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Westminster Hall

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 October 2012

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Transport Infrastructure (Essex)

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

A number of hon. Members have indicated a wish to speak. Even at this early stage, I urge a degree of self-restraint so that everyone can get in.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I genuinely welcome the interest shown by my fellow Essex MPs in the debate, which is timely. As constituency MPs, we all face many serious challenges and have strong views about the future of our infrastructure.

The coalition Government are halfway through their five-year mission to restore economic growth to Britain while dealing with the deficit, and I welcome the initiatives that Ministers have introduced to highlight infrastructure and investment—in particular the £50 billion provided through the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill, and the Growth and Infrastructure Bill as well, partly because their provisions are important to economic growth and job creation across the country.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and his Department are in the process of changing how transport infrastructure is delivered, to ensure that it meets demand, supports growth and provides value for money, which I also welcome. In recent weeks, reforms to rail franchises have been debated at length, and I wish the Minister and his Department well in the vital work being undertaken to resolve the problems with the west coast main line in particular, but also, from an Essex point of view, with the tendering process for the Greater Anglia franchise. We are keen to ensure that that franchise is not delayed, but we feel that it can go ahead only when the specification is ready, and not before; I was in discussion with Abellio last night about that very point.

Air travel and airport capacity remain high on the political agenda, with the launch of the Davies commission last month. New delivery models for investment in our roads are being examined, through the introduction of route-based strategies, all of which I welcome. Yesterday evening, I hosted an event in Parliament with representatives of Stansted airport. It was attended by some of my colleagues. From an Essex point of view, we feel that this is an exciting time for those interested in infrastructure. Essex has been neglected for far too long. The purpose of today’s debate is not just to make a plea to the Minister and his Department, but to make the case for investment. For far too long, we have not come together enough to make a collective case to Government about why we need it.

All my colleagues know that Essex has suffered from a chronic lack of infrastructure investment over the years, and during the good times Essex was overlooked while money was ploughed into projects elsewhere. That neglect has had serious consequences for a county that is growing and growing. Over time, our roads have become more congested and dangerous, and our rail services have become far from ideal, despite the fact that our commuters contribute approximately £110 million to the Treasury annually.

In my constituency, vital plans to improve road safety on the A120, one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country, have been dropped, and countless other infrastructure projects have been ignored. Although we appreciate that the nation’s finances are in a delicate and precarious position right now, that should be no excuse to overlook Essex for investment in transport infrastructure.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the infrastructure in Essex does not improve greatly, the burden of people driving to my constituency, which although in Essex is also in the London borough of Redbridge, and leaving their vehicles there so that they can travel on the underground, will just increase and become a bigger problem for my constituents?

Absolutely. That highlights the fact that we are at breaking point where our roads are concerned. Congestion is extreme. Although we have not had the infrastructure investment—money is tight—Essex is best placed to maximise the benefits of any public money that comes into our infrastructure. If the Minister chooses to come to Essex—that is an open invitation from us all, I think—he will understand and get to see at first hand that Essex is the engine of economic growth.

Even in these challenging economic circumstances, there are about 6,000 new enterprise start-ups every year, the equivalent of one new business being created for every 300 people in the county. In 2011, there were 52,000 entrepreneurs in Essex, supporting a county-wide economy with gross value added estimated at over £28 billion. Few parts of Britain can boast that kind of culture of entrepreneurship, and with so many entrepreneurs and business people across the county it is hardly surprising how diverse the businesses are.

I mentioned earlier that we had a function last night. It was attended by many businesses as well as by representatives from Stansted airport. In my constituency, we have a pioneering and world-leading firm, Crittall Windows, which has won the Queen’s award for enterprise; the world famous Wilkin and Sons jam makers, the finest jam makers in the world; and Simarco International, a worldwide logistics company, to name but a few.

There are thousands more such outward-looking businesses. They want easier access to global markets and trading opportunities but are let down by our poor infrastructure across the county. They are frustrated by that, and also by the fact that the voice of the private sector has not been listened to enough—not just across Government but in other bodies as well, which is why this discussion is vital. We must start to listen to that voice.

Our outdated infrastructure is a considerable barrier to economic growth, and that costs firms millions of pounds. This quote from Ian Thurgood, from Wilkin and Sons, is telling:

“A well planned and maintained road network is critical for the success of Essex businesses. Food producers such as Wilkin and Sons have to meet strict delivery deadlines for most retailers and failure to deliver on time can mean products being out of stock and ultimately delisted from sale.”

Such issues are vital for that industry, and Ian Thurgood’s sentiments are echoed across the board. Essex has a 21st-century private sector but a creaking infrastructure that is simply out of date. That is the business perspective, but of course the problem has a knock-on effect on families across the county.

Our population in Essex is approximately 1.7 million, and it is set to grow by 20% over the next 20 years. I have three local planning authorities covering just my constituency, and with Braintree district, Maldon district and Colchester borough they plan to build 60,000 new dwellings between 2011 and 2031. All those new dwellings will put more pressure on our roads—more cars—and there will be a greater demand for rail services and international air travel. There will also, quite rightly, be more people setting up their own businesses, which we support.

Essex is an attractive county. It is very close to London, and its potential is limitless. We have a world-class airport at Stansted, which serves 18 million passengers and is the fourth most used airport in the country. Some £8 million of cargo goes out of the airport, and about 200,000 tonnes are flown out to 200 destinations. The airport supports 10,000 jobs across the county and contributes £400 million to the local economy. But there is not just the airport; we have seaports as well. We have Harwich, and Felixstowe is close by, while London Gateway will come on stream soon.

Along with all my colleagues, I am passionate about the potential for Essex as a county. I want to see our businesses not just grow but do even more for UK plc. Frankly, Essex could get moving even more with greater infrastructure. Having given some background, I now want to highlight some of the key areas, particularly in my constituency, in which we have major problems and bottlenecks.

I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on the future of rail in the county. He will be aware that colleagues in Essex and across the region have come together to develop a rail prospectus covering a range of services for the Greater Anglia franchise. I believe his Department is now familiar with that document. We recently went to present the document to the Secretary of State—and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), a Transport Minister, is a signatory.

Many of my constituents are paying upwards of £4,000 a year to commute to London, and they are subject to the worst delays and a lack of seating, which forces them to stand in horrible conditions. Even though we are a business-oriented county, those people do not have access to wi-fi connections. As I have already highlighted, a significant proportion of their fares already goes to the Treasury. We are a significant net contributor to the Treasury, and my constituents and all rail users across Essex are concerned that they are simply not getting value for money.

It seems obvious that if a modest proportion of the fees paid to the Government by the train operators were reinvested in track infrastructure and new rolling stock, everyone would benefit and the service would be more attractive to others. Such investment is needed because, since the mid-1990s, there has been a 34% increase in passenger numbers on the Great Eastern route, which places huge demand on current services.

The introduction of a passing loop on the Witham to Braintree branch line would be a crucial investment. The branch line is currently a single track, and the Minister is familiar with our representations on that. The branch line restricts the number of journeys and the number of passengers who can be connected to Witham and the wider rail network, both to London and Norwich. A passing loop would be beneficial to constituents across the district and, of course, could unlock new capacity on the route.

Braintree district council recently conducted a study to demonstrate that, if the loop were constructed, it would deliver a cost-benefit ratio of 2.0 or more. From his work in the Department, the Minister may know that scores of that level and above are regarded as delivering high value for money; a score between 1.5 and 2.0 represents medium value for money. I hope he will give a positive indication about the issue.

I thank all my colleagues for their contributions to the rail prospectus. For many of us, the prospectus has been a labour of love that has brought us together. I pay tribute to Essex county council and the local enterprise partnership, because we have all come together for the first time to forge the prospectus and we intend to continue being strong advocates and strong voices for rail investment.

I now turn to the problems of the Dartford crossing. Just as commuters have become thoroughly dejected by the quality of rail services, businesses are gobsmacked, astounded and appalled, to put it politely, by the state of the roads and the congestion near the Dartford crossing. The crossing, of course, is important not only to Essex but to the south-east, Greater London and Kent.

As regular users of the crossing know—I declare an interest as a DART-Tag holder—the toll booths cause atrocious congestion. Journey time reliability figures, the measure that the Highways Agency uses to monitor delays, show that performance in the year to May 2012 was just 57% for southbound journeys and 60% for northbound journeys, compared with a national average of 83.5% across the motorway and trunk road network. More than 50 million crossings are made each year, and it is unacceptable that half of those journeys should face such considerable delays.

As the representative of the constituency at the north end of the Dartford crossing, I should say that my constituents probably suffer the burden of the congestion more than anyone else. My hon. Friend refers to the congestion caused by the toll booths. We are advised that, once they are removed, the crossing’s capacity will grow by 20%. Installing free-flow tolling will cost some £100 million. Do her constituents agree with mine that, instead of spending that £100 million, we should just remove the tolls?

Given the delays caused by the tolls and how much those delays cost our economy, the answer is yes. My constituents would welcome that—they really would.

The Highways Agency has estimated that the economic cost of the delays is some £40 million, which is astronomical. That money is being taken away from creating jobs and growth in our economy.

I want to get this on the record. When the first tunnel was built by Essex and Kent county councils, and subsequently when the second tunnel was built, it was announced that, once the capital costs had been paid for by the toll, the tunnels would be free. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps it is time to honour that pledge?

I absolutely do. There is a real issue here, because that is what the public were told. The public feel cheated not only because they have to continue paying the current tolls, but because the tolls are going up. The tolls went up this month, and they will go up again in two years’ time. The public are getting an appalling service and, as I said, the cost to the economy is significant.

We have another concern about the Dartford crossing. The proceeds received by the Department for Transport have effectively fallen over the past eight years. In 2003-04, revenues from users totalled £68 million and expenditure was £14 million, which left £54 million in proceeds for the Department. By 2010-11, however, although revenues had risen to £73 million, expenditure had increased by 250% to £36.3 million, leaving just £36.7 million in proceeds for the Department. Most of the increased revenues—I hope the Minister and the Department will look into this—appear to have been swallowed up by the managing agent contractor’s costs, which have more than doubled from £12.7 million to £27.5 million. All colleagues would think that that is completely unrealistic and unreasonable. For those of us who are paying the high tolls—and our constituents are—that is simply unacceptable. Although the money raised from drivers using the crossing rose by 7% in eight years, the amount going back to the Department fell.

I recognise that the Department is working on the free flow, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) highlighted, but drivers are paying increased costs year on year. Given the compelling evidence demonstrating that the crossing is now failing to deliver value for money, and given the economic costs of the delays, we must review the entire operation of the crossing. I hope the Minister can explain where the extra tolls being paid by drivers, both this month and in two years’ time, will be going.

How will the Department spend the money and on what projects? I urge the Minister to consider the contractor costs, which I have highlighted. He may not be able to give me a full response right now, but the tolls are a physical and metaphorical barrier to growth, and the sooner traffic is able to flow freely, and the sooner costs are brought down, the better—not just for all our constituents, but for the economy of the south-east.

My constituents, and road users throughout Essex, are fed up with both the A120 and the A12. Those two roads run through my constituency, and my postbag and inbox are inundated daily with all their failures. The roads are vital economic links, but they have not been upgraded and are costing the economy huge sums of money.

John Devall, the managing director of Essex and Suffolk Water, has commented that the

“A12 generally…is the subject of the travel news in the morning—taking over from J28 to 27 on M25, since upgrades there.”

His workers going to east London now regularly travel between 6 am and 7 am to avoid the worst traffic. Essex chambers of commerce has highlighted that the road needs to be widened and improved.

The 12-mile stretch of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey is one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country and needs urgent attention. We have had fatality after fatality. The A120 is a single-carriageway road that carries approximately 25,000 vehicles each day, projected to rise to 30,000 by 2027. As a single-carriageway road carrying many freight vehicles and heavy goods lorries, that section of road is simply no longer fit for purpose.

I emphasise that the A120 is part of the trans-European road network between Dublin and Brussels, which means it is used by freight vehicles and is congested. Although 6% of traffic on the county’s roads is attributable to HGVs, they make up about 14% of traffic on that part of the A120 and parts of the A12. The dangers speak volumes; I have highlighted the fact that there have been fatalities. Local residents and parish councils have campaigned tirelessly for improvements, but have been systematically let down by authorities, including regional development agencies and previous Governments. A £50 million plan to dual the road was abandoned. I implore the Minister to consider the case for investment. Privately led schemes exist already. In an era of little Government money, we appreciate that investment must be led by the private sector and business, but lots of people are working locally. We must listen to businesses’ voices.

I thank the Minister and the Department for Transport for the announcement two weeks ago committing £300,000 to Galleys Corner in Braintree, but I emphasise the dangerous nature of the road. I look to the Department and the Minister for their support in working with the county council, the chambers of commerce and the local enterprise partnerships to consider using regional growth fund money to deal with the problems on that road. I press the Government to consider how we can access European funds.

I cannot emphasise enough that, for too long, Essex’s innovative private sector has been held back by the failures of our infrastructure, frustrating businesses and preventing more jobs from being created. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have raised and the areas of the constituency that I have mentioned. This is all about getting Essex moving and bringing greater prosperity and more jobs and growth to the county and, ultimately, to the United Kingdom, as well as bringing more Treasury receipts to the Government.

I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Infrastructure is probably too grand a word for the transport arrangements in our county. We enjoy relative prosperity, yet we have, varyingly, either no transport infrastructure worthy of the name or totally inadequate infrastructure. She said that we are halfway through this Government, and it is to this Government that we direct our pleas, but the situation goes back many years. Sometimes, I think that the inadequacies of the transport system in our county can be traced back to Roman times. We therefore have a great deal of catching up to do. Things are London-centric: everything goes away from London. Therefore, even counties near London have difficulty connecting places in the way required by modern business, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said.

Our principal roads are the A11, the A12, the A13 and the A127, which all go outwards from London. Only one, the M11, has been upgraded to motorway status, although the A11 still runs separately. I understand that when this country’s motorway system was first mooted back in the 1930s, the original plan was that the M11 would be a London-Norwich motorway. If that was so, the county of Norfolk has grounds for grieving that there is still no adequate connection from London to that important city in the east of England. The M11 only happened because people saw it as a way to go faster to an airport at Stansted, if one was developed.

As for cross-county roads, I can add to my hon. Friend’s story about the A120. When I first became Member for Saffron Walden, the constituency included, apart from the district of Uttlesford, the northern part of the district of Braintree, through which ran the A604, the Cambridge-Colchester road. The road was under heavy pressure, and when I tried to argue for bypasses for villages and so on, I was told, “No, no, you must understand the strategy.” On this matter, Essex county council, the highway authority and the Department for Transport were as one. The roads communicating with the east coast ports would be the A12 and then, when constructed, the Orwell bridge on to the A14. The other was the A120, connecting with the M11. That road has still not been completed, as my hon. Friend said. It is the most extraordinary situation. That was the great strategy for a cross-county route, from which everything else was directed, yet it has still not been completed.

Parts of the A130 have been improved, but in my constituency, despite the downgrading of a section to the B1008, heavy transport still ploughs through the villages of Barnston and Ford End and the parish of Great Waltham. Satellite navigation tells lorry drivers the route, rather than the signposts on the road. The road in that part of the county is totally inadequate. We do not have a complete approach to the A130, which would help communications across the county. The trouble is that schemes get mooted, talked about, designed and left to fester, leaving only blight and a great deal of heartache.

On rail services, I will not say anything about the Fenchurch-Shoeburyness line, but it appears to be the only one that has been significantly upgraded in the past 20 or 30 years. The great eastern line is certainly below its capacity needs, and the west Anglia line is the most extraordinary story of all. Successive Governments over 20 or 30 years have designated Stansted as an airport to be developed in varying degrees and have also decided that the M11 corridor is one for development. Despite that fact, one of the most inadequate railway lines of all still serves our county and beyond, running to Cambridge, Ely and King’s Lynn. It has the shortest stretch of four-tracking of any London terminal, not measured in inches but by a considerable degree.

Our commuters have had a rotten deal. Now, belatedly, the owners of Stansted airport have woken up to the fact that the Stansted express is not as express as it was originally and are at last demanding a 30-minute journey time, equal to the time from Victoria to Gatwick airport. Indeed, that is how it should be. We have an airport—it is not approved with enthusiasm by all my constituents, but we are realists—whose capacity can double, but our railway system serves neither the airport and the businesses related to it, nor the vast number of commuters who come from the constituencies of many of my neighbours, including my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).

Even stations further south are suffering from the inadequacy of the line. It might be argued, “Come on, you’ve got Crossrail coming along.” Crossrail might make some contribution as far as passengers from Shenfield and other stations are concerned, but the idea that it will be the complete answer to Essex’s rail needs is nonsense, and the idea that £3 billion might be spent on it or on an extension to an enlarged Stansted airport is for the birds.

Cross-county, we have nothing. In the wake of the decision to develop Stansted airport, people would like a line reinstated from Braintree towards the airport and Bishop’s Stortford, but why would one think of spending more money to restore a line when we cannot even find the money to make existing principal lines work effectively? To the extent that we have some cross-county rail operations out of Stansted airport that could be developed, the single-bore tunnel restricts the number of trains and is currently working at capacity. How stupid is that? We need a second-bore tunnel, so that extra trains can serve from Stansted and through. Indeed, we could have more trains going to the northern parts of the east of England.

