Wednesday 21 November 2012
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
UK Constituent Parts (EU)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Joseph Johnson.)
Good morning, Mr Crausby. It is a great pleasure to have you chairing this important debate.
The 2014 referendum on Scotland’s future is a landmark in our constitutional history, although it is extraordinary that support for the proposition is steadily declining, even before the introduction of the enabling legislation at Holyrood. The fact that it is occurring at a time of increasing volatility, at home and globally, makes the arguments for and against even more contentious. I shall return to volatility later in my remarks, but let me make one observation at the outset: we most definitely will witness in the next two years a period of relentless tricky questions. I noted at the weekend that the university of Dundee is launching a project on “5 Million Questions”, which may take us up to the end of the current century although it is certainly a worthwhile programme. The vast majority of Scots are clearly unconvinced by the proposition of separation, and will be asking many complex, multifaceted questions about the effect that such a move would have on them, their families, their communities and their nation. Ironically, however, in the Scottish Government are masters of avoiding tricky questions. In the political arts, they could win numerous plaudits for their ability to body swerve many difficult areas of policy over a sustained period. That has served them well up to now, but those days are over and, as was evidenced at the Scottish National party annual conference this year, many of its own members are in for a difficult and unsettling experience.
My colleague, Catherine Stihler, one of Scotland’s Members of the European Parliament, asked a deceptively simple question in a freedom of information request last year, but it has been explosive in its effect and deeply revealing about the lack of transparency at the very heart of the Scottish Government. Regardless of how anyone views the European Union, everyone in the Chamber today agrees that whether Scotland would automatically be an EU member if it separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, and whether it would be required to renegotiate the major terms of its membership are both key questions on which the public require clear information.
About 70% of Scotland’s exports are to other EU nations. Let us not forget that if Scotland were not part of the EU, it would probably also face renegotiating entry into the World Trade Organisation, which is responsible for setting the criteria for just about all the remaining 30% of our export markets, including our valuable whisky market.
My hon. Friend has already made a compelling case in the first few minutes of her contribution. Will she also reflect on the fact that recent Scottish Enterprise figures show that two thirds of Scotland’s “exports” actually go to the other component parts of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If Scotland were not part of the EU in a post-separation scenario, obviously its trading relationship with the rest of the UK would be in question—what criteria, tariffs and so on would be in force? Scotland’s economy relies heavily on having a stable export market, and many thousands of jobs depend on foreign trade, but the manner in which the Scottish Government have twisted and turned at every corner to avoid a clear answer as to what legal advice they had on such questions can only corrode public trust. I shall give way in the hope that the questions may be elucidated.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying but, given the increasing Euroscepticism in the UK population and what is happening in this Parliament, how can she even be sure that the UK—with or without Scotland—will be a member of the EU in the next five to 10 years?
The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that on that issue I am united with them. The quality of our alliances and partnerships is what will allow Scotland to succeed, which is why I want to be part of a strong European Union, as much as I want to be part of a strong United Kingdom.
Let us return to the question of our status in Europe. Every time that the Scottish Government have been asked about the question of status, they have always sought to give the firm impression that continued EU membership was guaranteed and that no real material change in membership obligations would result from separation. One example of that sorry story is the interpretation of the Scottish Government ministerial code. That document was apparently altered—in a way that begs even more tricky questions—between the FOI request being made and the truth being forced out last month. Paragraph 2.35 of the code states, and I emphasise the first sentence:
“The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers and the content of any legal advice given by them or anyone else must not be revealed outwith the Scottish Government without the Law Officers’ prior consent. The only exception to this rule is that it is acknowledged publicly that the Law Officers have advised on the legislative competence of Government Bills introduced in the Parliament…Views given by the Law Officers in their Ministerial capacity are not subject to this restriction.”
I am grateful for the comments made by Ian Smart, the former president of the Law Society of Scotland, in a recent blog, which points out the revelation that legal advice given by “anyone else”—not the Scottish Law Officers—does not require the consent of the Law Officers; only the content of that advice must not be disclosed. Ian Smart said:
“And that is, on any view, deliberately the way the code reads for otherwise the first sentence would be the much simpler.”
The First Minister, however, in his interview on “Scotland Tonight” four weeks ago stated:
“That’s quite clear in the Ministerial code. It’s both the fact of whether it exists, and the content. I would need to clear it with the Lord Advocate if I wanted to say that I had not sought legal advice.”
That is simply not the case if we read the code accurately. Given the outcry about his remarks in the now famous TV interview with Andrew Neil back in March, we might have thought that the First Minister would have taken the opportunity to reread his own ministerial code before rushing into the TV studio. The tricky question that needs to be answered now is whether the First Minister sought legal advice from “anyone else” before that FOI request or his interview with Andrew Neil in March. If so, who was that from and what was said?
There may be some clues. On Tuesday, 30 October, the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson, MSP. The third paragraph of that letter contains an interesting statement:
“As was made clear by the Deputy First Minister the Scottish Government has now requested specific legal advice from the Law Officers on EU membership. As you will be aware legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Department…but in relation to certain matters the Government will seek a legal opinion from the Law Officers. That is what is happening in relation to the matter of EU membership.”
