I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I wish the Deputy Leader of the House very well in his new post, and I hope that will be able to understand what Members say and reply appropriately. I had hoped that the relevant Minister would be here, but all good wishes to the Deputy Leader of the House.
I wish to set out why the Government’s recent statement on relaxing the planning laws was wrong and how it will affect my constituents. In most societies, certain freedoms are restricted for the public or common good, and the long-term use of land should be in the long-term interests of the whole community. I welcome the new planning Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), to his post, but I have to say that sadly he has got it wrong. Hot on the heels of the statement made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 6 September came a report by the very organisation that Ministers had set up. Surprise, surprise, it said that the Government should allow building on the green belt.
The Secretary of State’s statement should have given us clarity, not ambiguity, but I will give some examples of how it will confuse a lot of people, including planning lawyers. First, planning inspectors will be allowed to decide on applications, instead of the local authority. However, the problem is not the speed with which planning officers have to deal with applications, but the lack of properly qualified staff. In most councils, cuts are affecting the number of staff who can make proper decisions on planning issues.
Having worked for the Treasury Solicitor’s Department and acted for the Planning Inspectorate, I know that the people there are capable and committed public servants, but the Minister is going to have to increase their numbers. There cannot be an increase in their work without an increase in the number of those who carry it out.
The Government are looking for options to speed up planning appeals. Here is one easy remedy: more judges should be appointed to the High Court to deal with judicial reviews and appeals. Having dealt with planning litigation, I know that there was a pretty robust system between the judges’ clerks and the planning barristers’ clerks, and time estimates for cases were well adhered to. The problem is not about cases getting to court but the fact that we need more judges to deal with them.
What of the other controversial issues such as allowing extensions of up to 8 metres? My constituent, Mr Arnold Pate, has already had to suffer from this. A law-abiding citizen, who has worked hard all his life, is reduced to sitting in his back garden with a large two-storey extension blocking his light. The officers recommended refusal, but the planning committee allowed it. No weight was attached to Mr Pate’s views. Under the new planning statement proposals, the voice of the electorate—my constituents, such as Mr Pate, and other Members’ constituents—will continue to be ignored.
What of the flexibilities in the national planning policy framework to tailor the extent of the green belt? There is already encroachment in Walsall. In the case of the Three Crowns pub, officers advised the planning committee that the proposed development would constitute an unacceptable development on green belt land. The majority of residents were against the proposal, but the planning committee passed it anyway, even though there were no special circumstances to outweigh building on the green belt. A substantial amount of time was spent arguing in favour of the proposed development, while those who were against it were allowed only three minutes to make their case. Construction has not yet started, apparently due not to planning but to financial issues. Despite previous decisions that the Three Crowns school site should remain in the green belt because of its elevation and the trees, the council plans to build eight detached houses, after a short consultation period that did not necessarily include all the residents.
Walsall South already has land to build on for housing on the former Servis factory site in Darlaston. Outline planning permission has already been given for housing development. The residents in the area want housing, but the owners of the site would like another retail development. I have mentioned Woodside close in a previous debate. The same application has been refused six times by the Planning Inspectorate. The residents association said that officers gave no weight to its views. How would repeat applications be covered under the new regime? Would residents have to put up with multiple applications? Will section 43 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 apply to inspectors when they have to deal with the new work that might come their way? Another constituent of mine had to face the construction of a dormer bungalow on the garden next door. Despite guidance that people are not supposed to build in gardens, this was still allowed.
Walsall South is at terrible risk from these proposals. As other Members know, it is situated at the confluence of many motorways; it is a key area. The Local Government Association has given us figures, which are well known, showing that there are 400,000 plots across England and Wales with planning permission for work to start. The figure is about 25% higher than previously thought. Building work has only started at half those plots, so it would take developers three and a half years to clear the backlog. I fear that because the Government have lost the argument on the planning reforms and have had to rethink the national planning policy framework, they are trying to change the rules through a different route.
With the greatest respect to the Minister, I do not think that he has undertaken litigation in planning, as I have. I am no Luddite and the people of Walsall South are not Luddites. What they are concerned about—from the residents to the builders—is that the precious green belt in Walsall, particularly in the south of the town, should not be eroded to the point where there is an unbroken urban sprawl from Staffordshire in the north to Warwickshire in the south. As one of the planning consultants, Malcolm Griffiths, told me, people already suffer from large-scale extensions to properties in this part of Walsall, with little if any control over oversized extensions and no enforcement by the council.
I am reluctant to say this, but the Chancellor is right: it is an economic problem. The economics are not working; the lenders are not lending. A condition should be attached to any money that is given to the banks under quantitative easing whereby some of that money is given back to the people by, for example, relaxing the need for them to have large deposits when they want to purchase a house.
If the Minister wants to build homes on existing sites, he needs to harness the imagination and creativity of architects who propose interesting developments. Paris can have an innovative building such as the Pompidou centre that is in keeping with the skyline, but we have to have the Shard, which dominates our skyline. I am sorry; I had to get that in because I really do not like that building.
There is no need further to relax the planning rules, but there is a need to protect the countryside. As Beatrix Potter, the great protector of the countryside, might have written: “This is the tale of the bad policy.” I hope that it ends happily.
It gives me no pleasure to rise to talk about a failed procurement project that has cost every citizen in Somerset a great deal of wasted money and time. Southwest One is a joint venture between Somerset county council, Taunton Deane council, Avon and Somerset police and IBM—one of the world’s biggest IT firms. It is a classic example of how not to do public procurement.
At 2 o’clock in the morning five years ago, an unlikely cast of characters were gathered. The county councillors were red-eyed, the IBM executives passed round a pen, and everyone signed. It was done out of office hours and in total secrecy, even though it involved hundreds of council staff and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Somerset’s chipper little chief executive, Alan Jones, said afterwards: “In five years’ time, people will look back on this agreement and say it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
I was, I admit, suspicious from the word go. IBM, as most people know, is no charity; it prides itself on fat profits. The joint venture was never equal anyway; IBM owned 75% of the business. However, it has taken five long years to get to the ghastly truth. I have now obtained a copy of the original IBM bid. There were only two serious contenders: IBM and BT—British Telecom. They were asked to do some blue-sky thinking, and IBM came up with some bizarre extras: pure fairy dust; total fiction; a romantic dream of our county and its wildly ambitious chief executive strutting the world stage hand in hand with IBM. Here are some of the promises: “We will increase the economic wealth of Somerset by £600 million every year!”; “We will create 400 new jobs—instantly!”; “We will build a new industry of environmental science!”; “We will provide the infrastructure for a new university!”; “We will deliver broadband to Somerset within a single year!”; “We will build an iconic headquarters!” I think that that is what my Spanish friends would call a load of cojones. Yet Councillor Jill Shortland, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, and her pea-brained sidekick, Councillor Sam Crabb—once a banker, funnily enough, or so he claims, but more likely a junior clerk—swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.
One needs to be seriously stupid not to spot the holes in IBM’s bid. IBM pledged to get Somerset wired up for broadband within a year—impossible without the help of BT, and BT, quite rightly, was far too sensible to suggest it. In fact, Somerset is still negotiating with the Government for a multi-million-pound grant to wire up both Devon and Somerset, which is moving along. I am afraid that IBM was telling a huge porky. Councillors have highly paid officials to help them to spot pitfalls, and they should have been doing so, but these councillors were at best dim, if not reckless. The only other explanation is that palms were being greased.
So who recommended that Somerset should go with IBM? The project leader was appointed by the then chief executive, Alan Jones, and she was a lady called Sue Barnes. Ms Barnes, as it happens, was married to the chief constable of Avon and Somerset, Mr Colin Port. Six months after the secret contract, the police joined the venture—dare I say it?—funnily enough, on more favourable terms. The police received an enormous bung from Ms Barnes’s employers, Somerset county council. There is hard evidence that Somerset provided a subsidy to the force. I have seen e-mails from the assistant chief constable confirming it. Somerset’s former director of resources, Roger Kershaw, was given executive power to negotiate the arrangement. Apparently, no councillors were told. The payment to the police was deliberately concealed in the county’s accounts 2008-09. I am calling on the Secretary of State to reopen those accounts for inspection, because I am afraid that there is a can of worms in them.
Funnily enough, Mr Kershaw once worked for Warwickshire county council. Mr Port was a senior officer at Warwickshire constabulary. This is where the IBM data centre for Somerset is, and where its records are stored. Warwick—I do not need to tell anybody in this honourable House—is in Warwickshire. Mr Port went on to join the board of Southwest One, an obvious conflict of interest if ever there was one. It took substantial publicity before it dawned on the chief constable that his position on the board was untenable. By then the credibility of Southwest One was even more untenable. It promised to save taxpayers £200 million over 10 years, but the savings are minimal and the losses of Southwest One run close to £50 million.
Somerset was forced to chuck out its own computer systems and spend £30 million of taxpayers’ money on IBM kit and software called SAP. That dreadful system refuses to pay clients, double pays others, mucks up police rotas and puts sensitive information at risk. I am afraid that it is Mickey Mouse software. IBM used its Indian division to design the software to save money. When SAP ground to a halt, IBM flew in a contingent of Indian IT workers who stayed in Taunton, the county town, for months trying to fix it. Guess what? They failed.
Alan Jones claimed things were all going swimmingly. Roger Kershaw went to Canada at IBM’s expense to address a conference entitled “Successful Outsourcing”. Sam Crabb and Jill Shortland—both still councillors, both Liberal Democrats—tried to blame me and the trade unions for rocking the boat. The trade unions—would you believe it? The truth was crystal clear: no other local authority or police force has joined Southwest One, ever. It is a rubbish venture.
In May 2009, the voters removed the Liberal Democrats from control of Somerset county. The new administration got rid of Alan Jones, the chief executive, and it cost the taxpayer £341,000 to do so, but at least he was gone. Roger Kershaw, the finance director, quit before he was pushed. The new team started to renegotiate the awful deal with IBM. Many of the staff who transferred to Southwest One are, I am glad to say, back at Somerset county. Much of that work has returned to the county, but the ghost of this ghastly contract haunts us.
When the economic crisis arrived, public spending was cut, which meant less work for Southwest One. Unfortunately, there is a booby-trap in the contract that forces Somerset to compensate IBM if spending falls. Last week, the county council had to take the decision to take £2.7 million from contingency funds to pay the company off. If spending remains at the current level, which it probably will, Somerset will have to fork out £2.7 million every year for the next five years. That is £13.5 million pounds, plus a £5 million subsidy to the Avon and Somerset force. That vastly outweighs any mythical savings that Southwest One claims.
Just to rub salt into the wound, Southwest One is trying to extract more money from Somerset by suing. The marriage is over—that reminds me of another marriage that we are in at the moment—but there is no escape. On 27 September, five years to the day since the contract was signed, Somerset could legally terminate the whole mad thing, but the price of quitting is so high that we are stuck.
The blame lies fairly and squarely with Alan Jones, Roger Kershaw, Sam Crabb and—dare I say it?—other second-rate councillors. Al Capone would be rather proud of them in a bizarre way. They behaved as though they were working for IBM.
This is a national, not a local, scandal. The district auditor gave Southwest One glowing reports. The Audit Commission whitewashed the lot. There is now overwhelming evidence to prove that the auditors were grossly negligent. Southwest One should be—must be—examined properly by the National Audit Office. Only then can I see a happy ending to this ghastly fairytale.
I wish to speak about the marking of the English and English language GCSEs this summer.
At the beginning of the school term, I was asked to visit one of my local secondary schools, which had been confidently predicting 58% A* to C grades in English and English language. The students have been marked down at 32%. At the same time, stories started to appear in the local newspaper, the Daily Echo, about schools in neighbouring Hampshire. Some schools that have regularly had 84% to 90% A to C grades achieved just 60%. It became clear to me, as it did across the country, that something had gone enormously wrong in the marking of GCSE exams this summer.
I wanted to speak in the debate because I believe that a huge injustice has been done to that group of students who sat the exams this summer. It is an injustice that has a real effect on their lives: I have heard already of students who have been denied access to the college or the course that they wanted, or who have not been allowed to go on to the apprenticeship that they had been promised, or who are worried about the future impact of having low grades when they might come to apply, for example, to selective universities.
Equally importantly, there are those students who, from the beginning of their school career, needed considerable support, inspiration, nurturing, cajoling and confidence building just to stay the course. They left school in June confident that they would achieve a reasonable result, but they now feel so bitterly let down that they say they are turning their backs on education altogether.
This is not the time for wider debate on education standards; that will take place another time. I want to focus on the marking of those exams this summer. I believe that the students are innocent victims, caught in the crossfire of a wider and sometimes highly partisan debate about education. We need to focus on the position that they are in, but up to now Ministers—and, I am afraid, the Secretary of State—do not seem to have understood the injustice that has been done. The concerns of students are being brushed off, like so much dandruff from the Secretary of State’s collar.
Why am I so convinced that an injustice has been done? First, because the students, however we look at it, fulfilled every expectation of their teachers and, in turn, of the exam boards. Students look to teachers to guide them on what they need to know—the skills and the aptitude that they need to demonstrate—but there is simply no evidence that, peculiarly this year, they were catastrophically let down by their teachers.
Let us look at the schools involved. It is not as though this is poor performance concentrated in schools that had traditionally been weak or had struggled to achieve decent results. As is very clear, the unexpectedly poor results occurred in schools that had traditionally been among the best-performing in the country. It defies belief that so many teachers in so many schools should, collectively, turn into poor teachers in that one month of June this year.
Those teachers were supported by the exam boards. In the school that I visited, because the controlled assessment was new, there were regular checks with AQA on the way the work was being moderated and to ensure that the approach to the teaching was in line with the exam boards’ expectation. The school was told that it was in line with expectations—a school that had been praised for the excellence of its moderation and the quality of its predictions.
We got the Ofqual interim report, but it really does not convince in any way that Ofqual has, clearly and transparently, got to the bottom of why the results turned out the way they did in so many schools.
One reason for my participation in the debate is that I am one of the architects of Ofqual. It was my joint decision with my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), when he was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and I was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to establish Ofqual as an independent regulator. The truth is that the guarantee of independence that we delivered has not turned out to be a guarantee of competence. Ofqual has failed to deliver the quality of service that is needed to inspire confidence among students and teachers.
The interim report that Ofqual published failed to provide a convincing explanation of what happened; indeed, as the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said to the Select Committee on Education, in the one exam that we are talking about there has been extraordinary variation: 26.7% of those sitting it got a C grade in June last year; 37% got a C grade in January; and 10.2% got a C grade in June 2012. As he said,
“there is no evidence that those papers had any difference in the level of challenge in those examinations”.
In other words, it is all down to the extraordinary way in which the exam was assessed.
Ofqual tried to say that the problem related to January, but its figures do not tell a convincing story that gives a full explanation. In any case, students have the reasonable expectation that if they deliver what they were asked to deliver by their teachers and the exam board, that will be reflected in their result. For them to fail their exam, as they will be seen to have done, is deeply unfair; it will have a lasting impact on them.
Last week, the Secretary of State said, or is reported to have said, the following to the Select Committee—the transcript is not yet on the website—about the Welsh decision to reopen the question:
“the children who suffer are children from Wales who, when they apply for jobs in England, will hand over certificates that profess to be good passes, and English employers will now say, ‘I fear, through no fault of your own…that I cannot count your exam pass as equivalent to this other exam pass.’”
As with many of the Secretary of State’s statements, there is absolutely no evidence for that. Indeed, if it were true, we would be seeing schools, colleges and employers turning down children with the January qualifications, on the grounds that those qualifications were not good enough.
Ofqual says—I have given a health warning about its report—that performance overall is down by just 1.4%. Perhaps we should treat that statement with caution, but if that is the case, it can hardly be claimed that re-grading to around the expected levels would invalidate the whole set of qualifications this summer. It would, however, make a massive difference to the students affected. Allowing the injustice to remain uncorrected will do far more damage to the students than any possible consequences of allowing a re-grading consistent with the January results to go ahead.
Why did the Secretary of State not consider that course of action, or, given the questions around the Ofqual report, set up an independent inquiry? I am convinced that a re-grading is the only fair way forward, but I can understand that a necessary first step is an independent inquiry into what happened. I fear that the real reasons do not reflect well on the Secretary of State. He is a highly political, highly partisan Minister who wishes to play every issue for his personal promotion and party advantage. When the issue came to light, he thought, I am sure, “This is a party opportunity.” After all, Labour had introduced controlled assessments, and Labour—indeed, I, as Minister—had introduced Ofqual. He thought it was an opportunity to attack Labour’s record and burnish his credentials as a defender of standards; that is what he set out to do.
However, surely there has to be a limit to the amount of damage that we are prepared to do to innocent students just to promote a Secretary of State’s career and political stance. We are all in politics, and we all make partisan speeches at times, but none of us has the right to make others the victim of our politics.
I am convinced that an injustice has been done to thousands of students; they worked hard and did what they were asked to do. I am convinced that many of them will suffer as regards their careers, academic qualifications and job opportunities. This situation cannot be allowed to last, and the issue must not be lost in the wider, legitimate debate about educational standards. I hope that the Government will, at this late stage, agree to an independent inquiry, so that we can get to the bottom of what went wrong and make sure that the students concerned are treated fairly.
I wish to tackle the important issue of nuisance calls. Like many Members, I am fed up with receiving nuisance calls on my mobile and home telephone, and unsolicited texts sent to my mobile. It is a real problem for many of my constituents, much as cold-calling in person was many years ago. It was mainly energy companies who indulged in cold-calling in person, but thanks to many local campaigns across the country, most of the big six energy companies have stopped the practice. It is time to turn our attention to the issue of nuisance calls and texts.