On air, I am afraid the county is deeply divided, although we speak with unity on most other things. We have two airports: London, Southend and London, Stansted. Those names tell their own story. Stansted has never been Essex’s airport. Perhaps Southend has more of a claim to be an Essex airport, but Stansted airport was never treated by its owners, BAA, as an Essex airport; it was a London airport, part of its system. Fortunately, that is about to change soon, but it is still seen—speculation has started—as part of the London airport solution. I do not believe that it can be, unless one is prepared to say that the Essex countryside should be devastated to the extent of having four runways.

Even our most ambitious business people would not believe that an airport on that scale is necessary, yet we are faced with the fact that, once again, we could be bearing the burden of solving London’s problems without any of the real benefits that might flow from it—an improved railway line and an improved road system. We are bad in this country in that when we have major developments that can be necessary in the wider national interest, we do not give people a commensurate benefit that flows from them, or even adequate compensation.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. We fail to obtain the amount of moneys required to deal with the backlog of problems that we have, so the quality of our transport system is inadequate. We do not have anything that could remotely be called an integrated transport system. Overall, what has happened over the years is that there has been nothing much in it for us. Frankly, there needs to be a lot more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on setting the scene, pan-Essex, and endorse the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) regarding the west of the county. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham made a powerful case for the economic benefit of investment in the transport infrastructure for Essex as a whole. Essex is indeed an economic power base for the British economy, and more could be done if we were given support in greater transport infrastructure.

The rail manifesto for the east of England united every single MP in the east of England—no mean achievement. As far as my constituents are concerned, and as has been pointed out, they are paying way over the odds in rail fares for the service they receive. We need greater investment on the Anglia line—Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester and Chelmsford to London, Liverpool Street—but I seek the Minister’s confirmation that the “Norwich in 90” campaign will not mean fewer inter-city trains stopping at the Essex stations of Manningtree and Colchester.

On occasion, we in Essex feel that we have been neglected and forgotten by the Department for Transport. I endorse the case that has been made for improvements to the A12 and the A120. The A120 is not in my constituency at either end, but a section of it runs along the A12, as it were, and it certainly brings A120 traffic in and out of Colchester. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) were here, he would make a powerful case for improvements to the A120 through the Tendring peninsula to the international port of Harwich, in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham, and, indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) would for the A120, so far as it goes through that part of Essex.

We have to look at Essex as a whole. On the Thurrock crossing—I am going to say the Thurrock crossing, not the Dartford crossing, because we need to promote Essex on these occasions—it was a great disappointment that when the Queen Elizabeth II bridge was opened it was not called the Thurrock bridge. I do not see why Kent should get all the mentions.

Bad planning means, I am afraid, that Essex, and my constituency of Colchester in particular, is set to suffer even more road congestion. I draw the Minister’s attention to a proposed development on the fields of west Mile End, which the highways experts think will be okay, even though 1,600 houses will be served by the longest cul-de-sac in Britain—a one-mile cul-de-sac serving this massive estate on land of a quality that, if only John Constable had painted it, would be considered an area of outstanding natural beauty. We need new housing, of course we do. We need new sites for jobs, of course we do. However, they have to be in the right place.

Those 1,600 houses will pile even more traffic on to the road congestion around the Colchester mainline station and North Station road, which is absolutely ludicrous. I hope that people in the Department and in Essex county highways, and wherever else these theorists sit, will realise that in the real world it is impossible—science has proved it—to get a quart into a pint pot. To suggest that, somehow, vehicles can do the equivalent of getting a quart into a pint pot is not on.

Something that I am sure will appeal to the Minister is the fact that we have had the case made for improvements to road and rail infrastructure, but I am going to make a special plea for buses, whether they be local buses serving a community or bus networks serving surrounding villages and people across Essex. I should not forget the express coach services and the services for Britain’s first city—our tourism industry. Of course, we were a city in 49 AD, when Chelmsford was the Roman equivalent of the Little Chef on the way to London. We need to have greater interest in and promotion of our bus services. A decent bus service and all that goes with it means a proper bus station. That is for local consumption. Before Christmas, Colchester’s bus station will be shutting. That is a retrograde move in a time when we should be promoting public transport.

Cycleway provision is important and relatively low cost. One only has to go to Denmark and Holland to see how investment in cycleway provision encourages people out of their cars and on to cycles. The more we can encourage people on to safe cycle routes, the more we will ease congestion.

I shall conclude with something that I failed to interest the previous Government in, and in which I suspect this Government and Department for Transport have an equal lack of interest. The Victorians were successful, as can be seen in many of our European towns and cities and in a few parts of the United Kingdom, in producing urban tram systems, or light railways. A tram system or light railway would move us a long way forward, because far more people can be carried, in an urban environment, on trams or light railway than by continually putting more and more cars on to the roads.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham on putting a powerful case for Essex. I hope that some good will come from it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is a fantastic champion not only for transport, but for business, in Essex.

In Harlow, we face three major challenges: reputation, skills and infrastructure. We are dealing with the first two. We now have the highest business growth in the UK, as Experian has shown. An enterprise zone is opening next year, a new university technical college is opening in 2014, and 600 more people are in work in the town, compared with January, but transport infrastructure is holding us back in three ways. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) highlighted so well, we are not getting enough investment in trains in the east of England. Secondly, Harlow lacks proper motorway entrances. Thirdly, a sense of unfairness has built up over decades, due to only a fifth of fuel duty receipts being spent on our roads. I shall consider those points in turn.

I welcome what the Government have done to limit train fare rises. Many people in Harlow are on below-average earnings and commute into London, and could not afford some of the bigger rises that were initially mentioned. Of course, expensive rail fares have not happened overnight. Simon Carter, a Harlow resident who is also a councillor, has the ticket stubs to prove that a season ticket from Harlow to London went up by some 40% over the past 13 to 15 years, but Harlow commuters still suffer from the worst overcrowding in the country.

I recognise and welcome what the Government have done to invest in new rolling stock and to negotiate with Abellio to run a short franchise when National Express dropped out. I appreciate that Abellio has hired 100 extra security staff on the west coast main line, protected all Harlow services from cuts and smartened up our train stations, but Essex is a major engine of the English economy and our train fares are still too high, compared with the inward investment in the network. That is why I, along with my hon. and right hon. Friends, urge the Minister to consider the East Anglian rail prospectus, with targeted schemes, such as a third line in the Lea valley, and line improvements along the Stansted Express route, so that trains can get up to speeds of 100 mph. Improvements in infrastructure in the Roydon and Sawbridgeworth stations would be welcome.

On my hon. Friend’s point about increased rail capacity through the Lea valley, we do not want to be sold short on just a third rail. For that job to be done properly, we need four rails, ideally, as far as Broxbourne. That would separate the more localised traffic from the traffic to more distant destinations, such as his constituency and mine.

Of course, my right hon. Friend is correct. He is an incredible champion for commuters across Essex.

Crossrail is estimated to have raised property prices along its line of route by about £5.5 billion, meaning that one third of the scheme’s cost has already been recouped by local home owners. This is the value that major transport projects can unlock.

I urge the Minister to expand the Oyster and other smart card systems to include Harlow commuters, because most people who commute to London from there use the London underground or London buses.

The Minister is aware, from a previous debate, that I have long campaigned for an additional junction on the M11. A new junction is critical if Harlow is to continue to grow and attract new businesses. Harlow town alone has a population of some 81,000 or 82,000, in addition to that of the villages in my constituency, but we have only one entrance to the town, which is crazy for a huge employment hub close to London. The industry is located at the opposite end of the town, meaning that lorries must trundle back and forth, almost through the town centre. Almost every day, our town faces gridlock because we do not have the extra junction.

I welcome work done by the local council on a £500,000 study into building a new M11 junction 7a, which will report in November—in a few weeks. I urge the Minister to consider that report. The case for a new M11 junction is simple: it would cost only around £15 million, would create jobs and growth, cut congestion and the cost of traffic, and would generally make Harlow a much better place to live. Our local enterprise partnership has secured a small amount of funding for road improvements, and I welcome some things that the Government have announced, but this is a sticking plaster. We will not solve our transport problems in Harlow until we get the extra junction.

I want to talk briefly about how our infrastructure is funded. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) has brilliantly highlighted how, unfortunately, money raised for the railways by commuters through fares is not spent in the east of England; most of it goes to other parts of the country. We must move to a situation where money raised in the region by commuters paying high rail fares is spent in the region. The same thing has happened with fuel duty. Through the 1920s, the road fund was repeatedly raided to prop up the Treasury, and from 1937 it was treated as a general tax. By 1966, just one third of the revenue was spent on roads, and by 2008 the figure was just one fifth. The proportion of fuel duty being spent on roads has shrunk hugely, but at the same time that duty has risen. Motorists regard that as unfair because they do not see any benefit from the huge sums in fuel duty tax that they pay. The same is true of train ticket price rises. How can we justify those without proper investment in our local road and rail networks?

The cost of living is the No. 1 issue in my constituency. People want cheaper travel and they want every penny that the Government take from them to be recycled back into the community. I urge the Minister to refocus the Department on extra infrastructure investment in the east of England, in our trains, motorways and road networks—a cause that is close to our hearts. We need more radical transparency, so that people can see whether fare increases are genuinely being ploughed back into their area.

I am glad that the Government have fulfilled their election pledge and stopped a second runway at Stansted airport. The answer to infrastructure spending is not to spend millions on an extra runway, but to spend that money, if it is ever available, on our roads, rail and other transport infrastructure. Stansted is running at only 50% of full capacity, so there is no economic case for a second runway. Some say that people in Harlow would benefit, but Stansted has some 10,000 employees, of whom only a few hundred come from Harlow. I am yet to be convinced that Harlow people would benefit if there were an extra runway.

The Government should look seriously at the case for a new airport, but my constituents ask me time and again for a new M11 junction and extra train capacity to London.

I associate myself with the comments made by all right hon. and hon. Members about the economic contribution that Essex makes to our economy. I say to the Minister that we mention such things only because we are entrepreneurial and people work hard in their businesses. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the conditions are right for people to take those risks and invest, and central to that is transport infrastructure. I am afraid to say that in recent years the wealth-creating capability of Essex has been rather taken for granted by Governments. I hope that this debate will kick-start a more engaged interest from Governments about what really needs to be done to help Essex be the best it can be.

Hon. Members have said that Essex is a powerhouse of the economy. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends forgive me for saying that Thurrock is a major powerhouse of the UK economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned the upcoming new port at London Gateway, which has the potential to create upwards of 36,000 jobs. We should remember that Thurrock already has massive port infrastructure, with the established port at Tilbury, a major roll-on/roll-off ferry operation at Purfleet and any number of manufacturing industries along the Thames, bringing in their supplies by river, including companies such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. As I have said before, Europe’s entire supply of Fairy liquid is manufactured in and exported from my constituency.

Although supplies come in by ship and along the Thames, manufactured products have to get out by road, and that is the real challenge. We talked about the Dartford crossing, but the wider road infrastructure in Thurrock is getting close to breaking point. Every winter, mainly because a lot of people do their Christmas shopping at the fantastic Lakeside shopping centre, we often find our roads in a state of severe gridlock.

The Minister will not be surprised that I have a little wish list of projects, as my hon. Friends do. Top of the list has to be improvement of junction 30 and 31 of the M25, which is a major source of gridlock. To set the scene, that is where the A13 meets the M25 and it is the last junction before reaching the Dartford crossing and so, necessarily, a pinch point. I highlight again the frankly incompetent decision making by the previous Government, in the sense that they invested billions of pounds in widening the M25 only to send everyone to a bottleneck at the Dartford crossing—failing to fix that junction or the capacity issues. The Department has plans to investigate and to develop proposals for an additional river crossing but, if we examine that expenditure, it was poor value for money and has made the existing problems so much worse.

With Dartford the bane of many motorists’ lives in Thurrock, the Department is looking at three proposals for a further crossing, all of which in some way, shape or form go through Thurrock. Motorists in my constituency, although they recognise the problems caused by congestion, are not happy at the prospect of absorbing yet more road infrastructure. We already have severe problems with air quality, which is caused in great part by the fact that traffic is not moving enough, and road infrastructure investment could deal with that, but we are particularly concerned that we will end up with more of Thurrock being dug up to create new motorways, which would be unacceptable to many of my constituents. We need to be sure that any new crossing will genuinely alleviate congestion at Dartford, so the location is important. The arguments for a new crossing have not been made effectively at all for my constituents.

As I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Witham, by removing the toll barriers, we will increase capacity at Dartford by 20%. We are making a significant investment by putting in the free-flow tolling, but motorists are finding the additional toll punitive, and increases will happen again. I need to ask whether those tolls need to be kept at all—that case needs to be made—particularly bearing in mind that, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said, the deal when the crossing was first created was that the tolls would be removed once the crossing was paid for.

My next point relates to level crossings. When London Gateway comes on stream, the commitment is that much of the freight coming into that port will be moved by rail. Obviously, there will be additional impacts on the road infrastructure as well, but there is a double whammy because we still have a number of level crossings in Thurrock, such as at Purfleet, on the London road and at Stanford-le-Hope, where the town is bisected. Some of those freight trains will be long, so when the barriers at the level crossings come down, they will slow down the traffic substantially, creating real potential for significant gridlock.

I have had a frustrating exchange of letters on level crossings with Network Rail, which seems to think that there will be no problem because the freight trains will not move at peak hours. When we are talking about road infrastructure that supports a logistics industry and heavy goods vehicle traffic, avoiding rush hour, frankly, will make no difference, because lorries already do that. We would be putting an additional significant strain on the road network, so I ask the Minister to look into the matter in considerable detail. Although, in principle, we want to move more freight by rail, we must still ensure the continuing operation of our road network.

Finally, we cannot have a debate on transport infrastructure without straying into the area of aviation. I hear clearly what some of my hon. Friends said. We seem to have got ourselves into the position of talking only about an airport that is a major international hub with four runways or nothing, but there is a good argument for the New York model of air capacity. I have some sympathy for what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, but the one point to make about proposals for expansion at Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow is that they would all be privately funded, while the proposals for a four-runway airport in the Thames estuary would not be. We cannot, however, divorce aviation capacity from the other issues that face our county: rail capacity and road capacity. My final message to the Minister is about whether we can join all that up.

I should say that it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), but it is frustrating that my parents, having met her, think that she is the best Member of Parliament in the place. I keep pointing out to them that they ought to be a little more loyal and say second best, but they still do not take the point.

The debate has been absolutely fantastic, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who not only represents her constituency superbly but the surrounding areas and the whole of Essex—greater Essex, with Thurrock, Southend and, it appears from earlier interventions, Ilford. Unfortunately, having said that the debate has been good, focusing on the whole of Essex, I would like not to follow her example; I shall be slightly more parochial, touching on rail, road and air issues as they affect my constituents directly.

I have always seen the rail line from Fenchurch Street into Shoebury as something of a pipeline of money—coming from the City, bringing money backwards and forwards, whether earned or spent in London, and encouraging businesses to come into the town. I am somewhat concerned about the tender for the c2c line. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) says that it is one of the few places where money has been spent, which is entirely correct, but I am rather concerned that some of the excellent rolling stock will be removed as part of the franchising process. That process is flawed, and the Department should look at it again; it focuses too much on the numbers and not enough on service quality. Quite possibly, one and perhaps more of the four tenderers would remove some or all of the stock with air conditioning on that line. That would be bad for my constituents, bad for all the constituents down the line and bad for Essex. We have had some good news to do with rail, with the new station of Southend Airport opening, but I gently say to the Minister that to open a railway station seems to be the most difficult thing in the world to do—liaising with Network Rail and the various agencies—and it was far harder than it should have been to open that station and to help to generate growth.

Turning to roads, industrial estates in the west of my constituency can charge about 25% more than those in the east. That is not only about the time it takes to get from A to B, across Southend and out on to the various roads going into London, but about the predictability of time it takes. We have seen benefits such as at Sadlers Farm, where the work has taken far too long to deliver but is almost complete now, shaving several minutes off the time and, crucially, improving predictability. Also Southend council worked to improve Cuckoo Corner as an alternative to dualling and that has proved to operate incredibly well. Broadly speaking, we would like an outer relief road, from Shoebury, by-passing Southend; but in all candour, all alternatives at the moment would involve housing all along the side of the road, which would put congestion back into the system.

I want to mention the Dartford crossing. I accept the reprimand from the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), and perhaps we should start calling it the Thurrock crossing, branding it the Essex crossing only when we have sorted it out.

I turn to air transport. London Southend airport is in my constituency, which borders on two others. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) asked whether they are Essex airports or London airports. I and the majority of my constituents were pleased when we were able to call it London Southend airport. Essex people still get to use it, because it is not just for Londoners, but someone travelling to Canary Wharf can fly into London Southend airport, get on a train within 15 minutes and be in Canary Wharf within 40 minutes, which is much quicker than going via London Gatwick or London Heathrow. People travelling into the City from international destinations should use London Southend airport. They can clear customs all the way through to New York via Ireland. They can nip across to Amsterdam, which is a hub airport, and go anywhere in the world. London Southend is a real alternative to other London airports.

It would be wrong not to mention the various proposals for a larger airport in the estuary. There are many arguments against that, but if it happens, we must ensure that we get the right infrastructure and benefits, not only in Essex, but in Kent and the surrounding areas. We must go in with our eyes wide open. There are opportunities, but at the moment I cannot see a way through all the objections; if others can see a way through, we must ensure that we have the right infrastructure for Essex and Kent.