That same afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, summed up a debate on this very matter and, soon after 16.38 in the Official Report, said:
“Clearly, if ministers have sought legal advice, the law officers will provide that legal advice, so to reveal that legal advice has been sought from the law officers reveals the fact of such advice and puts us in breach of the ministerial code.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 30 October 2012; c. 12755.]
Both of those statements cannot be true, however. Catherine Stihler’s inquiry remains whether the Government have been given any legal advice, and on that point there is still deafening silence.
The First Minister and his colleagues may argue that, when they make contentions on EU membership, they are speaking about evidence from a variety of experts—“in terms of the debate” is the phrase most commonly used—but that is not the same as legal advice. They know the difference. Some of the people quoted are not lawyers; some have died; and most of the statements seem to have been made prior to the Lisbon treaty, which made fundamental changes to the European Union’s constitution. None of those represent a legal opinion, and just as many eminent people disagree with those expert opinions, including no less a person than the current EU President.
Here is one simple question the Scottish Government should clarify urgently. Have they already had legal advice from their legal directorate? It is difficult to imagine that, when the Scottish Government issued their White Paper, “Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation” in 2009, they did not run it past their own legal department. That document contains examples of ambiguous phrasing in its comments about EU membership. I draw hon. Members attention to page 110, paragraph 8.12:
“Settling the details of European Union membership would take place in parallel to independence negotiations with the United Kingdom Government”.
That phrase sounds as though it were written by a lawyer, and as I am a lawyer and a member of the Law Society of Scotland, I speak with some experience. Will the Minister confirm whether his Department has received any information about whether the legal department was consulted on that document, and whether it asked his office for advice or information about EU membership if Scotland were to separate?
That brings me back to volatility. As other hon. Members have said this morning, the EU is undoubtedly experiencing the most challenging and volatile period in its history. Its fiscal policies are under constant stress, there is significant unrest in many regions caused by massive hikes in unemployment and cuts to public services, and there are major differences of opinion in the political leadership. That is where legal opinion hits realpolitik.
Yes Scotland’s latest leaflet states without reservation:
“We can all see the one thing holding us back—we let someone else take decisions for us.”
lf the Scottish Government want our country to remain part of the EU come what may—that seems to be what the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said—the painful truth is that other people will make decisions for us on how long the application process will take, the conditions for membership, the size of our contribution, our entry into the eurozone, and our entitlements under the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries agreement. As one small nation in 28, our negotiating position, at best, will be fairly weak.
That is all very interesting, but has the hon. Lady bothered to listen to the news from Europe, where the Prime Minister is going to discuss the European budget? It seems that the rest of the EU is ganging up to cut the UK out of the EU, and to cut the famous rebate that everyone goes on about.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for proving my case about volatility and disputes in the European Union. Any union or partnership that lasts a long time has difficult phases, and this is one. He has proved my point that the negotiations will not involve simply providing a list—that is what the First Minister always seems to suggest—saying what Scotland would like and expecting people to nod and say, “That’s fine. Don’t worry. That’s okay with us.” That will not happen, and any attempt to try to prove the opposite shows the weakness of the argument.
On the national central bank and financial regulators, Croatia’s recent entry negotiations show that they are not tick-box exercises, and again there is no guarantee that other EU members would be attracted to the solution that the Scottish Government prefer at the moment of relying on another EU member to provide both important institutions, and that is if that EU member agreed to that in the first place.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I remind her that the most recent entry to the EU, Croatia, had to satisfy stringent tests about guaranteeing bank deposits, the independence of its central bank, monetary policy and financial security. Does she see anything in any of the plans produced by the Yes Scotland campaign that deals with any of those points?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is understandable, given the financial and economic crisis that the EU has suffered over the past five years, that it would take a precautionary approach on any banking issue and financial regulation particularly. The Scottish Government’s proposals are untested. They have never been used by another EU member in the way proposed, and we have no idea how they would work, because we have received no details in response to the many questions that the Scottish Government have been asked. Apparently, we must wait until autumn 2013 for the revelation, apparently in tomes. The questions should be asked now if we want a proper analysis and expert opinion not only in our own country, but throughout the EU. We need that information now.
As far as I know, Croatia does not have a particularly large international banking presence—I hope that I am not being unjust—but Scotland is still the headquarters not just of some UK banks, but of international banks. Does that not emphasise that in any new treaty, if Scotland were to become independent, the EU would be keen to ensure that proper regulatory arrangements were in place for the Scottish banking sector?
My hon. Friend has spent much of his time campaigning on financial services, because they are relevant in his constituency. He hits the nail on the head, because we have a significant financial services sector in Scotland. It is the second largest outside the City of London, and has many jobs, not just in banking, but in other financial services, such as equity markets and insurance funds. Many of the people who use those funds and many investors live not in Scotland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom.
