western section of East West Rail, and the possibility of a future link between Cambridge and Oxford. Of course, progress is being made on the central section, which we hope will provide momentum for further progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich on the crucial importance of upgrading freight connections, particularly between Felixstowe and Nuneaton, to ensure that we relieve pressure on the roads by providing an attractive freight alternative on the rails. The Government are committed to continuing to invest in improving our railway’s capacity to take freight.
The extent to which we can fulfil all the aspirations that have been talked about today, and to which we can achieve goals of the kind set out in the prospectus, will depend on the funds available, and, of course, a careful assessment of competing priorities around the country. I got the message loudly and clearly—
Thank you for that steer, Mr Bone.
Later this month, we will publish our high-level output specification, to cover what we want the rail industry to deliver in the 2014-to-2019 period. Some of the larger headline schemes are likely to be directly mentioned in the statement, but most of the projects needed to deliver the general outputs that we will set in that statement will not be explicitly listed, so the July statement will not have all the answers on exactly how the benefits of rail improvements will be shared around the country. It will be followed by an industry process to decide which upgrades are needed to deliver the specified outputs, overseen by the Office of Rail Regulation. I assure hon. Members that careful consideration will be given to the points made about the Ely North junction and other improvements today. I should mention that this HLOS statement, like the last one, is likely to contain certain general funding pots that are to be made available over the five-year period, which could be used to support various different schemes around the country, including in East Anglia.
The forthcoming long franchise for Greater Anglia will be important in answering the questions we have heard today. We are granting a longer, more flexible franchise, because we believe that that will give the train operator a stronger incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want, including better trains and stations. We expect the next Greater Anglia franchise to start in the summer of 2014, and to last for up to 15 years. Our reforms to franchising put passenger satisfaction and service quality at the heart of the outputs that we require train operators to deliver. We will work closely with bidders and Network Rail to see how we can maximise the opportunity to integrate decision making more effectively between track and train management—that is another aspiration in the prospectus—and we will also require the next franchisee to introduce ITSO smart ticketing across the franchise.
Will the Minister reflect on a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo)—that in essence rail travel has not really changed for the past 50 years? The long franchise gives a tenderer a fantastic opportunity to have a rethink about passengers and how the railway experience works, and to do some innovative things. That can be managed only in the 15-year context that the Government are setting.
I agree that a long franchise can give many more opportunities for a train operator to innovate, and for us to draw private sector investment into the railways.
We will launch a public consultation on the next Greater Anglia franchise later this year. A detailed business case will be developed, and, drawing on the results of the consultation, we are likely to appraise a range of improvement options. As to what goes into the franchise, I emphasise that we have no plans to remove daytime passenger services from the Felixstowe branch line, which was a matter of importance to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. Although Hutchison Ports has proposed the change, it has an obligation under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to fund the required infrastructure upgrades.
We have heard many other aspirations: there are the half-hourly services called for by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk, and the specific service changes called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). Decisions on those will be made only after the consultation has taken place, but I shall ensure that this debate is fed into the process.
I am afraid I do not have time; I have only a couple of minutes left.
As for aspirations such as “Norwich in 90”—a campaign for that has been led by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith)—it is too early to say what the franchise will specify for the train service between London and Norwich. However, in making such decisions we will need to take into account the interests of all the communities on the line, and those who live in intermediate destinations such as Chelmsford and Colchester. Whatever train service we adopt, we shall encourage bidders to put together affordable proposals for improved journey times and a better customer experience.
We did some work on options for Norwich to London before letting the short franchise, and that suggested that spending about £10 million to £15 million on new locomotives and refurbishing existing passenger vehicles would make it possible to save about seven minutes on most trains, and that could be funded in a 15-year franchise from additional revenue. However, that is just one option. We hope that franchise bidders will devise alternative plans that either cost less or produce greater benefits for passengers.