I thank the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate, which comes at an important time when difficult decisions are being made on transport spending, both locally and nationally. She made a persuasive case for investment in Essex’s transport system, and it is important that all hon. Members make the call to support vital spending on infrastructure.

In July, we debated “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia”, and I, with several hon. Members here today, spoke in praise of that important document. It made a serious, positive case for investment in rail services in East Anglia, and I am glad that some of those issues have been revisited today. There is no doubt that Essex has complex transport needs, and a strong rail network is vital if they are to be met, not just to improve the experience for passengers—many hon. Members described why that is necessary—but to enable greater use of rail and to help relieve the pressure on roads, as hon. Members have so powerfully described.

Essex is a vibrant county, and it makes a vital contribution to the national economy, but that contribution is dependent on a transport system that is already under enormous pressure. Passengers face unsatisfactory services, with too much congestion on the roads, and trains at or above capacity during peak times. Passengers should not have to stand day in, day out when they are paying £4,000 or more for a season ticket. The county’s population is due to grow by 10% by 2018 and 20% by 2025, so investment is needed just to keep pace with that demographic change. However, still more investment is needed to enable regeneration and to help Essex to realise its full potential.

Some specific projects have been mentioned, and I will return to future investment. We must make sure that we do not lose what we already have. Under the Government’s plans, capital infrastructure spending on transport will fall by 11% over the course of this Parliament, and future infrastructure spending has been threatened by the uncertainty arising from the botched franchising of the west coast main line, throwing the future of the Essex Thameside franchise into doubt.

In a county that contains pronounced contrasts between rural and urban communities, as well as affluence alongside pockets of deprivation, bus services are particularly important. In Basildon, which is part of the Thames Gateway regeneration project, a quarter of households do not own a car. Essex county council’s own transport strategy acknowledges that bus services connecting Harlow and Basildon to other towns and cities are inadequate. The 28% cut to local transport funding and the 20% reduction to the bus service operators grant are putting the bus network under strain, with at least 18 services being reduced or withdrawn in Essex since 2010.

Although this is a debate on infrastructure, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) recognised, we must not lose sight of the importance of bus subsidy, which is vital for sustaining a true transport network. Bus services are under pressure, but commuters are also feeling the impact of fare rises. We have heard from the Government that rail fares are set to rise by up to 4.2% in January, but that is not the whole story. The decision to reintroduce flex could lead to fare increases of up to 9.2% at a time when household budgets are being squeezed on all sides.

Passengers reasonably ask when they will see service improvements, but under the guise of the McNulty report, the Department is pushing ahead with ticket office closures, which could lead to the withdrawal of staff from Alresford, Colchester Town, Dovercourt, Frinton-on-Sea, Great Bentley and Harwich International, among other Essex stations. Those closures will hit women and those on the wrong side of the digital divide, including many pensioners.

A spokesperson from Ontrack, a passenger group in Tendring, said:

“We've already had letters from some women who travel on their own, so we know it's a real concern not to have staff at the stations”


“in a coastal area like this there”


“a high proportion of elderly people who prefer to go to a ticket office and talk to someone rather than use a complicated machine. This will put people off using the trains.”

Those threats to public transport provision should not be allowed to threaten the good progress that has been made.

The hon. Member for Witham and other hon. Members have spoken about the vital role of Stansted airport, and we should celebrate the fact that 49% of Stansted passengers arrive by public transport—the highest proportion of any major UK airport. The East Anglia rail prospectus called for public transport links to Stansted to be strengthened, and I hope that that call is listened to as we enter cross-party talks on aviation capacity. Whatever the conclusion of those talks, I hope that the decline in passenger numbers at Stansted can be reversed, because both Stansted and the growing London Southend airport have an important role to play in alleviating pressure in the capital.

Improvements to infrastructure will play an important role. We need better integration between transport modes, especially between aviation and rail. The 45 minutes that it takes to travel 35 miles from Liverpool street to Stansted is, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) said, far from express. I hope that the means and the funding can be found to reduce that journey time.

In some respects, the problems encountered at Stansted are representative of those of the county as a whole. Existing transport links have enabled Essex to emerge as an important driver of national economic growth, yet those same transport links are clearly in need of improvement. To strengthen the transport network, we must look at both funding levels and the mechanisms through which that funding is delivered.

We want to devolve transport spending decisions but, unlike the Government, we would devolve that spending to democratically accountable regional transport partnerships based on elected local authorities. That would allow Essex or East Anglia to decide their own priorities, whether improvements to congested and dangerous roads or junctions, development of tram systems or better cycling infrastructure.

The current review of the franchising process should be allowed to consider alternative models for the rail industry, including the proposal to allow local transport authorities a greater say in how services are run. In Essex, where overcrowding is the norm and passenger satisfaction rates are low, that could allow the development of services that are more responsive to passengers’ needs. Above all, it would give local transport authorities the oversight they need to lead the integration of different modes of transport.

Lilian Greenwood: Of course I am not saying that all the problems commenced then. I am saying that many hon. Members have spoken about what the priorities should be. I believe that the people of Essex should have a greater say in deciding what those priorities are and how spending is directed to help to tackle them.

As the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, rail commuters in the region return substantial amounts to the Treasury, but see little return on the investment, while millions are lost each year due to the fragmentation of the industry. If the Government were serious about improving efficiency in the railways, they would look at alternative models for delivering services, instead of closing ticket offices in Essex.

The current uncertainty over the franchising model has been compounded by needless distractions that have beset the Department. It must be a source of frustration for Members here today that Government time is being taken up by the franchise fiasco, wrangles over High Speed 2 and fantasy islands in the middle of the Thames, when the time could be used to drive forward the improvements that their constituents require.

The need for improvements in Essex is acute, as today’s debate is proving. The answer is investment in transport infrastructure, both for commuter travel and to meet local transport needs. This debate is important and I am sure that the case for investment has been heard in the Department. I hope that a way forward can be found, so that Essex can develop the infrastructure it needs for the 21st century.

I welcome the opportunity that the debate offers to discuss in detail the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), her colleagues and others have raised today on transport in Essex. Those matters fall within my portfolio, as well as those of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I will do my best to respond to all the points in as much detail as I can.

As I am sure everybody will agree, transport is the artery of any economy. It gets people to work, children to school and food to the shops. Everyone depends on it. The coalition Government is in no doubt about the importance of transport infrastructure in supporting the economy, and we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth projects. By the way, I say to Hansard that the coalition Government “is” committed, because the Government is of one mind on this matter. It is a single-minded, cohesive unit on the need to deliver substantial and significant economic growth.

The Government believes that continuing to invest in the strategic road network in Essex through major upgrades to the M25 is important. Back in May, the £400 million widening between junctions 27 and 30 was completed ahead of schedule and in good time for the summer Olympics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) referred to the M25, junction 30. As I hope she knows, we announced in May that the pre-construction development work of six Highways Agency major road schemes has been selected for funding, to maintain a future pipeline of major investment in the strategic road network. The pipeline included proposals for a M25 junction 30/A13 congestion relief scheme, and it means that that will be developed in this spending review period for potential delivery in the next spending review period.

Advancing the development work now does not, of course, guarantee that the delivery of those proposals will be funded. Decisions about which schemes are to be delivered in future periods will be taken at the next spending review by the Chancellor. In the meantime, however, some interim improvements to the junction are being funded by DP World as part of their planning obligations for phase 1 of the London Gateway port development off the A13 to the east at Corringham. Those works will be undertaken in 2013.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham raised the issue of the A12 and the A120. Of course, given the financial situation that we inherited from the previous Government, funding has been limited, and we have had to prioritise plans for future investment. As everybody will be aware following the Government’s 2010 spending review, there are no proposals for major improvements to the A12 or A120 in the Highways Agency’s current road programme.

However, in May this year we published our response to Alan Cook’s independent review of the strategic road network. In that response, we fully accepted the recommendation to take forward and develop a series of route-based strategies for the network. I am pleased to say that the A12 in Essex has been selected as one of the first locations in which we are developing such a strategy. It will cover the A12 between its junctions with the M25 and the A14 and include the A120 between Colchester and Harwich.

The route-based strategies will seek to set out what may be needed in terms of the maintenance, operation and possible enhancement of routes to keep this country moving and help support economic growth. That will help us make informed future decisions on the need and timing of investment in infrastructure on the network. The Highways Agency is currently working closely with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities along the route to take forward the strategy, which will be completed in early 2013.

It should also be noted that the Highways Agency is undertaking a series of small-scale improvements along the A120 this year, and that earlier this month the agency confirmed, as my hon. Friend said, £0.3 million of funding through round two of the pinch point fund for the A120 Galleys corner roundabout improvement. That scheme should be completed in 2013 and will help to reduce congestion and improve safety by widening the roundabout to encourage A120 traffic to use both lanes. I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s other comments are fed back to my colleague, the Under-Secretary, who has the lead responsibility for that matter.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) referred to Norwich, and I put on the record that an A11 major road scheme is included in the programme. The massive improvement on the A11 between Fiveways and Thetford will be delivered by December 2014, so Norwich will finally get the road that it has perhaps been after for some time.

I noted that my right hon. Friend blamed the Romans for the state of the road network—I suppose that that is a bit different from blaming the previous Government—but he is right to say that we have had an historical problem with cross-country connections, going back a long way, whether on rail or road. I recall spending many an hour on the A414, as it was then, travelling from east to west across the country, prior to the M25 being built. We have seen some improvements, but I agree with the general thrust of my right hon. Friend’s comments, which was that cross-country connections are not as good as linear ones into London. The country needs to look at that as a concept.

The Thurrock and Dartford crossing was raised by Members from a number of constituencies. The Government recognises the importance of that crossing as a vital transport link for the both the national and south-east economies. The economic cost of delay is estimated to be around £40 million per annum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham said. We have been clear about the need to reduce the levels of congestion and delays at the crossing, which in themselves are barriers to economic growth.

The charge increases, introduced on 7 October, are part of a package of measures for the short, medium and long term to improve the performance of the crossing. The measures include: the suspension of charges at times of severe congestion, as introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) when he was a transport Minister; the introduction of free-flow charging technology; and reviewing options for additional crossing capacity in the long term.

The charge increases provide benefits to businesses, commuters and other transport users in terms of improvements in travel time. The impact assessment showed that businesses are estimated to benefit by about £104 million, commuters by about £9.6 million and other transport users by about £34.4 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham asked about contractors’ payments. I understand that the costs of operating and maintaining the crossing from 2009 were part of the M25 design, build, finance and operate contract. The costs are estimated and not separately paid for, and the estimates are based on methodology agreed by the National Audit Office, in which costs are evenly spread over 30-year contracts, so it is difficult to compare with historical costs prior to that date. Additionally, from September 2009, transferring the traffic officer service and meeting EU tunnel safety requirements have increased costs.

A number of colleagues raised the major issue of the tolls themselves. It is perfectly true that when a toll was envisaged, it was for the lifetime of the structure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said. That was then changed to a charge related to congestion by the previous Government under the Transport Act 2000, and it was therefore, at that point, no longer connected to paying for the bridge.

Is it still the Government’s policy, as it was with the previous Government, to sell the Thurrock crossings—both the bridge and the tunnels? If so, should not the financial benefit go to the council tax payers of Essex and Kent?

As my hon. Friend will know, consideration is being given to the general capacity of the crossing. We face a strategic choice whether to enhance the strategic road network at the existing crossing or to add a new link into the network, with a crossing further downstream, and I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on that matter. That is why we are currently analysing the relative merits of the three potential locations for the new crossing, and the findings will inform public consultation in 2013. That is a way of saying that such issues will be wrapped up in consideration of the crossing in total, and it would be wrong to isolate one instance without looking at future plans for the crossing.

On rail and rail infrastructure, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham has campaigned hard for improvements in rail services in the region and for increased investment to reflect the level of fares paid, particularly by commuters. I am grateful for the recognition that the Government has taken steps to ensure that the possible increase in rail fares of RPI plus 3% has been averted. We have worked very hard on that in the Department for Transport and in the Government generally, and therefore rail fares will increase by RPI plus 1% for the rest of this Parliament. That was the formula put in place by the last Labour Government in 2004.

The issue of flex, which the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to, was, I think, a little disingenuous, because flex was abolished for one year by the last Labour Transport Secretary. The intention, as shown by the paperwork in the Department for Transport, which I quoted in a previous debate, was to reinstate flex after the election. We are following the policy of the last Government in terms of both RPI plus 1% and the ability of companies to use flex while still maintaining the overall RPI plus 1% result.

To be clear and honest with the Essex constituents of the hon. Members here today, will the Minister confirm that the implication of the Government’s reintroducing flex is that some people could face increases in their rail fares of up to 9.2% in January 2013?

As I mentioned, we have followed the intention of the last Government. It is also true that, with flex, some people can face an increase of zero, because flex, by definition, has fares above RPI plus 1% and below RPI plus 1%. That is the purpose of flex. By the way, I say to the Opposition spokesperson that trying to use scare tactics about the future of rail services and ticket offices does not help. We are trying to get more people on to the railways and to provide a better service, not to frighten people off the railways, as she seemed to be intending to do.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham will agree with me that there have been some service improvements in the region—for example, the cleaning of trains and the programme of refreshing of stations that is under way. Greater Anglia is investing in improvements to ticket retailing, additional car parking and cycle storage facilities across the franchise. A closer working relationship with Network Rail is seeing improvements in how access for engineering works is approached. That is something within my portfolio and something I have been pushing very hard, because when people want a train, they want a train, not a replacement bus service. It is expected to lead to better provision of services at weekends where large-scale closures have been the norm for a number of years. Frankly, that has to end.

I recognise the valuable work done in putting together the rail prospectus to which my hon. Friend and other colleagues refer. It makes the case very powerfully for investment in rail services in the Greater Anglia region. I can confirm that due consideration will be given to those aspirations when the Department is in a position to go to the market for a new franchise proposition.

The point about access to Stansted airport by rail was well made. It has been raised by a number of stakeholders and hon. Members and is very much on the Department’s radar as well.

The issue was raised of the link between Witham and Braintree—the branch line there. We are working with local stakeholders, who are currently developing a business case for the work. Consistent with our approach in other areas, we are happy to consider including such proposals in future franchises if a positive financial case can be made.

The good news, if my hon. Friend looks at what is happening elsewhere in the country, is that the largest rail building and investment programme since Victorian times is now being undertaken in this country. That includes passing loops and redoubling of lines in some cases, such as between Swindon and Kemble. It even includes lines being reopened, such as that from Oxford across to Bedford. There is heavy investment in rail, and it has a good economic return. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to argue in favour of investment in her area for such upgrades.

On aviation, it is pleasing to see Southend airport making great strides towards becoming a modern, 21st-century transport hub, with a new railway station and terminal, and the successful launch of commercial flights to a number of European destinations earlier this year.

Colleagues have referred to the future configuration of air capacity. Of course, that matter will be considered by the commission. We look forward to receiving its interim report at the Department for Transport. It is probably not sensible to spend very much time on aviation, speculating about the future. However, it is true, as I think one hon. Member said, that there is unused capacity at Stansted at the moment. That situation might be improved if there were an improved train service to the station, which I think was a case being made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden.

Let me pick up some other points that hon. Members raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester referred to the “Norwich in 90” campaign and asked for an assurance that that would not affect his constituency. I can say that we all share the desire to improve services north to Norwich and the intention would not be adversely to affect existing services. In an ideal world, we would look at improved rolling stock, improved line capacity and so on. That is how we would ideally look at delivering a better service. It certainly seems to me that if we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, there is not much of a gain to be had.

My hon. Friend also raised, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham South, the issue of bus services. I put it on the record that we regard bus services as very important. The bus is a primary means of getting to work for most people. There was a recent, very healthy publication called “Greener Journeys”, which I recommend to colleagues. It identified the key link between employment and bus services—how they are two sides of the same coin. The number of people on buses has marginally increased recently, the latest figures show, and the commercial sector is holding up very well. There is an issue about subsidised services from local councils, but that is a matter for local authorities to deal with.

We are seeing a mixed picture across the country. Whereas some areas are making very few or no cuts, other areas are making swingeing cuts, but the consequence of localism is that there will be a different response from different local authorities. Therefore, bus services in Essex are really a matter to pursue with Essex county council, rather than with the Department for Transport.

I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because points were raised by hon. Members that I want to cover.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester also raised the issue of cycleway provision, which was right. He will know, I hope, that the current Government has produced a brand-new sum of money, £600 million—the local sustainable transport fund—which, by encouraging match funding, has now produced more than £1 billion of funding for schemes on the ground, which are now being delivered. I have that rare pleasure as a Transport Minister of both approving the funding and still being there to open the schemes when they finally arrive. Many of those schemes involve cycleway provision. We are now seeing a commitment to cycling—a commitment right across England—that we did not see before. That is very good news. The number of people cycling is going up in this country.

My hon. Friend also mentioned light rail systems. I can assure him that we are doing a great deal to promote light rail. I refer him to the Department’s document “Green Light for Light Rail” and the fact that we have granted extensions to light rail systems in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as authorising a tram-train project between Sheffield and Rotherham. The current Government is very supportive of light rail.