There were 650 million silent calls made in the UK last year, and 45 million spam texts sent in Europe last year and every year. Some 3 million UK adults will be scammed out of £800 each this year by fraudulent marketing calls. It is clear that we have an industry in crisis and a country under siege. People should not have to put up with this menace, which puts many vulnerable and elderly people at just as much risk of fraud as if the crook or pushy salesman turned up at their door unannounced. Yet the two Departments responsible for various aspects of the industry—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice—do not seem to think that there is a need for any change in legislation.
In response to a letter that I sent him, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), said that although the Government do not believe that sweeping changes are necessary to the regulatory framework, the Ministry of Justice continues to keep the Information Commissioner’s Office powers under review. Thousands of people disagree and are backing my campaign to restrict this nuisance. They say that their experience shows that the current situation is simply not good enough. Many people have shared their horror stories with me. I would welcome the chance to meet Ministers from DCMS and the Ministry of Justice to discuss the issue.
The Sunday Post in Scotland has helped to promote my campaign nationally, and a spokesman for the newspaper recently told me:
“It's clear from the overwhelming response we have had from our readers this problem plagues our daily lives.
And yet regardless of asking for them to stop—and sometimes taking steps to halt them—the onslaught continues.
The will is there from people to put on an end to this once and for all. Now is the time for the Government to act on that will and strengthen existing legislation.”
I could not agree more.
Since launching my campaign only four weeks ago, over 10,500 people have signed the campaign petition at no2nuisancecalls.net—sorry for the plug. Like many others, I know that I have not had a fall in the last five years and am not entitled to any more payment protection insurance compensation, and I certainly do not want a payday loan. Nevertheless, I am continually contacted by text and phone by companies offering me those things.
I am registered with the Telephone Preference Service for both home and mobile numbers, but even that does not stop the onslaught. According to Ofcom figures, complaints to the TPS about unwanted marketing calls jumped to almost 10,000 for the month of July. That compares with just over 3,000 in December last year. In an online poll of 4,000 individuals for Which? magazine, 76% of respondents said that despite signing up to the TPS, they still receive many nuisance calls. Only 1% rated the service as excellent and said that they no longer received nuisance calls. Once again, the Under-Secretary seemed to miss that point; he said that the TPS was generally successful in reducing the number of unsolicited marketing calls received. That is not the experience of the majority of people registering with it.
Ofcom suggests that increased activity by PPI and accident claims companies is partly to blame for the rise. The problem is partly the result of the fact that PPI calls are not classed as sales calls but as a service or marketing calls. On texts, the law says that there must be an unsubscribe option such as “Reply STOP to this number”. However, there are two problems with that. First, there are serious worries about how much it would cost to send such a text. Secondly, such a reply tells the sender that the number is genuine and in use, which might merely engender further contact from that company and from others.
Recent research by the Association of British Insurers has found that more than three quarters of people—78%—have been contacted by a claims management company asking if they have been involved in an accident or mis-sold payment protection insurance. The ABI found that 92% of those who received such a message from a claims management company said that it was not relevant to them.
Complaints about abandoned or silent calls trebled in 2012, rising from 957 in December 2011 to 3,390 in July 2012. That is probably only the tip of the iceberg. In May 2011, the Information Commissioner’s Office was given powers to fine companies up to £500,000 if they broke the rules on unsolicited texts and phone calls. To date, however, the ICO has failed to prosecute any company for breaking the rules, in spite of the fact that it has received more than 7,000 complaints this year—a 43% increase on last year, when fewer than 5,000 complaints were received for the entire year.
I understand better than most the difficulties involved in carrying out complex police investigations, but we must understand what prevents those investigations from leading to prosecutions and fines. Until an example is made, those companies will carry on unfazed. The ICO has done great work on fining companies that fail to look after their data properly, but the strongest action so far on breaking of the legislation governing unsolicited calls and texts was a strongly worded statement in July this year which talked of the ICO “baring its teeth”.
All of that points to a huge problem that is on the increase—indeed, it is out of control. Some companies offer a service to help protect people from unwanted calls, but it can be costly—anything from £35 to £100—and often those companies are not up front about the charges. To be frank, why should we have to pay for such a service anyway? I believe, as do the 10,000-plus people who have signed up to my online campaign, that we have the right to be free from such calls without having to pay for the privilege.
As I have said, the problem is out of control, and requires urgent action. The Information Commissioner desperately needs to have the power to end this menace. I am therefore calling for the Information Commissioner’s powers to be strengthened to take in all forms of unsolicited contact, and for a single point of contact for any individual wishing to protect their privacy and block unwanted calls, texts, faxes and e-mails. That express wish should be taken seriously and acted upon.
I simply do not understand why we continue to allow this to happen, and why we are so permissive about our telecoms contact. If Barclays or HomeServe—two companies that, between them, were fined £5 million for silent calls—were knocking on our vulnerable granny’s door every day, then running away before she answered, we would be appalled. Instead, we tell those companies that they can do that only one day in 20: 5% of their calls are allowed to be silent. If claims management companies were knocking on her door, then bullying her into making PPI claims or taking payday loans, we would be up in arms. Instead, we hide behind the claim that those are merely surveys. If, because of all of that, we had to hire a doorman at significant expense to filter all the unwanted people at the door and only allow real visitors in, that would be completely unacceptable, yet that is the awful, frightening telecoms reality for many older, vulnerable members of society. It simply cannot continue. It simply must stop.
May I, too, welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his post and to the debate? I once replied to 400 speeches—40, not 400—in a pre-recess Adjournment debate, so I understand the task that faces him.
Last week, I said at Culture, Media and Sport questions:
“The all-party group on women’s sport and fitness wants to see our fantastic women athletes in the media, inspiring girls and women of all ages to take part in sport. However, outside the Olympics, women’s sport gets 5% of the media coverage and less than 1% of the commercial sponsorship.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 413.]
I asked the Minister whether he agreed that the situation must change. I was surprised at how effective my question was, because on Saturday the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wrote to all national broadcasters telling them to reassess their coverage of women’s sport. I agree with that action, because the lack of media coverage for women’s sport is a vital issue.
Across our leading newspapers there are no female sports editors. Only 2% of the articles and 1% of the images in the sports pages of the national newspapers are devoted to female athletes and women’s sport. Earlier this year, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation reviewed the sports pages across all national daily newspapers to assess the level of coverage given to women’s sport. I am indebted to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation for the authoritative reports and statistics that it produces on women’s sport. Over the three days of the review, those newspapers published more than 1,500 articles on sport, yet only 2% were on women’s sport. TV sports schedules were also reviewed. On one Friday, of the 72 hours of sport broadcast on three Sky channels, only three were devoted to women’s sport. I am sad to say that the online coverage of women’s sport reviewed was little better—although I should mention the Sportsister website, which is dedicated to women’s sport. However, apart from that exception, on the 10 sports news internet sites that were reviewed on one day in April, only 1% of the links were to articles on female sports, and there was not a single image of a female athlete on the front page of the top 10 websites.
That is the normal situation outside the Olympics, but if that level of coverage had applied during the Olympics, we would have missed a great deal. Team GB women athletes won 22 of our 65 medals, 10 of them gold. If our women athletes had received only 1% or 2% of the news coverage during that time, we would possibly have seen some of Jessica Ennis’s gold in the heptathlon, but what would we have missed? We would have missed Nicola Adams winning the historic first gold in the boxing; Victoria Pendleton’s individual gold; the team gold for Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell, and Laura Trott’s gold in the omnium; the rowing golds—won when we had got hardly any gold medals—of Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins, and Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking; Charlotte Dujardin’s magnificent gold in the dressage and her gold in the mixed team dressage; and Jade Jones’s gold in the taekwondo.
If women’s sport in the Olympics had received only 5% of media coverage or three of the 72 hours of broadcast coverage, we would definitely not have seen Gemma Gibbons’s silver in the judo or her emotional response, which for many ranks as one of the high points of the Olympics; Christine Ohuruogu’s magnificent defence of her earlier performance, with a silver in the 400 metres; Rebecca Adlington’s bronzes in the 400 and 800 metres swimming; the women’s team bronze in hockey; Samantha Murray’s silver in the modern pentathlon; the bronze for Beth Tweddle—a wonderful gymnast at the end of her career—on the uneven bars; or even Lizzie Armitstead’s race for silver in the pouring rain, our very first medal for Team GB.
It would have been ridiculous if we had not seen those moments in the women’s events, yet that is what happens all the time outside the Olympics, with very few exceptions. There is netball coverage on Sky and some coverage of women’s football on the BBC, albeit not enough—although I should mention that BBC2 is showing the England women’s game against Croatia tomorrow, an important qualifier for Euro 2013. There was even some live coverage of the England women’s cricket team in the T20 recently, but there should be so much more coverage of women’s sport.
Let us take women’s rugby as an example. The Rugby Football Union feels that there are great opportunities for growth in women’s rugby. The numbers of those playing are up 91% since 2004, with more than 13,000 women and girls currently registered as playing rugby each week across 533 clubs. England hosted the 2010 women’s rugby world cup, which was deemed to be the most successful world cup to date. The legacy of that event was a much greater increase in the number of women taking up rugby than in ordinary years. However, although the RFU feels that there are great opportunities for growth in the women’s game, I feel that they will be hard to achieve at the current levels of media coverage, which I outlined earlier.
Does the hon. Lady agree that this is not only about encouraging women’s sport through the media of television, radio and so on? Is it not also about ensuring that there should be free entry to games wherever possible? For example, the Northern Ireland women’s football team are playing tomorrow night, and entry is free in order to encourage everyone to go. That is another way of encouraging media coverage and ensuring that games are promoted.
That is right, but that has not happened in women’s football. I have to say, however, that I would be much more comfortable if people were prepared to pay to watch women’s rugby and football, because I think that those games are as good as the men’s.
That leads me to the subject of the success of the England women’s rugby team. They are an extremely successful team internationally. In the 2011-12 season, our team beat the current champions, New Zealand, in a three-match test series, as well as winning their seventh six nations tournament in a row, which was also their sixth grand slam. The England women’s sevens team won the European championships, the European grand prix series and two out of three International Rugby Board challenge series events. Despite all that success, however, only two of the games were broadcast live throughout the whole season. England will host the rugby world cup in 2015, and we must ensure that plans are in place to reach the widest possible audience, in order to inspire women and girls to watch and play rugby.
What needs to be done? As the Secretary of State said in her letter to broadcasters, the Olympics and Paralympics have shone a spotlight on women’s sport, and we need to ensure that that continues after the games. She also highlighted the fact that the substantial television audiences for the summer Olympics illustrated the public appetite for mainstream coverage of women’s sport. Indeed, 16.3 million people watched Jessica Ennis win her heptathlon gold, and 11.3 million watched Rebecca Adlington win her bronze medal in the 800 metres freestyle swimming event. As we got further into the tournament, we also saw capacity audiences watching the England women’s football team, and it was a pity that the team did not make more progress.
I support the Secretary of State’s initiative and her proposal to meet those broadcasters, but there is a need to go much further. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has identified three priority areas. First and foremost, there should be more media coverage of women’s sport. We need that increased media profile because it will be crucial to drive public interest and to fill the grounds for games. It will also be vital to drive the commercial sponsorship of women’s sport. Let us remember that women in sport are unfairly treated in that regard. They have only 1% of the total commercial sponsorship of sport. When we think of our great women cyclists, we must remember that there is no Team Sky for women. Lizzie Armitstead cycles in a team based in the Netherlands, which I understand is losing its sponsor at the end of 2012 She has had fabulous medals success, but will have no sponsorship by the end of the year.
As a second priority, our female athletes need to be showcased as role models. Having positive, active role models is crucial if girls and young women are to be inspired to lead physically active, healthy lifestyles. Surveys conducted since the Olympics have shown that 81% of adults agree that the female athletes at London 2012 were better role models than other female celebrities. It is not about dieting to be slim; it could be about exercising to be slim.
Thirdly, we must concentrate on increased leadership. Only 22% of leadership positions in sport are held by women. That figure needs to increase to ensure that sport is governed and run in ways that appeal to the widest possible market. I would like the Secretary of State to tell me whether she regards those three areas as priorities, and what action her Department plans to take on them in the coming months.
Finally, the all-party parliamentary group on women’s sport and fitness has asked the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to consider undertaking an inquiry into the media profile of women’s sport. Through the medium of this debate, I would like to urge the Chair and members of the Select Committee to consider that proposal, because this is absolutely the key time to make a difference to women’s sport.
I rise to address the issue of increasing the flexibility of labour markets, and the effect that it can have on small business growth. In doing so, I pay tribute to the many actions this Government have taken to encourage businesses, particularly small businesses. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s huge achievement in maintaining our triple A credit rating status is worthy of note, thus keeping interest rates low, which has assisted businesses up and down the country to invest. Also important is the continuing reduction in corporation tax levels, which I think most businesses feel is most welcome.
When it comes to labour market flexibility, and particularly supply-side flexibility, we might usefully view it through the prism of one of the great macro-economic conundrums this country faces: on the one hand, we have reductions in unemployment and increases in employment, yet on the other hand, we have the apparently contradictory information that growth has been negative over the last three quarters. Some of that could be due to the fact that gross domestic product has been underestimated over that time, which would be consistent with the history of these circumstances when recessions are typically estimated at the time to be more severe than they are subsequently assessed as being. That certainly happened in 1990-91—three years later, economists decided that the recession had been 40% less deep than it had been estimated at that particular time.
Declining unemployment is probably due to increases in part-time employment, but also to the extremely positive action taken by Ministers and the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, which has encouraged people off welfare and into work. There is one other reason why the employment figures might appear to trump the growth figures—our extremely flexible labour markets, which are due, in turn, to the supply-side flexibility introduced in the 1980s. Ironically, there are probably many thousands of people up and down this country who owe their current livelihood to the courage Margaret Thatcher had in the 1980s to improve the supply side of our economy.
Why, then, as I would argue, do we need to go further in reducing supply-side rigidities if our labour markets are so flexible as they stand? The reason is that we are competing in an internationally competitive global marketplace in which our future competitors are not going to be simply the likes of France and Germany, as we will increasingly be bumping shoulders with the likes of China and India, which have extremely flexible labour markets indeed.
If we are to improve labour market flexibility, it will have at least two effects on business. One is that it will make it easier for them to transact business; the second is that it will send a very positive message to businesses that the Government are very serious about supporting entrepreneurship and business. That will be particularly important, given that this country currently suffers from a lack of business confidence. UK plc is sitting on some £750 billion-worth of cash, which is not being released to invest in jobs and growth simply because it lacks the confidence to do so.
I think we should take some further action, and I strongly believe in the comments made by the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses to the effect that we should look at the area of employment-protected leave of absence or maternity and paternity leave, and particularly at how it affects small businesses and micro-businesses.
Let me clarify, first, that I strongly believe in and adhere to the principle of employment rights. It is quite right and proper in a civilised society that companies and Governments should be helpful to women at their time of child birth and beyond. It is also an important tool of policy for ensuring that we increase and improve the engagement of women within the work force. That is my starting point, but I believe that our balance has become out of balance: it is now too much in favour of rights and there is too little emphasis on the onerous provisions that apply to businesses.
Last year, I asked the Library to prepare a comparative grid to show the levels of various maternity rights across various countries in the world. It is certainly the case that we are not the most generous, but we are among the most generous. In Australia, for example, the entitlement is to 18 weeks; in Greece, it is to 17 weeks; in India, it is 12 weeks—but in the United Kingdom, it is 52 weeks. Let us consider the problem that that may cause an employer in the United Kingdom, particularly a small employer whose business consists of, say, between six and 12 people. A key member of staff, such as a senior manager or director, is able to be absent from the workplace for more than a year—over 52 weeks. The employer must then make a contribution to maternity pay, and, in some circumstances, continue to provide a company car and a mobile telephone and pay for any membership of clubs or organisations that may have been granted as a work-related benefit.
Moreover, the absent employee will have been accruing holiday leave, and it is entirely possible that, at the end of the 52 weeks, the business will have to pay in full for the employee to be absent for a further month, or even two months. Any options agreements or share incentive schemes will continue as normal, although the employee may not be present to make any contribution to the success of the business. The employer will also continue to pay in full any pension contributions that have previously applied.
Huge uncertainty is caused by the fact that employees do not have to inform their employers whether they will be returning to the workplace until the period of absence is well under way. It is quite conceivable that, in a company with six to 12 employees, a senior individual who has been absent from the workplace will not inform the employer until the 11th hour—after an absence of at least a year—that he or she will not be coming back.
We should also bear it in mind that replacing expertise does not involve like-for-like funding. Acquiring a locum can be very expensive for a small business, and as a result the owner of the business often ends up doing two jobs throughout the period of the employee’s absence.
That is an extremely important point. One of the problems with excessively onerous employment rights of this nature is that they build up a fair amount of resentment among existing members of the work force who are often expected to work longer hours or, indeed, to change the pattern of their work in order to accommodate the person who is absent.
In no way do I wish to attack the notion of rights of this kind. I think that they are very important, for the reasons that I have given, but I hope that the Government will look closely at the balance in how they operate, particularly in the case of micro-businesses employing 10 people or fewer.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating today’s debate.
Six years ago, in August 2006, Luke Molnar, the 17-year-old son of my constituents Gill and Steve Molnar, died on the island of Tokoriki. Luke was a paying volunteer on a diving expedition arranged by a UK-based company, Coral Cay Conservation Ltd. On the day of his death, he went to assist a friend who had received an electric shock when he touched a washing line. When Luke touched the line, he received a massive electric shock which killed him.