One factor, of course, that bidders will have to take into account is the requirement to make modifications to rolling stock by 2020, to provide proper access for people with reduced mobility. In response to all hon. Members who talked about the state of the rolling stock—some of it is fairly elderly—let me say that there will be changes over the next few years because of the deadline. The decision on whether that will involve targeted improvements, full refurbishment, new rolling stock or a combination of all three lies in the future, but change will have to be made. In the meantime, Abellio is pressing ahead with a deep clean of rolling stock.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Before the debate had even started, I had already benefited from your advice and wisdom. Thank you. I am also grateful for the opportunity to address the Minister and to discuss police funding in Surrey.
Few issues are of greater importance to people throughout the country than ensuring that their local police force has the resources that it needs. The residents of Esher and Walton, and indeed of the county of Surrey, are no exception. Surrey’s front-line police officers do a first-rate job. I commend the dedication and commitment that they bring to keeping our communities safe. We are also blessed with a top-notch chief constable.
I want to say at the outset that I support the Government’s drive to promote efficiency and reform in the police service, which is in the interests of both law enforcement and the taxpayer. I commend the Minister for his pioneering efforts in that regard. In the current financial climate, all parts of the public sector must do their bit to deliver maximum value for money, and the police cannot be immune.
However, I have concerns about the current consultation on changing or removing the damping mechanism for police funding. The damping mechanism is a critical safeguard for forces such as Surrey, which lose out disproportionately under the central funding formula. In particular, the mitigation provided by the damping mechanism ensures that Surrey police enjoy the same level of increase or decrease in funding as other forces.
Neither Surrey police, Surrey police authority nor I object in principle to a review of the damping mechanism, but logically and fairly, it ought to be part of the wider review of police funding that the Government have pledged to carry out before the next comprehensive spending review. If the anomalies in the current funding formula could be ironed out to create a truly needs-based, fair system, damping could be phased out, but the current consultation, which focuses on the future of the damping mechanism from 2013-14 onwards, risks leaving Surrey financially high and dry through no fault of its own. That cannot be right.
Is it not the case that Surrey taxpayers pay some of the highest taxes into our national Exchequer, yet we also end up paying some of the highest precepts? It is not because Surrey police are not efficient; they are. Surely that cannot be fair.
I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. As someone who worked in local government before becoming an MP, he knows the details far better than me. That basic logic and flow cannot be right. It cannot be right that we keep paying more and more and get less and less back. It is unsustainable.
That message was borne out in no small part by a 2009 review conducted by Oxford Economics of local application of the central funding formula. Surrey loses out under that formula for various compound reasons. For example, the funding formula takes into account daytime net flows of traffic, but not total traffic or total accidents, which are disproportionately high in Surrey compared with the other indices. It takes into account average deprivation, which is relatively low in Surrey, but ignores our proximity to areas of high deprivation, taking little account of cross-border criminals who may target the county. My borough, which is in the north-east, has a lot of that kind of crime. Nor does it take into account the impact of our proximity to Heathrow and Gatwick, which is also linked to crime levels.
I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. Oxford Economics considers the issue of flow in some detail. I commend the report to the Minister if he wants to examine the detail of what we are discussing.
Other elements, such as our proximity to high population areas, have also been proven relevant to levels of crime but are not factored into the funding formula, which measures only population levels within the county. Those shortcomings are mitigated by the damping arrangements. It is therefore unfair to remove or revise one without considering the other.
Surrey police do an outstanding job, which is reflected in the public’s 90% confidence rating. Today’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, “Policing in Austerity: One Year On”, breaks down the situation by individual forces, showing the progress that the Surrey police have made in dealing with austerity.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that we should recognise the achievements of Surrey police in maintaining the same level of service to the public in Surrey, despite reductions of about £7 million in their budget so far, and that further cuts could risk public safety?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key issue is sustainability. It cannot be right that those who perform best in terms of delivering cost efficiencies while adding further front-line officers should be penalised and find themselves victims of their own success.
Surrey has achieved those net satisfaction ratings despite having faced challenging conditions for a number of years. It is important to put the issue in context; it is not all about austerity under the coalition. Surrey did not share in Labour’s “land of milk and honey” spending spree. While real-terms spending on the police increased nationally by 19% between 1997 and 2010, funding for Surrey police was cut by 39% in real terms. Measured by central funding per person, Surrey got the worst deal of all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
Faced with that legacy, Surrey police responded positively. In July 2010, the Audit Commission and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary praised Surrey police for their efficiency in work force deployment, the way they centralised cross-cutting functions such as human resources and their rigorous and robust approach to achieving cost savings.