Of course, these sorts of scheme, whether they involve light rail, bus or cycle provision or, indeed, local roads, will be handled in future to a large degree by local people through the devolution proposals that the Department is bringing forward and through the creation of local transport boards, which are accountable through local authorities. Therefore, to a large degree, these sorts of discussion in the future, I hope, will be held in Essex, rather than necessarily in this House.

Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, the local council and the enterprise partnership, as well as the other Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), once the study by Essex council on the extra junction on the M11 has been completed, so that we can make the case to the Department?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s tenacity on that matter. He has raised it before, when I responded to a debate that he introduced. I am very happy to make my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) aware of his continued interest in the matter. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will be looking at the report on junction 7a, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow referred earlier, but I will pass on his request for a meeting and ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon replies to that accordingly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow also raised the issue of smartcard delivery and how that can be rolled out. The Department is very keen on that and I lead on it for the Department. We believe that the availability of smartcard technology can transform public transport by making it far more attractive and easier to use, as has been proven to be the case in London. We are now seeing pilot schemes across the country.

For example, in the Southern train area, we will shortly be seeing three-day season tickets being piloted with smartcard technology. We are very committed to that. The local transport White Paper, which I launched last year, “Creating growth, cutting carbon: making sustainable local transport happen”, has an objective of the majority of public transport journeys being undertaken with smartcard technology by the end of 2014, and we are on target for that.

I hope that I have dealt with most points. If there are any outstanding points, one of my ministerial colleagues or I will write to hon. Members about them.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Speaker for selecting this important debate on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I also thank the Minister for coming to reply to the debate.

I will start by making three points that I want everyone here to remember. First, a staggering 4 million lives are estimated as lost due to conflict and conflict-induced poverty in the DRC. Secondly, although it is a country rich in resources, which if used properly could transform it, it is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking 187th out of 187 in the UN human development index. Thirdly, the average life-expectancy for a man is only 47 and for a woman, 50. The infant mortality rate is around one in 10.

The DRC is the second largest country in Africa by area, and the 11th largest in the world. With its population of 66 million, it is the 19th most populous nation in the world and the fourth most populous in Africa.

The DRC is a vast country with immense economic resources, although it has been at the centre of what could be described as Africa’s world war, which has left it in the grip of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The five-year conflict pitted Government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional Government in 2003, people in the country still remain in terror of marauding militia and the army. It is estimated that the war claimed in excess of 3 million to 4 million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She mentioned Rwanda. Does she not find it extraordinary that the UK Government reinstated aid to Rwanda when, on the basis of UN information, the Rwandan Government have been aiding rebels in eastern Congo?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The situation is difficult, because Rwanda has itself suffered terrible conflict. I understand that the money that has been given to Rwanda was not to support the Government but for humanitarian reasons.

The war has had economic as well as political implications. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources. That vast mineral wealth has also led to illegal exploitation.

In September last year, the DRC held its first democratic elections. Observers hoped that for the first time the Congo’s history of poor governance and rebellious factions could be put to rest. However, for those living in many parts of the country there has been no such relief.

In April of this year, a rebel military group, the March 23 movement commonly reported as the M23, was formed. It is based in eastern areas of DRC and mainly operates in the province of north Kivu. The group is currently involved in a conflict in the DRC that has led to the displacement of large numbers of people. On Friday, the United Nations Security Council reiterated its condemnation of and demanded an end to all external support being provided to armed groups, particularly to the M23, which has been destabilising the DRC over recent months.

Several experts currently based on the ground—for instance, the director for central Africa of the International Crisis Group—recently confirmed to the all-party parliamentary group on the African great lakes region that many facts point to a likely resumption of attacks from rebels and army in the coming weeks or even days. That has been confirmed by the M23, which declared in a statement released last Saturday to announce the new name of its military wing, the Congolese Revolutionary Army—ARC—that it expected imminent attacks from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FARDC.

The M23 mutiny has also contributed to a less commented-upon consequence: the increase in activities of other armed groups in other parts of the Congo, especially the Ituri region of the Orientale province and the Masisi territory of the north Kivu province. Rebel groups took advantage of the security vacuums created by redeployments of the army to M23-affected areas. Casualties since April are hard to assess precisely, but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that preliminary findings from missions of the UN joint human rights office in the DRC, carried out in Masisi territory, suggested that civilian massacres perpetrated by the FDLR—the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda—and the group known as Raia Mutomboki may constitute crimes against humanity.

In particular, the DRC’s eastern provinces of north and south Kivu have witnessed increased fighting over recent months between Government troops and the M23. The ongoing violence has led to an alarming humanitarian situation, marked by rape, murder and pillaging. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands people, including many who have fled to neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, as well as within the DRC. Peacekeepers from the UN organisation stabilisation mission in the DRC—MONUSCO—have been aiding the DRC Government’s troops in their efforts to deal with the M23. Last week, six UN peacekeepers and a local interpreter were wounded in an overnight ambush, while returning from a patrol with 12 other peacekeepers, near Buganza in north Kivu province, after finding the bodies of four civilians.

As well as expressing deep concern about the deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis in the eastern DRC, caused by the M23 and other armed groups, the UN Security Council also condemned the M23’s attacks on civilians, humanitarian actors and UN peacekeepers, and its abuses of human rights, including summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. An M23 combatant, who recently spoke to Human Rights Watch, was candid about the recruitment of child soldiers in Rwanda. He said:

“We recruit everywhere in Rwanda and street children are very susceptible to recruitment.”

Let me very clear about where I stand on the issue. As far as I am concerned, Rwandan military and civilian officials who recruit children under the age of 15 for the M23, or any other group, are responsible for war crimes. Sexual violence is a common tragedy facing women and children in the DRC and the charity Tearfund estimates that 48 women and children per hour are raped in the country, mostly by armed groups as well as civilians. If that happened in this country, there would be an outcry.

The correlation between rape and the spread of HIV has been demonstrated in several cases. Some reports estimate that 20% of raped women are HIV-positive. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and nematode infections resulting from poor water, sanitation and hygiene are also commonplace in the area. The links between sanitation and sexual violence become apparent when, owing to the lack of access to private latrines, women face no choice but to find private places to defecate, often at night and a considerable distance away from their homes, further increasing their risk of sexual violence. The organisation War Child states that this is the

“most dangerous place in the world to be a woman”.

Those sentiments were echoed by Hillary Clinton, who added:

“It truly is one of mankind’s greatest atrocities. This country has witnessed humanity at its worst.”

Rape as a tool of war is, in my opinion, a war crime and must be condemned in the strongest manner possible by the whole international community.

There are now more than 2 million internally displaced persons—IDPs—in the DRC, the highest number within the past three years, with 1.5 million IDPs in the Kivu provinces alone. There are now more than 320,000 new IDPs from north Kivu since April, owing to the M23 mutiny alone—as mentioned in the latest UN Security Council presidential statement released on Friday, which I referred to earlier—and more than 400,000 new IDPs across the provinces since the mutiny.

Aid workers in the region claim that they have exhausted their resources and capacities and that numerous IDPs are unreachable either because they are in remote areas or for security reasons, and dealing with that would require humanitarian corridors to be set up. The global UN-led DRC humanitarian action plan is still only 47% funded. The UN refugee agency has launched an appeal for almost $40 million to cover the needs of 400,000 internally displaced people in north Kivu, south Kivu and Orientale provinces and of 75,000 refugees—25,000 in Rwanda and 50,000 in Uganda—who have appeared since the M23 rebellion started in April.

The UNHCR has warned that the situation remains volatile and that it expects further displacement this year. It fears that the number of new IDPs may reach as many as 760,000 in the coming months. The agency also said that it was particularly alarmed about the large number of human rights violations in north and south Kivu, where more than 15,000 protection incidents, including, murder, rape and forced recruitment, have been reported since April.

Given the magnitude of the new displacements, the World Food Programme has launched a new emergency operation from September 2012 to June 2013, which will assist approximately 1.2 million people in five provinces. Three weeks ago, it declared:

“We need additional funding to be able to continue to assist this very poor population. So far we have mobilised only 15% of the total cost of this emergency operation.”

UK aid to the DRC will increase from about £147 million in 2011 to £258 million a year by 2015, which amounts to £790 million between 2011 and 2015, with £176 million to be spent on wealth creation, £130 million on humanitarian aid and £109 million on governance and security.

In 2010-11, the DRC was the UK’s seventh largest recipient of bilateral aid and the third in terms of bilateral humanitarian assistance. In the past five years, western countries alone have invested more than $14 billion in the DRC. International aid is now equivalent to nearly half the DRC’s annual budget. As such, donors have considerable leverage over the DRC. Yet despite all that aid, nothing substantial ever seems to happen to stop the suffering of the people of the DRC.

The DRC will continue to receive billions in aid, including in humanitarian assistance, to help to relieve the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the numerous ongoing conflicts, while the lack of efforts by the Congolese Government on good governance, on structural reforms in the security sector, the army and the justice and administration sectors and on decentralisation will thwart any positive developments in stabilisation.

Despite all the ongoing work and the amount of aid being given by the UK and the international community, the DRC will not meet any of its millennium development goals. However, if the UK Government continue with their current policy, which I sincerely hope they will, then by 2015 we will without doubt fulfil the targets for the DRC, set by the Department for International Development. Those targets include delivering more for poor people by promoting economic growth and wealth creation; helping to build peace, stability and democracy; and meeting various specific targets such as safer births, clean water for 6 million people, and protection from malaria for 15 million adults and children.

I simply want to refer to the destabilisation effect. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems is that the lack of movement on the reformation of the armed services creates enormous pressures on Rwanda and Uganda to act over their borders into eastern Congo?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has a huge experience of this subject.

Finally, at a time of such economic hardship at home, there are those who question the purpose and the amount of aid going overseas, but this is an investment. I passionately believe that providing aid to people in such desperate conditions is morally right. It is also in our national interest to have a safer and more secure world and less suffering in such destitute conditions. It is time to move the world with us in embracing the 21st century.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate. She has shown a strong interest in humanitarian issues in this part of Africa, both before and since entering the House. She has raised some interesting points and I welcome the opportunity to debate the topic, as I share her concerns about the situation in eastern DRC, as do a number of hon. Members, two of whom also spoke this morning. The region has also been the subject of a number of recent parliamentary questions. The topic itself is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who is unable to be here today.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the DRC is extremely worrying. There are 2.3 million internally displaced people, up from 1.7 million at the end of last year. The strengthening and proliferation of armed groups in 2012 as the national army has redeployed to tackle M23 has led to a sharp increase in the number of attacks on civilians, including alarming levels of sexual violence, forced recruitment and other human rights abuses.

Access for humanitarian agencies to affected areas is limited. The UN humanitarian action plan called for $791 million, but only $412 million has been raised to date. My hon. Friend asked about UK aid to the DRC. As she notes, the UK is one of the largest contributors of development aid to the DRC, and over the next four years the UK will deliver significant results to the poorest and most vulnerable people. We are committed to providing a minimum of £27 million of assistance each year until 2016. We call on others to follow suit and give this crisis the attention and support it deserves.

The DRC remains one of the most challenging environments in which to deliver aid. Questions over further UK aid support to the DRC are first and foremost for my colleagues at the Department for International Development, and I will ensure that the debate is brought to their attention. I am also aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will continue to review the programme to ensure that the money is reaching the right places in the DRC while also achieving value for money for the British taxpayer.

Looking beyond the humanitarian crisis, we want a stable and prosperous DRC. The international community needs to respond to the drivers of the conflict. We therefore welcome the presidential statement issued by the United Nations Security Council on Friday 19 October. The statement condemns M23 and all its attacks on the civilian population and emphasises the need for countries to respect the principles of non-interference, good neighbourliness and regional co-operation. We want a regional solution to what we believe is a regional problem. We welcome the leadership that the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region has shown thus far. The ICGLR has achieved a ceasefire, or, more accurately, a lull in the fighting. I say that because clashes have, alas, continued. Although they are not at earlier levels, they are enough to remain a concern. The fact remains that a rebel group with external support is in control of part of the DRC. That is clearly unacceptable.

We also welcome the ICGLR’s proposals for a neutral international force to tackle armed groups in eastern DRC, though details remain to be decided, and an extended joint verification mechanism to monitor the border between the DRC and Rwanda. We urge its rapid deployment.

No, I will continue, if I may. In a moment, I will answer the question that the hon. Gentleman put earlier.

However, the crisis requires a sustainable political solution—something that the ICGLR has not yet been able to address in depth. The UN is working on the problem and it held a high-level meeting in New York on 26 September, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary attended, during the UN General Assembly. We were disappointed with the outcome, but it is crucial that we continue to work with the UN, with regional groups such as the ICGLR, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, and with our international partners to ensure there is support for regional efforts to find common ground for a lasting political solution. We should not pretend that this will be a quick and painless process, but it is vital that we see progress soon, given the terrible impact of the crisis on the ordinary people of the DRC, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire described.

We want to explore what more the UN peacekeeping and stabilisation mission in the DRC—MONUSCO, or the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—can do to support efforts to find a solution, as well as fulfilling its vital and primary role of protecting civilians. In addition to working through the UN and supporting regional bodies such as the ICGLR, we will continue to maintain pressure on the Rwandan and DRC Governments about their roles.

For Rwanda, the message is that it must play a constructive role in resolving the problems in eastern DRC and stop all support for M23. That message has been given many times over the past six months. For example, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave it during a meeting with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, in July, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did the same during a telephone call with the Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs on 29 September. Our high commissioner in Kigali has reinforced the message on many occasions with a number of senior Rwandan figures.

I want to address the question put to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the continuation of aid to Rwanda. The decision to disburse £8 million of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.

No, I will not.

The message for the DRC Government is that they have a major role to play if the cycle of violence in the east of the country is to be broken for good. They need to show leadership and to address, in practical ways, the underlying causes of instability in the region. A sustainable peace can be found only if all external support for armed groups in the DRC stops and if the DRC Government show leadership in finding long-term solutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire rightly focused on the issue of sexual violence in the DRC and the appalling stories—those which we hear of—emanating from that part of the world almost daily. We utterly condemn the use of sexual violence in conflict, wherever and whenever it takes place. In the DRC in particular, that horrific situation persists and will leave lasting scars.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently launched a new initiative on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. We are setting up a UK team of experts who will be deployed to conflict areas in support of efforts to prevent and investigate sexual violence. The initiative will provide crucial funding support to the UN, and we will also work to help other countries to develop their capabilities to prevent and investigate those terrible crimes. I hope that the initiative will also enjoy the support of all parties in the House.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also announced, the UK will use our presidency of the G8 to secure commitments from others to tackle sexual violence in conflict. With the UK showing international leadership in this area, that is an appropriate point at which to draw my remarks to a close.

Sitting suspended.

Post-2015 Development Agenda

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am pleased to have secured this debate on post-2015 development goals at a very appropriate time.

The issue for debate today is what should happen to the set of international goals for development when 2015—the date by which the development goals adopted in 2000 were meant to have been implemented—is reached. Should the world community create entirely new ones? Should we incorporate the 2000 millennium development goals, in so far as they have not been fulfilled? How do the goals after 2015 relate to the sustainable development goals adopted at Rio? Do we need goals at all?

Those are important issues and this is an appropriate time to discuss them, for a number of reasons. First, the international community—states, non-governmental organisations, charities and the rest—in both richer and developing countries is now seriously beginning to address those issues. In the UK, we have a particularly good opportunity to influence the debate about the strategic approach to be adopted after 2015, because the Prime Minister has a role as the co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel, which is looking at the global development agenda after 2015. The first full meeting of that panel takes place in London next week.

The first question to be addressed is whether there should be a new set of international goals like the millennium development goals. I strongly believe that there should, although not necessarily in the same format. The idea of an internationally recognised set of targets is, I believe, a good one. Targets such as the MDGs can focus attention, action and funding, and set achievable objectives. We can see how far progress is being made in particular areas. There is plenty of evidence that the existence of the millennium development goals of 2000 did encourage the world community to focus efforts. Without them some, maybe much, of the progress would not have been achieved.

Indeed, some of the millennium development goals have been met ahead of the deadline set during the various negotiations leading up to their adoption. For example, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty—that is, on less than $1.25 a day—fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate, according to the World Bank’s preliminary estimates. That fall in extreme poverty applies in every region of the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa, where the situation is sometimes the least positive.

The proportion of people without access to safe drinking water was also halved by 2010 and there were significant improvements in the lives of 200 million people living in slums around the world. That is more than double the millennium development goal of 100 million people having their lives improved in that way.

Other targets are on track to be met, such as the target to halt and begin to reverse the spread of TB by 2015. As for universal primary education, the overall enrolment rates of children of primary school age in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 76% between 1999 and 2010. Mortality rates for children under the age of five have fallen markedly and 6.5 million people at the end of 2010 were receiving antiretroviral therapy for HIV or AIDS in developing regions.

The number of children not attending school, which was 108 million in 1999, had fallen to 61 million in 2010. There has been progress and it is important to emphasise that, to answer those who suggest that there is no point in doing anything in the field of international development, that it is a waste of money and that we cannot do anything about it. We can make progress; the world community can do something if we act together.

There is no doubt that in many areas progress is slowing down, no doubt partly due to the economic crisis. Development assistance at a global level has now fallen for the first time in 14 years. In 2011 it fell by 2.7%, turning back an increase in the previous 14 years, during which the UK had, of course, been a leader. I am certainly glad that the UK has remained committed to the 0.7% target, which we hope other countries will follow.