There are many questions to be asked about the currency that will be used, and the regulations. We can take it as certain that the EU will take a precautionary approach, and will ask for those issues to be tested and examined in great detail. As yet, the Scottish Government have not produced a comprehensive document setting out the proposals. At the moment, they seem to think that the rest of the UK will continue to act as the financial regulator, but there is no guarantee that it would be tempted to do so. Why would it take on the risks and responsibility for institutions outwith its borders and over which this Parliament would have no direct control or responsibility? The UK Parliament’s risk would increase.
Given the gridlock of other membership requests, and that other EU states are much less relaxed about national referendums for secession, there is every risk that the application and negotiations could drag on with consequent risks and uncertainty to our economy and particularly our financial services. I would be interested to hear today the Foreign Office’s perspective on such a scenario. Will the Minister confirm what the legal standing of a separate Scotland would be with the World Trade Organisation if at the point of secession it was not a member of the EU? Have the Scottish Government ever asked his Department for information about that? Has there been any formal dialogue with the EU Commission on the proposal for another EU member’s central bank to be Scotland’s bank of last resort?
We have discovered in the last few weeks that the truth can be difficult to admit, but surely anyone who believes that a country’s citizens should be able to make the right choices also believes that they should be provided with full answers to those tricky questions, because they will not go away.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing the debate. Although it may not be a regular occurrence, I concur with a lot of what she said.
I confess that I have always been puzzled by the Scottish National party’s policy of independence in Europe, or whatever its particular slogan is at the time. Although I profoundly disagree with independence for Scotland, there is logicality in believing that Scotland should be a master of its own destiny: that it should break away from a currency, a monetary and fiscal union, and a political union, and decide matters for herself. I do not agree with that, however. I think that the union has been one of the most successful political, social and economic entities that the world has ever seen, and it would be a tragedy if Scotland split away from it. There is, however, logic in saying, “We want to be masters of our own destiny and decide policies for ourselves.”
What I find illogical is the argument that being in one union is so disadvantageous to Scotland that we should split away, destroying 300 years of shared history and experience, and then rush straight into an even bigger one. That is illogical, and I contend that in such a union, Scotland would have a far weaker influence than it currently has in the United Kingdom.
I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The UK is part of the European Union and has surrendered some sovereignty to joint decision making, but that is different from an encompassing political union, which some in the EU want. I presume that he is very much against that, but that is the position in which Scotland finds itself within the EU, and there is nothing illogical in seeking to get out of the United Kingdom in order to join together with other nations in the EU, to a restricted degree.
I am tempted to go down the path of having a debate on the wider issue of the EU’s direction—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) would be only too happy to join in—but I think I might exceed my five-minute allowance. The point is that if Scotland became an independent member of the EU—I will come on to why that will not be a straightforward process—it would be joining an ever-deepening union. I do not want the United Kingdom to be part of that, but that is what Scotland would be forced to sign up to. Under the terms of the EU treaties, all new member states are obliged to make the political and legal commitment to join the economic and monetary union, and to adopt the euro as a currency.
That is simply not the case. Under the EU treaties, a nation has to join the exchange rate mechanism II before moving on to the euro. ERM II is voluntary, and in the case of Sweden, it has made it clear that it is not moving towards the euro, although it joined the EU later. Scotland would be in the same position. There is no obligation on Scotland to join the euro.
I profoundly disagree with that analysis. Sweden is obligated to join the euro once it has satisfied the economic conditions. That is the position, and I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman’s position. He has said nothing that dissuades me from the view that an independent Scotland would be sucked in to a full economic and monetary union, and that would not be in Scotland’s interests.
It is far from certain that Scotland would become an automatic, independent member of the EU. There is no precedent for a current EU member state splitting up into constituent parts, with the part that broke away becoming a separate member. Therefore, we must look at what the treaty on European Union says, and article 4.2 is clear that the EU must respect the fundamental, constitutional and political structures and the territorial integrity of a member state, which has exclusive competence in such matters. The EU cannot therefore recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by part of a member state. Furthermore, according to article 49, the hypothetical new state would need to request membership and attain the unanimous support of the European Council for that request, and have its membership approved through an accession treaty, to be ratified by the Parliaments of all member states.
If one looks at the political reality of other member states in Europe, that is far from a foregone conclusion. Would Spain, for example, agree to it with its issues in Catalonia and the Basque country? Would Belgium, whose constitutional integrity is under question, agree? I do not believe that that process would be automatic. I am not suggesting that Scotland could not become an independent EU member, but I ask at what time and at what cost. Croatia’s accession to the EU has been mentioned, and that has been going on for over 10 years. Slovenia made an objection to that process, and although it was overcome, it took time.