Surrey police followed that up with their policing plan for 2011-14, which rationalised the police estate. That, of course, involved a difficult set of decisions that had to be conveyed, sold and communicated locally. It is a very tangible thing to replace police stations or sell off old estate to make way for new hubs. That was difficult. Surrey police also reformed their procurement practices; it is widely accepted that they were in the vanguard in doing so. They cut middle management, which is also difficult, as it creates morale issues in a force. It was not an easy decision, but they took it. Through the net savings, they focused on putting officers into the areas of greatest need, including neighbourhood policing and serious crime investigations, precisely the areas that the public, and I as their MP, want to be priorities for investment.
Over and above all those savings, Surrey police’s rigorous approach and financial discipline allowed the force to reinvest in an extra 200 police constables. That would be extraordinary given the financial straits everyone is in, but it is particularly so for Surrey, given the legacy that it inherited.
Despite the dire financial legacy left by the last Government, Surrey was the only force in England and Wales able to increase officer numbers between September 2010 and September 2011. As the Audit Commission, HMIC and the Home Office have commented, Surrey police are a model of how to get a financial house in order. They did so proactively, before the financial crisis compelled the wider belt-tightening now under way. They did not wait for the waves to hit; they were on the front foot. Like other forces, they are now halfway through a 20% real-terms cut in central Government funding. Surrey police have dealt with all those challenges while improving their record against several key indicators of performance, such as serious crime detection.
However, Surrey has reached its limits. If the damping mechanism is removed, the force stands to lose, in total—there are two components—£4 million in funding, the equivalent of losing 83 police constables. That would be a serious blow to the force and a kick in the teeth, not only to the force, which has taken such steps to be a model of cost-efficiency, but to the people of Surrey, who pay such high levels of tax, too little of which returns as investment in local public services.
Our police need to be properly funded to deal with the wide range of challenges that they face daily. There is a perception of Surrey as a leafy backwater with no crime, challenges or deprivation, whose sleepy towns and villages are the last place where crime or antisocial behaviour is a real issue; but as my colleagues who have spoken, and others, know, that is a myth. The reality is, as has been said time and again, that Surrey is a county force grappling with metropolitan issues.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree with him. One of the problems with the myth about Surrey—it is as true of his constituency as it is of mine—is that average levels of affluence hide pockets of deprivation and real social challenges, which play out in terms of law enforcement, policing, crime and antisocial behaviour. Having made difficult financial sacrifices and tightened their purse strings, communities want to be able to keep the savings for front-line policing. The key issue in my hon. Friend’s and my constituencies, and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), is visible and responsive policing. We are seeking to make sure that that is safeguarded, and the damping mechanism is critical.
It is precisely because, overall and on average, Surrey is an affluent area that it has become something of a target for professional criminals from other areas. During my time as an MP, I have seen professionals targeting shops and businesses in Cobham, Thames Ditton and other areas, which also suffer from antisocial behaviour, robbery and other crimes. Overall, almost 50% of crime in the county is committed by non-Surrey residents, while in 2008, 59% of the organised crime gangs affecting Surrey operated from London. That cross-border crime is a serious concern.
Equally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley mentioned, Surrey roads require constant policing. The county is in the top 6% of local areas for volume of traffic per resident, and in the top 15% for accidents per resident. None of that is accurately reflected in the funding formula. Unsurprisingly, despite all Surrey police’s good work, those factors, which are not picked up by the funding formula, have affected law enforcement capability, which is being measured against finite and shrinking resources.
One specific issue that I have raised with Surrey police authority and the chief constable is Surrey’s sanctioned detection rate, which is the percentage of crimes for which someone is charged, summonsed or cautioned. Surrey’s rate has been either the lowest or second lowest in England and Wales for each of the past three years. In 2010-11, it was 8% below the national average. That is a visible, tangible symptom of the difficult challenges with which the force is grappling with regard to finances and law enforcement capability. Although the figure is improving, the one thing that Surrey police cannot afford is to lose scores of officers, which is the risk we face as a result of the review of the damping mechanism.