We have reached the time to discuss what should replace the existing millennium development goals. The issue is being debated by NGOs and Governments, and our own Select Committee on International Development in the House of Commons is starting its own inquiry. It is inevitable when such debate takes place that all sorts of options will be put forward for inclusion in a new list of development goals, and it is difficult to choose between them. I am certainly not going to cherry-pick today and produce my preferred list of specific targets. Indeed, part of the reason why I was keen to secure this debate was to find out more about the Government’s thinking on these issues before the 1 November meeting, to which I have already referred.

However, I do want to suggest some main themes on which a new list or programme—whatever form the new international development agenda takes—can be based, and the reasons why. My first theme is responding to climate change and environmental sustainability. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the existing millennium development goal on environmental sustainability is arguably one where, in some areas, some of the least progress has been made overall. The second is that the extent and urgency of the threat from climate change is much clearer now than it was in 2000.

It is frequently the poor in the poorest countries who are the biggest losers from the potential effects of climate change. I do not have time to go into the detail today, but issues such as flooding and desertification come to mind. Access to sustainable and affordable energy is a big issue. There is still a big question mark about how climate mitigation and adaptation is to be financed; it is still far from settled following negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun.

To emphasise the importance of climate change and flooding, I should say that I was in the Philippines earlier this year. Floods occurred in an area that had not been flooded for 50 or 60 years. The total number of deaths was between 25,000 and 30,000, among the poorest people of that area. That demonstrates the importance of doing something about climate change.

Absolutely. We are seeing that kind of example in many other countries in the world. While we must always be careful of trying to ascribe every natural disaster to climate change, the evidence is building about the effect on countries such as the one referred to by my hon. Friend.

I would characterise the second theme that should feature in whatever development goals are adopted by the international community as equity and inclusiveness. That is to take account of the fact that general development targets can frequently fail to address the particular difficulties faced by particular sections of society. There is most obviously the need to ensure that targets take account of the biggest part of the population: women. The need for gender equality in the post-2015 framework has already been widely recognised. I would also point out that there are other sections of society that can also lose out when their special issues are not taken into account in the agenda that is developed—children, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities, to name but some of the groups.

Clearly, the answer is not to add more and more targets covering more and more sectors and groups to a list of development goals. What is needed is to ensure that there is sophistication in how broad targets are translated into specific programmes. As more countries in the formerly developing world have experienced substantial economic development, we have seen how poverty and deprivation can exist side by side with rapid economic development. That is why a sophisticated approach is important.

The third theme is tackling hunger and the causes of hunger. Again, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a target under the existing millennium development goals and some good progress has been made. In recent years, we have seen plenty of examples where hunger and malnutrition have worsened, with famine in a number of areas in the world. As food prices rise globally, there is considerable concern that the situation will become significantly worse, not better. There is now an increasing consensus that tackling food insecurity and supporting agricultural development needs should be a major focus of common action by the world community, and that certainly needs to be reflected in whatever post-2015 agenda is agreed, however it is structured.

The most recent estimates of undernourishment from the Food and Agriculture Organisation suggest that 15% of the world’s population now live in severe hunger. There has also been only slow progress in cutting child undernutrition. About one third of children in southern Asia were underweight in 2010. Of the 20 countries worst affected by food insecurity, the majority are in sub-Saharan Africa or south Asia, and we have seen some very recent examples of severe problems with famine and hunger in those parts of the world. As well as tackling the immediate outbreaks of famine and issues related to hunger, it is important to have a major emphasis on agricultural development and food security. We need to provide long-term answers to the problems that will be faced by increasing numbers of people in the world unless action is taken by the international community.

Some of the themes I mention could be regarded as part of the building blocks on which we develop new goals. There is a need to break down the barriers to world trade, which is important if developing countries are to make the best of their economic potential. Everyone here will be aware of the almost imperceptible movement following the Doha round negotiations. It is 11 years and there is still no sign of progress. We should not forget that for many developing countries, being able to get the benefits from trade is important and one of the top priorities that the international community must seek.

Another theme that should be part of the overall picture is the need to recognise the importance of peace and security, controlling the arms trade and preventing conflict. The biggest single factor that undermines and sets back development is war, big and small, and it is a stark fact that no low-income, conflict-affected or fragile state has yet to achieve a single millennium development goal.

I have outlined a number of themes that should be part of the debate. Clearly, we also have to consider how far some of the existing MDGs have been reached and how far those that are furthest from being reached should be incorporated in a new set of goals. I am not suggesting that the five themes that I have set out should be reflected in five specific targets. Indeed, each of the themes could in itself bring forward a number of specific goals, but those themes at least set out some of the key issues for development in the forthcoming years and should be the basis from which a post-2015 agenda, in whatever form it finally takes, should be developed.

I am interested to hear what others in the Chamber consider should be the key priorities for the post-2015 development agenda and to hear from the Government how they are to take that agenda forward.

I urge the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, to play as active role as they can in setting this agenda and helping to develop it. Previous Prime Ministers achieved results on an international level because they gave the matter a high priority, and had the backing of the House and support from much of the public. I hope that the current Prime Minister will rise to the challenge of helping to set the agenda, to reflect both the concerns in this country and those that affect the international community as a whole.

We are in difficult times, but that means that there is even more of a case for fulfilling our moral duty and showing our solidarity with those who, in many cases, are the worst victims of the economic crisis that they had no part in causing. On many of the key issues of international development, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have been saying the right things. The Prime Minister in particular now has an opportunity, through his role in the high-level panel, to show leadership, both at home and internationally, and I urge him to do so.

I apologise for arriving a few moments late for this debate, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this debate, which is extraordinarily timely not just because of the International Development Committee’s inquiry into the issue and the Prime Minister’s appointment as a co-chair of the high-level panel on future development goals after 2015, but because of the coincidence of roles that the Prime Minister is taking on at this time. He will also be chairing the G8 meeting in 2013, and taking on a role in the Open Government Partnership in which the UK should be playing a positive role in increasing transparency, particularly with issues such as transparency through the extractive industries and trying to increase accountability and transparency generally in development. It will also coincide with the historic moment when the coalition Government finally deliver on that 30-year pledge to devote 0.7% of the UK’s national wealth to international development, which gives us, at the very least, a great moral authority in talking about development issues and demonstrates that the UK, even in difficult times, has been willing to take a leadership position on development.

One of the things that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith has emphasised and that we should talk about in this debate is that the millennium development goals were supposed to be global goals. They were not just aid targets for poorer countries but targets that applied to all countries. We need to make it clear when we consider possible successors, such as sustainable development goals or whatever we want to call them, that they, too, should be global goals, which apply to rich and poor countries, developing nations, emerging economies and established economies. That is one theme that I ask both the International Development Committee and Ministers to pay attention to.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it is worth while having such high-level objectives. Certainly, the objectives that we have set ourselves as a country on climate change have helped to trigger domestic action, and with this Government, we have the acceptance of the targets in the Climate Change Act 2008 and the carbon budgets recommended by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, which have helped to incentivise the Government to deliver on energy reform, the green deal, the green investment bank, smart meter roll-out and emissions performance standards for power generating stations. They have also encouraged us to look at other issues that have been addressed in the sustainable development debate, such as the valuing of natural capital, which the Deputy Prime Minister, when he reported back from the Rio+20 summit, emphasised alongside the sustainable development goals. He said that in valuing natural capital, we were setting an important goal for ourselves as a developed economy in our use of resources and our approach to waste and growth and so on, which is important.

The Government set out an ambitious agenda on valuing natural capital in the natural environment White Paper in 2011. I am sometimes a little unsure of how we have fulfilled the potential set out in that White Paper so far and whether or not the Government now need to do a lot more in the valuing of natural capital and in ensuring that it is paid attention to. In an economic crisis, it is always easy to slip back into the idea that growth is the be-all and end-all of Government policy and that only through economic growth can we improve society. It is also easy to forget what we have been saying, which is that economic growth is not a perfect indicator of the quality of a society or of its success. The sustainable development argument is one that can help us to focus again on some of the slightly deeper questions around growth and sustainability.

I was always told in management training that objectives should be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound—but at the very least they should be SMT: specific, measureable and time-bound. When such objectives are set at a high level, we should not fall into what has sometimes been the trap at United Nations level of producing lots of slightly woolly, well-meaning, well-crafted and well-negotiated words that are not very specific. The millennium development goals actually achieved those things: they were quite specific; they were time-bound and measurable; as the hon. Gentleman said, they provided a marker on how different states are performing; and they led to some interesting lessons—for instance, as he pointed out, on the impact of conflict and war on achieving development goals. So the high-level panel and the new targets should be focused on delivering goals that are specific, measurable and time-bound.

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested in reporting back from Rio that there should be three important focuses for the sustainable development goals—food, energy and water—and the hon. Gentleman has referred to some of them. Many people also suggest other things that the goals should focus on. Climate change has rightly been referred to. It is crucial; the environment in which we all live and exist as a planet is the one that determines whether development is really possible. Other people have mentioned, for example, disability. Sightsavers has made the specific point to me that disability and poverty are interrelated, both in this country and in developing countries, so disability needs to be considered.

Many NGOs have made the point that human rights and social justice need to be reflected in the successors to the millennium development goals, because it is the poor who are not only most vulnerable to climate change and problems such as rising food prices and the lack of availability of food but who are most vulnerable to economic exploitation, injustice and oppression.

Noting what the hon. Gentleman said about conflict, it is perhaps important that the reduction of conflict and the achievement of peace should be reflected in the new goals. However, that leads to a slight problem and a risk that we end up with a kind of Christmas-tree approach, where everybody has contributed dozens of focused objectives and we try to have 100 priorities. Clearly, there must be some guarding against that. It has been suggested to me that perhaps there should be one overarching sustainable development goal that frames the debate and informs the other development goals. That overarching goal should focus on the poor; it should address sustainability; and it should refer to working within planetary boundaries.

“Planetary boundaries” is a really important concept that goes to the heart of what sustainability really means. Earlier today, I had a discussion with someone who I recommend to Ministers as a source of very sound and well-researched advice: Professor Melissa Leach of the STEPS—Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability—centre at the Institute of Development Studies in the university of Sussex. She told me that she did not like talking about environmental limits, because “limits” implied something that we could not go beyond, and that she preferred the term “zones of ecological stress”. I suggested that, for a politician, that phrase was not going to roll off the tongue terribly easily, but we agreed on the concept of planetary boundaries.

The idea of planetary boundaries is that in looking at development—this relates to economic growth as well—we have to be aware that not only with climate change but with, for example, biodiversity, water resource and other material and mineral resources, we have to work within the planet’s available resources and that, as we start to move over certain thresholds in all these areas, we enter, as she called them, “zones of stress” in which it is possible to advance development but it becomes more stressful and more difficult, and there is more tension and more conflict.

That idea of working within the planet’s resources—of observing planetary boundaries—is a very important concept for what could be an overarching sustainable development goal. However, it is very important that underneath that overarching goal we do not lose the detail and fail to address some of the issues that I have mentioned, such as food, energy, water, climate change, disability, human rights and so on.

In that list of the underlying tools and objectives, would my hon. Friend include financial inclusion? Well-regulated savings and insurance products, for example, are very important in triggering developments to achieve other goals.

I might have to think about that suggestion. I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying and she makes a very important point, but there is a slight risk involved in considering financial inclusion. For people who are living on less than a dollar a day, the idea of savings products may be a little bit unrealistic. In framing global goals, we want to ensure that they are applicable to populations across the world.

Professor Leach talked to me about the three Ds: direction, diversity and distribution. “Direction” was the clear path that the sustainable development goals had to take. “Distribution” was looking at who gains, who loses and the social justice element of the development goals. “Diversity” was a really interesting one, in that it encompassed the idea that different countries might approach the development goals in different ways. Perhaps that is where my hon. Friend’s suggestion about financial inclusion might be brought into play. In looking at sustainability in terms of rich and developed countries, what she is saying is very important, but for some other countries the idea of financial inclusion might be a later step in the process. I recommend the three Ds to Ministers.

There are a few other points that I want to make about what form the new sustainable development goals should take. First, they certainly should be global; they should quite clearly apply to richer countries and more developed economies, as well as to the lowest-income countries.

Secondly, the goals should be steering the world to look at development within “planetary boundaries”—we might use that term. How can I put this idea in terms that might appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Conservative side of the coalition? If we look at it as a business, we are talking about operating the world as a business within a safe operating environment that does not take us into high-risk areas. So this is about observing the limits of climate change, biodiversity and resource use.

Thirdly, the goals must be ambitious. The millennium development goals were ambitious. The fact that, as a planet, we achieved some of them but failed to achieve many of them has been a useful tool in identifying where we had problems and in focusing on those countries that had the greatest problems. The sustainable development goals must not be woolly; they must be as ambitious and specific as the millennium development goals.

Fourthly, the goals could follow a formula that has been used in the climate change process of the United Nations framework convention on climate change: the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities, whereby because countries will respond in wildly different ways to the challenge of new development goals, different goals may apply with different degrees of rigour to different countries. For instance, for a country such as the UK, the goals may not be so much about involving women in education or achieving greater access for disabled people, because we would fancy that we would meet such goals already, but they might be about addressing waste, consumption, having too great a focus on relentless economic growth, inefficiency in using our resources and in overstepping planetary boundaries in the way that we handle our economy.

In that respect, I commend to Ministers a policy that unfortunately did not make it into the coalition agreement but that the Liberal Democrats adopted in opposition. Alongside a climate change Act, we wanted to have a waste and resource efficiency Act that took the same kind of target-setting and framework approach to the use of natural resources and natural capital. That would fit very neatly with the framework set out by the White Paper on the natural environment in 2011, and I still commend the policy to Ministers. I think we are talking about “coalition 2.0” or something, so perhaps it is a policy that we could still adopt in the remaining years of the coalition Government before the next election.

The final point I will make about the future sustainable development goals is that sustainability must be mainstreamed within them. One of the failings of the original millennium development goals, which I think the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to, is that environmental issues were slightly pocketed in the last of the development goals and the inter-relationship between environmental sustainability, poverty, justice and development was not really fully developed in the millennium development goals. We need to see that corrected. That was the message not only of the Rio+20 summit but of the original earth summit in Rio 20 years ago. As I say, it is very important that sustainability is mainstreamed within the agenda that we are discussing.

This is a remarkable opportunity for the UK to provide leadership in this area and a remarkable personal opportunity for the Prime Minister, as co-chair of the high-level UN panel, alongside his responsibilities with the G8 and the Open Government Partnership, while the Government are delivering on the historic pledge to devote 0.7% of our national wealth to international development. I hope that the Government make the most of this opportunity and provide real global leadership on sustainable development.

Thank you, Mr Weir, for giving me the opportunity to close the debate from this side of the House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for securing this important debate and commend his work in the previous Government as special envoy to the Prime Minister on climate change issues. Both he and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) have stated that, as we speak about the millennium development goals and what comes next, climate change issues should feature significantly.

As we debate these issues, we face one of the biggest ever economic challenges, both at home and internationally. In that context, we must recognise that we are calling on the UK public to support international development at a difficult time, but that is the right thing to do. We are pleased that this Government are following in the Labour Government’s footsteps and continuing the commitment to increase aid to developing countries to 0.7% of gross national income—GNI. It is important to maintain that commitment.

From some of the things that the British public have done, we can see that they are hugely committed and generous where development and humanitarian disasters are concerned. During the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal to help some 13 million people in need after the east Africa drought last year, about £79 million was raised. We must continue our defence against the relentless attacks that some sections of the press and a number of parliamentarians have made on international development. We must continue to argue that development provides good value for what it achieves in developing countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith and the hon. Member for Cheltenham pointed that out and highlighted some of the achievements. More importantly, with our current commitment of 0.56% of our national income, we are making great strides, and have done so over the past decade, in reducing poverty in some of the world’s poorest places. We have also reduced inequality, but much more needs to be done.

Tackling global poverty and inequality is the paramount issue of our time, and I think that all of us, across the board, agree that we must continue to redouble our efforts, even in these challenging economic times at home, to reduce poverty and inequality, whether in the poorest or in middle-income countries. We must all focus our attention on the challenges posed by poverty and inequality around the world, and by unemployment, especially among the young. In focusing on what happens post-2015, we need to give even greater priority to ensuring that people have economic opportunities—opportunities to work and to develop their own countries by making that contribution themselves.

In the developing world, more than 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, yet developing countries’ economic potential is enormous. We are already seeing signs of that in many countries, including India and China, but inequality is of great concern. We must ensure that, as we discuss what happens after 2015, we have a clear answer on how we will address the poverty of middle-income countries, which is where the great majority of the world’s poorest people are concentrated, and increasingly so. We must work with countries that are doing better economically, and help them to start to solve their own problems with our support and partnership.

We have achieved a great deal that we can be proud of over the past 10 to 15 years. I am really proud that when Labour was in government we acted as a global leader in international development, and I am pleased that this Government are pursuing the same agenda. The commitment to the millennium development goals was a central part of that story. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Tony Blair, both former Prime Ministers, created the Department for International Development to ensure that development was high on the agenda of the British Government and of the international community; that we decoupled the development agenda from economic, trade and defence interests, and focused on poverty alleviation in particular; and that we maintained the commitment to 0.7% of GNI.