I ask again what the cost to Scotland would be. What uncertainty would be created for business at a fragile time for the global economy? What else would she have to surrender to get membership agreed? I believe that euro membership would be inevitable. What about Scotland’s budget contribution, which is a topical issue? The SNP contends that Scotland has a budget surplus in the United Kingdom. I think that issue is far from settled, but for the purpose of the argument, let us accept that the SNP is correct and that Scotland pays more into the United Kingdom coffers than she receives from it. Does that not mean that Scotland would be forced to pay a much higher contribution to the EU budget? Has that been factored into anyone’s calculations? I do not believe so. What about other issues, such as Schengen and the common fisheries policy? What influence would Scotland have to protect her current freedoms? It is all uncertain.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow North said, the Scottish Government are making it up as they go along. There is no certainty, which I believe we should have. The United Kingdom should remain strong and intact. The debate about our position in the EU is a broader question; personally, I want to get us back to more of a common market, and certainly not into a deeper political and monetary union. However, we are better off fighting this together and not splitting up into component parts, when we would have no certainty and Scotland’s interests would be subsumed into the wider interests of Europe.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Crausby. I am sure that when you got up this morning you realised you had picked the short straw in chairing this debate, given some of the dreary contributions that we have heard thus far. I sometimes think that we should reorganise the furniture when we are debating Scotland’s constitution, given that so many hon. Members agree, and that everything seems to be put to the Scottish Government and the SNP. I feel, sometimes, that we should be sitting in the Minister’s place—perhaps that would be more helpful, in terms of responding to the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) both on securing this morning’s debate and on turning up on time. We were all here two weeks ago, practically in the same spot. It was a shambles. We were ready to go, but the hon. Member who had secured the debate came rushing in several minutes late. It sometimes seems as though Labour cannot organise a Euro-rant in a Belgian brewery.
Listening to hon. Members’ contributions today, there is not exactly the warm glow of positivity—more like the deep chill of relentless negativity, which is what characterises these debates.
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. There are 640 of you guys and only six of us, so I will use my time, if that is all right.
Over the past few weeks, the debate has fallen to a new all-time low, with some appalling personal attacks. Things were said in the Scottish Parliament that would never have been allowed by you, Mr Crausby, or the Speaker, and yet, the guys who made such remarks complain about the comments in the online section of The Scotsman sinking to such a low spectacle. What are they saying? Not only are they saying that we will not get European membership, but according to the former Prime Minister, we will be little more than a British colony. According to the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—their campaign leader—independence would be nothing more than the road to “serfdom”. People cannot say too poor, too weak and too stupid any more; they know that that is not a great way to enlist the Scottish people’s support. They only hint at that now. The most comical remark, the one that I have enjoyed most in the last two weeks, was that the music that I had spent 15 years making would no longer be my music—British music would not be ours any more—as if music, the ridiculously free-spirited and wonderful thing that it is, has frontiers or boundaries, but that is what these people are saying. They are scaremongering on culture. Welcome to the positive case for the Union.
Of course, the plat du jour this week is scaremongering on Europe. That is what they are doing, and doing well. Barely a day goes past without another instalment in the scaremongering stories, always in association with their friends in the press. Their message to the Scottish people when it comes to Europe is, “You cannae dae this, we’re no gonna let you do that and don’t even think about this!” If I have got their position right, it is something like this: “You’re not going to get into Europe. You’re going to go to the back of the queue behind all the accession states.” That is their position; I think that that is their top line. But if we do somehow manage to get into Europe, it will be on the worst possible terms and conditions. I think that I am right in saying that this is their position. Then if we do manage to get into Europe and on the worst possible terms and conditions, we will be forced to join the euro—but do not worry, because we will not get into Europe anyway.
I said that I was not giving way.
These people need to get their act together on the scaremongering, so that we can understand what they are saying.
The subject of this debate is the constituent parts of the UK and EU membership. Scotland is a constituent part of the United Kingdom. We are currently a member of the European Union. After independence, we will continue to be a member of the European Union. We are in the European—
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
We are a member of the European Union because the UK took us into the European Union, the old EEC, back in 1973, but the European Union is not the only union. The UK is a union. It is based on the Act of Union, which brought together the Scottish and English Parliaments three centuries ago, so when Scotland secures its independence, the Act of Union falls and there will be two successor states. That is what will happen. Whatever happens to an independent Scotland will happen to the rest of the United Kingdom. It will be just like what happened with Czechoslovakia: the Czech Republic and Slovakia were treated as two new nations. These people sometimes like to use the example of Russia—
I am not giving way to the hon. Lady.
These people sometimes use the example of Russia when it comes to these situations, but not even the most rabid cybernat has ever compared the United Kingdom to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That is how ridiculous their argument has become. When it comes to European membership, whatever happens to an independent Scotland will happen to the rest of the United Kingdom, but let me reassure all the English Members who are sitting here today: their European place is safe. There is simply no precedent or process to kick a constituent part of the European Union out. That just does not happen—there is no way. This fox was effectively shot by Graham Avery of Oxford university, who is a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and honorary director general of the European Commission, when he said to Westminster’s Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:
“For practical and political reasons the idea of Scotland leaving the EU, and subsequently applying to join it, is not feasible.”
It is not feasible.
I am not giving way to the hon. Lady.
There is only one part of Europe that has left the European Union—the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) will recall this—Greenland. It took something like two years for Greenland to get out of the European Union, and it wanted to go. It had a vote that said that it wanted to leave the European Union. It was only after complex negotiations that it was allowed to go.