The people of Surrey should not be short-changed when it comes to the police. Let us bear in mind that in 2010 Surrey contributed £5.5 billion to the Treasury, but we got back just one third of the national average level of funding for local public services. The residents of Surrey—the taxpayers of Surrey—understand that they need to do their bit. They also understand the need for Britain to cut her coat according to her financial cloth. They have been some of the most proactive participants in that regard, given all that has been said about the discipline that Surrey police have shown in the past few years. However, those residents and my constituents will neither understand nor support changes that result in Surrey police losing millions of pounds every year if their protection from a skewed funding formula is stripped away.
The future of police funding is an important and contentious issue. I know why Ministers are nervous about tinkering with the police funding formula, and a full discussion on how to reform it is beyond the scope of today’s debate. However, that wider debate needs to take place before changes to the damping mechanism can reasonably be pushed through. I urge the Minister to give an assurance that the damping mechanism will only be altered, phased out or reduced as part of a coherent package of reforms, and not in isolation.
Neither Surrey police nor the people of Surrey are asking for special treatment. This is not about a subsidy; it is about mitigation of the knock-on effect of a funding formula that does not accurately reflect local needs in Surrey, and the same is true for other forces. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for a fair deal. The damping mechanism gives Surrey some mitigation from the flaws of the funding formula, and until that formula is properly reviewed and reformed, that protection should remain intact.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on his forceful speech and on securing the debate and the support of his colleagues. I take Members who represent Surrey constituencies seriously when they hunt in a pack, as they have done today, and will pay the closest attention to what they say.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Surrey force, which is ably led by its new chief constable. It emerged with a good review, from the report issued yesterday by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, of how it is dealing with the inevitable reductions in spending that the Government have asked police forces to make. The review said that the force has a good history of bringing down costs and changing how services are delivered. It began to transform how it operates in 2009, before the 2010 comprehensive spending review. As a result, it is in a good position to achieve its savings target by 2015.
The force has plans in place that, if delivered, will achieve 100% of the £27 million-worth of savings that it is required to make between 2011 and 2015. In making those savings, and in contrast to every other force, Surrey plans to increase the number of police officers by 50—that is a 3% increase compared with other forces, which are losing officers. It is the only force in the country able to do that over the spending review period. Within that total, the force is reducing the number of officers in more senior ranks by not replacing retiring managers, and increasing the number of constables by up to 200. Surrey also plans to increase the number of police community support officers by 50, while reducing the number of police staff by some 8%.
That all means that, by 2015, 80% of Surrey’s work force will be on the front line, which is a considerably higher proportion than most other forces, where the average is about two thirds. In common with other forces, Surrey is increasing the proportion of its police officers on the front line from 78% to 90%, which is exactly what I think the public want to see.
On outcomes, crime is still decreasing in Surrey, although at a slightly lower rate than in England and Wales as a whole. It is important that the force maintains its focus in adapting to the changed spending environment and continues to deliver a high-quality service to the public and to reduce crime, which is, of course, the most important outcome for members of the public. My hon. Friend drew attention to the particular circumstances of Surrey’s funding and set out the ways in which he believes Surrey is disadvantaged. First, he mentioned that Surrey has raised a much higher proportion of its funding from its local precept than other forces; indeed, I think it raises more of its money from the local precept than any other force in England and Wales. There is a greater call on local taxpayers than in other parts of the country, but equally, Surrey has been relatively protected from the reduction in central Government funding. The forces that raise less money from their precept have suffered a proportionately greater reduction in funding than those that raised more, such as Surrey. That is merely a statement of the fact.
Let me elaborate. By 2012-13, the current financial year, Surrey was raising nearly half its overall funding from the precept. When we were allocating the funding for all forces in England and Wales at the beginning of the spending review period, a question arose. Since other forces were going to be affected to a greater extent by not raising more money from the local precept, should they have a lower reduction in their spending than forces such as Surrey? It was argued, including in this Chamber, by various hon. Members whose constituencies are policed by the forces concerned, that it would be wrong to penalise them when forces such as Surrey were more able to withstand the reduction in central funding.