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on one particular policy? I think, and the Minister might confirm, that the Government have not taken up the baton handed over by the previous Government regarding carbon reporting. Does she agree that limiting carbon reporting to the top 1,800 companies is not in the spirit of the commitment that the Labour Government gave when they talked about fulfilling the millennium goals?

I could not agree more, and I hope that the Minister takes the opportunity, as the last man standing in his Department, to answer that question. The hon. Member for Cheltenham, who highlighted his interest in and commitment to tackling climate change, will also want to hear the Minister’s answer.

On my point about the previous Government and about focusing on the future and building on the commitment to the millennium development goals, the argument was about ensuring that the international community saw tackling poverty in developing countries not just as in its economic interest, but as its moral duty. That argument must be maintained, and we must maintain, too, the consensus on moving forward and continuing to make the case for tackling poverty and inequality in the developing world.

The hon. Lady seems to be slipping slightly into the trap I described, talking about sustainable development only in terms of what needs to be done in the poorest countries. Does she accept that this is also about setting ourselves goals for resource use, carbon reduction and so on?

I certainly did not intend to do so. I did mention middle-income countries, and I will come on to our own work and what we should be doing. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Climate Change Act 2008, which Labour introduced, is a key part of the argument that we have a responsibility on those issues, as much as on what happens in developing countries, so I completely agree with his points.

Let us remind ourselves of what has been achieved over the past 10 to 15 years. Between 1990 and 2005, the poverty rate fell from 46% to 27%—that is 400 million people lifted out of extreme poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said, the mortality rate for children under five has fallen dramatically, from 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010, but we must continue the effort to keep reducing that number. This year, we reached the millennium development target of halving the number of people without access to clean water, but further work remains to be done. Millions more children, particularly girls, in the developing world are going to school and getting the education that will help them to create a better and more prosperous future for themselves and their families. Reminding ourselves of those achievements is important, particularly when some people would prefer to imply that development assistance is not making a difference. Development assistance clearly has made and is making a difference, and those of us who believe that we must continue that effort need to continue to make those arguments.

We have also made great strides in improving aid effectiveness. We did so when we were in government, and I know that this Government have spoken a great deal about the importance of aid effectiveness and transparency. I encourage the vigorous pursuit of that agenda. We need to be able to have public confidence in the way public money is being used when, rightly, more and more questions are being asked about how that money is used to achieve the goals that we all seek.

There are economic pressures here at home and in other donor countries, and as my hon. Friend said, we see that budgetary pressure in the reduction in aid money for particular countries. That is why it is crucial that the UK, which has been seen as an international leader on those issues, makes the most of its position to put the case for continued commitment to the millennium development goals, learning from the things that have been successful and identifying the areas that we need to prioritise. That means that we need to see the Prime Minister carrying out a strong international leadership role through his position as chair of the UN committee that is developing the post-2015 millennium development framework.

As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members said, that is an important opportunity to build a genuine partnership between donor and recipient countries to ensure that development is being done not to countries or to people, but with those countries. We must keep the focus on sustainable development, not philanthropy and charity. There are great concerns that the emphasis on charity through Departments is not what developing countries and the people of the developing world need or want. They want development and self-sufficiency, and we need to play our part in ensuring that happens.

We call on the Government and the Prime Minister to ensure that the focus on empowerment, human rights and labour standards is maintained. It is worrying that one of the first things the Government did in their reviews was withdraw funding from the International Labour Organisation, which does a great deal of work to improve labour conditions in developing countries.

We also hope that the Government will continue to prioritise the other rights agendas, particularly women’s rights, which are integral to the post-2015 millennium development goals, and that there is a strong voice for women. In conflicts, we know that women face a great deal of violence and that rape is used as a weapon of war. It is important that UN Women and other such agencies are supported so that they are strong advocates for speaking up about human rights violations against women, both in conflict zones and, more generally, in developing countries. I ask the Minister to ensure that that is central to the Government’s response and to the Prime Minister’s work as chair of the UN committee, and that gender, equality, human rights and labour standards issues are not neglected or ignored.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is an interconnection with, for example, education? If we are to get more and more children into school, we need to address gender and disability issues.

I totally agree. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned, we need to highlight that issue. We also need to recognise that disability rights are anathema in many countries. We have a responsibility to share the learning on some of the things that have been successful in our country. The rights agenda goes beyond one group and includes those with disabilities and other groups that are particularly marginalised.

Despite economic growth in middle-income countries, we know that in countries such as, say, India there are still some 400 million people living on less than $1.25 a day and more than 800 million people living on less than $2 a day. There are important questions to explore on how we can enable countries such as India to do more for themselves while ensuring that we do not pull out our aid efforts, which would leave large numbers of people in more challenging, difficult circumstances.

We should continue to support efforts to lift those people out of poverty and, over time, allow those countries to take more responsibility. Although there are pressures on such middle-income countries, we need to ensure that our efforts and focus remain on the poorest. Even if the Governments of those countries do not act and respond to those challenges in the immediate future, we should work with them to enable them to do so.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. Rather than whether Britain should be giving aid to India and how many poor people we could help there, is not the important lesson from the Indian experience that, as Institute for Government studies emphasise, distribution is quite an important part of the sustainable development goal process?

India has achieved remarkable economic growth, but that has not benefited the whole population. As the hon. Lady points out, there are vast numbers of poor people still suffering in poverty in India. That is one reason why we should not hook the new sustainable development goals in too narrow-minded a way to economic growth. Instead, we should consider issues such as social justice and distribution, too.

I agree. We should consider things more broadly and do more to overcome some of the simplistic critiques that those countries are doing well in some respects but are not addressing poverty and growing inequality. That is why we believe that the post-2015 millennium development goals should place greater emphasis on inequality. As the United Nations Development Programme stated, the lack of focus on inequality should be of great concern, because understanding the drivers of inequality can sometimes indicate whether a situation might lead to conflict, so the focus on inequality should be as important as that on poverty.

In countries with greater economic growth, there is a big question whether that growth is pro-poor. That is where the Department for International Development is making interventions through, for example, private-sector funding. The Minister must answer the question whether those interventions will create jobs and opportunities and generate income for the poorest. Does the DFID funding that is being channelled into countries such as India through the private sector meet the same accountability standards that we expect of non-governmental organisations and other recipients? Are the same kinds of standard applied and is there clarity on the monitoring of those measures? I hope the Minister can address that point as well.

If, in future, there is greater emphasis on channelling aid funding through the private sector—we are not averse to that in principle, but we need to know whether such investment is going to be about development and addressing poverty—that has to be looked at closely, and the monitoring arrangements have to be as rigorous as they are, or should be, in other sectors.

I want to focus on questions about what happens next. A key thing that needs to be looked at is how the post-MDG goals are developed. They must be considered in co-operation and consultation with the developing nations, and they need genuinely to be in the form of partnerships. We need to ensure that we are ambitious about tackling inequality as well as poverty, and the focus on economic development must be pro-poor. We have already seen that, even in countries where there has been a great deal of growth, not enough effort has been made to ensure that some of the poorest people are not left behind. More attention must be paid to that by ensuring that those countries play a bigger role in addressing the economic inequalities that have arisen, as well as by ensuring that we play our part to address those challenges.

The Opposition believe it is vital that, as we look to the post-2015 millennium development goals and what replaces them, we should not only recognise what has been achieved, but identify where the big challenges remain and ensure that we stay ambitious and aspirational about what can be achieved in the coming decades. We do seek to eradicate poverty over those coming decades, and if the international community has the will and there is international leadership—I hope the Prime Minister will take that role seriously—there is no reason why we cannot address and tackle poverty. It is important that we keep that momentum and maintain our efforts to tackle poverty and inequality.

I want to highlight a few key issues. First, I hope that the Government continue to keep to their commitment and start to deliver on increasing aid to 0.7% of GNI. I hope that that promise will be maintained. Media reports of the new Secretary of State’s comments about her belief, or lack of belief, in development have been worrying for many people in the developing world, as well as in the communities that work on those issues. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the new Secretary of State is still absolutely committed to this agenda and that the promise will be kept—[Interruption.] If I can have the Minister’s attention, I hope that the promise will be kept on that agenda.

Secondly, there has been a great deal of focus on issues such as tax avoidance, which the Government have said a great deal about, but we need to see action, because billions of pounds of public money and potential tax revenue are lost to developing countries, so I would welcome a response from the Minister on what his Government are doing practically to address that issue.

My final point concerns climate change. The Government and the Prime Minister have said that they want to be the greenest Government ever. We need action, not just rhetoric. I hope that the Minister can shed more light on what will be done, both domestically —[Interruption.] If he will stop heckling, I hope he can shed more light on what will be done both domestically and internationally on the issue.

We introduced the 2008 Act. We hope that the Minister will work with his coalition partners to step up the effort on climate change. If we do not do more to support developing countries in the face of what is likely to be catastrophic for many sections of the population in some of the poorest countries, our efforts in development will be undermined. I hope that he can take this issue seriously and answer the questions seriously.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for securing a debate on such an important topic.

Securing global agreement on a framework that updates the millennium development goals is a priority for the coalition Government as we approach 2015. I welcome the broader parliamentary engagement that is occurring. The Government are pleased that an independent inquiry into the post-2015 development agenda has been launched by the International Development Committee. The Department for International Development is keen to work with the House on this topic. The inquiry provides an opportunity for key players to contribute their views on the post-2015 agenda, and I look forward to reading the final report.

The eight MDGs launched in 2000 have generated an unprecedented degree of global consensus on development and have also worked well as a communication and advocacy tool, both with the UK public and internationally. The framework has helped to focus people’s minds and efforts on tackling global poverty in terms of real, practical action. It has channelled actions logically and consistently and released the full effort of the world on the issues covered by the eight goals. As a focused set of targets and indicators, the MDGs have encouraged better availability and quality of data in developing countries, making it easier to increase the focus on results. We now need to build on that success.

In terms of how the world has done against the MDGs, the picture is mixed, as we heard earlier. We have seen unprecedented reductions in poverty rates, and achievement of the targets on increased access to safe drinking water and primary education. Progress has been slower, however, for nutrition, basic sanitation and child mortality rates, and maternal mortality is lagging a long way behind. The MDG framework itself has its doubters. One criticism is that the MDGs’ focus on results at the global level has masked uneven progress both between and within countries. The degree to which the set of goals has fitted closely with countries’ own development strategies has varied, and a number of critical issues were not covered, such as growth or conflict.

In some cases, the framework’s focus on quantitative results has skewed incentives—for example, the focus on measuring school attendance rates rather than the quality of education actually received by those who attend the school. As we approach the 2015 deadline for the targets set just over a decade ago, there is a big question to be answered about what should happen next. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of different views. An updated framework for development needs to build on success so far, while also addressing the weaknesses of the current MDGs. The world has changed significantly since 2000, so it is vital that any new international framework for development is able to reflect the new challenges and opportunities that we face both today and in the future.

Agreeing a development framework to replace the MDGs will be challenging. There are a number of intellectual challenges and debates around them that are both technically and politically complex. First, there are clear questions around what should be included in a post-2015 framework for development and how each issue should be measured. Given that some of the MDGs under the current framework are unlikely to be reached by 2015, some argue that the goals should simply be rolled forward post-2015. However, that would collide with the fact that a number of important issues such as conflict, corruption, poor governance and climate change were not included in the MDGs in the first place. Simply rolling forward the current goals would ignore the importance of quality as well as quantity in the development process.

Secondly, although this is covered in part by MDG 7, there is a view that the MDGs should be replaced by a framework focusing much more on environmental sustainability and not just on poverty eradication. Our ability to manage environmental risks and use natural resources sustainably is critical to increasing the living standards of the poorest people in the world, but would such a shift risk losing the sharp focus of the current set of goals?

Thirdly, there is an argument for adopting development goals that apply to emerging and rich countries as well as the poorest countries. The actions of the rich—for instance, on carbon emissions, which have been mentioned—should not perhaps be allowed to damage the interests of the poor.

Those debates are crucial for the poorest people in the world and must be addressed in any new framework for development. The UK is an intellectual leader on international development issues, and we have an important role to play. The Department for International Development has set up a new team dedicated to thinking about those issues and to engaging with international Governments, civil society, business and individuals.

More broadly, the process for debating many of the issues and deciding on an international development framework post-2015 is well under way. The UN Secretary-General has launched a high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda; the panel will deliver a report by May 2013, making

“recommendations regarding the vision and shape of a post-2015 development agenda”.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister has been asked to co-chair the panel alongside the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia.

The panel met in New York on 25 September. Subsequent meetings will be in London imminently, on 1 November, and in Monrovia and Jakarta early next year. The meetings will focus on development challenges at three levels. The London meeting will focus on poverty at the individual level, while the following meetings will tackle national challenges and international issues—in other words, people, then countries, then global.

The panel’s overall aim is to set out an ambitious new agenda for ending poverty in the years beyond 2015 while maintaining the simplicity contained in the current MDGs. The panel is clear that it does not want the new framework to focus on aid only. A new framework should focus on helping the poorest people get out of poverty and stay out of it. It should apply to very poor countries as well as to countries where aid plays a less important role, but where large numbers of poor people still live. It is not simply about handouts from rich countries. The panel wants its outcome to reflect a new global consensus on how development works and what matters in practice for success.

Alongside the panel’s London meeting next week will be a series of discussions with civil society, business and young people. It is a critical part of the panel’s work and is vital if its conclusions are to be taken seriously by the international community when the panel reports at the end of May next year. I reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) that the process to support the Prime Minister in Whitehall involves a cross-ministerial team, with DFID, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs all working together to enable coherence with the Rio+20 follow-up and the climate change agenda.

While the Minister is on that subject, can he touch on the two-year delay so far in the Government’s setting up of the network of marine conservation areas? It has not received an awful lot of Government attention and I am extremely concerned about it, as are other Members. It offers a poor example to other developing nations when we lecture them on how to conserve marine areas.

I do not think that that is immediately relevant to the topic on the Order Paper for this debate, but it is an important issue, so I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with as much information as we have on that question.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) discussed jobs and economic opportunities. I assure her that the issue will be addressed through a dedicated session during the panel’s meeting here in London next week. That panel will draw on this year’s comprehensive world development report by the World Bank, which deals specifically with jobs.

Although the high-level panel report is an important input into the international debate on the post-2015 framework, it is not the only one. The UN Secretary-General will produce his own report for the special session of the General Assembly next September. Numerous other forums are discussing the post-2015 development framework, but the UK Government will work hard to maintain coherence among the different processes.

To reply to some of the comments made earlier, the hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith and for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham) both mentioned climate change. The Rio+20 meetings have established an open working group specifically to propose sustainable development goals, as that is another strand of the activity in play at the moment. On inequality, we must focus on the poorest and not just measure average success, which can disguise a lot of facts beneath a simple headline figure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) gave us a master class on how the MDGs might be broadened after 2015 by the introduction of some more thoughtful concepts of sustainable development. He said that they might include planetary boundaries and zones of ecological stress. [Laughter.] Although some might laugh, I assure him and the House that the team at DFID are very familiar with planetary boundaries, and particularly with the idea of doughnut economics, as it is described, which combines planetary boundaries with social minimums—in other words, the constraints of the environment with some of the basic needs of human life. I have to say that when it comes to doughnut economics, I prefer to keep it simple.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned our withdrawal from the International Labour Organisation. I urge her to stop repeating her party’s mantra. Let me say it one more time so that she understands the decision that we took after the multilateral aid review. Our conclusion after considering the ILO was that its main activity does not coincide sufficiently with DFID’s prime objectives, so it is true to say that we have terminated our core funding, but we work with the ILO on a case-by-case basis in countries and on programmes where its work is useful for the elimination of poverty.

On labour conditions, a number of people were killed in an accident at a factory in Pakistan, to use a recent example. There is a role for organisations such as the ILO or domestic organisations to campaign for basic human rights and working conditions to be maintained in garment factories, for example, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and many other countries. Does the Minister agree that development funding should support such organisations to ensure that people can go to work and expect to leave in safety without their lives being at risk? Surely he ought to agree that our efforts should support organisations that campaign to ensure decent labour conditions and labour rights and challenge companies to do the right thing and protect the lives of people at work.

No one questions the objectives that the hon. Lady has just outlined, which is why they are contained in the programmes and actions of DFID, and in all the bilateral programmes relative to such issues. That is why we have a pioneering initiative called RAGS, the responsible and accountable garment sector challenge fund, which covers employment conditions. Where the ILO can contribute to helping us in the field, we will work with it. However, where we get better value for taxpayers’ money working with other people, we will work with other people. It is on that case-by-case basis that we are happy to work with the ILO. Core funding given centrally does not represent value for taxpayers’ money.

Let me finish by saying a few words about what we hope the panel will achieve on the main topic of the debate. The three co-chairs of the panel believe that ending absolute poverty should still be the primary objective of any new framework for development. We hope that the panel can agree on that key message and rally support from Governments, citizens, civil society and business around the world.

The UK also believes that there are five principles that a new framework needs to uphold. First, poverty eradication should remain at the centre of a new global framework for development. Secondly, any new framework needs to speed up efforts to reach the targets in the current MDGs, and hold Governments to account for the promises that were made to achieve them. Thirdly, it should tackle the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. Fourthly, it must be based on, and take account of, the views of the poorest people in the world. Finally, simplicity is essential. The new framework should be bold and ambitious, but must maintain the clarity of the current MDGs.