These people believe that somehow Scotland will be stripped of its European Union membership and all the European rights that we have built up in the course of 40 years. Scotland is actually enthusiastic about Europe, unlike the hon. Member for Stone and his hon. Friends. It is absolutely absurd to suggest that an independent Scotland would not be welcomed with open arms to the European Union. We are talking about oil-rich Scotland, fisheries-rich Scotland, renewable-energy-rich Scotland. Scotland complies with every single piece of European legislation and is enthusiastic about its European membership. The idea that Scotland would be kicked out of the European Union is totally absurd.
These people also say that we will be forced into euro membership. That was blown out of the water by Dr Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Centre, who reminded the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee that euro membership is based on strict criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) is absolutely right about this. There are five conditions for joining the euro. One is membership of the exchange rate mechanism. Joining the ERM is voluntary. That is why Sweden is not in the euro. I do not know how many times we have to explain this to Labour Members. Scotland will not join the euro, because Sweden has not joined the euro, because it is based on ERM membership.
There is a threat to Scotland’s European membership. It does not come from an independent Scotland. It comes from the Union; it comes from the Westminster Tories, because they are at it again. They are even prepared to defeat their Government to ensure that they get this country out of the European Union. I looked at William Hill yesterday. It is offering odds of 2:1 that by 2020 there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU—a straight in-out referendum. It is offering odds of 6:1, which I think are very generous, that the UK will be out of the EU by 2020. That is the threat to Scotland’s EU membership. It does not come from an independent Scotland; it comes from the Westminster Tories. Westminster Tories are running absolutely terrified of the UK Independence party, which is now odds-on favourite to win the next European election. That is what is informing Government policy when it comes to Europe. What we have now is a surly, sulky UK as a member of the European Union. That is what Scotland has to put up with as it secures its EU membership. The UK is looking for the “Out” door—
I am not giving way to the hon. Lady; I have told her that.
That is what we have in terms of Scotland’s EU membership represented by the UK. What would be better? An independent Scotland, independent in Europe and seated at the top table. Our number of MEPs would be increased from six to 13; there would be 13 champions putting Scotland’s case. That is what Scotland needs; that is what Scotland requires.
There is a clear choice facing the Scottish people when it comes to European Union membership: independence in Europe, a seat at the top table, our own representation in Europe, or isolation in a United Kingdom that is on the way out of the European Union and almost relaxed about its decline and failure. I know the choice that the Scottish people will make in 2014. It will be the positive choice—it will be for Scotland’s independence and national liberation.
I am fascinated by the line that has just been taken with respect to the situation of the United Kingdom in relation to the European Union. There are many of us who believe that the time has come not only to have a referendum, but to leave the existing treaties. The reality is that 56% of the British people have recently indicated that that is what they would like, and that raises very interesting and very important questions. It is also highly relevant to what is going on here in this debate today with respect to Scotland. Of course, there is also the question of Northern Ireland and of Wales, neither of which has even been touched on so far in the debate. One thing that we have to remember is that the—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that, having listened to the very eloquent disquisition on the place of Scotland at the top table, and given this week’s announcement about the G8 coming to Northern Ireland, we can look forward, in the halcyon days in the future of Scotland’s independence, to a G9 coming to Northern Ireland, with Scotland at the top table?
That is an extremely apposite remark, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for it.
One thing that needs to be considered is the implications that would arise for the European Communities Act 1972, which has not yet been mentioned, because of course if we have a referendum and if the vote is yes—at the moment, that seems extremely unlikely, but I will not presume to say that it will not happen—the reality is that that in itself will not create the legal and constitutional consequences that would flow from that political decision. The reality is that we then have to look at the 1972 Act. All the obligations under section 2, through our own enactment here, of which Scotland is currently a part, would have to be dealt with. It will be an extremely complex business to deal with the issues between the United Kingdom and Scotland, let alone between Scotland and the European Union or the United Kingdom and the European Union.
I would like to refer on the record to the extremely good—extremely well written—note from the House of Commons Library. I mention that on the record because I think that many people who will want to consider this question will do well to look at that note if they can get access to it. It draws together a lot of the complications that arise in international law and constitutional law. It includes a lot of discussion about the allegations made against the First Minister; I will not enter that debate, but simply say that there are complex questions.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) pointed out, there is no provision in the European treaties for the secession of states. He mentioned article 4.2 and the unanimity of all 27 member states. The European Commission made some comments on that in response to an MEP, but that was on the basis of the thinking then. If I may say, having read all the papers, I do not think that there is a settled view about what would happen.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) is right to say that there would be massive uncertainty. For example, in respect of financial regulation, the jurisdiction has been already transferred, extremely unwisely, to the European institutions, but the consequences are that it is already being done in relation to the City of London with serious consequences, of an unlawful nature, for voting rights between ourselves and member states in the eurozone. There are so many uncertainties that the issue will have to be given much more consideration. There is also the question of the repeal of the Act of Union. None of the legal consequences of the referendum, even if there was a yes vote, are capable of being unravelled until we have got to grips with the constitutional implications of the matters I mention.