The Government took the view that it was not right in principle to penalise local taxpayers for the fact that they were already contributing more for their local policing service. At the time, forces, police authorities and chief constables were expecting a 20% reduction in central Government funding. We had not indicated or confirmed that it would be an even 20% reduction for each force, so it was open to us to adjust the amount according to the money that was raised through the precept. Through the damping mechanism, we decided that the equitable solution, taking all factors into account, was to do what they expected us to do, which was to use the damping mechanism to achieve an even reduction in funding for all forces, including Surrey. From that point of view, I do not believe that Surrey was disadvantaged by our decision.
The Minister will be aware that after Labour entered government in 1997, the tendency to shift money away from the south and south-east was to such a degree that even the Audit Commission commented on it. That included local government, schools, the national health service and the police. His argument is based on a funding formula that we want reviewed because it is flawed. We feel that we need a review. The damping stays, and after the review, he will have to have another form of damping, because he will have the arguments much the same way, but at least Surrey will be getting what we anticipate to be a fair share of the cake.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I disagree that the formula is not fit for purpose. It allocates funding according to need. The Government’s position is that we wish to move towards a full application of the formula. The question is not whether we do that, but at what rate and how. It would have been a great deal easier for the previous Government to move to full application of the formula and away from the distorting effects of damping when there were increases in funding for all forces. It is a great deal harder to do that when funding for forces is declining. Had we done so, some forces that benefit from damping, including Surrey—to the extent of an additional £3.2 million in the current financial year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton pointed out—would have seen a greater reduction in central Government funding.
For the reasons that I have set out, we felt that the equitable approach was not to move away from damping towards full application of the formula in the first two years of the spending review. However, we reserved our position in relation to years three and four. I have just consulted police authorities about what we should do regarding damping in those years. That consultation has just closed, and we will analyse the responses carefully. I will not prejudge our decision, but the points expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) are well made.
If the current funding formula truly reflects need, why do Surrey taxpayers, in addition to all the taxes that they pay nationally, have to pay the highest precept in the country? The Minister has already accepted that we have an excellent and efficient force.
The formula takes into account the need in an area. Taking a step back, if we look at the other end of the spectrum, towards a force in an urban area, where there is particular social deprivation, much higher levels of crime and all the complexities that arise because of that, it is obvious that the need is higher, and the formula reflects that. I accept that there has been a greater call on local taxpayers as a result of the amount provided to Surrey by central Government, but my point is that our decisions on spending reductions for all forces in years one and two, far from disadvantaging Surrey, treated all forces evenly, because those that raise much less from their council tax would have seen a much greater reduction in funding.
I should point out that Surrey has increased its precept in the current financial year. It has chosen not to freeze the precept, despite the Government’s offer. That increases the funding for the force. If Surrey were to increase its precept again in the last two years of the spending review, assuming the increases suggested by the Office for Budget Responsibility and no change in the current damping arrangements, the real terms reduction in funding over the whole spending review period would be just over 10%, which does not approach the 20% suggested for other forces. That is a 1.4% reduction in cash terms. Surrey is therefore in a relatively advantageous position, enabling it, for instance, to increase its officer numbers. Even if Surrey does not increase the precept in the last two years, the real-terms reduction in overall funding will be about 13%, or less than 5% in cash terms.
I am just stating the factual position that, as local taxpayers have been forced to contribute more, which I accept, Surrey has been relatively protected from central Government funding reductions over the past two years. The consequence is that it has not had the reductions in police officer numbers that other forces have had to make. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends have made strong points about the application of damping, and I will take those into careful consideration when I decide what to do in years three and four of the spending review. Their points about damping and the application of the formula were well made, and I assure them that they will be noted.
Millennium Development Goals
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this important issue, Mr Bone. I thank the Minister in advance for responding to my concerns, and I thank hon. Members for attending the debate.
An estimated 24 million children worldwide grow up without parental care. In some regions, as many as 30% live apart from their parents, and research suggests that that figure is increasing. Every child deserves to grow up, to go to school and to live their childhood free from hunger and disease, exploitation, abuse and violence. Experience has shown that this happens best when children are loved and cared for in a family setting.