It transpired that a local electrician had wired the washing line to the electricity supply in order to run power to a number of huts that were being used as accommodation for the volunteers. A coroner’s inquest held in Manchester in 2011 returned a verdict of unlawful killing and the electrician awaits trial in Fiji, but no proceedings have been taken against Coral Cay or its then directors. The company has since been taken over, and is under new ownership.
At Luke’s inquest, the coroner identified significant shortcomings in Coral Cay’s health and safety procedures, and highlighted the discrepancy between the claims made in documents and on its website with regard to the emphasis that it placed on health and safety and its actual practice. The coroner also noted that Mr and Mrs Molnar had placed great credence in Coral Cay’s claims about its approach to health and safety: that full and careful health and safety checks were carried out; that personnel on site were fully trained; and that there would be a full risk assessment of the site. None of that turned out to be the case.
Following the inquest, the coroner wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills under rule 43 of the coroners rules, setting out his view that the regulation of companies offering such trips abroad, particularly for young people, should be carefully and closely monitored to ensure that the claims made in their literature and on websites were lived up to. I was very pleased when the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), met Mr and Mrs Molnar with me last September to discuss how that might work. It was broadly agreed at that meeting that the best way forward would be to work with the British Standards Institution to determine whether British Standard 8848—which covers such overseas activities and which is strongly supported by the Molnars as representing a gold standard—could be made more robust, whether approval processes for the standard could be strengthened, and whether a certification scheme could be put in place.
As a result, the Molnars and I have had useful discussions with BSI officers about the processes that exist. The conclusion that we have drawn is that there is currently a deeply confusing plethora of organisations, companies and standards. As a result, parents cannot rely on claims made by overseas adventure companies that their activities have been objectively assessed to comply with rigorous safety standards. Put simply, parents do not know what they can believe.
I have to say that the matter was not much helped by a parliamentary written answer I received on 22 May 2012 from the then Minister for Schools, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). His response served to paint a picture of real confusion about the appropriate role of the Health and Safety Executive, the learning outside the classroom regime, BS 8848 and a range of organisations that purport to assess whether safety standards are being met. Some of those organisations doubtless do an excellent job, but the overall landscape is a minefield for parents desperate to be assured that their children will be safe.
Let me repeat that the Molnars and I strongly support BS 8848, which covers overseas activities. We also acknowledge the role that the learning outside the classroom regime plays, but I suggest to Ministers that its purpose is, in fact, different: although it purports to cover safety aspects of overseas activities, it is primarily a learning-focused, rather than a safety-focused, standard, and many providers and schools prefer BS 8848 for these activities as a result. As for the HSE, I am surprised that in that written answer the then Minister suggested that the work it is doing to develop a code of practice to replace the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority was a potential solution. The HSE has no jurisdiction overseas—and, in any case, I understand that that work is on hold.
I ask Ministers to consider more carefully how to promote the adoption of BS 8848 as the industry standard with which all overseas providers will be expected to comply, and also to consider, along with the BSI and as part of the five-year review of the standard now in progress, whether that standard could, and should, be extended to UK activities as well. I also invite Ministers to support the establishment of an independent register so that parents can be absolutely clear about whether an organisation’s claims to meet health and safety standards are merely self-declared or have been independently evaluated. I would like to see the elimination of duplication between the different accreditation systems, including the learning outside the classroom regime, BS 8848 and whatever eventually replaces the AALA, and clarity about their different purposes and roles. I would also like to see action to simplify and strengthen oversight regimes, so that independent evaluation and accreditation is put in place.
No one, least of all the Molnars, whose son was a keen and excellent diver, wants to stifle or prevent young people from participating in adventure activities overseas. No one wants to create a complicated bureaucratic structure that prices companies out of compliance, and no one can want one single further avoidable death. It is abundantly clear that the current system is confused and deficient, and Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that a regime that is fit for purpose is put in place. I passionately ask the Deputy Leader of the House to do all he can to secure a meaningful response from his colleagues in all relevant Departments on the steps they will take now to ensure that that is what will be achieved.
We are all aware of the three main emergency services, the fire, ambulance and police services, all of which are available to all of us whenever we need them. However, I want to talk about another emergency service—the mountain rescue service. It is called upon by the fire, ambulance and police services, and it stands by not only to help climbers and walkers who are in trouble, but to assist rural communities when conventional services cannot get to where they have to because of the weather. So when, on a winter’s day in Glossop in my constituency, which is very hilly, the ambulance service cannot get up a certain road, it will call the mountain rescue to help out.
The mountain rescue service, unlike its publicly funded counterparts, relies on a network of 3,500 volunteers operating in 56 teams nationally. Four of those teams are in my constituency—the Buxton, Edale, Glossop and Kinder teams, all of which I have visited. Every time I visit, I leave very impressed by what they do. Each team is a self-contained unit with its own equipment, supplies, vehicles and communications. The teams carry equipment required to remain operational—unsupported—for more than 12 hours, and they are trained in first aid and casualty care.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said in the past that in a
“cold snap, the values of the Big Society are more important than ever…Volunteers in mountain rescue teams worked round the clock to help the stranded…We should celebrate that community spirit.”
They are fine words, but celebrating the community spirit is not enough; we should support these men and women, who risk their own well-being in appalling conditions to save and help others. I am talking about people such as my constituent Paul Hitchen. On three occasions when I have been out with him and his wife socially, he has left us early because he has been called out to go up on Kinder Scout to rescue ramblers, hikers and the like. This has been in weather that may not have appeared too bad in the towns and the villages, but it can be a very different world on the hills of High Peak.
The Government do not fund the mountain rescue service; we do not fund it as a country. We actually take revenue from its funds, which goes into the Treasury’s coffers. It is estimated that if central Government had to provide these services, the cost would be about £6 million a year. I wish to acknowledge the funding for the mountain rescue that was announced last year, which will help the teams, but the vast majority of their money comes from voluntary donations; they do bag packs, coin collections and all sorts of other things to raise their money. Not only is that money necessary to purchase the vehicles, fuel, equipment and clothing they need to do their job, but the service also has to fund about £250,000 of VAT that is payable to the Exchequer each year.
It has been suggested that, while acknowledging the need to tax mountain rescue sympathetically, the Government would not want to pursue a policy that would favour one charity over another. However, distinctions are made elsewhere: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution can reclaim VAT and can access red diesel; St John Ambulance can claim back VAT on fuel and vehicles; and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can do the same in respect of its rescue vehicles. The mountain rescue is not able to access many of the benefits that those other charities enjoy.
Some vehicles enjoy access to fuel that is not subject to duty, known as red diesel. Red diesel has a significantly reduced tax levy compared with the undyed diesel fuel used in the ordinary diesel road vehicles that many of us drive. It can be used in registered vehicles such as tractors, forestry vehicles, excavators, snowploughs, gritters and boats. Working vehicles, including four-wheel drives that are used mainly on the land, can also use red diesel regardless of whether they are being used commercially or for charitable purposes as long as the vehicle is used on a public road only for a distance of no more than 1.5 km while passing between different areas of land occupied by the same person. So, if the mountain rescue teams owned the land on which they operated or restricted their activities to specified national parks, they could get the lower fuel duty. They are volunteers acting for the benefit of the whole community who are willing to go out and help whenever and wherever they are needed and that works against them.
Let me give the example of a cold winter day in High Peak, on Kinder Scout, with a sheep in distress in one field and a rambler in another field. The farmer going to help the sheep could go up using red diesel, whereas the mountain rescue team bringing back the hiker would pay the full price for diesel. That team is going to rescue someone in distress, so to me the difference in the price paid seems wrong.
At sea, all rescue vehicles qualify to use red diesel. On land, conventional ambulances qualify yet they cannot get to the difficult terrain where the mountain rescue teams need to go. Yet again, mountain rescue pays for the fuel. Over the past decade, rescue teams in England and Wales have paid about £500,000 in tax on fuel as well as VAT on other items that they have had to purchase to carry out their work.
In answer to a written question, the then Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), said:
“It would be difficult to make a clear distinction between vehicles used by mountain rescue teams and privately owned vehicles”.—[Official Report, 14 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 487W.]
I do not believe that to be the case and if I had more time—I am conscious that many other Members wish to speak—I could dismantle that argument. I believe that a mountain rescue vehicle dedicated to mountain rescue—let us face it, they are usually big ambulances with logos and so on all over them—could quite easily be allowed to run on red diesel.
The growing burden of high fuel costs and high inflation and the downward pressure on wages, particularly in rural areas such as High Peak, means that volunteers are less likely to be able to finance the provision of the service and I think we should help them. There has been a spectacular lack of common sense in seeking a way forward. The cost to the Treasury of permitting vehicles that are registered to mountain rescue teams and used for mountain rescue purposes and for no other to use red diesel would be negligible in the grand scheme of things. It would be simple to introduce and to police.
When national or regional emergencies devastate areas of the UK, mountain rescue is the only service that can help. It is adaptable and can go anywhere at any time. I think it is time that we replaced the warm words of support and congratulation with some practical action to help. No more excuses. No more time for reflection. Let us have some action. We could do a lot. We could make the change on red diesel that I am calling for today. We could make a direct payment to rebate the VAT, we could revise the ambulance rules to allow more all-terrain vehicles to qualify or we could just offer a direct grant.
I am aware of the difficult financial circumstances in this country, as we all are, so I ask the Treasury to allow mountain rescue to use red diesel in their own vehicles—I am sorry that no Treasury Minister is in the Chamber, but I hope the message gets back as I am determined to keep pressing the point. It would save each and every team in this country money that would help them to continue to provide the service. Some of us might never have used it, but I suspect that we will all—particularly those of us with rural seats—know somebody who has seen it in action. For example, the mountain rescue website gives details today of a busy weekend for the Buxton mountain rescue team.
I once set off on Kinder Scout in shorts and a T-shirt—[Interruption.] Someone laughs, but I promise hon. Members that it is not that bad. As I got higher up, the weather got worse. Fortunately, as I am from the area I was well equipped but by the time I reached the top of Kinder Scout I was wearing three layers of waterproof clothing and had my torch, whistle and everything I needed. I still saw somebody coming back the other way wearing flip-flops, would you believe, because people set off from what seems like a different world. The only people who can get to them if they get into trouble are the mountain rescue. There are many examples, such as the people who get stuck in peat bogs because they follow a global positioning system or satellite navigation device on the hills. We are at the mercy of the elements in High Peak and mountain rescue is our lifeline.
I repeat my call and hope that the message gets back to the Treasury, because if it does not I shall keep repeating it. Let us consider allowing such vehicles to use red diesel. When the call comes to mountain rescue for assistance, doing nothing is not an option. Now, in my view, it is our turn. Doing nothing is not an option for us, so we should consider this idea. We should do it, because it will not cost a lot, it is easy and it will make a big difference to mountain rescue teams up and down the country.
As I was coming to today’s debate, I thought of all the issues that are pertinent to my constituency and, I suspect, to all hon. Members’ constituencies, such as tax credits and housing benefit, both of which I hear about regularly in my constituency office. There are so many concerns that my constituents have spoken to me about and asked me to speak about. I have chosen to speak about the appeals against decisions on employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, which increasingly make up the greater part of my work load. It used to be housing and planning, but benefit issues now make up an equal amount of my work load.
Where do we begin on this issue? The best thing to do is probably to illustrate it with an example. One situation that still concerns me is that those who are recovering from cancer are being turned down for ESA and other support. I met a gentleman—this is truthful—who had 30 bouts of radiotherapy and 15 chemotherapy sessions to help him put his cancer into remission, and it has worked so far—thank the Lord. However, since the treatment, he has been unable to put the weight back on and has no appetite, leaving him a tiny 7 stone in weight. Anyone who knew him before the treatment and saw him today would know exactly what I am talking about. In our part of the country, we would say that he is skin and bones, as he clearly is, after all he has been through. He is lethargic, tired, severely underweight, but that is not taken into account in the standard ESA tests. Therefore, despite the fact that he is recovering from cancer and is in no fit state to work, his application was turned down. It would be dangerous for him to go into a working environment, yet that is what he has been asked to do.
Whenever these cases are taken to an appeals tribunal and the people there look at the circumstances, I sometimes wonder whether they do not see what I see. I cannot understand why they do not see a person’s inability to pass a test?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the big problems is the time involved in getting to an appeal. I had a case some weeks ago in which an individual went without money for his family for about nine weeks. Surely, that cannot be right?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and wholeheartedly agree with what he says. I could give a number of examples of constituents who have to travel a great distance to get to an appeal. The stress and trauma that they go through to get to the appeal before it is even heard is incredible.
We are all very aware of the financial situation that we find ourselves in—everyone has referred to it—the savings that need to be made and the fact that no one should receive a benefit unless they are entitled to it. I do not think that anyone here disagrees with that, but common sense would say that a person who has fought cancer and is in the early stages of recovery is entitled to a little help because they physically cannot work. It is little wonder that Macmillan Cancer Support has said that 40% of cancer survivors in Northern Ireland say that not all their health and social care needs are met and that cancer sufferers have ill health for years after. Although the circumstances in Northern Ireland are not unique, I suggest that perhaps in other parts of the United Kingdom they are probably equal to that. That needs to be taken into account when the standard ESA tests are carried out. Cancer has no one standard to fall into. To disallow people the help that they need when they are entitled to it is not acceptable and, I believe, must be addressed.
Macmillan Cancer Support recently sent me a brief—I am sure that many Members also received it—that makes for uncomfortable reading for those in government who have made the decisions on the changes and how they affect those people. Macmillan strongly believes that the Lords amendments on employment and support allowance are votes for compassion, common sense and compromise—the three Cs—and are very important. Few of us are untouched by cancer—indeed, I suspect that every family has been touched by cancer at some time—and many face financial uncertainty as well. It is clear that they should receive ESA and not be forced into work when they are still recovering.
One of the issues that have recently come to my attention is that 80% of my constituents who have gone to appeal have been successful, which is a startling result. I would have expected the figure to be up to around 50%, or about a third. That shows that the initial assessments, as we discussed in Committee when this was coming through Parliament, have got it wrong. The current system for giving out these assessments is wrong.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which will apply elsewhere, although perhaps not as much as in my area, where a number of ESA and DLA appeals are regularly fought and won after the wrong decision was made the first time around. That shows that changes are needed.
I am also concerned that blind and partially sighted people are being excluded from ESA payments, despite the Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of an independent review last year to improve the work capability assessment process. Many constituents have sent me copies of the Royal National Institute of Blind People briefing paper. They are concerned, and it would be remiss of me not to raise the issues in the House or to appeal to the Government to consider them.
ESA gives vital support to blind, partially sighted and other disabled people who are unable to work, and provides them with immediate employment support to move towards work, where they are able to do so. Since April 2011, it has no longer been possible for blind or partially sighted people to qualify for ESA and the vital support that it gives, because changes to the assessment criteria fail to recognise the barriers that they face in relation to work. That has dramatic consequences for the individuals concerned, by unfairly forcing blind and partially sighted people on to jobseeker’s allowance, with an associated loss in income and vital support to prepare for work. They lose benefits when they come off such programmes. The severe disability premium would give them a better quality of life, by giving them more money to bring in people to care for them.
In November 2011, the independent review, led by Professor Harrington, of the work capability assessment recommended that consideration be given to the need to review the sensory loss descriptors, which are the criteria used to assess entitlement for ESA. The Government accepted that recommendation, but as yet no concrete action has been taken to change the assessment, so blind and partially sighted people continue to lose out. It is frustrating that, despite the recommendations and despite the fact that the Government asked for them, we have not moved on and achieved the vital changes that are needed.
The current impracticalities can be addressed only through revised descriptors in the communication and navigation activities of the WCA. To be specific, new descriptors should reflect the real challenges of obtaining a job, including ones concerned with awareness and with locating and finding.
I will focus on some of the key activities and illustrate the problems faced by those who apply for ESA and those who are blind and partially sighted. Activity 4 is an area of concern. It focuses on picking up and moving or transferring of an object by the use of the upper body and arms and manual dexterity. For someone who is blind or partially sighted, descriptors in this activity fail to account for whether the person can see, locate and know where safely to put the object. The criteria assessment and the questions asked of blind and partially sighted people do not even realise how that affects them—they should, but they do not.
Activity 7 centres on understanding communication, and there are practical problems relating to a claimant’s ability to read Braille. The addition of the ability to read Braille to understand a basic message was not in the previous guidance. If the objective is to consider adaptation—and it should be—a notice detailing the location of a fire exit in Braille is simply not realistic, unless the workplace is specifically and totally geared towards Braille readers.
Further impracticality arises from the expectation put on the interaction between a stranger and a blind person. It is inconceivable that a stranger would walk up to a blind person and hand them a sheet of Braille, especially in the context of a fire. That should not be used as a proxy to satisfy the descriptor and assessment on understanding communication by non-verbal means. It is another simple illustration of how the ESA process does not work for those who are blind and partially sighted.
Activity 8 is on navigating and its “getting about” descriptor scores only nine points for someone who needs to be accompanied around familiar and unfamiliar places. If the intention is to measure impairment functionality, the need to be accompanied is not a sign of adaptation, so the person should be able to score 15 points. Again, that descriptor should be changed, so that those who have limited capability because they are blind or partially sighted qualify for the 15 points and, therefore, for ESA.
The last activity is the awareness of everyday hazards. The descriptors in that activity are too narrow and apply only to people with cognitive impairments. They do not adequately consider the impact of sight loss.
Extremely ill people, people with health problems and people with sight problems who really need help and are looking to the system to provide it cannot get it. The descriptors prevent them from qualifying, when the opposite should be the case. My office is inundated with appeals against DLA decisions because of the guidelines that are in place. Over and again, the same problems are occurring, which is frustrating.