Despite the fact that we have one and a half hours, going into all the questions today would be far too complicated, so that is all I want to say. I put down a marker that a yes vote will be monumentally bad for the UK, monumentally bad for Scotland and monumentally bad for the people governed under the Act of Union. I and many others take that view, and I think it will prevail.
There are implications for the European Scrutiny Committee, in that it must look at all the legislation as it applies to the UK, in respect of those matters that apply to it under the Standing Orders. I will leave my contribution at that. The complications regarding Scotland have not been thought through. It is not only an emotional question or even a purely political question, but a question of grave uncertainty. The more the vote tends towards no—the direction that public opinion seems to be going—the better.
Thank you for that challenge, Mr Crausby. I thank you for presiding over the debate today and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to follow the previous two contributions and the rant from my neighbour, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I must admit that there is significant confusion in many people’s minds and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to blow away that confusion when he gets to his feet.
We have already heard that Scotland benefits from being part of the EU through the UK’s membership, but it is not clear whether an independent Scotland would become a member of the EU, and the contributions from SNP Members today do not make it any clearer. A long list of people, whom I feel that I should be able to trust, suggest that Scottish membership would not be automatic and might be subject to application, queuing, objections and delays. Those individuals include: José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission; Romano Prodi, a former President of the Commission; Joe Borg, a former European Commissioner; Dr Jo Murkens, European and constitutional law expert; and Professor Robert Hazell, University college London. Will the Minister say whether those are trustworthy sources and whether their comments are appropriate, or should I trust the contribution from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire?
As has been said, the First Minister wants to retain the pound sterling. We all know the potential difficulties and drawbacks that would have for monetary policy in an independent Scotland. If Scotland becomes independent, and an EU member at some point in future, perhaps the First Minister will not get his way. Is it the Minister’s understanding that between 2004 and 2007 every accession state also agreed to join the euro?
As has been mentioned, we recently discussed the accession of Croatia to the EU in the House. In the negotiations, significant emphasis was placed on Croatia being able to regulate its own financial institutions. How can Scotland do that? Alex Salmond wants to retain the pound and rejoin the EU, but if he keeps the pound, he will not have an independent national central bank, because he wants to use the Bank of England. That in itself may prevent him from using the pound and force an independent Scotland into the euro on day one.
People appreciate the benefits of our opt-out from the Schengen agreement, which was touched on this morning. If and when an independent Scotland is successful in its application to join the EU, I am concerned that it will have to comply with the agreement. Will the Minister confirm that new EU member states are bound to implement the Schengen agreement as part of the existing body of EU law? If that is the case, surely Scotland would have to make all the efforts it could to police its borders to ensure security, not only for itself, but for the rest of the Schengen-operating countries. Because the rest of the UK is not signed up to Schengen, that would mean border controls between Scotland and the remaining UK, including the land border with England.
That issue was raised in a debate I took part in recently in Scotland. Keith Brown MSP, the housing Minister in the Scottish Government, went out of his way to tell the audience, in no uncertain manner, that an independent Scotland would not implement the Schengen agreement. Like so many other assertions made by the SNP on European issues, it seems that it was an assurance that the SNP is perhaps unable to effect. If my interpretation of the matter is wrong, I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to point out the folly of my ways.
My third and final point is linked to the UK’s general opt-outs and rebate. Professor Hazell says:
“An independent Scotland would not inherit the opt-out the UK negotiated for the Treaty of Maastricht.”
There are also the benefits to the UK from the 1984 rebate negotiations, which, according to a House of Commons paper, result in Scotland’s contribution to the EU being £16 per head. It would be more than £90 per head without the rebate. It is unreasonable to assume that Scotland would benefit from similar treatment on rebates.
SNP Members’ claims of automatic entry into the EU, which they presumably feel would happen on the same day as any transition to an independent state, do not seem to have the support of the people needed to make it happen. The President of the Commission does not agree with them. The vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice does not seem to agree with them. The Spanish Foreign Minister does not seem to agree with them. Cyprus does not seem to agree with them. That does not appear to be a very good start.
Alex Salmond is desperate to ride roughshod over the Electoral Commission’s role in the forthcoming referendum, and he appears to feel that he can do the same with Europe and EU membership or take the Scottish people for mugs. He cannot be a player and a referee in the referendum. I tell Members here and now that there is no way that the powers of Europe will allow him to carry on in his delusional approach to future European negotiations, and there is no way that the Scottish people will be conned by that shambolic and disrespectful approach to such an important issue for Scottish economic prosperity.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) published a speech that he would have made, entitled, “The Speech They Feared”. The scariest thing about it is that his incoherent, negative rants are actually scripted. He is fond of attacking the pro-UK cause as “negative”, but unbelievably that speech attacked the negativity of others before they had even made their contributions. We will take no lessons today from the SNP about talking Scotland down, when he does just that in a prepared speech.
Today, I want to be as clear as possible about Scotland’s future in the EU and to bust some of the myths put about by the SNP—myths dressed up as reality and opinion dressed up as fact. Let us start with some words from the hon. Gentleman’s speech:
“When Scotland becomes an independent nation Scotland will remain a member of the European Union.”