The millennium development goals have focused global efforts to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, yet many of the crucial targets are in danger of not being reached by 2015. That would have a devastating impact on the well-being of children throughout the world. Failure to provide proper care and protection for children is hindering progress in achieving many MDGs. Future development goals, which are currently being developed, need to recognise and eradicate those mistakes.
There are huge gaps in child protection systems around the world. Such systems are crucial to ensuring the protection of children who are without parental care. Therefore, addressing child protection in the MDGs and the successor framework is key in supporting the rights of such children. I will outline how children’s rights to care and protection are the missing link in achieving the MDGs. Children without the care and protection of their family are particularly vulnerable and hard to reach.
I want to cover two issues related to the MDGs: the importance of including protection and care concerns in efforts to monitor the MDGs; and the need to address the absence of an explicit reference to child protection and care in the current MDGs, if the post-MDG framework is to be effective in improving children’s well-being in the future.
MDG 1 aims to end poverty and hunger. Children who are in the care of the state, either in residential care or in detention, may fail to receive adequate food, despite the obligation on Governments to provide it, while children who are not in conventional households, such as those living on the streets, in migrant families, or in child-only households, are often excluded from social protection schemes. Poorly designed social protection systems are, at best, failing to reach children who are without adequate care and protection, and, at worst, actively encouraging family separation or child labour. In South Africa and Ukraine, payments to foster or extended family carers mean that children will be in better resourced households if parents give them up to other forms of care.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In an answer to a parliamentary question I tabled, I was surprised to discover that the Department for International Development does not have a dedicated child protection policy. Does my hon. Friend think that that is something DFID should have, signalling post-MDG intentions?
I thank my hon. Friend for that appropriate intervention. I am sure that the Minister has taken note and will respond to it. I agree with my hon. Friend and share his concerns.
MDGs 2 and 3 seek universal education and gender equality. In its 2012 annual report, DFID acknowledges that to meet the target of universal primary education, efforts need to shift to the hardest-to-reach children. Education for all will not be achieved unless the current widespread exclusion of young married girls and children in extended family care, prison or work is addressed. Children who have lost both parents are 12% less likely to be in school than other children. The vast majority of children living and working on the streets do not attend school, while children in detention often have no access to formal school during their sentences. For the 13.6% of children who are child labourers, including a quarter of children in sub-Saharan Africa, combining work with school often has a negative impact on learning achievements, with long working hours preventing children from attending school at all.
International recognition of the links between child labour and education have not translated into policy change on the part of many Governments. To get education for their children, the only option for some families, who are in poverty or are far from a school, is to send their children away to live in institutions that provide education but are detrimental to their well-being in other ways. Long distances to school mean that some children have to find alternative accommodation, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
MDG 4 addresses child health. The widespread use of residential care for children under three places many children and infants at greater risk of dying young. In Russia, official statistics suggest that the mortality rate for children under four years old in residential care is 10 times higher than that of the general population. In Sudan, of 2,500 infants admitted to one institution in a five-year period, only 400 survived. There are currently at least 8 million children in residential care, with evidence to suggest a growth in this form of care in many countries in the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.
Finally, MDGs 5 and 6 address maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS. Ensuring that children have adequate care and protection is essential for improving maternal health and combating the spread of HIV. Preventing early marriage is essential for stemming the spread of HIV and preventing girls from becoming mothers at an early age when the risks of maternal and child mortality are highest. Trafficked children, child domestic workers and other working children often face sexual abuse. An estimated 2 million children, mainly girls, are sexually exploited in the commercial sex trade each year. Street children are often sexually active at a very young age.
Early sexual activity has profound implications for maternal and child health. Forced sex and limited power in relationships mean that girls without adequate care and protection often face early motherhood, with severe consequences for the health of both young mothers and babies. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19-year-old girls. Those who give birth aged under 15 are five times more likely to die than women aged over 20. Babies born to young mothers are also less likely to survive. Early and often forced sexual activity among children lacking adequate care and protection increases the risk of HIV infection. Lack of control over contraceptive use, inadequate knowledge of reproductive health, frequent sexual activity and having sex with often older husbands all result in such children being more vulnerable to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Children on the streets are often discriminated against by service providers and unable to access health care or advice about contraceptive use. DFID is committed to achieving education for all, including the most hard-to-reach groups. What is it doing to ensure that children who are outside parental care receive an education, and that their parents do not have to make agonising choices between schooling and care and protection?