I watch people struggle into my advice centre who can hardly walk, who are suffering from cancer or who do not have the quality of life that the rest of us take for granted. I help them to fill out their forms correctly, which can take an hour and a half or two hours, in the hope that they will get the funds that they need to get the help that they cannot do without. They cannot afford to pay for carers because they do not have the funds that they need. The forms are complex and difficult.
I will give another example of how the system lets people down. I once fought a DLA appeal for a man who had only one leg. His other leg had been amputated. He suffered from diabetes to such an extent that he had to wake up during the night to inject himself. He also suffered from Crohn’s disease and—this is a very personal issue—he often soiled himself during the night before he could get to his crutches and make his way to the toilet. Despite all that, he was turned down for DLA.
I ask myself over and again, “Who are the people who are making these decisions? Do they really grasp what is going on? Do they know what problems the person who has applied for DLA or ESA has?” I would like to take them into that man’s house for one night and leave them to care for him. The next day, they would understand his problems. That would be a good example for most of these people.
I urge the Government to do the right thing by the most vulnerable in our society. I know that this is an Adjournment debate and that the Deputy Leader of the House will reply, but perhaps this will filter through to the people who make the decisions. Of course, we have to consider the money ledger and should not ignore the financial circumstances that the country is in, but we have to consider people’s lives and their mental health.
I see the frustration and anxiety of those who have depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. One woman who comes into my office screams in frustration and says that she will end her life because she is so stressed out by the forms after forms that come to her house. She says that she has no reason to live and that the pressure of filling in the forms becomes overwhelming. She then does not eat, which is another problem. That leaves the girls in my office distressed at the system. It does not take into account the state of this lady’s mental health, when it should do so, and does not understand what the issues are. That disconcerts me.
That woman could not find employment in any workplace. I am not an expert, but when I see people, I can near enough judge whether they are able to work. This lady would not be able to work. She has been trailed through appeal after appeal and wins each time. One wonders whether anybody looks at the background. The girls in my office are concerned that one day they will ring up to check on her and she will not answer.
The Government are right to stop those who are not entitled to benefits from claiming them. However, some people are entitled to help, and they seem to be the ones who are suffering the most. The ball is clearly in the Government’s court. What will history record about what has been done with the vulnerable and the needy? I hope that it will be positive.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about Sunday trading. The point that I want to make is simple.
As Members may recall, on 30 April this year, the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act 2012 was passed. Its effect was to extend Sunday trading hours temporarily during the limited period of 22 July to 9 September.
During the debate on the Bill, I expressed my concerns about those proposals, and in particular about whether they would be used as a precedent for a further—or permanent—extension of Sunday trading hours. I will not repeat those concerns in detail as they are on the record, but they included: the potentially negative impact on family and community life; the need for us all—as individuals and as a nation—to have a recognised rest period each week for our health and well-being; and the potential consequential pressure to work on Sundays, especially for some of the lowest-paid workers in our society, and the subsequent strain on their families. I also referred to concerns raised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and to the fact that for many people of faith, Sunday still has a special significance.
The hon. Lady is raising an issue that is crucial to our nation’s trade. Was she as concerned as I was on hearing the word “temporary”, which sometimes does not mean what it says on the tin? Temporary provisions in Northern Ireland lasted 30 years, but I hope that through the hon. Lady’s speech, we can obtain absolute clarity that temporary means temporary, and that the extension to the trading laws will cease on the date that was given to Parliament when this matter was first raised.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because obtaining such clarity is exactly the purpose of my contribution to the debate.
My concerns—and other concerns—were shared by several colleagues during the debate on 30 April. Responding to the debate, the then Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), stated:
“The concern has been expressed that this Bill is somehow a Trojan horse, preparing the way for a permanent relaxation of the rules for large stores. Let me assure hon. Members again that that is not the case.”
Referring to my particular concerns about the impact on families and family time, he stated:
“I think she is absolutely right, so let me say to her that the Bill affects just eight Sundays and the deliberate inclusion of a sunset clause means that the Bill will be removed from the statute book after 9 September. Indeed, as the Secretary of State has made clear, if a future Government were to consider a permanent relaxation, they would have to undertake a full consultation and present new legislation to this House. As the Secretary of State also pointed out, we have no such plans.”—[Official Report, 30 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 1352-53.]
I was pleased to hear the Minister’s words and I took them as a personal assurance, although I still abstained rather than vote for the proposals. I understood, however, that many of my colleagues also took those words as a firm assurance on behalf of the Government that the temporary alterations to Sunday trading hours would not be further extended or used as a precedent, and hon. Members voted accordingly on that basis.
Some weeks later, towards the end of the wonderful Olympic and Paralympic period of which our nation is so rightly proud, suggestions circulated in the press— I know not from what source they originated—that a permanent deregulation of Sunday trading hours should perhaps be considered, following the limited extension period.
Such suggestions were completely at odds with the statements expressed by more than one Minister during the passage of the Bill. Another Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), stated at the time:
“I want to make it clear that this is a temporary measure and not a test case for a permanent relaxation of the rules in the future”,
and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills stated that the Bill was
“not a signal of the Government’s intent on the broader issue of Sunday trading;”. —[Official Report, 30 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 1293.]
In the light of recent press speculation about a possible further extension to Sunday trading hours, I seek today, either from the Deputy Leader of the House, or after the debate from the new the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), clear confirmation that the assurance given on behalf of the Government still stands, and that despite references to an extension of Sunday trading hours, the Government have no such plans. The Government’s assurance was carefully noted not only by me and many colleagues in the House, but—crucially—by many millions of people across the country.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House and the responsible Minister will take this point in the spirit of the utmost courtesy with which I express it, but there is an issue of integrity here. In issuing the confirmation that I seek, Ministers would put an end to continuing speculation that is a cause of concern to many. Of course, the extension of Sunday trading hours was in neither coalition party’s manifesto nor in the coalition agreement.
I turn to some comments that have been made since the summer extension of hours. The British Retail Consortium has recently announced that it does not want to lobby for permanent deregulation of Sunday trading hours. According to Retail Week magazine, momentum for a permanent change among retailers has begun to wane, which may be a result of the BRC’s announcement that retail sales fell by 0.4% in August, compared with August 2011 on a like-for-like basis, with no sign of the Olympic boost that was promoted as a reason for the temporary extension. According to the Association of Convenience Stores, independent retailers reported a loss of sales of up to 20% and a 30% drop in footfall over the Olympic period. That reported negative impact is of considerable concern to many small retailers, which often live on narrow margins, and to their employees.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I understand from answers to written questions that I have tabled on the issue that the Government are proposing to produce their own analysis of sales over the Olympic period. May I venture to suggest that any analysis would be of questionable conclusive value due to a number of variables that influenced retail sales during the Olympics, not least the fact that they were a wholly unique event? There was also the differing proximity of retail outlets to Olympic venues, the weather and the coincidental holiday period.
I remind the House that the Government have already given extensive consideration to a review of Sunday trading hours in their retail growth review and their red tape challenge. In both instances the policy was rigorously explored, and I understand that a clear view was formed that there was no need to amend the current trading hours, which represented
“a valued compromise for all parties.”
I should add that many people would welcome more protection for Sundays as a day of rest and a day for families, friends and those of shared faith. I commend the work of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which continues to make a strong case for keeping Sunday a different and special day in our national life.
If shops were open longer, that would not mean that consumers had the funds or the inclination to buy more goods. Our quieter high streets during the Olympic period showed that, including some of the Cheshire high streets about which I have inquired.
Far from being pro-growth, any proposal further to extend our already long retail trading hours may actually have the opposite impact, as work or productivity expands to fill the time allotted, as the old saying goes. I am reminded of accounts that I have heard from during the war, when factories seeking to increase their production moved to a seven-day working week and found that production actually decreased. A subsequent return to six-day production led to an increase. The day of rest proved its value.
I wish to give two quotations from senior business leaders. They were not necessarily made subsequent to the Olympic period, but they are worth putting on the record. Justin King, Sainsbury’s chief executive, has said:
“We’re content that Sunday is special and we don’t see customer demand for a change in the current law.”
The former Marks and Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose has said:
“The fact of the matter is you simply spread the same amount of business over a longer period, but with more operating costs. It’s a zero-sum game.”
Time with family—time to care—is important. So many people at the end of their lives say, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family; I wish I’d spent more time caring.” We have all heard the expression that not many people, if anyone, would say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, and I doubt that anyone will say, “I wish I’d spent more time shopping.”
I have been encouraged to hear it reported recently that the Prime Minister, on being asked whether he would support changes to the law in this regard, responded:
“We said at the time it was a specific thing for the Olympics and that was the proposal that we made.”
I request from the Deputy Leader of the House, on behalf of BIS Ministers, clear and unequivocal confirmation of the assurance given in this House when the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill was debated and passed that the extension of trading hours for the period of the games was limited to that period and would not be extended. In doing so, he will put an end to the ongoing speculation and concern in this connection. I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I join her in hoping that we can rely on the assurances given during the passage of the Bill on Sunday trading.
Following the theme of relying on assurances and promises given, I want to talk about my constituent Gary McKinnon. I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House, who will respond to the debate. He is in a good position to do so, having been on the picket line, in effect, to protest about the treatment of Gary McKinnon. Earlier this year, he tweeted:
“DC must intervene on medical grounds to stop extradition proceedings.”
I could not put it better myself, and I hope that his response will echo that statement. In making it, he is in good company. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the Attorney-General and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice have all stood shoulder to shoulder with others in the House, and others who have not been able to come here today, who stand alongside Gary McKinnon and the many campaigners on his behalf.
This could be, and I hope that it is, the last debate that we need to have on Gary McKinnon before a decision is finally made. The Prime Minister has said:
“Gary McKinnon is a vulnerable young man and I see no compassion in sending him thousands of miles away from his home and loved ones to face trial.”
In 2009, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“It is certainly wrong to send a vulnerable young man to his fate in the United States when he could and should be tried here instead. It is simply a matter of doing the right thing.”
He went on to say:
“Government Ministers have let this sorry saga drag on for seven years, heaping misery on Mr McKinnon, his family and his supporters.”
We are now 10 years into the sorry saga, with misery still heaped on Mr McKinnon, his family and his supporters. The Deputy Prime Minister also said in 2009:
“It would be fair and it would be right to try Mr McKinnon in Britain. But the clock is ticking. The Prime Minister just needs to pick up the phone to make this prosecution happen, I urge him to do so, before it is too late.”
The Attorney-General asked the Conservative party conference:
“Can someone tell me how counter-terrorism will be served by extraditing Gary McKinnon to the United States for hacking into Government computers in search of UFOs?”
The new Justice Secretary has said:
“I hope the House of Commons will send a message to the Government that really this is not what the extradition system is supposed to do. These new rules were set up for very serious offences, for terror offences. I don’t believe Parliament ever intended them to be used to extradite somebody with autism issues to face a charge like this.”
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s dedication over a long period in sticking up for his constituent, and I join him in what he is saying. Does he agree that it beggars belief that this has taken so long and we still do not have a decision? Does he agree that millions of people—the vast majority throughout the United Kingdom—want this case to end in justice for Gary McKinnon and his family and to put an end, once and for all, to the ridiculous idea that he should be sent to the United States?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been very much an hon. Friend in the campaign over many years. Indeed, 10 years is an extraordinary time for someone to have his life hanging by a thread. Countless people are alongside my constituent and this must end—it must happen.
I wanted to bring the debate to the House because after today we are not sitting for a while and this is the time when we must reflect on why a decision has not been made, promises have not yet been kept and justice has not yet been delivered for Gary McKinnon. I have initiated a number of debates and been involved in others on extradition arrangements but specifically on Gary McKinnon, my constituent. Sometimes we forget and need to be briefly reminded of the chronology.
In March 2002, Gary McKinnon was arrested in his north London flat for allegedly hacking into NASA and Pentagon computers from his bedroom, where he was searching for UFOs and free energy. For 10 years, this young man with Asperger’s has been living every day, every hour and every minute in a very dark tunnel around his autism, and no light has come in, and living under the constant threat of extradition. However, in May 2010 the then Home Secretary stepped in to halt the extradition process, saying that we needed to review and consider medical evidence. I commend her very much for taking that step. In October 2010, the Prime Minister announced that the decision would be given in a matter of weeks, not months, but we are still here, waiting.
In November 2010, the Home Office requested further medical reports. As time has gone by, medical reports and assessments by the very top experts in the field of autism and Asperger’s have taken place. The case for keeping Gary McKinnon here has not got weaker; it has got stronger.
New evidence has been submitted to the Home Office from Professor Murphy in particular, and from Dr Vermeulen, Professor Jeremy Turk and Professor Baron-Cohen. All have concluded that Gary McKinnon is an extreme suicide risk. In April this year, Dr Vermeulen said that Gary McKinnon was unfit for trial and an extreme suicide risk. Professor Jeremy Turk said in his 2012 report:
“In my professional expert opinion I continue to believe that Mr McKinnon can and will commit suicide rather than be extradited to the United States… Mr McKinnon continues to be in one of the most fragile of mental states imaginable and the reality of his mental distress and of the grave threat to his life continues to be very real.”
Based on his face-to-face assessment of Gary McKinnon in April this year, Professor Baron-Cohen said:
“In my opinion, Gary’s diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome remains very clear, and he is at very high suicide risk. He has an autistic unshakeable belief that… his only logical solution to avoid this outcome”—
The position is that we have had three 2012 face-to-face assessments. My constituent has always agreed to be assessed by any experts in the field of autism and Asperger’s. The problem we have had in recent months is that the Home Office has insisted on the involvement of another expert, Professor Fahy—no doubt an eminent expert, but not an expert specifically in the field of autism. We therefore need to bear in mind the words of Professor Jeremy Turk, who has overseen the care of Gary McKinnon, pretty much throughout. Professor Turk is an expert in Asperger’s and he said:
“I am happy to go on record as believing that Gary has had an incredible number of most scholarly and expert opinions which are striking in their agreement and consensus regarding his having Asperger Syndrome, and a major and life-threatening depressive disorder. I see no indications, nor any utility, in exposing him to further evaluations, his single major need now being clarity regarding his status in relation to the spectre of extradition that continues to hang over him like A Sword of Damocles.”
We want to remove that sword from over his head. We say, on the last day before parliamentary recess, that that decision needs to be made now.
The Gary McKinnon case has highlighted serious flaws in extradition arrangements. There have been debates, a resolution of the House relating to a review, and changes to arrangements, but at the end of the day—this is the point of my speech—I concur with what the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“Yet this case is about more than legal technicalities and political treaties. It is about compassion”.
It is about an individual who is living a nightmare. He is not just a case, or someone who is part of a campaign; he is an individual—a son and a partner—whose life has been on hold for the past 10 years. I want the House to hear the words of his indefatigable campaigning mother. Her son is, in some respects, like a child. We know from the expert opinion that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen gave in 2008 that Gary McKinnon’s
“emotional age or social intelligence is at the level of a child”.
His mother says:
“He hasn’t raped anyone, he hasn’t murdered anyone, so can’t understand how this can be happening to him, as no matter how much anyone may choose to exaggerate his crime, the fact is that his crime was tapping on a keyboard in his bedroom in north London in search of information on aliens from outer space. Gary rarely ever leaves his home as he is traumatised to the core. A boy who cycled, swam, composed music and sang, now sits in the dark with his cats and never wants to see or speak to anyone.
He has no life, and is broken, like a wounded animal with no outlet and no hope, seeing only the dark side and the cruelty that exists in the world.
My only child has lost 10 years of his youth and has aged and died before my eyes.”
Perhaps people will say that a decision to keep Gary McKinnon here would set a precedent. Perhaps the Home Office says that it would set a precedent for terrorists facing extradition. Let us consider other cases. Hacker Ryan Cleary admitted hacking into the Pentagon, NASA and the US air force. Aaron Caffrey hacked into US security systems and brought the port of Houston to a halt immediately after 9/11. Like Gary McKinnon, both were accused of hacking; like him, both have autism and Asperger’s syndrome; but unlike him, both have been tried in the United Kingdom.
Let us consider the cases of Róisín McAliskey and Shawn Sullivan. Like Gary McKinnon, they face extradition to the United States; unlike him, they face extremely serious charges of terrorism and paedophilia, and unlike him, they have had extradition requests refused. The only precedent being set by Gary McKinnon is that of facing the threat of extradition for 10 years, living in conditions not far short of house arrest. It is more like what would happen to someone living in Burma than Britain. It would be unprecedented to extradite him in the face of such compelling medical evidence. It would be totally disproportionate when he could be tried in this country.
In conclusion, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to explain or find out—or, as is the convention, get a full Home Office response on—why a decision has not been made, given that two weeks have elapsed since the Olympics. We heard that the Home Secretary was overburdened and was, quite properly, focusing on the Olympics, but two weeks have gone by. The court set a deadline of 16 October, but can the Deputy Leader of the House assure us that the time scale for a decision is not affected by the parliamentary or party conference timetable, bearing in mind that Gary McKinnon’s life is hanging by a thread? If the decision cannot be made today, why not make it tomorrow? When a decision is made, will he ensure that the statement is made in the House?
Now is the time to decide. There is compelling medical evidence that provides a basis for a decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon, and to deliver justice and keep our promises to him. The final word goes to his mother, and I agree with what she says:
“Our government’s first duty is to protect British citizens, including our most vulnerable.”
There follow words to the Home Secretary:
“Please have the strength to do what is right and to give my son”,
and my constituent,
“his life back.”
Butterley reservoir spillway is located in the beautiful Yorkshire Pennine village of Marsden in my Colne Valley constituency. This stunning, stepped, stone spillway—not easy to say—was built by the Victorians between 1891 and 1906, and is a unique example of their engineering skill and endeavour. Overflow water from the reservoir flows down the stepped cascade, creating a wonderful visual image.