He did not write that Scotland might have to apply, that there will be a process and that the process carries risks, but that,
“Scotland will remain a member”.
That is an assertion, not a fact. It is an opinion and nothing more.
That is a completely different position from that of Graham Avery, a senior member of St Anthony’s college and a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre, whom the First Minister and the hon. Gentleman have quoted. The SNP asserts that his comments justify its position. Indeed, it positively hangs on the man’s every word. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement. The First Minister has said,
“I have read out Graham Avery’s credentials. Given that he is an honorary director general of the European Commission, I suspect he knows rather more about these issues.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 1 November 2012; c. 12926.]
I agree with the First Minister, so let us examine what Graham Avery actually said. First, he has said:
“The EU has no historical precedent for dealing with Scottish independence.”
Uncomfortable as it is, we now know—if we did not already—that anything the SNP says on the question of EU membership is based on opinion, not fact or precedent. He has also said:
“Scotland has been in the EU for 40 years; and its people have acquired rights as European citizens.”
Note that Mr Avery is very clear in his choice of words: the people of Scotland might well have acquired rights, but that is not the same as the legal entity that would be the separate state of an independent Scotland.
In his next paragraph, Mr Avery said that
“negotiations on the terms of…membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence. We do not know at this stage how long that period would be; complicated negotiations…would have to take place”.
Therein lies the rub of any deal: six words to ring alarm bells in the heart of the pro-separation camp—
“negotiations on the terms of…membership”.
For even if we accept everything that anybody in the SNP has ever said about Scotland’s being welcomed as a member of the EU following an application to join, it is the terms of membership that are important. Those terms are crucial to the rights of our citizens and the security of our borders, and are essential for determining whether we use the euro. For no one—not the hon. Gentleman nor even Alex Salmond—can say with certainty what will happen.
Let us refer again to Mr Avery. He said:
“In accession negotiations with non-member countries the EU has always strongly resisted other changes or opt-outs from the basic Treaties”.
The expert on whom the SNP is so fond of relying is holing its argument below the waterline. What terms would Scotland be forced to accept on application? Not the SNP’s terms, but those of other member nations. The common theme that runs through such contradictions is that nationalists assume the right to make their own rules and that everyone else will abandon theirs to abide by those of the nationalists, and that every member state will act not in its own country’s or citizens’ interests, but in the interests only of Scotland. We all know that the opposite is true.
That means that Scotland might well be forced to join the euro. I accept that it may not, but it might. That is not good enough for the people of Scotland or those who do business in Scotland. It is not good enough for the SNP to say, “Maybe it is aye; maybe it is no.” It is not good enough for them not to be straight and honest with the people of Scotland on the risks of independence. It might also mean, although we cannot be sure, Scotland losing its opt-out on Schengen. For people listening or watching outside this House who are not familiar with what that would mean for Scotland and Scots, let us be clear: the Schengen opt-out means that travellers from EU states entering the UK are subject to border and passport controls, and losing that opt-out would mean free entry into Scotland with all the implications of that.
There may or may not be controls, and the hon. Gentleman and Alex Salmond cannot be sure whether or not there will be—they cannot state it as fact. For the 800,000 Scots living in England and the thousands of Scottish families with relatives in England or Wales, “not sure” is simply not good enough. Whatever else happens in the debate on Scotland’s future, the people of Scotland deserve answers, honesty and transparency, and a debate based on facts, not assertions, and on reality, not myths.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing the debate. I associate myself with the comment by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when he congratulated her on turning up on time this morning.
Scotland’s membership of the EU has been discussed in pubs up and down Scotland during the past few weeks. That is not, sadly, because it has been in the news, but because of the Scottish Government’s failed attempt to keep secret the fact that the First Minister lied to the Scottish people about seeking advice on the matter. In fact, he did not just lie about seeking legal advice. We know that he was told by his Lord Advocate and Solicitor General that a separate Scotland would not automatically be an EU state. Not only Scottish Government lawyers say that. In the past two weeks, a plethora of expert opinion has confirmed what everyone, including the SNP, already knows—that Scotland would not be guaranteed membership of the European Union.
It was incredibly kind of the hon. Gentleman to give me and the entire world advance notice of his speech today. He did not stray far from what was on his website two weeks ago, when he published even the well-rehearsed bad jokes that we were robbed of the chance of hearing. In publishing that, he single-handedly wiped out any lingering notion of the SNP’s ears being open to the facts. His only intent in this debate has been to propagate his party’s myths. His speech was without substance when he wrote it two weeks ago, and it had not matured well by today. I cannot understand why he still feels that a Scotland separate from the UK would automatically be a member of the EU, when everyone outside his party disagrees.