I conclude by once again thanking the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for securing the debate. It is interesting, stimulating and important, and I am sure we will come back to it in the months ahead.

Sitting suspended.

Fuel Poverty

Some of our poor souls may be waiting for tomorrow for the big debate on fuel poverty. I hope that we will prove that they have missed the boat and that the real debate took place this afternoon, when the Minister announced precisely what the Government will do. Indeed, the Government need to announce what they are going to do after the difficulties into which the Prime Minister threw himself the other week. All of us who listened to or read what the Prime Minister said accepted that he was on to not only an important issue but the worry that most of us as consumers have that we have no idea what we are buying, let alone whether it is the best buy. In my parliamentary experience, that is very similar to the position that people face when trying to buy a pension. We could argue that buying a pension is somewhat different from heating our own homes, but there are certainly similarities between the industries, which make it difficult to understand what is the best and safest buy.

Today’s debate could not be better timed as a dry run for the Government, and I hope that the country can hear how they will respond to the Prime Minister’s special initiative. The day after he announced what he thought should happen, Ofgem in its wisdom responded—always well behind the curve—suggesting that if only people had enough information they would be able to make the right decisions. We all know, however, that merely providing people with information does not necessarily mean that they are informed or that, when informed, that information helps them to make the right decisions.

I want to sketch the size of the problem, what previous Governments have done to tackle the issue of people being cold in winter and what the Government could do today to make a break with the past, to extend a helping hand to some of our most vulnerable constituents and to get an issue behind them. The Government, among many other things, inherited a definition of people in fuel poverty—where the definition came from, which Mount Sinai it came down from, I do not know—which is those who spend more than 10% of their income on keeping warm. If we look at the detailed Government analysis of consumer expenditure, about 4.7 million people are technically in fuel poverty and, of those, 4 million are actually vulnerable.

In this debate and in the slightly bigger debate tomorrow, we need to look at how we have protected that group from dying unnecessarily in winter or from being unnecessarily cold. There were two previous schemes, of which the first was the voluntary social agreement, which ran from 2008 to 2011. Not much was wrong with it, except for three main disadvantages: people could be covered by the agreement but not on the cheapest rate, so they could be confused consumers and think they were getting the best deal, while being far from actually getting the best deal possible; the companies were allowed to decide who could apply, so they were the gatekeepers to their own scheme; and there was no link to an idea such as a social tariff, whereby people who were on it got the best deal that the company was offering. I want to return to the concept of a social tariff, because it is important if we are looking at how to move to the next stage of the debate and, moreover, how to help people.

The current scheme—to be charitable to the Government, I think that they inherited it—was to run from 2011 to 2015 and is called the warm home discount scheme. Under it, the companies again act as tax masters; they can put a levy on each of our bills and use the money to persuade people that they are helping them. Again, it is a brilliant scheme, except that we might expect a company paying a rebate to which the rest of us as consumers had contributed to give those people their lowest rate—far from it. Which? tells us that 75% of us—the figures are not broken down for vulnerable and other consumers—are not on the cheapest rate that we could be on, given the companies from which we buy our power. It is reasonable to suggest that the vulnerable might constitute 75% of that total. Therefore, probably 75% of those households, families and individuals who are helped by the warm home discount scheme are, on the one hand, getting a rebate paid for by the rest of us consumers and, on the other, paying it out in fuel bills that are unnecessarily high.

Has the right hon. Gentleman taken on board the issue of those who simply do not or cannot have a choice? I am thinking in particular of those on prepayment meters. Consumer Focus research has shown that, on average, those on prepayment meters pay £1,306 a year, whereas those on direct debit pay £1,222 a year. Many of those individuals are undoubtedly poor and have no choice, because they are rental tenants and do not have the opportunity to take up the Government schemes. Has the right hon. Gentleman given some thought to how to help those vulnerable people?

Indeed I have, but, sadly, what is important is not whether I have but whether the Minister has, because he is in a position to do something about it. The proposals that I will outline shortly cover that group as well, because they put the onus on the company, not on the individual or the landlord, thereby shifting the responsibility and, in that sense, the subsidy from us as consumers paying energy companies that oversell or overprice their products to companies having responsibility to offer everyone the cheapest rate if we fall within the vulnerable groups, which includes many of the people mentioned by the hon. Lady. The problems with the current scheme include the rebate on a bill that might not be the lowest possible bill. The core group of people who qualify for such help—there is also an extended group—is narrowly defined, and my guess is that many of the core group would not include those whom the hon. Lady was thinking about, because many of them are in their own properties, whether owner-occupied or rented, and have control of their meters, so they would not be subjected to the landlord practice of which she spoke.

Under the current scheme, we have a core group that qualifies and then an extended group that is still defined by the company—not by us or the Minister, and not approved by Parliament as one might expect, but by the companies themselves. They are still in the driving seat. The problems with the warm home discount scheme include getting a rebate but not necessarily qualifying for the lowest rate or being trapped in how to buy our energy and therefore paying through the nose. Although the bulk of the funding for the rebate comes from us, many of those who are vulnerable are outside the core group, even though the core group gets 75% of the money in the scheme.

I have a plea for the Minister, and I will give him piles of time to reply, so that we can probe him further. It is a proposal that he could adopt, that would give the Government credit and that would dig the Prime Minister out of the hole that he is in, thereby perhaps earning the Minister promotion. The other day, we saw his skill in defending what the Prime Minister said on the Floor of the House. How much easier life would be for the Prime Minister if he had a proposal that the Minister thought was workable and might carry some weight in the country!

My proposal is that the Government should insist that companies do not have a licence to sell fuel unless they offer their most vulnerable consumers their lowest rate, not an artificially lowest rate, but the lowest rate at which they sell fuel. Unless they have a loss leader, one assumes that they will make a profit on that lowest rate, so they would not be asked to act in denial of Mr Scrooge. They would even make money, although perhaps not as much as they might make from other people. That would cover the group to which the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred and about whom she is rightly very concerned, in that those in the vulnerable group—I will come to that in a moment—would have the right to be sold fuel at the lowest rate. Account would have to be taken of the fact that some people have meters and receive their fuel in various ways, but such a scheme would be simple, and everyone would understand it.

It is important that people understand whether they qualify. In another role, in another place, Mr Weir, you have often referred to cold weather payments and who is eligible and who is not. We could spend a lot of time having great fun thinking about other people who should be added to the groups that are defined as being eligible for cold weather payments. Most of us would admit that they cover the most vulnerable in our society, if not all the vulnerable. They cover 4 million of those who are likely to suffer fuel poverty.

Switching back to the beginning of my speech, I said that the Government’s own data show that 4.75 million people are in fuel poverty but that some of them, like some people on higher incomes, spend more than 10% of their income on fuel because they want to be ultra-warm, or do not think about it, but 4 million households in fuel poverty are vulnerable and would be covered by the cold weather payment definition.

My suggestion is that the Government could win applause in the House tomorrow by being the first Administration to introduce proposals that effectively deal with our constituents who, particularly during winter, are cold because they cannot afford to heat their homes properly—those who are most likely to die during the winter because they are cold and those who are simply waiting for the Government to act. Ofgem, in its brilliance, said yesterday or today that nothing in the regulations, the law or anywhere in this land could stop the Government announcing that scheme and compelling companies to operate it. With 17 minutes to go, I hand over to the Minister, who could put us all us out of our misery within a minute or two.

It is a delight to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and a delight to respond to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I congratulate on securing it. He is right that it is a trailer for tomorrow’s debate on the Floor of the House, but it is more than that because it is an opportunity for us to rehearse some of the important arguments. I do so mindful of the fact that he is an authority on these matters, whereas I am new to energy. However, like him, elevation of the people is central to my political mission, and I go further than many of our colleagues because I believe in the redistribution of advantage in society, as he does.

Redistribution of advantage requires knowing when the Government should act and when they should not, knowing when the Government need to step forward in some of the ways he described and knowing when stepping forward might obscure or limit opportunities to achieve that goal. Chesterton, whom I hope the right hon. Gentleman admires as much as I do, said:

“The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.”

I hope to be rich—I am certainly not at the moment—but I aspire to be honest, and I hope that I can deal honestly with some of the issues he raised.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to divide his remarks. Similarly, half of my remarks will dwell on what we can do to support the most vulnerable in respect of the cost of fuel, but it is also appropriate to talk about how we can change the character of demand and consequently deal with the other part of the equation. The big debate about energy sometimes neglects how to attune people’s demand for energy more precisely to their circumstances. That is the other part of what the Government can do.

I will deal with some of the specific points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. I often think that Ministers do not do so sufficiently, and I do not want to be accused of falling into that camp. He spoke about when the definition of fuel poverty emerged, and he will probably recall that it emerged in formal terms in 2001 as part of the UK fuel poverty strategy.

Before that, the definition came from a series of academic studies that began to look at how being fuel-poor was defined in relation to the average or aggregate spend on fuel in households. That was deemed to be around a median energy spend of 5%, which meant that if someone was spending 10%, the median would be doubled and they would be deemed to be fuel poor. The average spend on energy may have changed over time, and perhaps that is why we need to update our understanding of fuel poverty. However, that is the history.

I will say a bit more about the core group of poorest pensioners who lie at the heart of the warm home discount, which the right hon. Gentleman spoke about at some length. He was right to say that the measures we put in place must not be just about the provision of information, for provision of information alone is not enough. Some people with simpler minds than his believe that the provision of information and the exercise of choice are not only virtues in themselves, but automatically lead to virtuous outcomes. I have never believed that, never having been preoccupied with the concept of choice in those terms. The right hon. Gentleman may want to read “The Paradox of Choice”, which argues that sometimes not only does it not lead to a virtuous outcome, but it can positively inhibit virtue.

None the less, information matters to some degree. For example, there is a strong case for being clear about what information people should receive, and for making that information comprehensible so that instead of being presented with all kinds of different options and having to navigate a system that is ever more confusing, simplified information is provided to people about energy costs and bills.

A strong argument that has been put to me, and is part of what the Government have and will continue to consider, is that there should be some obligation, and that is consistent with what we have already done in our voluntary arrangements on energy suppliers. I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that provision of information is not a sufficient end point, but it is part of the package, and we might agree that it is appropriate to address the issue.

By the way, none of my comments has been prepared for me by my officials. I would not want to be limited by that.

The other important point made by the right hon. Gentleman was that the mechanisms we devise to identify those with the greatest need must be as sensitive as possible to circumstances. Of course, that is partly because need is dynamic. People’s needs change—by their nature, they are not static—and to that end, there is a real opportunity to engage with some organisations that are experts in particular areas.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, Age UK prepared a briefing for the debate and there are organisations that represent the interests of chronically sick people, who have profoundly significant energy needs, in terms of both heating and light. Disabled organisations and charities also need to be engaged in the process, and we need to be open-minded enough to draw in a number of sources to identify need. That is also true of Departments, and I shall cover that in more detail in a moment or two. It is important that we learn from the policy levers used by other Departments to alleviate poverty and that we share good quality information.

I turn to the warm home discount, which the right hon. Gentleman spoke about. We want to provide immediate assistance to those who need help with their energy bills and to help energy companies find vulnerable people so that they can be offered longer-term support. The four-year warm home discount scheme provides that help. Launched in 2011, it requires energy companies to provide help with energy bills to about 2 million low-income households a year, and it is worth about £1.1 billion over four years.

The energy suppliers are required to provide the majority of that support to pensioners on the lowest income. As a group, such people are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of a cold home over winter, as the right hon. Gentleman highlighted. The characteristic of that group—I have also mentioned other groups to which this point relates, such as housebound disabled people and the chronically sick—is that, by nature, they tend to spend more time at home. They are often in poorly insulated homes and may be using energy highly inefficiently, as well as which, put simply, very old people, like the very young, need to be kept warm, so a coincidence of factors make that group particularly vulnerable.

To return to the point about information, it is also true that the most vulnerable often have the greatest difficulty with complex forms and the provision of information in an insensitive, over-complicated way. They may find it hard to navigate the system and, as a result, become relatively undiscerning consumers through no fault of their own. Therefore, rather than having to apply for the warm home discount, most receive it automatically without needing to claim. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about that matter in the broader context of welfare reform many times, and I am hesitant even to address—I will not say “lecture about”—the matter in his presence, because he knows so much about it and I know my limits.

However, further to my remark about sharing information, I would advertise that through innovative work we have developed good systems to match data between the Department for Work and Pensions customer records for those on pension credits and the information held by energy companies. Although it is true that energy companies play a key role in the process, we have engineered an appropriate level of co-operation between Departments and the energy companies to identify the target group. This winter alone, that means that 1 million pensioners will receive an automatic £130 discount by 31 December, providing them with the certainty that they need about heating their home over the coldest months.

One million is about a quarter of those who would get cold weather payments and are in what I would define as the vulnerable group.

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. It is, of course, true that a number will not be found through such mechanisms so we have set up a dedicated line and a call centre will be established for people to make a simple claim. All those who we believe may be eligible will also receive a letter telling them whether they receive an automatic discount or need to claim by the end of January.

The warm home discount also provides help to other low-income and vulnerable households who may be struggling to heat their homes, including those on a low income with children under five and those on a low income who are disabled. I accept that the eligibility for that broader group is determined by each energy supplier, but it is against criteria that must be approved by Ofgem. There is, therefore, an independent voice in that process, and it is not entirely a matter for energy suppliers.

A further 230,000 homes have benefited in that way from those discounts. The big six energy suppliers are all offering those schemes, which I encourage every hon. Member to advertise to their constituents. They should broadcast the availability of the schemes and work with local community organisations, voluntary groups and charities in their areas to ensure that we get the best value from that work.

We could discuss fuel payments, cold weather payments and so on, but we do not have time; the other part of what we are working on is the Warm Front scheme, which is about demand and dealing with the consumption of energy in a way that reduces costs. The scheme provides assistance, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to low-income, vulnerable households through the installation of a range of heating, insulation and energy efficiency improvements to private sector households. We have recently made changes to the Warm Front regulations to broaden the eligibility criteria and allow even more fuel-poor households to access the assistance available under the scheme, which has assisted more than 2.3 million households vulnerable to fuel poverty. It is, however, the scheme’s final year, so we again urge people who are eligible for assistance to apply to Warm Front.

The obligations on energy companies are an important part of addressing the problems. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that it is simply not enough to stay where we are in respect of tariffs. That is precisely why the Prime Minister addressed that matter last week and why I was able to say the next day that we would use the energy Bill to facilitate change in that area. A strong case can be made around the kind of proposals set out by the right hon. Gentleman and others, which essentially are about creating greater obligation in the system. I want energy companies, consumer groups and other organisations that I have described to help shape that, so that it is deliverable. The imposition of such an arrangement now, without a proper discussion, would be inappropriate, but the Bill will come before the House in weeks rather than months. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Bill provides a great opportunity for us to address this issue.

Like one of my political heroes, Joseph Chamberlain, I am in favour of tariff reform. They may be different tariffs and different reform, but if it was good enough for Joe, it is good enough for me.

Mr Chamberlain split his party on tariffs; what I propose today would unite the Minister’s party.

I am a unifying figure. I bring together all the elements of my party and the coalition around an absolute, undiluted, unabridged determination, as I have described, to redistribute advantage, address poverty and elevate the people; my party and I regarded Disraeli as a hero before it became fashionable. To that end, we will address the issue of fuel poverty in a new way, mindful of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. We are determined to make it work; the response will no longer be supine, but proactive, and it will assist those in the greatest need.

School Funding (Worcestershire)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I should start by placing on record my interest in this matter as a governor and associate governor of Hallow primary school in my constituency for many years.

Worcestershire is one of the lowest-funded counties in the country for education. It is 147th out of 151 for per pupil funding and a long-standing member of the f40 group. According to the National Governors Association, the guaranteed unit of funding for pupils in Birmingham is £5,689, yet in neighbouring Worcestershire it is only £4,601—a difference of 20%. That has been going on for years. Mrs Susan Warner, head teacher of Lindridge primary school, said to me in one of the many letters that I have received on the subject:

“There is very little reasoning behind this unfair distribution and it appears to be purely historic, with no-one really understanding how the allocations were made in the first place.”

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State signalled his intention to deal with the national unfairness of the school funding formula with “Consultation on School Funding Reform: Proposals on a Fairer Funding System”. That was welcome, but in an environment in which the overall school budget is only rising with inflation, it apparently will not be implemented this side of 2015.

In the meantime, the Department has decided to simplify the allocation formula for the direct schools grant, replacing the outdated and unfair national formula with a clearer one by reducing the number of allowable factors from 40 to a maximum of 12. The principle of a single flat amount per pupil in each stage of education from primary to sixth form makes sense. It is intuitive and, given that 80% to 85% of the cost of each school place relates to the salaries of teachers whose rates are set nationally, it makes sense to have a per pupil amount of funding that is broadly the same nationally.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and useful debate for the county of Worcestershire. She talks about the ratio of staff costs being 80% to 85%, but in Wyre Forest we see that rising as high as 95% as more experienced staff go up the internal pay scale. That puts even more pressure on schools locally to try to perform with these very limited budgets.