Yorkshire Water is poised to submit plans to rip out that stone-built, grade II-listed reservoir spillway and replace it with a concrete version. I have joined a rapidly growing group of local residents and heritage campaigners, backed by the cross-party support of local councillors, to form the Save Butterley Spillway campaign group, which has urged Yorkshire Water to repair and maintain the existing grade II-listed Victorian spillway, keeping it operational for regular water flows and to consider other options for containing unpredictable volumes of floodwater.
The Save Butterley Spillway group is not convinced that all options have been fully explored to preserve the unique heritage of this nationally significant Victorian structure. Indeed, Diane Ellis, one of the key members of the group, said:
“The village is popular with tourists, particularly walkers and cyclists, and visitors marvel at and admire Butterley spillway. The spillway looks like a grand staircase you might find at Chatsworth House or similar. As locals, we are very proud of it and we will do everything we can to save it”.
Yorkshire Water says that improvements to Butterley spillway are legally required to ensure that it is operationally fit for purpose and meets the very highest safety standards under the Reservoirs Act 1975. Yorkshire Water has reviewed and scrutinised its plans. The review involved members of Yorkshire Water, its contractors—Mott MacDonald Bentley—an independent panel engineer, local planners, and English Heritage. They looked again at solutions and said that they took into account criteria including reservoir safety legislation, health and safety legislation, heritage concerns and community feeling.
The outcome of the review, which was guided predominantly by the independent panel engineer, led to the same option that Yorkshire Water had originally proposed—to replace the existing listed spillway with a concrete structure. Yorkshire Water plans to use mouldings in an attempt to recreate the 100-year-old-plus stone look, but as one Marsden resident said, “Why would you be happy with a fake themed Irish Pub when you’ve just had the original thing destroyed?” To be fair, Yorkshire Water has consulted the local community and stakeholders, and it held a live webchat about this very subject this lunchtime. Later this month, Yorkshire Water intends to make an application for planning permission to Kirklees council, which will refer the matter to English Heritage, as it relates to a listed building.
The Save Butterley Spillway campaign group has three requests. First, we want full transparency of all documentation, including access to an unedited version of the panel engineer’s report. Yorkshire Water says that this is not possible, citing “The Control of Sensitive Water Company Information—Advice Note 11”, which apparently prevents it from making public certain information relating to details of strategic locations for reasons of public security. Will Ministers provide clarification on that?
Secondly, will the spillway remain listed? The position of English Heritage is that the existing proposal would involve the demolition of a listed building, and constitutes “substantial harm”, which must be fully justified, as set out in the national planning policy framework. Thirdly, how do the Government intend to protect Butterley spillway from a water company that has the freedom, under its general permitted development rights, to undertake inappropriate development?
The construction of Butterley reservoir and the spillway was authorised by the Huddersfield Corporation Waterworks Act of 1890. The first sod was cut on Thursday 27 August 1891 by Alderman James Crosland, the deputy chairman of the waterworks committee. The project was completed in 1906, and the spillway was given grade II listing status on 11 July 1985. It is described in the listing as
“rock-faced coursed stone with ashlar dressings. Overflow with stone weirs and stepped stone cascades. Sidewalls are of rock-faced stone with squared ashlar piers with moulded pyramidal copings. Copings to walls are stepped.”
We urge Yorkshire Water to look again at its plans and find a way to save Butterley spillway as an operational and iconic listed Victorian structure.
I am pleased, on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, that this debate has been set up today.
Hillsborough is a cover-up that has failed, although it took a long time to fail. Sadly, there are too many cover-ups that continue to succeed. For example, David Southall’s experiments, where he made babies breathe lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide, were covered up by the investigator calling CO an “inert gas”. My constituent Michael Andrews has revealed how he has come under pressure to misreport statistics by my local hospital. The response of the hospital management has been to take action against the whistleblower.
There is a country where there are allegations that crimes by powerful people are not being investigated and prosecuted. A journalist has been refused entry to stop reporting about an issue. The chief of police has been suspended to stop him investigating crimes. Bloggers are being threatened to stop them talking about people. Decisions by the state not to prosecute cannot be challenged, nor is private prosecution allowed. The country is Jersey. The journalist is Leah McGrath Goodman, who is an American. The chief of police was Graham Power. Furthermore, Andrew Marolia, David Minty, David Wherry and Jonathan Sharrock Haworth have, with the assistance of the Jersey Government, obtained a super-injunction against ex-Senator Stuart Syvret—under the Data Protection Act of all things—to prevent from him saying things about them on his blog that are true. Mr Syvret has evidence that criminal offences are being swept under the carpet, but nothing is being done.
A lay judge—known as a jurat—called John le Breton has been allowed to sit as a jurat, even though he was vice-principal of Victoria college when he wrote to the governors in support of Andrew Jervis-Dykes, who ended up getting a jail sentence. Mr le Breton was appointed to judge on a case even though he is a personal friend of a director of the defendant—this is a defamation case where the local politician, Trevor Pitman, has been taking legal action against the local newspaper. The end result in Jersey is that part of these events has been struck from the state’s version of Hansard, and the culture of cover-up continues. Jersey is an independent country, but the UK Government have a responsibility for ensuring good governance in Jersey. The UK is not doing its job properly.
The UK is not as bad, but at times it has a good try. The situation in England and Wales is so bad that foreign countries are expressing concern about the abuse of human rights in the English courts. Over the weekend, there was a three-hour programme on Slovak television debating a case in England. In England, however, we are banned from discussing all the details of the case in the media. International conventions, such as The Hague convention and Brussels II bis, are predicated on the concept that each country can trust the legal system in each other country. As such, the country in which people are habitually resident determines the legal system that has jurisdiction. The existence of the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights—it is not the European Union that deals with the ECHR—provides a body that can adjudicate on cases in the domestic courts. The Government of the Slovak Republic have publicly stated on the Slovak Justice Ministry website that they are willing to support their citizens in any case that reaches the Court. It is clear that the Slovak Government believe that there are a number of cases—not just one isolated case—where the human rights of their citizens are being undermined in England.
To my knowledge, this situation is unique. It does, however, raise the question of whether the human rights of UK citizens and others have been regularly and consistently abused in English and Welsh courts over a number of years. One recent Court of Appeal case involved a judge refusing permission to appeal because no evidence had been provided. The appellant had been given a deadline to provide that evidence by 4 pm on 23 September 2011, which they had met by submitting the evidence earlier that day, but the judge had looked at the case before that had happened. It is therefore not surprising that the judge had concluded that the evidence was not there. That was a clear procedural error by the court administration, but domestic proceedings have now been exhausted. The case also involved a citizen of another country. That country has not yet expressed its view on the matter.
A slightly worse problem is referred to in early-day motion 536. The family division of the Court of Appeal appears not to be correcting all the public family law cases that reach it and that it should correct. Clearly, if it were to correct more of the lower court’s decisions, questions would be asked about how well the system was working, but maintaining public confidence in the system is not a good enough reason to sweep problems under the carpet. Permission to appeal was granted in a case today, however, so that is not always the case.
The only objective analysis of psychological expert reports from Professor Jane Ireland found that around two thirds of the reports submitted to the family courts in care proceedings were either poor or very poor. However, that does not appear to be being picked up by the appellate system. My estimate, on a statistical basis, is that around 1,000 children are wrongfully adopted each year. One advantage of having foreign countries’ human rights commissions reviewing cases affecting their citizens is that we can try to get a better estimate of the total number of miscarriages of justice. It would be nice if our Equality and Human Rights Commission were willing to look at these issues as well.
Michael Mansfield has suggested that the country needs a “commission of truth” to discover cover-ups. My response, in part, is that we already have a body that can do more on this. That body is Parliament. Parliament needs to be willing—collectively, through a Committee—to consider a limited number of individual cases, to work out whether there is evidence of a cover-up. It would not take much use of the collective power of Parliament to identify where a cover-up had happened.
Over the years, our constitution has, to some extent, failed. That has created a situation in which matters that should be more widely considered are being left within the judicial estate of the constitution. That applies particularly to cases involving a lot of secrecy, in which people are prevented from discussing matters. I have already mentioned the fact that Slovak television had a three-hour debate on an issue whose details we are not allowed to discuss. There might be a report in the UK media today following today’s hearing, which, although anonymous, might give some guide as to what has been going on. In practice, enough material is available to enable a three-hour discussion on Slovak television, yet we in the UK are unable to debate the matter.
It is clear from my discussions about other cases that this involves not only the Slovak Republic and one other country; other nations are concerned about the matter as well. People are also leaving this country for these reasons. A Channel 4 report broadcast before the recess highlighted the fact that people were leaving this country because they felt they could not get a fair trial in the family courts in the UK. I follow such cases all around the world, and I will be happy to talk to colleagues about them if they are interested. Such cases demonstrate that the system is not working. However, I had some news today that makes me think that perhaps it might work better in future. These are complex systems.
From a scientific point of view, there has been a tendency to try to rely on unreliable opinion. I was a member of Birmingham city council for 18 years, and its deputy leader for a year, so I got quite used to the council’s operation. The Ministry of Justice believes that an assessment is the same, whether it is carried out by an employee of the council or by an independent assessor. I know, however, that councils are set targets. For example, Surrey county council has been working on its performance assessment figure C23 target to try to increase the number of adoptions from care. We know that the Prime Minister wishes to see more such adoptions taking place, and there is pressure on local government to increase their numbers. That tends to go down the management structure, and those people employed by the council are therefore subject to a conflict of interest. This is nothing new; it has been the case for over 12 years.
I think the Ministry of Justice is making a really big mistake when it considers in the family justice review that a report written by an employee of the council has equal merit to a report written by, say, an independent social worker. The advantage of having an independent social worker is that such a worker is genuinely independent. If a system is run on a cab-rank basis, some independent consideration of the issues is likely, which would not be the case if it was driven by the management structure of the local authority.
Anyone with any experience of local government will understand that biases and pressures are often placed on employees, and sometimes there are bullying management systems. The difficulty comes when judicial decisions are made that rely on that skewed information. As I say, this is nothing new; it has been going on for a long time. Hon. Members will be aware that I often bounce up and down about this issue. At least I now have some Government support—sadly, it is not from the UK Government, but from the Slovak Republic. I would prefer that the UK Government recognised what the Slovak Republic recognises, which is that there are very serious problems here.
I think this matter will go a lot further. Today’s hearing is very positive and things will develop from it. I am aware of the concerns of other east European Governments about exactly the same issue. They might decide to take a robust position in the same way as the Human Rights Commission did in the Slovak Republic. It is unclear whether any of these cases will get before the European Court of Human Rights so that we will see a representative from the UK Government arguing for the UK’s position and a representative from a foreign Government arguing from the alternative perspective. Obviously, if a matter is corrected in the Court of Appeal or in the Supreme Court, it will not get there, but it would be interesting to see how the European Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Justice, which I think has a similar jurisdiction for the purposes of EU members, dealt with this issue. This is a really big problem; there has been a really big cover-up, and it needs to be sorted out.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about some specific issues that affect my constituency. First, I would like to pay tribute to the Government for their determination to move to a greater localist agenda, to give communities a far better say over what happens in their area. That can only be a good thing.
Northamptonshire was certainly subjected to enormous amounts of top-down bureaucratic management under the previous Government, who were determined to concrete over the green fields and to implement regional strategies for everything, which bore no relation whatever to what local communities wanted. We have definitely moved in the right direction as a Government. There are, however, some very specific problems that concern my constituency, and I shall raise just two of them today.
The first concerns wind farms. Northamptonshire is not known at all for being a windy place. In fact, it is one of the least windy counties in the country. Clearly, we are not given to providing enormous renewable energy resources—yet we have had so many wind farms approved in our county that we have contributed more than what could be seen as our fair share towards any renewable strategy.
I shall specifically mention the Spring Farm ridge development, in and around the villages of Greatworth, Helmdon and Sulgrave—historic villages with great character. The application by the developer, Broadview Energy, to build a wind farm in the area was rejected by South Northamptonshire council on 30 June 2011. The case went to appeal, and the appeal was upheld on 12 July 2012. On refusing the application to develop Spring Farm ridge, the council found
“that the development would have a major impact on the landscape as it currently exists, have considerable impact on some of the many heritage assets within 5km of the proposed wind farm, result in the loss of a perception of tranquillity to the well-used public rights of ways network, dominate the outlook, be unpleasantly imposing and pervasive to a neighbouring resident and be contrary to several local and regional planning policies”.
What is interesting is that the planning inspectorate accepted all those findings, but still upheld the appeal.
Since then I have had an exchange of letters with the Department for Communities and Local Government and with Sir Michael Pitt, the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate. I explained how appalled local residents were to find that the planning appeals inspector had upheld the appeal despite accepting all the council’s contrary findings of invasiveness. The response of the DCLG, in July 2012, was
“local plans are the keystone of the planning system. Our aim is for every area to have a clear local plan which sets out local people’s views of how they wish their community to develop, consistent with the Framework and against which planning applications for planning permission will be judged.”
That is clearly in the interests of localism and takes account of the views of local communities.
Sir Michael Pitt’s response to the same question about how local views could have been so overruled was
“the recently published National Planning Policy Framework… provided an important and up-to-date expression of national renewable energy policy, and this has… been taken into account. Such decisions”
“involve a careful balancing exercise. In this case, considerable weight was given to the Framework and the economic and environmental benefits of the proposal were considered to outweigh the adverse impact of the scheme.”
Therein lies the problem. Whereas we, as a Government, are in favour of greater localism and of people’s ability to have their say, the inspectorate—while not rejecting those findings, but accepting and welcoming them—is clearly determined to insist that the national desire for renewable energy outweighs those local concerns.
My first question to the Deputy Leader of the House is this: how can we enable local communities to feel confident that it is worth their while to express their views? In this instance, many thousands of pounds were spent and hundreds of hours of local communities’ time, energy and intellect were invested in establishing the planning-related reasons why the wind farm application might be turned down, only for those reasons to be completely overturned. What hope can we give local people that their voices will be heard—indeed, not just heard, but actually listened to—and that they will be able to resist developments that are completely contrary to local wishes?
My second question to the Deputy Leader of the House is very specific. When will the regional strategies finally disappear? According to a second response from Sir Michael Pitt,
“Planning law requires that Inspectors determine an appeal in accordance with the adopted Development Plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The weight afforded to plan policies reflects both their progress in terms of formal adoption and whether more recent policy, either local or national, has superseded them to some degree. In this case the Inspector carefully considered the relevant Development Plan policies and also other material considerations as well as the views of local residents.”
I have the impression that the inspectors were looking more to the past and the regional strategy of the last Government than to the future and the present Government’s desire to let local people have their say. When will that change?
My final question to the Deputy Leader of the House is this: will the existence of a regional plan or, indeed, a neighbourhood plan allow communities to reject either the principle or the siting of a wind farm? Will the implementation of the new local plan under the Localism Act 2011 enable them to reject such an unwelcome siting successfully?
Already, in my small area of south Northamptonshire, a wind farm application has been approved on appeal for Spring Farm ridge. Applications have been approved for Winwick, near Daventry, and for Boddington, and are pending for Ml, Roade, Stoke Goldington and Milton Keynes. The Tove valley and Ml application is proposed, and a new wind farm is proposed for Wappenham. How shall we ever convince local communities that they can fight their corner with some prospect of success?
The second point that I want to make is slightly different. It concerns the west Northamptonshire joint planning unit, which was set up under the last Government to force the local planning authorities of Northampton borough, Daventry and South Northamptonshire, with the support of Northamptonshire county council, to implement the last Government’s regional spatial strategy. In other words, it was the tool to implement the previous Government’s top-down RSS, without a great deal of consultation with local people, but the WNJPU still exists under the new Government. Although theoretically it is made up of democratically accountable councillors, each of the four councils that take part in its leadership have only two representatives on the committee. There is no democratic accountability, therefore—in fact, quite the opposite, as each council planning authority is incentivised to stitch up their neighbour and avoid looking holistically at the entire area. That has been incredibly divisive in South Northamptonshire and Northampton, where we have ended up with proposed developments and approvals for development sites that have run entirely counter to local community requirements and wishes.
One such example is at Collingtree, which is in my constituency but on the outskirts of Northampton. The WNJPU is proposing to approve in principle a plan for 1,000 new homes there, despite the local community’s concerns. It has concerns about traffic congestion caused by vehicles coming to the site, where delays of up to half an hour already occur at peak times. It also has concerns about flooding, because there has regularly been flooding of previous developments that were supposed to have proper flood defence plans. Public transport provision is a worry, too. The estimates for this 1,000-home development include only 1.5 cars per property. Unless public transport is superb, that will not be adequate. Yet another major concern is school provision. The residents of Collingtree feel these concerns are not being taken into account by the WNJPU, which is a relic of a previous Government with a top-down ethos.
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to advise me on what I can do to help my constituents ensure that their voice is heard. Can he help me to get the WNJPU disbanded and have planning powers given back to the local planning authorities, where they should be? Does he agree that local plans should be accepted and recognised as good for the community only if they are supported by that community and that it is therefore unacceptable for organisations such as the WNJPU to continue operating undemocratic area-wide plans?
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). I had no idea there were so many issues involving wind farms in her constituency. When I travel up the M1 to Leicester on Friday, I shall be looking out for them, and I know that if local people need a champion against them, they have the best possible MP, as the hon. Lady’s speech today illustrates.
I wish to talk about violent video games. I want to make it clear that I am not against video games as such. I know that members of the public—and, indeed, Members of this House—play them and that the Prime Minister’s favourite video game is “Fruit Ninja”. I am not against those who play video games, therefore, but I have had concerns about violent video games for a number of years.