DFID makes substantial investments in social protection programmes around the world. What is it doing to ensure that social protection reaches the most vulnerable and is designed in a way that keeps families together and does not push them apart? Through its commitment to achieving the MDGs, DFID is working to reduce child and maternal mortality and the spread of HIV. What is it doing to reduce separation from parents and deal with the abuse and exploitation that is so often the cause of dangerous early pregnancy and HIV infection?
DFID is focusing more on fragile and conflict-affected states and is working to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. What is DFID doing to ensure that, in dealing with preparedness and responses to conflict and disasters, emphasis is put on preventing families separating and on protecting children whose families are torn apart by war?
It is important that DFID ensures the development of indicators of impacts on children who are outside parental care and/or facing situations of abuse or exploitation.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, I shall continue.
DFID must invest more in appropriate, integrated child protection systems that adhere to the UN guidelines for the alternative care of children. The Prime Minister has recently been appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel, looking at what comes after 2015 when the targets for the millennium development goals end. The first presentation of the panel’s work will be made in September.
The coalition Government recognise the importance of strong families in improving the lives of children in the UK, yet in their work in the developing world not enough is being done to keep families together. The UN is co-ordinating a global process to develop a post-MDG framework and there is an opportunity for the UK to influence the process, and the outcomes of the development of these goals, by promoting specific reference to children’s rights to care and protection in any framework and by ensuring that extra effort is made to consult hard-to-reach children, so that their voices are heard in the global debates on a framework that could shape their future. I should like the Minister to address his Department’s role in those two areas.
The post-MDG framework should include specific targets on children’s protection and care, for example, by measuring reductions in numbers growing up in large institutions, in detention, in harmful child labour, living and working on the streets, or experiencing violence, abuse or neglect in homes and schools. A consideration of children’s protective rights will also help to ensure the equitable achievement of the millennium development goals. Only through a consideration of such basic rights will it be possible to make wide-reaching and sustainable progress in efforts to alleviate child poverty, increase access to education, improve maternal and child health, and reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS.
I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma)for calling a debate on a topic that has an important bearing on the lives of so many people around the world. There is little doubt that children who live without parental care or in situations of severe family abuse and neglect are the most vulnerable in any society.
Children in the poorest countries are particularly at risk, especially those living through conflict or humanitarian disasters. In most societies children with disabilities face particular difficulties, as do children living in institutional care. Girls are often the most vulnerable, which is why the UK Government are working closely with partners, such as the Nike Girl Hub, to improve the lives of many thousands of girls living in abject poverty worldwide.
UNICEF estimates that almost 18 million children worldwide have lost both parents and 153 million have lost one parent. Many of those children face real hardships. They are often left without protection and care. Some are fortunate enough to be able to live with relatives or friends, but many more end up on the streets, having to fend for themselves and eke out a living.
Supporting vulnerable girls and boys is an important priority in international development. The UK Government are helping to tackle it in a range of ways, including through specific programmes aimed at improving the lives of the most vulnerable, as well as through our work with others, including overseas Governments, the United Nations, the private sector and civil society.
I can answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) in his intervention by making it clear that those who work on child rights and child protection receive training and tuition on those subjects. DFID tailors child protection programmes to the context of individual countries and includes child protection clauses in its grants to partners.
Hon. Members will be aware of international statutes that have a bearing on the issue of vulnerable children. The UN convention on the rights of the child and the International Labour Organisation’s convention on child labour provide a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations on human rights for children that must be respected by Governments in all societies, and clear frameworks to hold Governments and others to account. The UK is not just a signatory to those conventions, but is actively working with others to ensure that the standards are put into practice and genuinely help to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people across the world.