I thank my honourable constituency neighbour for that observation. Staff costs certainly form by far the largest part of a school budget. It makes sense to have money follow the pupil, as that gives a clear signal to schools that they will do better if they can attract more pupils. The pupil premium, which has been welcomed at £600 per pupil on free school meals, will be even more welcome in Worcestershire when it is increased from 2013 by 50% and set at £900 per pupil. As the pupil premium now links to the pupil level the concept of income deprivation, it stands to reason that the main pupil funding allocation should be set more equally at national level as well. If the pupil premium is a national amount, why should not the main per pupil amount be more equal, too?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. I want simply to strengthen her case by pointing out that Gloucestershire has the same argument as her own county. We, too, are underfunded compared with, say, Bristol. That is obviously unfair, and we need a national approach to the matter.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the examples in Stroud.

If, as the formula seems to do, we move closer to a per pupil amount across the county of Worcestershire without making any correction to the national unfairness, we shall run into a crucial problem. Small, mainly rural primary schools form an integral part of the fabric of county life in a dispersed constituency such as mine. Where distances are large and sparsity is high, we find that the village school is the focus and beating heart of the village. Rural schools are likely to have fewer children on free school meals, for a couple of reasons. There is a lower chance of meals being served and a much higher chance of the possible social stigma being known, and there is therefore lower take-up. Those schools thus miss out on the pupil premium, as can be seen from the fact that Worcestershire has just over 1% of the pupils on roll in England, but less than 0.75% of the pupil premium for 2012-13.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has made the case admirably for the small rural schools in her constituency, but she will be aware that some of the smaller schools in my constituency, which are urban schools and receive quite a lot of pupil premium, are also negatively affected by the changes. Does she agree that for the Government’s pupil premium policy to work and for their funding reforms to work really well, we need fairer funding on an underlying basis to make progress?

I do agree. How lucky my hon. Friend’s constituents are to have such a tireless champion and voice for fairer funding for Worcestershire.

Today, I ask the Minister to allow the county council to have more sector-variable lump sums that can be set locally. Some flexibility at local level is essential. Small rural primary schools are a priority for Worcestershire county council and it has a democratic mandate to take that approach. In addition, it is in its interest to do so, as travel and building costs would rise sharply if there were a consolidation of the smaller local primary schools. Furthermore, parts of Worcestershire support a middle school system, and the local authority should have some flexibility to reflect that.

I welcome the Minister’s letter of last week, confirming that there is a minimum funding guarantee extended out to 2015—a per pupil guarantee of minus 1.5%—which will help to moderate the impact of the changes up to 2015. However, Worcestershire needs more flexibility—it needs more money. More flexibility over a lump sum from the local authority could insulate small rural schools from too much fluctuation. Even after that guarantee, a school such as Eldersfield primary in my constituency would have a 5.5% fall in its budget by 2015, despite educating each child to an excellent standard for a frugal £3,523 per child.

I have so far been contacted by primary schools in the villages of Castlemorton, Martley, Broadwas, Grimley and Holt, Clifton-upon-Teme, Astley and Hallow, Great Witley, Eldersfield, Lindridge, Kempsey and Pendock, many of which have asked whether the funding formula is a deliberate attempt to close or merge village primaries and move towards a system of larger urban primary schools. Will the Minister please assure the dedicated teachers and governors and the parents of children at those rural primary schools that there is no such policy and that the value of village primary schools to their communities is fully recognised by the Government?

I hope that the Minister can also resolve the funding problem. Village schools should be considered unviable only if they do not attract pupils on a sustainable basis. Allowing local authorities, such as Worcestershire county council, to have a larger amount to use as a flexible lump sum to support those valuable schools would allow them to continue to serve the large rural areas that still make up such a large part of Worcestershire and, indeed, England.

I rise to take part in the debate with the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and my first duty is to congratulate her on securing it and expressing her case so clearly and compellingly. I associate myself with everything she has said and that my hon. Friends have said in interventions.

I rise primarily because the schools in the Evesham pyramid in my constituency would be most seriously affected were the policy to proceed unamended. The schools in the Evesham pyramid would lose about £1.3 million, and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire made so very clear, is against the backdrop of a very unfair funding formula. They cannot afford to lose that amount of money. No school could, but certainly not schools that are in a badly funded authority to begin with. I say in parenthesis that even the minimum funding guarantee, with a maximum reduction of 1.5% per pupil, threatens the viability of some smaller schools. A cumulative two or three years at 1.5%, against a very low base, is threatening for many schools.

There are a number of reasons why in Evesham the situation is particularly serious. There are more smaller schools perhaps, and also a middle school arrangement, which is not always understood by officials at the Department for Education. I understand why—middle schools are not very prevalent these days—but they are an important part of the education landscape in Worcestershire, and certainly in Evesham, and their particular needs must be taken account of in funding arrangements.

We have talked about small village schools, but I must emphasise that it is smaller schools that are affected, not just village schools. There are two high schools in Evesham, which would both lose money under this arrangement. One—the smaller of the two—would lose £250,000. It cannot afford to lose £250,000. So, it is not only the small village schools that are affected, but, surprisingly, some significantly larger schools.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that perhaps the Government were wrong to attempt this welcome reform—I entirely agree with the reform itself, because it is absolutely right in principle—before they had digested the underlying problem in relation to having a fairer funding formula at national level. Change in distribution in a badly funded county is fraught with danger, and I fear that it will be difficult to find any arrangement that prevents some significant loss for some schools unless we first have the fairer funding that the county so desperately needs.

However, I am confident that a solution can be found that mitigates the effect. I am encouraged by the attitude that the Government have taken so far, and I have reassured head teachers and governors in my constituency that I believe that the Government’s heart is in changing this policy and ensuring that it does not have the devastating impact that it would have if it proceeded unamended.

I am grateful to the extent that there is a minimum funding guarantee, for example, for a third year, but a higher lump sum does no good in Worcestershire—we cannot afford it and do not have the money to fund a higher lump sum. However, a variable lump sum, certainly between sectors, could lie at the heart of a solution that I believe would reduce the devastating impact of this policy and give smaller schools some hope of survival in the face of what would otherwise be a very arbitrary and unfair policy.

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Weir. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing the debate. I must also declare an interest as a governor and trustee at Vaynor First School academy.

This year, although the number of students receiving good GCSEs fell across the nation, in Redditch we had nothing short of an exams boom. Despite funding challenges, three secondary schools in Redditch gained results that placed them in the top tier of the most improved schools across the country. Two schools, Arrow Vale and Trinity high, are recently converted academies, and that has had a hugely beneficial effect on the way that they run and operate, and ultimately on the success that they have had.

More importantly, from speaking to the head teachers it is clear that those schools now have greater ambition and, crucially, believe that they can compete with the best. However, while the structure, with the rolling out of academies, is finally in place for our county to achieve, funding is not. On funding, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire pointed out that the county is ranked nationally 147th out of 151. Worcestershire is more affected than other counties by this funding arrangement because we are at the bottom of the schools funding league.

The way out of that is a fairer national funding formula, which this Government have promised following 13 years of a Labour Government who completely failed to address the issue. It is absolutely vital for the children of Worcestershire that we receive a fair deal. The crucial point is that the recent exam results from a few schools in Redditch are on the back of unfair funding, so imagine what we could achieve if we had fairer funding. The truth is that in the age of an ever more competitive national and global work force we cannot continue unfairly to disadvantage the future of our children, whose only fault is that they were born in Worcestershire.

Thank you very much, Mr Weir, for calling me to speak.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this debate on an issue that is extremely important for her constituency and that is obviously also important throughout the country. Once again, she is proving to be a most effective champion of her constituency interests.

My hon. Friend warned me before the debate started that the MPs from Worcestershire have a tendency to hunt in packs and her pack is behind her today, if I may say so, in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), for Redditch (Karen Lumley), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who have all backed up the points that she made in a very effective way. We have other Members from Gloucestershire and Devon, who are clearly also taking an interest in this debate.

As the Minister for Schools, I am very well aware of the strength of feeling in Worcestershire schools and in schools in some other parts of the country. There is concern about some of the changes that we are seeking to make to the school funding system, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has set out some of those concerns very clearly today. I have received a number of representations from other hon. Friends, and from concerned local head teachers and governors throughout Worcestershire.

Therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to address some of those concerns and to offer a reassurance that, as we move to a fairer funding system, we will do so very carefully and at a pace that enables proper consideration, consultation and sensitivity about the issues that are being rightly raised today by local MPs.

Our aim is for every child to succeed in school, regardless of their background. That is why the Government, despite having to make difficult decisions elsewhere in public spending, have made school spending a priority and protected school funding over the course of the spending review period, as my hon. Friends will be aware.

We have also introduced, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the pupil premium which, by the end of the Parliament, will have targeted an additional £2.5 billion to disadvantaged pupils. My hon. Friend mentioned that sometimes the take-up of the pupil premium is a concern in rural areas. She might be interested to know that the Department will publish in a few weeks’ time some interesting national figures showing the take-up of the pupil premium and free school meals in different parts of the country, and highlighting the challenge there is in some of the more rural areas to ensure that take-up is as high as it should be.

The Government need to work with local councils, schools and MPs to ensure that in some of the areas where there is a low take-up we address that, to ensure not only that youngsters get the free school meals to which they are entitled but that the extra funding we are making available gets through to the schools that need it.

We also need a system to support the investment that we are putting in through the pupil premium and to ensure that pupils are not disadvantaged as a result of a school funding system that, as my hon. Friends have indicated, does not distribute funding fairly. Sadly, under the previous Government, when there was a much bigger opportunity to increase education spending, the opportunity was missed to bring in a more rational formula. The current system for funding schools is in need of reform. It is based on an assessment of need that dates back to at least 2005-06, and that has not kept pace with changing demographics and the needs of pupils across the country. It is very complicated, meaning that head teachers, governors and parents are often unable to understand how their school budgets have been calculated and why.

That outdated funding system has meant that Worcestershire, as hon. Friends have already mentioned, is one of the relatively lowest funded authorities in England, ranking at 147 out of the 152 authorities. It is not right that schools with very similar circumstances can receive, without good cause, vastly different levels of funding for no clearly identifiable reason. Data taken from the 2010-11 section 251 returns, which set out local authority budgets, show that funding between similar secondary schools can vary by up to £1,800 per pupil, which is an enormous amount and clearly not fair.

It is also not right that the system is so complex that school leaders are often unable to understand how their budgets have been calculated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made a statement on 26 March 2012 announcing the Government’s clear intention to introduce a new national funding formula during the next spending review period. I appreciate that hon. Friends would like that to be as soon as possible, but there are obviously a lot of constraints that I will discuss in a moment on the introduction. However, the commitment is clear and is something I feel strongly about, as does the Secretary of State.

A new national funding formula would distribute money fairly across the country, targeting need properly and getting rid of some of the anomalies that make the current system so opaque. However, dismantling a system that is so entrenched and complicated is far from easy. It is important that we introduce full-scale reform at a pace that schools can manage. The last thing that we want, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire said, is to cause destabilising changes to school budgets that cause anxiety in schools and among parents and distract schools from delivering high educational standards for their pupils.

That is why we are trying to move gradually towards introducing a new funding system, at a pace that gives us sufficient time to agree the construction of a new formula and to allow schools enough time to adjust to changes in their funding arrangements. Making the local system simpler and more transparent will mean that, when we do come to address the national system, there is far less complexity for us to untangle.

The first step we are taking is to ensure that within local areas pupils begin to attract similar levels of funding regardless of where they go to school. At present, local authorities can use up to 37 factors and countless sub-factors when distributing money to schools. I understand that in the past there has been a tradition of funding schools based on the facilities that they offer, the pay scales of their teachers, the size of their buildings and, even in some cases, the number of trees and ditches on their estate.

Our view is that the majority of money that we spend on education should be based on the pupil, not on the school characteristics. If a pupil chooses to go to a particular school then the funding is available to fulfil that choice, and it is not locked in to the school down the road because it happens to have more expensive teachers or a swimming pool to maintain. Rather than giving money to schools based on their size or other circumstances, local authorities will now have to distribute the majority of funds based on pupil numbers and characteristics. That is very much in keeping with the aims of a funding system that is pupil led and that is fair and transparent.

The new arrangements will mean that funding will be distributed differently, and there will be some shifts between school budgets as we move towards a more consistent way of funding schools. Our aim is to start to iron out inconsistencies and unfairness, which pupils in schools are currently experiencing, to create a fairer system. We remain committed to ensuring that good, small schools are able to thrive under the new arrangements.

We know that small schools often play a vital role in communities, not least in rural areas, and it is not our intention that any good school should be forced to close as a result of these reforms. That is a commitment that my hon. Friend asked for in her speech, and I hope that she will take that as a commitment from the Government. There is no secret agenda to close small, successful schools. I hope that she and her hon. Friends will take that message back to their constituencies.

We are allowing local authorities to allocate a lump sum of up to £200,000 in their formula. The intention of the lump sum is to cover the fixed cost of a small school—for example, a head teacher, a caretaker and some administrative support—and no more. It is not intended to protect the historic grants that were given to some schools and not others to pay for things such as floor space, specialist teachers and so forth.

We have heard a number of concerns—we heard them from my hon. Friend today—about the requirement to have a single lump sum for primary, middle and secondary schools. Although I recognise that the curriculum costs are different in each phase, I reiterate the point that the lump sum is not intended to pay for the curriculum costs. The lump sum should pay for fixed costs, and the per-pupil funding should pay for the curriculum costs. We will, however, review those arrangements, and I will explain more about that review shortly.

The reforms will require local authorities and school forums to break out of historic approaches and to think radically about the way in which money is distributed to schools in their areas. I realise that it is the implementation of the new simplified arrangements that is causing anxiety among schools in Worcestershire, and that there are particular concerns about the impact the changes will have on small and middle schools in rural areas such as Evesham, Pershore and Upton.

Officials in the Department have been in contact with staff at Worcestershire county council to understand why the concerns have arisen and to offer advice. I understand that Worcestershire county council has already agreed to the new funding formula—it did so on 18 October —but it has done so for one year only. I am informed that Worcestershire county council will review its local formula in light of the issues raised during its recent consultation, and in line with any changes made by the Department for 2014-15.

As I said, our main priority is stability and certainty for schools, which is why these reforms will be implemented carefully and with great consideration, as my hon. Friends have requested. The Secretary of State already announced in June that schools will continue to have planning certainty through the minimum funding guarantee, which means that, in most cases, no school will lose more than 1.5% of its budget per pupil in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In addition to that and in response to concerns raised by my hon. Friend, her colleagues and other hon. Friends, the Department has confirmed within the past few days that a minimum funding guarantee will continue to operate beyond 2014-15. We cannot confirm the exact value of that guarantee as it covers the next spending review period; we need to know our budget for that period and to have Treasury approval before giving any such guarantees. None the less, we are absolutely committed to protecting school budgets from unmanageable falls, and I hope that that will also be an assurance for my hon. Friend.

At the moment, we have made it clear that we will continue it beyond the period of 2014-15. Although we are not in a position to make an announcement yet, given that we are seeking to move to a national funding formula, it is highly likely that we will need some form of protection for a considerable period. I will be happy to update my hon. Friend when we are in a position to say more.

The minimum funding guarantee is excellent, and I am sure we all welcome its extension, but is it not the obvious answer to the turbulence of moving towards a national formula? Therefore, is there any reason for the Government not to move towards a national formula, using the minimum funding guarantee, before 2015?

Moving straight to a national funding formula without the transitional arrangements would be even more challenging and would create an even larger departmental postbag. I understand my hon. Friend is doing his best to push Worcestershire’s case, but the Secretary of State is right to be going about this in a measured way as we are seeking to bring about a complex change.

In any case, the extension of the minimum funding guarantee beyond 2015 should reassure the several Worcestershire schools—including the Hanley Castle pyramid, Prince Henry’s high school and Evesham high school—that have contacted me to express concerns about a potential cliff edge in funding from 2014-15 if the minimum funding guarantee were to end. I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will take that message back to other schools concerned about a cliff edge. The last thing we want is for parents not to send their children to those schools because of fears that are not well grounded.

I also reassure my hon. Friends that we have decided to carry out a thorough review in early 2013, starting now effectively, of the impact of simpler formula factors. We will work with local authorities to explore the effect of the different factors that we have, including the lump sum, which is a key element of Worcestershire’s formula, as well as those that we have eliminated.

We have made it clear that we want to prevent the changes from having unacceptable consequences for good schools. That is why a review will be so important in evaluating the effects and will enable us to make any necessary adjustments in the following year, 2014-15. As a consequence of the representations that have been made today by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire and her colleagues, I will ask officials to add Worcestershire to the shortlist of authorities that have been particularly assiduous in making representations to the Department and that I would like officials to talk to over the period of the review, which we hope will report back in the springtime—spring being a slightly flexible season.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friends for drawing attention to the concerns of Worcestershire schools about our school funding reforms. I hope I have been able to provide some reassurance that our aim in making the reforms is ultimately to ensure that England has a fair and transparent funding system in which funding follows pupils and there is consistency within and between different areas of the country. I know that Worcestershire shares that ultimate aim with the Department. I also hope that my hon. Friends understand that we are listening carefully to their concerns and, where necessary, are responding to them.

I commend my hon. Friends for making their representations so effectively to the Department that the Worcestershire file is probably the largest of any county. I look forward to maintaining contact with Worcestershire in the run-up to the decisions, which we will make and announce next year.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.