The issue was brought to my attention by the mother of a 14-year-old young man, Stefan Pakeerah, who was stabbed repeatedly by 17-year-old Warren Leblanc in Leicester in 2004. During the trial it became clear that Warren Leblanc had become obsessed with a game called “Manhunt”. My interest in examining the issues associated with video games began with that case. Mrs Pakeerah and I had meetings with successive Prime Ministers, all of whom promised to do more to deal with violent video games.
I am glad to say that progress has been made, and I will discuss that later in my speech, but unfortunately some of the games have become even more violent. Only a few weeks ago, the coroner in the inquest in the case of Callum Green, a 14-year-old who committed suicide in Stockport after playing “Call of Duty” on a regular basis with his stepfather, said the following about video games:
“It’s very important that young children don’t play them or have access to them.”
Anders Breivik, who has recently been convicted of the murder of 69 young people on an island outside Oslo, was shown in his trial also to be obsessed with “Call of Duty”. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah killed seven people in three gun attacks in Toulouse, and he, too, was obsessed with the same violent video game.
I am not saying that over-18s should be prevented from playing any games that they want; my concern has always been that these games fall into the hands of under-18s, some of whom become susceptible to the violence played out in them. People have asked what the difference is between somebody getting into an 18-plus film and somebody playing a video game. The difference is that a violent video game is interactive. Obviously I do not support under-18s going to see violent films, but even if they get in to view a film they are not participants in what is going on.
A lot of independent research has been done on this matter. The university of Indiana found that young men who played violent video games for 10 hours a week exhibited less activity in frontal brain regions associated with emotional control and cognitive functions. Other research conducted by universities all points to problems that occur with young people—those under the age of 18—having access to these games, which is why the previous Government set up the Byron review. Tanya Byron, a celebrated columnist for The Times, produced an excellent report, but the tragedy is that her recommendations have still not been implemented.
The Deputy Leader of the House will be making his first speech from the Dispatch Box, and I congratulate him most warmly on his appointment. He is a former member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I said to other members of the Committee, “Look how well he has done.” If they all work hard and eat their cereals, they will end up speaking for the Government one day. I congratulate him, because I know that when he replies he will be examining the points I am making. Will he please tell us when he anticipates the Byron review being implemented? Tanya Byron did a great job, and it is extremely important that if we set up commissions—I know that this was done under the previous Government—we actually accept their recommendations.
There are three responsibilities associated with violent video games, the first of which is the responsibility of the video games makers. We, in London, are at the heart of the creative industries. The Government have recently given tax breaks to video games makers, who have a responsibility to ensure that when they produce games of a violent nature they accept that there is a possibility that the games will fall into the hands of children.
When we started this campaign, many years ago, the size of the warning on the packet was very small—it was non-existent. It was then increased to about the size of a 1p piece and, eventually, to the size of a 10p piece. The first responsibility is that when the packaging is produced it should make it very clear that the video game is violent so that everybody knows that it is for someone over the age of 18.
On that specific point, games such as “Call of Duty” have clear age guidelines that are regulated by PEGI—Pan European Game Information—and clearly show the age-rating and a brief summary of the content. However, we all need collectively to ensure that parents are aware of the new rating systems so that they can make suitable decisions on behalf of their children.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. That was the third of my three points. The first was about the game’s maker, so let us move on to the second, which is about parents.
I am the parent of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is the parent of two young children, although I do not know how old they are. When I go into my children’s room—they have a joint room where they have their computers—even I do not pick up the video games they are watching and check whether the content is suitable for their age, but that is the responsibility of parents. I wonder how many parents buy video games to ensure that their children enjoy themselves playing the games and leave their parents in peace. Parents have a big responsibility to check the contents of what their children are watching, and if we can do that we will help with the problem of violent video games.
I urge anyone who has young children under the age of 18 to go tonight into their bedrooms or sitting rooms—wherever the video games are kept—and check the age limit on those games. I would be amazed if they did not find that at least one or two were meant for those over the age of 18.
The third element of responsibility belongs, of course, to the Government. I mentioned the implementation of the PEGI system and I was delighted to hear in May 2012 that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was going to end the dual ratings system to ensure that there is one easily enforceable ratings system. That is a very important step forward, because if the Government try to clear away the additional regulations and make one clear set of guidelines that everyone can understand that will make a huge difference to those who manufacture video games and those who sell them.
Part of the Government’s responsibility is for enforcement. During our last Attorney-General’s questions, I asked how many retailers had been prosecuted for selling 18-plus games to those under the age of 18. I was told that no retailers had been prosecuted; perhaps the Minister can update us on whether those figures have increased. The responsibility rests with the retailers, those who sit at the checkout counters and those who sell games at outlets such as GAME to check the age of those who buy the games, and I do not think that that happens. When someone goes to a supermarket and takes a violent game up to the checkout counter, the pressure on those sitting at the tills means that it is difficult to check first the rating and then the age of that person.
I want to see better enforcement. If those games are sold to those under the age of 18, I want to make sure that those responsible—I do not care whether it is GAME, Tesco or Sainsbury’s—are prosecuted. I think that a high-profile prosecution—I know that all Governments are keen on such prosecutions—would make a huge difference to those wishing to sell video games.
I will end by referring to the words of one person who is responsible for the sale of more video games than any other person in the world, Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario. In a recent interview he urged children to drop their joysticks and venture outside every once in a while. Let us do the same. The university of Essex conducted a survey of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 and compared them with the same number of 10-year-olds in 1998. It found that the number of sit-ups the kids could do had declined by 27%, their arm strength had fallen by 26% and their grip strength had fallen by 7%, because they were sitting at home playing video games rather than going outside. There is a health aspect to this. If we want to ensure that our children are less obese, let them put down their joysticks, as Super Mario says, and go out and start playing. Ultimately, this is not about censorship; it is about protecting our children.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this pre-recess debate on an issue close to both your heart, Mr Deputy Speaker, and that of the Deputy Leader of the House: the role of councils and social housing managers in the regeneration of our cities. By way of background, the housing estate owned by the city council in my constituency is managed by Gloucester City Homes, an arm’s length management organisation. GCH has already played an important part in regeneration through its successful management of the council estate. Its record of improvements has led to a remarkable series of stars and awards, and I know the high levels of trust and confidence that tenants now have in GCH and the difference its proactive approach is making to thousands of lives.
But for me and for my constituents, there is more to be done, not least because, like many cities, we have a significant council house waiting list of some 5,000 people and a need for more social housing. I would love to see Gloucester City Homes replace outdated blocks of flats in parts of the city, especially in Matson and Podsmead wards, with new homes and more attractive landscaping that would be in keeping with, for example, the wonderful setting of Matson on the slopes of Robinswood hill. That would require significant capital investment, which would, because ALMOs are owned by councils, contribute to the Government’s public sector borrowing requirement, add to the vast mountains of debt built up under the previous Government’s less than eagle eyes and, therefore, not be helpful to the health of our public finances.
Gloucester’s challenge, therefore, was to come up with an imaginative proposal so that GCH could use its balance sheet and predictable earning stream for a capital investment programme to regenerate our social housing. GCH and the city council made a detailed proposal to the Department for Communities and Local Government last autumn, with new community council—CoCo—ownership, where the council would own only a third of the equity of the company and the remainder would be outside state ownership. I understand that the Government have both principle, meaning responsibility for any residual liabilities in a worse-case scenario, and practicality, meaning debt write-offs, to consider. None the less, I also understand that the previous Housing Minister, who was sympathetic to the cause, had to face cross-Department interests, particularly from the Treasury, which complicated decision making.
Now, almost one year on and at a time when all Government Members are keen to see faster progress on housing and infrastructure development, I urge DCLG and the Treasury to help find a way forward for Gloucester City Homes to contribute to the Government’s national, and our own local, ambitions for regeneration, construction and growth.
I received a welcome letter this week from the new Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), saying that DCLG officials will meet Gloucester City Homes in Gloucester shortly. I would be delighted if, before the first anniversary of our proposals, national and local government and the ALMO agreed on a brief process that would enable action as soon as possible. If we can get on and lead by example in Gloucester, where the CoCo model has such wide support, the new Minister may also be able to unlock further opportunities across the land and stimulate new social housing that will make a difference to people’s lives. As Winston Churchill once noted:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay my encouragement to the Ministers and officials concerned.
I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss a vexed issue of tax policy, namely air passenger duty, which has been described succinctly by the TaxPayers Alliance as an unwelcome burden on family holidays, a cost to business and redundant now that the European Union’s emissions trading system is being applied to aviation.
I declare an interest at the outset as the constituency Member of Parliament for Peterborough, which houses the international headquarters of Thomas Cook, so tourism and leisure issues are important to me. This is also a wider issue relating to business competitiveness, the impact on family budgets and household incomes, and the ongoing debate about sustainability, the environment and climate change.
The fair tax on flying campaign has been one of the most successful campaigns in recent parliamentary history. More than 130,000 individuals have written to their MPs in support of early-day motion 174, which calls on the Government to undertake a comprehensive study of the full economic effects of aviation tax in the United Kingdom, including its impact on employment.
APD was introduced in 1994 at an original rate of £5 per person for short-haul flights and £10 for flights elsewhere. In 2008, the then Government announced that the per-plane duty proposal that they had suggested the previous year would not go ahead and that, instead, APD rates and geographical bands would be restructured. Following the general election, the coalition Government have explored plans to switch to a per-plane duty, as outlined in both the coalition agreement and the 2010 emergency Budget. The overall APD tax take increased significantly from 1 April 2012, after the Government implemented an 8% APD increase.
A typical family of four pays an average of more than £115 in APD each year. A family of four flying in economy class to Florida from the UK would pay £262 in APD, whereas in France the equivalent tax is £38. Compared with seven years ago, APD rates have risen 160% on short-haul flights and up to 360% on long-haul flights, with inflation over that period being about 18%.
The tax has a significant and deleterious effect on the economy. The British Chambers of Commerce found that APD could cost the economy a staggering £10 billion in lost growth and up to 250,000 fewer jobs over the next 20 years. Many European countries, including Belgium, Holland and Denmark, have abandoned their aviation taxes because of the negative effects on their economies. In the longer term, analysis undertaken by Oxera in 2009 shows that the UK economy will forgo £750 million in wealth and 18,000 jobs because of the rises in APD since November 2010, with about half of the extra revenue raised offset by tax revenue losses in the wider economy.
Although it has to be conceded that the research on APD is piecemeal, it does point to significant damage to the economy in the long run. The Government’s figures project 7,000 fewer flights in 2011-12 as a result of the APD increase in 2010. A 2011 report by York Aviation estimated that APD would result in Scotland losing 1.2 million passengers, 148,000 tourists and £77 million in revenue by 2014.
Aviation is vital to the UK economy. It contributes £53.3 billion or 3.8% of GDP. It supports 963,000 UK jobs—352,000 directly in the sector and 344,000 indirectly through the supply chain. A massive amount of economic activity is dependent on the success of tourism, leisure and aviation.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the impact on people who take long-haul flights, such as to India or the Caribbean.
APD is having a significant impact on people who want to come to the UK from growth economies, such as China. Such people would spend money and drive growth. In 2011, the Tourism Alliance produced a report entitled “Air Passenger Duty: the Impact on Visitors from China”, which found that the UK’s share of the Chinese market had more than halved from 0.5% in 2001 to 0.2% in 2010. If the UK had retained its share of the outbound market from China, it would have gained more than £1 billion in additional tourism revenue from China over the last decade.
Britain has the highest air taxation of all European Union and G20 countries. It is so high that the Treasury will collect more than twice as much in passenger taxes this year as all other European countries combined. Only five other countries in Europe have a similar tax. In August 2010, the German Government approved an air travel levy. It was introduced on 1 January 2011 and ranges from the equivalent of about £7 per passenger for short trips to £39 for long-haul trips. That is well below the UK’s APD, which starts at £13 for short-haul trips. In 2009, the Netherlands followed Belgium in abandoning its equivalent of APD because, although it raised the equivalent of £266 million in one year, the Dutch calculated that the loss to the wider economy was more than £950 million. Germany has set its rate at about half the UK’s level.
Given that one of the Government’s economic ambitions is for Britain to have the most competitive tax system in the G20, it is extraordinary that the World Economic Forum’s recent tourism competitiveness report ranked the UK 134th out of 138 countries for air ticket taxes and airport charges. That was before the 8% rise in the last Budget.
This tax is having a direct effect on constituents across the country—ordinary working people on modest salaries who want to go on holiday. That is the important point that Treasury Ministers need to think about when preparing next year’s Budget.
The British Chambers of Commerce has found that UK airports believe that rises in APD have contributed to a number of key routes being lost at local airports. Peel Airports, which operates Liverpool John Lennon airport, Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield, and Durham Tees Valley airport, provided an analysis of its lost routes in a joint submission to the Treasury by the Northern Way, a coalition of regional development agencies in the north of England. Following the doubling of APD in 2007 and the subsequent rises, Liverpool John Lennon lost six domestic services, five European services and two long-haul services to north America, and Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield lost one domestic service, six European services and three long-haul services.
People will inevitably say that this tax is about maintaining some kind of traction on air travel and aviation in order to reduce the dangers of climate change. However, attempts to justify the tax on environmental grounds have been unpersuasive, and particularly with the application of the EU emissions trading scheme to the aviation sector, I believe that the aviation tax should eventually be phased out.
In his 2011 book “Let them Eat Carbon”, the chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance, Matthew Sinclair, noted research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that suggests that by 2050 aviation will still be responsible for only 5% of the human contribution to climate change. That figure, although significant, is still pretty marginal. With aviation expected to continue to make up such a small share of global emissions, stopping people flying is not critical to limiting climate change, and we know that aeroplanes are now quieter, cleaner and more efficient than ever. APD is excessive, unfair and inefficient as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is duplicated in a number of other policy interventions. I therefore believe that it should eventually be abolished.
In their working paper “The impact of the UK aviation tax on carbon dioxide emissions and visitor numbers”, Mayor and Tol found that the 2007 increase in UK aviation tax had had
“the perverse effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions, albeit only slightly,”
while reducing the number of travellers to Britain.
A 2008 cost assessment by the Department for Transport found that the aviation tax was excessive following the doubling of air passenger duty rates in February 2007. The Government have since—surprise, surprise—stopped carrying out such studies, but results show that even with a high estimate for the social cost of carbon, it is hard to justify the current APD rates on the basis of aviation’s contribution to climate change.
In the run-up to the autumn statement and next year’s Budget in March, the Government have an excellent opportunity to reconsider this tax, which I believe is regressive, inefficient and, above all, damaging to what we all care about—British jobs and British growth. Even more important, we as hon. Members must defend the interests of our constituents. They are not wealthy and do not own Learjets and jet across the world at the drop of a hat, but are decent working people who wish to have a holiday with their family. At the moment, we are clobbering them, but next year we have a real opportunity to right that wrong and bring in a fair tax regime that will compare with other such regimes across the world. We should do the right thing, and I believe that over the next few years, this tax should come to an end.
Although no Treasury Ministers are sitting on the Front Bench, I hope that they will listen to people power—some 130,000 people have written to hon. Members about this issue, and it is time for a change.
Rail franchising has been much in the news over the past week or two, although principally with regard to the west coast main line. Today, however, is the closing date for the Department for Transport’s consultation on the invitation to tender for the east coast main line—an issue of paramount importance to my constituency.
Until 1990, my constituency of Cleethorpes had a direct service to King’s Cross, and four trains went in each direction. Before that, the route ran along the east Lincolnshire line, although that fell foul of the Beeching axe in 1970 after a long struggle.
An open access operator was considering the possibility of providing a service, in which case the line would run from Cleethorpes, through Grimsby and Scunthorpe, and join the main line at Doncaster. I hope that the invitation to tender that goes out from the Department in the coming weeks will include a requirement for a direct service from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to King’s Cross. I imagine that the most likely route would be through Market Rasen and Lincoln, joining the main line at Newark.
The Government have recognised northern Lincolnshire and my constituency as prime areas for economic growth, as the designation of the biggest enterprise zone in the UK shows. There have also been other moves such as the welcome reduction in Humber bridge tolls. The port of Immingham, which would be served by a stop at Habrough, is the largest port in the country by tonnage, and 25% of all rail freight moved within the UK, again measured by tonnage, starts or ends there. There is also potential for a stop at Barnetby, which is currently the stop for Humberside International airport. Since the airport terminal is a mere quarter of a mile from the train line, perhaps there is potential for a new station and the development of connections to London, which would help the development of the regional airport strategy.
Paragraph 5.1 of the document that the Department for Transport has issued states that one key objective of the new services should be to
“support economic growth through provision of train services of appropriate frequency, journey time and capacity.”
The franchisee should also use
“flexibility in the train service requirements to optimise services, delivering a balance of commercial and passenger benefits in line with value for money and affordability criteria”.
Paragraph 9.3 states:
“We intend that the train service specification should provide greater flexibility for the franchisee to respond to demographic and market changes and commercial opportunities than is the case under the current arrangements.”
The Government have indicated their support for potential economic growth in northern Lincolnshire, and those aims and objectives clearly support that. A through train service could provide an additional boost, so I urge Ministers to include it in the Department’s invitation to tender for the east coast franchise.
I wish to raise a matter of importance to my constituents and those of many other Members, namely the availability of borrowing to small and medium-sized businesses and, particularly, the monitoring of that lending activity.