In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, I shall focus on four ways in which we are working to improve the lives of vulnerable children living without parental care. First, international evidence shows that cash transfer programmes are one of the most effective ways of reaching orphans and vulnerable children. In some cases, those are in the form of pensions, because many of the children live with their grandparents. For example, where one or both parents died from HIV/AIDS, such payments provide a vital source of income to help poor families care for children and stick together. In other cases, cash transfer programmes directly target the children themselves. For example, in Kenya, DFID is supporting the Government’s orphans and vulnerable children programme, which directly targets children without parental care, and is reaching more than 55,000 households. Over the past few years, it has resulted in a reduction in the proportion of those aged six to 13 doing paid work from one in 20 to one in 100. It has also helped to reduce the number of people living on less than a dollar a day from one third to one fifth.
In Zimbabwe, DFID is supporting the Zimbabwean Government’s national action plan for orphans and vulnerable children. It will help at least 25,000 children to secure their basic rights and meet essential needs, by providing money for food and school fees and helping orphans to access justice services.
Secondly, the UK is the second largest donor to the UN children’s fund—UNICEF—which works in 190 countries, helping the poorest and most vulnerable children in a huge range of areas, including health and education, child labour, trafficking, and recruitment into armed forces, and giving critical support to children in institutional care. In 2011, for example, UNICEF helped 19 million women and children with nutritional support after natural disasters, and helped 6 million of the most vulnerable children receive schooling in the aftermath of a disaster or humanitarian emergency.
Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall rightly said, the millennium development goals are central to the UK’s development priorities, which we are ensuring include the poorest and most vulnerable children. For example, we support universal primary education, because we know that the high cost of education is the biggest deterrent to school attendance by the most marginalised children. By supporting countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda to remove school fees we have seen a dramatic surge in school enrolment, helping more than 1 million extra children to go to school in each of those countries. Through the UK’s support to the World Food Programme’s “Food for Education” programme, we are helping to provide high-energy biscuits to 400,000 children in Afghan secondary schools and, therefore, an incentive for very poor children to attend school.
Children are often orphaned because of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The MDGs are vital in focusing the international community and Governments on tackling such killer diseases and, as a result, have prevented millions more children from losing their parents in the first place. The MDGs have helped to shape the quickest and biggest improvements in poverty reduction, child survival and school enrolment that the world has ever seen. The goals that follow the MDGs after 2015 must build on that success, while learning lessons from them.
I am aware that some people argue that the post-MDG goals should be a continuation of the current MDGs, while others say that the United Nations should completely rewrite them. The UK Government will play a role in helping to shape the new goals and will work to ensure that they meet the needs of the poorest. Our commitment comes right from the top; I am delighted that the Prime Minister will be co-chairing the high-level UN panel that is to lead the process. All may rest assured that he is personally committed to the new framework dealing with the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised children.
Last, but certainly not least, our support to civil society partners is also vital to reach the most vulnerable children and communities. For example, through Save the Children, the Government are providing vital life-saving support to those affected by the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. We are assisting Save the Children and other organisations to mobilise early support for the most vulnerable children. Last year, DFID’s funding helped Save the Children to reach 2.7 million people with emergency food, clean water and health care in east Africa.
Through War Child we are helping children in detention centres in Afghanistan; boys are often locked away just for petty theft, and girls are usually locked up for what is called running away or eloping. Conditions in many such centres are deeply shocking; children are often denied education and they are given little food or comfort. War Child’s interventions are helping to improve the justice system as well as conditions in the centres, and children are assisted to reconnect with their families and local communities when they leave the centres.
Our support to Plan International is helping more than 6,000 children who live and work on the streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to transform their lives. It provides safe shelters, basic education, health and sanitation facilities, information on issues such as sexual abuse, child labour and trafficking, and counselling for the most vulnerable and traumatised children.
In conclusion, the UK Government are acutely aware of the vulnerability of children around the world, in particular those without safeguards to protect them. We are doing a great deal on this agenda but, clearly, more needs to be done. We will continue to work with others to find effective ways of meeting the needs of those children. We are also fully aware that the post-MDG framework must include a focus on the world’s most marginalised people, including vulnerable children. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall for raising the issue in today’s debate. He has done a great service to an important cause in the field of development.
Question put and agreed to.