Most of us will have spoken to local business people who lament the lack of access to finance and lending facilities. Over the recess, I met a small number of business owners who indicated that their experiences had improved little in the past year. Although banks have repeatedly stated that they are open for business and ready and willing to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, I continue to receive complaints about aggressive management of existing loans, reduced overdraft facilities and a general lack of flexibility in the approach of banks, all of which place otherwise viable businesses under stress.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some cases, when businesses approach banks to seek an extension of their facilities, bank officials are pressuring them into accepting unwelcome changes to the terms and conditions of their existing loans, or into reducing their borrowing through asset disposal. In the current economic climate, people’s ability to shop around for a better deal is somewhat constrained. The wider impact of that on our economy and its recovery is reflected in the fact that the Government have placed considerable emphasis on initiatives to increase the availability of bank lending specifically to the SME sector. For example, one key aim of Project Merlin was to ensure that banks would commit to lending more money, especially to small businesses. However, that has been superseded by new credit easing plans. Initially there was the national loan guarantee scheme, which was again aimed at encouraging such lending.
As market conditions changed, making it less economical for banks to raise unsecured funding, the Government again responded. On 1 August, they introduced the funding for lending scheme to incentivise bank lending to UK households and businesses by allowing banks that increase lending to borrow more from the fund, and at lower cost. Taken in conjunction with the business finance partnership, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and other recent announcements by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it is clear that lack of access to affordable lending for business is recognised as a significant problem, a barrier to recovery, and an area to which the Government continue to give considerable attention in search of a solution.
We could probably have a lengthy and lively debate about how effective some of those interventions have been, but I want to focus on two specific issues in the monitoring of lending activity: first, the degree to which announcements of new UK-wide initiatives lead to an improved situation for Northern Ireland’s consumers; and, secondly, the lack of consistency and clarity in the way in which lending generally, and new lending in particular, is defined by the banks.
First, as banking is a reserved matter, work undertaken at UK-wide level will, and indeed should, have a direct impact on my constituents, but there is considerable scepticism as to whether it has done so meaningfully to date. In Northern Ireland, only one of the main banks participated in Project Merlin, owing largely to the structural differences between the Northern Ireland and UK banking sectors. Two of the four main Northern Ireland banks have parent banks in the Republic of Ireland, while a third has its parent bank in Denmark, leaving only one with a parent bank here in the UK. Furthermore, no regional targets for lending were included in the Merlin scheme, with the result that its effectiveness in Northern Ireland, and the reasons behind that performance, were not able to be monitored or to be taken into account when devising replacement arrangements or new incentives. The result was that the national loan guarantee scheme replicated some of those problems where participating banks accounted for a smaller proportion of the Northern Ireland business market than would have been the case in most other regions.
To bridge the gap in regional monitoring, quarterly figures have been provided to the Northern Ireland Finance Minister through the British Bankers Association statistics, “Bank Support for Businesses in Northern Ireland”, for monitoring purposes. These confidential figures are based on the information provided to the BBA by the four main Northern Ireland banks and are intended to allow monitoring of the levels of lending to SMEs, as well as other activity. However, as banking is not devolved, the Finance Minister can neither require banks to provide that information nor require them to do so in a particular format, and as the statistics are deemed commercially sensitive there can be little open scrutiny of their content.
This is a matter that Northern Ireland Members have raised often in this House and with Treasury Ministers. In a statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier today, the Finance Minister indicated that the Treasury has agreed to monitor the participation of Northern Ireland banks in the funding for lending scheme, which is a huge step forward that I strongly welcome. However, for that monitoring to be meaningful and effective, there must be some transparency and consistency in how lending is measured and reported by banks.
That leads me to my second point. For some time, there has appeared to be a gap between the headline figures for new lending by the banks and the experience of those who are seeking to borrow money and finding it difficult to do so. This may be at least partly a result of the lack of consistent definition of what constitutes new lending. This is not a new problem, nor is it unique to Northern Ireland. Research that I obtained from the House of Commons Library confirmed that the Merlin agreement did not include any detail on the definition of “lending” or, in particular, on what constitutes new lending. Since then, the underlying problem of the inconsistent definition of what is included in bank lending figures and what constitutes new lending has apparently remained unresolved.
In the summer I wrote to the main Northern Ireland banks about the breakdown in new lending that they had made available to businesses over the course of the past year. Each institution stressed that the information was commercially sensitive. Furthermore, I would not want to expose those who shared more detailed information with me to a criticism of their approach when it may be no worse or, in fact, better than that of some of their competitors who chose not to be so open and frank. I will therefore refrain from citing any specifics that could identify individual lenders and focus instead on broad trends, which indicate that the actual figures for what the average person would consider to be new lending may well be considerably less than the headline figures that are published. In one case, over 90% of advertised new lending was to existing customers. That is perhaps not surprising, as there are strong commercial reasons why it would be easier to lend to an existing customer than to a new customer. An established relationship, with knowledge of the borrower’s credit history, business cash flow, management strength, and business model, gives the lender confidence that they will be able to service the debt and ultimately repay their loan. However, the fact that that bias extended to 90% of all new lending in that year was more surprising. Given that the remainder would include people who were switching facilities from other banks, and therefore had a well-established credit history, it demonstrates what a small proportion of overall new lending is likely to be to new businesses, correlating with the anecdotal evidence that they, in particular, struggle to get access to the finance they require. Given the importance of innovation and new business set-ups to the economy, and the emphasis placed on those by the Government, this is an area of real concern.
Further examination showed that that new lending also included overdraft renewal and loan restructuring. The lending offered to customers in such circumstances might be no more than was originally the case—it might even be reduced—but it would still be captured by the bank as new lending. Furthermore, it might be accompanied by a worsening of terms and conditions with the result that, although offered and counted towards targets for new lending, it might never be drawn by the company with that agreement. However, it would still count towards new lending in that an agreement had indeed been reached and approved.
From my discussions with banks, there seems to be considerable variation in what is captured by their internal systems as new lending for monitoring and recording purposes. For one bank, new lending figures would not include an extension of existing overdraft facilities or extending the repayment period of an existing loan, in contrast to some of its competitors. However, it also revealed not only that its definition of new lending would capture an existing loan that was increased, but that the entirety of the final loan sum would be captured as new lending, not merely as an increase in the borrowing.
It would certainly appear from the brief analysis that I have undertaken of banks that service my constituency, and indeed service Northern Ireland, that there has not been a significant increase in lending to small business. That should concern us all.
To return to my point, if a business with a loan of £90,000 borrowed an additional £10,000, the entire £100,000 loan would be captured by that bank’s system as new lending. That is perhaps an extreme example, but it shows the significant distortion to new lending figures that might occur, depending on what is captured by the bank’s internal systems. Given that most new lending is to existing customers, that factor could be very significant. The effect may be offset somewhat by comparing new-lending figures with a bank’s stock of lending—that is, the outstanding loans to be repaid—but there is a lack of transparency and consistency in what is measured, and indeed publicised, by banks, particularly as they most frequently use the new-lending figures to defend themselves against criticism that they are making it difficult for SMEs to access lending.
While the UK Government clearly recognise the importance of access to borrowing for UK households and businesses, there needs to be increased monitoring of the impact and a tailoring of initiatives to Northern Ireland markets, where the banking sector is distinct and different from that in other parts of the UK. The matter is not devolved, and proactive consideration of it in this place is crucial.
Furthermore, in the interests of transparency, there needs to be a clearer and more consistent definition across the banking sector of what constitutes new lending, and of the methods of measuring and reporting on banks’ lending activity generally, so that when such figures are quoted in isolation they remain meaningful and a useful tool to measure the impact of Government lending initiatives where that matters most—in the businesses across my constituency and the constituencies of other Members.
With great pleasure, I shall take the opportunity to discuss expanding the opportunities of the national citizenship scheme. The scheme is aimed at 16 to 17-year-olds from different backgrounds to provide an opportunity to make a difference in their local community. Last year, 8,000 young people took part, and the ambition is to extend the scheme to all 16 to 17-year-olds. With that in mind, I want to set out what I saw during the summer recess and what I hope to see in much greater numbers in the future.
The scheme gives young people from all backgrounds valuable life experience, as it takes them away from home and gets them to work together. It builds confidence and skills, including teamwork and communication skills. Crucially, it improves employability. During the summer recess, I visited the National Citizen Service schemes in Swindon on no fewer than five occasions, covering each and every stage of the process, from the outdoor and planning stages to projects in action and, ultimately, the graduation ceremony.
Across the constituencies of North Swindon and South Swindon, 43 young people from Swindon college and 27 people from New college took part. The teams enjoyed a week at PGL Liddington, during which they learned survival skills, though I note that when I went along and offered my great expertise they promptly, and probably rightly, ignored everything that I suggested. They also went camping in Weymouth ahead of the Olympics.
Then the two colleges split into four teams. Each chose a distinctive local issue that mattered to them, and on which they wanted to make a difference. I went to visit as they prepared to make a difference with their projects. The first team supported the community games tour, which was inspired by the Olympics. The team took over the publicity and promotion relating to that local project, which was run by Swindon borough council to encourage young people to try new sports. I visited the Meadowcroft fields in Upper Stratton, where the team encouraged young people to take part in dodgeball. We MPs are often asked to participate in things that might be mildly embarrassing, and that we would rather not do, but I was very keen to do this. I was excited to take part in dodgeball. “DodgeBall”, a comedy, is one of my favourite films. Unfortunately, a very professional five-year-old managed to take me down within about 10 seconds, so my experience of dodgeball has not led to much. The team cleverly split up into groups handling print media, social media, and leaflet design. A lot of young people got to participate in new sports that they would not otherwise have tried.
The second team supported the Swindon food bank—the Swindon branch of the food banks run by a national charity. They organised a fundraising concert featuring local young musicians and bands, and made fundraising appeals at local supermarkets. That was inspired by the fact that some of the group had received help in the past from the food bank; they were keen to help get their colleagues to put something back into that very good charity.
The third team supported the Swindon special care baby unit. They had organised a sponsored sleep-out, locked in the New college grounds. It meant spending 24 hours sleeping in a cardboard box, with just a sandwich to eat. I asked whether any of them were going to smuggle in their mobile phone, so that they could text their parents to ask them to drop off a sneaky McDonald’s, but they assured me that they were committed to the cause. They raised a considerable amount of money.
The final team supported the women’s refuge by bag-packing in local supermarkets. They showed amazing maturity and confidence in negotiating with national retail giants to get permission to do that bag-packing. Again, one of the team members was living in the women’s refuge, and she was able to use that to get all the other students to understand how that organisation can help. The team raised valuable funds.
The hard work, dedication and enthusiasm that the young people showed for their projects, and for Swindon, is reflected in the reaction of those whom they helped. Lee Thompson, the project manager at the Swindon food bank, said:
“The first thing that struck me was their enthusiasm and their obvious enjoyment in participating in the scheme. They were certainly brimming with ideas of how to help Swindon Foodbank.
The students’ action has made a direct difference in their community. The money they raised enabled us to buy 157 kilos of food, enough to provide 196 meals or two days worth of food for the foodbank.
At a time when teenagers get bad publicity regarding their selfish attitude to society, the NCS students at New College changed my view and I hope that the scheme can be expanded as I feel it goes a long way to making well rounded citizens of the future.”
The scheme has benefited not just Swindon but the students. Lynn Wilkinson, who led the scheme at New college, said:
“The NCS program highlighted and enhanced the skills of a diverse range of young people with project planning and implementation, and…a little effort, determination and self belief. Each individual proved that they had the skills, determination and passion to help the communities of Swindon.”
The scheme has given the young people real-life experience, as well as teamwork and leadership skills—practical skills of real use to employers. I know that, because before I became an MP I had a business employing young people, and we would get deluged with CVs. The sorts of skills that we are talking about could set these young people apart from the hundreds of other people who might be applying for opportunities—opportunities that young people now have to fight to get. It was a real credit to the young people that they took advantage of the scheme. Richie Titcombe, a New college student, said:
“I intend to follow a career in public services, I have used the NCS programme to enhance my CV and the chances of gaining an insight into charity work or work for supporting services. All in all I worked with a great team with clear goals, directed by the NCS staff whose experience and dedication gave me a new outlook on supporting my community and how a little goes a long way.”
Crucially, not only did the students gain new skills, improve their CV and help their community but they enjoyed the experience. A study said that 92% of people who took part last year would recommend the scheme to friends, which certainly seems to be the case in Swindon. When I went to the graduation ceremony, students were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their experience—they had gained the skills that I have discussed and made new friends—and, crucially, they did not intend it to be a one-off. Many of them wished to continue to help, either with the organisations with which they were involved or other organisations. They were all determined to encourage next year’s students to take advantage of the scheme. Their parents were incredibly proud of their children’s efforts. They were giving up their summer holidays, but they came along and beamed with pride at the graduation ceremony.
Francis Oakland, another New college student said:
“Great fun!! Taught me to stand on my feet and chased away a few fears, I would recommend it to all my friends just for the people you meet. You learn to get over petty frustrations and how to work and co-operate with others. A big thanks from me.”
It is vital that we continue to expand the scheme and invest in the skills of our young people, helping to prepare them for life beyond school. I welcome the funding tranche of £2 million that has been announced for next year’s scheme. However, Swindon college in particular is concerned that it has not been told when it can begin recruiting or the numbers for which it will be funded. It needs that information so that it can plan for next year, so I urge Ministers to provide all that information and let my colleges, which are desperate to lead on this, do so.
I am delighted that the students who graduated this year—only two did not complete the course, which is staggering, given that they gave up their free time—have already selected 10 Swindon ambassadors, who will go to many of the national events—I believe that they are coming to Downing street to fly the flag for Swindon—and enthuse next year’s intake.
As a final plea, I urge people to work with excellent organisations such as the Scouts, other volunteer organisations, sports clubs and so on, which are short of volunteers. There is a genuine opportunity for them to pitch to those students before they graduate to say, “You have made a real difference in your local community. We have programmes so that you can take that to the next level and continue to make a real difference.” This is a positive story, and we should all do everything that we can to encourage more young people to benefit from the scheme.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who has enlightened us all and encouraged us to participate in volunteering, which is an important community activity.
I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his new position. I should like to use this debate to express my constituents’ concerns and to seek his advice and perhaps ministerial guidance on how to pursue the matters that they have raised. We have heard a lot about national campaigns today, but a big local campaign is under way in my constituency. I should like to draw to the Minister’s attention the way in which quality of life for my constituents—local residents in Tiptree, one of the largest villages in the country—has been undermined by the failure of our local authority to enforce planning conditions on the training round in Grange road, which is used by Colchester United football club.
The facility is used outside the hours agreed in the original planning consent for the site. The noise, disruption and foul language—that is what really upsets my constituents—are distressing for families living near the ground. They are forced to keep their windows closed and stop their children playing in the garden because of the noise and the bad language shouted out in the training ground. Residents feel, in an era of localism, that they have been let down and ignored by the council, which should support them and enforce planning arrangements, rather than, as my constituents believe, turn a blind eye to their concerns. Residents are up in arms and dissatisfied with the replies that they have received from the council in response to their complaints. That is such an important issue for my constituents that I pledged to raise it in the House, so I would welcome some guidance from the Deputy Leader of the House on the matter.
Let me turn to business matters. We British were once famously dubbed a nation of shopkeepers. Having grown up in a family of shopkeepers, I know how important local shops and retailing are in providing local jobs in our constituencies, in towns and villages across the country. However, over the past decade, our high streets up and down the country have struggled to provide jobs and many of the essential services that over time we have taken for granted and to act effectively as the hubs in the communities that they once were. That is why I welcome the work that the Government have done in creating a new vision for the future of our town centres.
In particular, I would like to use this opportunity to praise everyone in Witham town who was involved in putting together the two bids for Portas pilots that we submitted. They failed, but irrespective of that, my constituents who put in the hours on the bid did a tremendous job and made an incredible case for Witham. Interestingly enough, in yesterday’s debate, I highlighted the fact that parts of Essex have consistently been overlooked for infrastructure investment in this area and many others. I should like to make a plea to the Government and urge them to support the Witham town application to become a town team partner and secure the new funds that are available. If nothing else, we in Witham look forward to working with the Government and taking on board many of the innovative ideas that have been proposed in the Portas schemes and the new vision that is being introduced for town centre management.
The House has heard me say on a number of occasions that 83% of local jobs in my constituency are in small and medium-sized enterprises—a high figure compared with the national average of 68%. The House has also heard me say before that Essex is very much the county of entrepreneurs, playing a vital part in the national economy, but I should like to restate my long-standing concerns about bank lending to small business.
Small businesses are at the heart of my constituency and our local jobs market. I should like again to highlight the case of the chocolate maker Amelia Rope, my inspirational constituent, who, despite her international order book and sales in some of the world’s most famous shops, including Liberty and Selfridges, has continuously struggled to secure bank lending to invest and grow her business. Interestingly, despite the fact that I took her to meet the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills back in 2010, she maintained in an interview with the Evening Standard about three weeks ago that nobody is looking after people such as her, which is something I hear from many local businesses in my constituency. I urge the Government to reaffirm their focus on making bank lending a priority, so that these incredible entrepreneurs, who are risk takers, can do everything that they can to stimulate private sector growth, create jobs and get our economy back on track.
Also on the theme of business, as the summer ends, many home owners will be worried about rising energy costs and heating their homes. The Government should be congratulated on the focus that they are giving to tackling fuel poverty and encouraging customers to switch suppliers and find cheaper tariffs. However, more effort is needed to help small businesses with their energy costs. The Association of Convenience Stores is running a campaign for fair energy contracts for local shops, to help small businesses to get a better deal from their energy companies. At the moment, 27% of small shops have been hit with rather large charges for backdated bills, often as a result of energy companies asking them to pay for up to six years of energy, owing to incorrect billing in the first place, even when it was the fault of the supplier. That is simply not fair; nor is it right or proper, and it can land businesses with bills totalling thousands of pounds and threats of disconnection. About 36% of small shops have also been overcharged— I speak from experience on this, because my parents’ last business fell into precisely that category—and 31% have reported above-inflation rises in their energy tariffs.
I urge the Government to look closely at that campaign, in the light of the fact that our shops and small businesses are struggling. We do not have enough small shops on our high streets or in our villages, and they have their own challenges with cash flow. The campaign could bring about change, and it would send out a tremendously positive message if the Government were to take action to help small firms to keep their energy bills down and, importantly, to be treated much more fairly by some of the energy companies.
I have spoken before about Essex roads, and the matter that I want to touch on next is a constant issue for my constituents and for people in Kent. It involves the Dartford crossing. Next month, the crossing’s toll charges will rise by a third from £1.50 to £2 for a car, and the charges for commercial vehicles will go up from £2 to £2.50 for a two-axle light goods vehicle and to up to £5 for heavy goods vehicles. A lot of my constituents use the M25 and the Dartford crossing, and many of them are complaining about the increases and raising the question of fairness. Thousands of motorists rely on that crossing every day.
There are two issues: one is the price of using the crossing—as I have said, the toll charges are going up—and the other is that we have a major problem with traffic flows and jams, as recent correspondence with the Highways Agency has confirmed. The crossing is a vital economic link for businesses in my constituency and across the south-east. Records from the Highways Agency show that the crossing’s performance is questionable, with journey time reliability in the year to May 2012 being just 57% for southbound journeys and 60% for northbound ones. That is below the 83.5% national average for journey time reliability on our motorways.
People who use the crossing daily know of the paralysis, logjams and huge tailbacks. Over the past three years, there have been only six occasions northbound and one southbound on which the tolls have been suspended due to the severity of the traffic. It is a fact that traffic jams cause delays and have a cost to the economy. The economic costs of delays at the crossing are estimated by the Highways Agency to be £40 million, but the introduction of new technology to support free-flow charging arrangements is at least two years away. People in the south-east are paying more for a poor service.
I would welcome the Deputy Leader of the House’s thoughts on that matter, and I urge the Government to look again at the arrangements for charging at the crossing, as well as at their affect on the economy and at the costs that families and businesses are incurring. I look forward to his responding to the debate, and on behalf of my constituents I hope that the Government will take on board some of these issues in a positive way.
I should like to start by thanking Members for their congratulations. I had expected to have only one principal responsibility today—namely, to respond to the many contributions to this debate. I was not expecting to have to name a Member of the House, as I had to do earlier. I welcome this opportunity to respond to Members now, and I hope that I shall be able to do justice to all their contributions. I have been in the House for 15 years, but I confess that my knowledge still does not extend to the detail of all the points that have been raised. However, I welcome having been given this opportunity to learn about the Butterley spillway, about Jersey’s jurisdiction and about the very precise planning arrangements that apply in Northamptonshire. I shall attempt to answer as many points as I can.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) expressed concern about planning. Clearly, the Government’s concern at the moment is to ensure that the economy is growing, and planning has to play a part in that, albeit in the context of sustainable development. We should therefore be able to reassure her that the green belt is not under threat. She also expressed concern about powers being taken away from local authorities, but authorities need to be concerned only if they are not managing their planning applications effectively. Also, they will need to resource their planning departments accordingly, to ensure that planning applications are dealt with promptly. We want to see housing developments and commercial developments happening as soon as possible because of the jobs that will be created in that way and the extra revenue that will come to local authorities on the back of it. The hon. Lady raised some specific questions, to which I hope the Department for Communities and Local Government will want to respond in detail.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) focused on a constituency issue, involving IBM and Southwest One. The first thing to say is that a legal dispute is under way, so I apologise if I can refer in only general terms to the matters that were raised. The Government are clearly very much in favour of local authorities doing their own procurement. We encourage local authorities to consider pioneering procurement solutions with a view to delivering savings for local residents. Equally, of course, if things do not work in the expected way, we would expect local authorities to learn from any mistakes made as part of a procurement process. Within Government, we are doing a lot of work on procurement and on commissioning—looking at how local government can work better on commissioning and share information and knowledge.
The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), who is not in his place, raised the issue of GCSE results. This matter has been well trailed in recent days and weeks. The Secretary of State for Education responded to questions on that subject yesterday, and Education questions happened a fortnight ago. The starting point—the right hon. Gentleman should know, because he was the architect of it—is that there is an independent regulator, Ofqual, whose responsibility it is to look at these issues. One positive point for those concerned about this matter is that the Secretary of State explained in questions a couple of weeks ago that if Members felt that particular schools provided exceptional cases, those cases could and should be raised with Ofqual.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) spoke about nuisance calls, which I suspect we all experience on a daily basis. At home, we have been registered with a telephone preference service for at least 15 to 20 years, yet we still receive a high volume of calls inviting us—apparently because we had an accident—to pursue various matters. Action should be taken, and I know my hon. Friend is pursuing this vigorously. He has raised the matter with the Leader of the House previously and I know that the Information Commissioner has written to him on this important matter, which the Information Commissioner is actively pursuing. He and I and, I am sure, all other Members, would like to see some resolution so that we are not bombarded by these unsolicited calls at all times of day and night. My hon. Friend said that he would like to meet Ministers from both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice to discuss this matter further. I hope they have heard that call and will respond to it. Clearly, with a 10,000-signature petition, this is an issue that people are extensively worried about.
I turn now to the contribution of the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). Speaking as a keen sportsman myself, I am very keen to achieve a real legacy from the Olympics, particularly a legacy for women in sport. The hon. Lady claimed credit—rightly or wrongly, I do not know—for securing a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport just a couple of days after her request to make it clear that the Government expect the media to continue to cover women’s sport in the way that they did during the Olympic and Paralympic games. The screams that came from our household were certainly just as loud for Jessica Ennis as they were for any of the male athletes such as Mo Farah and David Weir, who is Wallington’s golden boy—four times gold medal winner in the wheelchair events. I share a bit of the hon. Lady’s pain. She spoke of having had to respond to 400 speeches, and then corrected herself by saying that it had been only 40. I understand a little of what she felt.
That was a slip of the tongue, but I must say that it sometimes seems like that many. The Deputy Leader of the House has been fairly lucky today, as some Members did not make their contributions, but I hope that he does not find himself responding to that number in the future.
I certainly hope not. It would be a very full House if I did.
The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) spoke of the need to encourage business growth. That is something to which the coalition Government are fully committed, and we have already seen some very positive results during the first two years of the coalition. Some 900 private sector jobs have been created, the deficit has been cut by a quarter, and inflation has halved since its peak. All that contributes to encouragement of business growth. We have also seen many successful investments, particularly in the automotive industry.
The hon. Gentleman referred to maternity and paternity rights. It is clearly the Government’s role to ensure that the balance is right. The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the impact on small businesses, but the Government are considering ways of strengthening families, and we need to take into account the role that maternity and paternity rights can play in that respect. We are also reviewing regulations, which will help businesses, and we would encourage people to take part in, for instance, the current consultation on pub regulations.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) referred to the tragic case of Luke Molnar, who died in the way that she described. Let me take this opportunity to express my condolences to his family. I know that the hon. Lady has been working very hard on the case. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the British Standards Institution are still actively exploring how the guidance could be made more widely available and how it might be improved. The hon. Lady made some very clear demands in her speech, which I am sure the Department has registered and to which I am sure it will wish to respond in detail.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) rightly raised the issue of mountain rescue. He described the exceptional volunteers who are involved in it, the roles and activities that they undertake on behalf of people in distress, and the risks that they confront. He tried to pre-empt one of the Government’s arguments in referring to the ease or otherwise of distinguishing between a mountain rescue vehicle and a privately owned vehicle. It is true that the Government believe that there are some problems in that regard, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, shortly after he raised questions about the matter on a previous occasion, a £200,000 fund was provided to cover the cost of procuring rescue equipment for teams in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also worth pointing out that charities benefit from a substantial contribution in gift aid which is worth £1 billion a year to them. However, the hon. Gentleman was a passionate advocate of the tax changes that he was seeking. I am sure that the Department for Transport and the Treasury heard the points that he made, and they may wish to respond.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, of which all Members probably have some knowledge as a result of their casework. The hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue individual cases further, but I can tell him that the Government have moved in a positive direction and have been more generous in relation to cancer patients’ access to the ESA support group. The Government have looked at the work capability assessment and the Harrington proposals, and have made improvements. The Government are not deaf to the issues that have been raised. We entirely agree that we must do the right thing by the most vulnerable in society. That is precisely what we are doing, but there will always be individual cases that require further scrutiny.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) raised the subject of Sunday trading and sought some firm guarantees from me and the Government. As she will know, a permanent relaxation of the Sunday trading laws was considered and rejected as part of the Government’s recent red tape challenge in June 2011. A review is rightly under way of the impact of the temporary suspension for the Olympics and Paralympics. If the Government decide on a permanent relaxation of the restrictions, new legislation would be needed and Parliament would have its say on that. My hon. Friend offered some fairly convincing evidence from the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, however, showing that the impact on their business had been negative, so this might not, in fact, be a good way to increase trade after all. I agree with her, too, in that I would never say that I wish I had spent more time shopping.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) raised the issue of Gary McKinnon and his family. There is always a risk for Members that past comments made in this place will catch up with us, and that was the case for me in respect of my hon. Friend’s opening remarks. It is, perhaps, safest for me to say that my hon. Friend has put a lot of strength and passion into his campaign, and he is a very articulate advocate for the McKinnon case. The sole issue for the Home Secretary to consider, however, is whether extradition would breach Mr McKinnon’s human rights. The courts have allowed time for the Home Secretary’s medical experts to consider the new representations made by Mr McKinnon’s representatives. I assume that there will be an announcement on that on or around 16 October, and it may well be appropriate for us to hear about that in the House.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why we have not had a decision yet, or at least get an answer to that question from the relevant Department? I also ask for an assurance that the timetable for a decision will not be constrained by any parliamentary or party conference timetable.
As my hon. Friend said, other issues have had to be addressed. The Olympics and Paralympics are now over, but there are other matters to be considered, too. I hope that he will get some satisfaction on this question very soon, but it would not be appropriate for me to specify a time. This issue has been on the Government’s radar for many years, however, and we all want a swift resolution, especially for Mr McKinnon and his family.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) talked about Butterley spillway. As I said, I would be pleased to know more about this issue, and the campaign group that has been established and put that grand staircase on the map. He outlined the actions that Yorkshire Water is taking in relation to the different options it is considering. He made some specific requests and it would be appropriate for the relevant Department to respond to those. Such requests included asking for full transparency of all documents. He also asked questions about whether or not the structure will remain listed, and they need a response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has a reputation for campaigning on issues associated with family courts. He probably wanted to put on the record, and he certainly effectively did so, what he had to say about Jersey and its particular case. He rightly said that he bounces up and down to raise this issue frequently—
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role, which gives him the challenge of answering this question: I understand from people I have spoken to after I made my speech that there have been protests today outside the British embassy in Bratislava about malpractice in the English family courts, so does he feel that it might perhaps be in the Government’s interest to drop their family justice review and support my Family Justice (Transparency, Accountability and Cost of Living) Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It would certainly be appropriate for the Government to respond to his suggestion, but it would also be totally inappropriate for me to agree to it at this time. He also suggested that a Committee should be set up to consider cover-ups. Again, I am not sure which Department would deal with those, but I am sure that it has noted that request.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) talked about localism. Clearly there is total agreement in the coalition on some issues, and the need to promote localism is definitely one of them. Both parties identified the issue as something we wanted to address, given that the UK has become one of the most centralised countries in the western world. When raising the issue of wind farms, she highlighted the fact that there may be a conflict between localism, which we want to prioritise, and different agendas to which the Government are equally committed in ensuring that we are the greenest Government ever. She posed a number of questions that would be best answered by the Department for Communities and Local Government in writing. I am thinking, in particular, of the issues she raised about where the priorities lie between strategic plans, regional plans and neighbourhood plans, and what opportunities there are for local residents to have an input in that process and change the outcome.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in his place, has been a consistent campaigner on violent video games. He will be aware that a new statutory system was introduced on 30 July, which will mean that a person who sells a game rated 12-plus to someone below that age will have committed a criminal offence and could be subject to a fine of £5,000. He made a point about prosecutions, and he may need a response about how many prosecutions there have been in respect of that subject. In an intervention, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) rightly raised the role of parents in this matter, and I should put on the record the fact that the “Control. Collaborate. Create.” campaign has been launched. It includes the re-launch of the askaboutgames.com website, which is a resource to help parents better to understand what games are and whether they are appropriate for a given age group. The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the Byron review and what has been implemented that might require a detailed response. Some aspects have been implemented, and the changes to the video games classification system followed its recommendations. A further response detailing the date for implementation of other aspects, if known, might also be helpful.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) spoke about the Gloucester City Homes ALMO, which he described in glowing terms. I am sure that it is as effective as mine, the Sutton Housing Partnership. He quite rightly called for it to be able to access capital to ensure a decent capital investment programme to allow the affordable homes needed in his city to be built. We would all support that, in terms both of providing additional homes—there are few parts of the country where there is no pressure on affordable homes—and of creating the jobs that come with the building programme.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) spoke about air passenger duty, and I might not be able to satisfy him entirely. I agree that aviation is vital to the UK economy, but the Government undertook an extensive consultation on air passenger duty last year. We received 500 responses and we have published our response, including a summary of the views received. At this point, the Government have no plans to commission further research into the impact of air passenger duty, and although he is right that there has been a substantial increase of 8%, the increases for 2013-14 will be in line with RPI. If air passenger duty is cut as he suggests, its contribution to the Government’s deficit reduction programme will have to be compensated for somewhere else. He mentioned that people power has been very effective in the campaign and I am sure that not a single Member of Parliament or Minister is unaware of the campaign, given the volume of the representations that we receive.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who explained that he could not stay to hear the wind-ups, rightly plugged his desire to see through-trains to King’s Cross as part of the franchising process, which has been effectively put on the record.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) referred to the importance of ensuring that lending was going to small businesses in particular. Project Merlin was successful, and last year there was a 20% increase in lending and a 13% increase in SME lending compared with in 2010. As she said, we have moved on to a different arrangement with the funding for lending scheme. She made some very sensible points about the importance of ensuring monitoring at a Northern Ireland level so that it could be seen to be effective there, too, and some strong points about the definition of new lending, so that we know that it amounts to new lending. I am sure that her comments will be read closely by the Treasury, which might want to pick up on some of them.
The hon. Member for North Swindon talked about the national citizenship scheme in Swindon. I have a few notes on that, but I cannot tell him anything about it as he has been there five times, was there at the beginning and has watched it develop. The Government are committed to the scheme. Some 8,500 young people participated last year, 30,000 places are available this year and the Prime Minister has announced that a further 90,000 places will be available in 2014. It is the Government’s intention and our ambition, which he shares, to try to make this a universal scheme so that every single 16 and 17-year-old can participate. He also got in a good plug for Swindon college and its need for some clarity on when the money will be available. If more clarity can be given, I am sure that he will secure a written response.
My final point on the hon. Member’s contribution is that it was good to hear in this Chamber a positive story about young people, because too often all we hear are the bad stories, which give the wrong image and do not celebrate the excellent, hard-working, committed and intelligent young people across the country who are participating in schemes such as the one he described in Swindon.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) touched on a range of issues, including planning conditions relating to a training ground being used by Colchester United football club, the importance of shopping streets, an appeal for Government support for Witham’s bid for infrastructure investment, bank lending to small businesses—something that was touched on earlier—and, in particular, the difficulties Amelia Rope is having in securing support for her business. Businesses such as hers, which have received a lot of publicity and are clearly doing well, are exactly the sort that we want to secure lending to ensure their expansion so that they can provide additional jobs.
My hon. Friend mentioned fuel poverty and the importance of ensuring that small businesses can switch tariffs. I was due to have a meeting earlier today with a charity called Make It Cheaper, which provides a free switching service for small businesses and charities. I cannot vouch for it, because I have not met it, but it might be able to deal with the problem she highlighted about encouraging small businesses, as we need to do with consumers, to shop around and take advantage of the best offers available.
My hon. Friend then referred to the Dartford river crossing. She might be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), when still a Transport Minister, recently announced that the Department for Transport will carry out a full review of the local residents discount scheme to consider how it can be improved and how take-up can be increased so that residents benefit from the discounts available. The Government have clearly acknowledged the concern about congestion. She highlighted the fact that, although there is supposed to be a scheme in place to ensure that charges are suspended when congestion is particularly severe, the evidence indicates that there are very few occasions when it is invoked. Perhaps the Department needs to look at that more closely.
The Deputy Leader of the House is giving a very comprehensive reply, but there are a few minutes remaining and I have had no opportunity today to mention the sadness that is felt across Greater Manchester at the deaths of PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone of Greater Manchester police, who were killed today in what appears to have been a gun and grenade ambush in Tameside. Will he take this opportunity to join me in expressing the terrible sadness that is felt across Greater Manchester at the loss of two very brave police officers?
I thank the hon. Lady for that timely intervention and concur with the point she makes. Thanks to her, the House will now be aware that, regrettably and tragically, two female police officers were shot during an incident at Tameside in Greater Manchester. Both were bravely carrying out their duty. I am sure that Members of the House will want to express their sympathy to their families, friends and colleagues. Of course, the Home Office and the Government will ensure that Members are kept up to date as far as possible as things develop in that very sad case we have learnt about in the past couple of hours.
I think that I have responded to all Members who contributed to this afternoon’s debate and hope that I have been able to do so in sufficient detail for them to feel that it was worth staying the course. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all members of staff in the House, all Members and their staff for the excellent work they have done and wish everyone all the best for the conference recess.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.