Most of the people in this room are here because they share my love and concern for Scotland, when we have a Scottish Government who have repeatedly been caught being dishonest about the facts that will inform voters’ choice in 2014. They simply cannot be trusted. Scotland benefits from being in the UK in the EU, and Scottish people deserve to have laid before them the actual facts, rather than the Scottish Government’s version of them. It is their responsibility to provide clarity and evidence about their proposals for the future, not to waste taxpayers’ money on unnecessary court cases. The First Minister misled the Scottish people, but now we are expected to trust him.
In contrast, the UK Government have made it clear that they have received legal advice. They have stated that, in the event of Scotland separating from the UK, the residual UK would be considered by the EU to be the continuing state; and Scotland would legally be a seceded, new state and therefore not a member state. I would appreciate it if the Minister confirmed that he agrees with the President and vice-president of the European Commission that a new state wanting to join the EU has to apply like any other.
No, not the residual UK.
Earlier this year, Salmond declared that
“the negotiation on Scotland’s representation would be conducted from within the European Union.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 19 January 2012; c. 5500.]
That is not impossible, but it is not automatic, and it would be a difficult negotiation. There is no need to take only my word for that; notable members of the European political community and academics have said the same over the past few months.
Accession would need to be approved by all 27—soon to be 28—member states. Although Spain has not confirmed that it would block an application from Scotland, it has said that we would need to join the queue. It is difficult to see how the Spanish Government could reconcile their position on Catalonia with a new Scottish state joining the European Union.
There is also the issue of the euro. Contrary to the proclamations of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), all new EU member states have been required to sign up to the eurozone. Sweden joined the EU in 1995, but it is still obliged, when conditions are met, to join the euro.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because his colleague, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, did not have the courtesy to give way to any of mine.
The UK is one of only three countries that currently benefit from an opt-out. The SNP has said that a separate Scotland could opt out of the euro, but the evidence suggests otherwise. There is also the small matter of the Schengen agreement, and of many other opt-outs from which Scotland now benefits as part of the UK. The Schengen agreement would involve passport controls at the border with England, as we have heard in the Scottish Affairs Committee. The SNP has simply dismissed that as scaremongering, because that does not fit with its campaign strategy, but the evidence again suggests otherwise.
In conclusion, this issue is too important for the people of Scotland to be continually misled from one side of the debate. I hope that today’s debate helps inform them, and helps them make an important decision in two years’ time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate and on speaking with such authority and passion in her opening remarks. One of my best decisions since being elected to this House three years ago was last November when I asked the Commons Library to publish a paper on the implications for Scotland of the debate around separation, in particular what it meant for continuing—or perhaps not continuing as we have uncovered in this debate—EU membership. Indeed, many of the points in that document will form the basis of the rest of the debate today.
As a member of the Labour Movement for Europe, I care passionately about our having a positive engagement with the European Union. Scotland can best protect, embrace and progress its national interests as part of a large state—the United Kingdom—which has a good degree of influence, and which, under the new arrangements, will have proportionately more votes within the Council.
The process for new accession countries—which Scotland would clearly be, according to the consensus of advice coming from the European Commission and the important statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a couple of weeks ago—is arduous. As we explored in a debate in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago, Croatia went through stringent steps in establishing the independence of its central bank, to show that proper procedures were in place to control its financial system, and to prove that it had a system to regulate and guarantee deposits. None of those concepts has been dealt with in the proposals from those who argue for Scotland to separate from the rest of the UK. Indeed, none of the countries that has acceded to the European Union has relied on the central bank and financial institutions of another state to show that it has sufficient financial independence in its own territory. The position put forward by the Scottish Government simply does not add up.
I want to put on record a couple of points that are important in relation to international constitutional law—perhaps a reference back to my old life before I became a Member of this House. The Scottish Government have relied on a couple of arguments: one in relation to the Vienna convention; and the other in relation to EU citizenship.
First, on the Vienna convention, the Scottish Government have said that Scotland would sign up to all the treaty commitments that the United Kingdom has at the moment, but, frankly, that is fatuous. The Vienna convention is primarily concerned with the process of decolonisation. Indeed, the International Law Commission withdrew a category of quasi newly independent states to deal with cases of secession. A new state is not entitled automatically to become a party to the constituent treaty and a member of an organisation as a successor state simply because at the date of secession, its territory was subject to the treaty and within the ambit of the organisation. That principle, which is recognised in article 4 of the Vienna convention and is the declared legal opinion of the International Law Commission, is entirely contrary to the position of the Scottish Government.
Citizenship of the EU is not distinct from being a citizen of the member state. It does not provide a legal basis for re-entry to the European Union. As other Members have said, that must come about as a result of a process of negotiation and unanimity with what will soon be 27 other member states. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, only Russia was able to succeed to most international agreements. [Interruption.] I am not saying that the United Kingdom is remotely like the Soviet Union. It would be absurd for any Member of this House to make an assertion that the two states were in any way comparable.
This debate matters hugely. The referendum must proceed on the basis of fact and law, not assertion and bluff. The debate has been important in distinguishing those two characteristics this morning. I care passionately about our future. If we want Scotland to thrive within Europe, that means that we will continue—and I hope that people will vote to have us thriving—within the United Kingdom.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate today. It is not surprising that those who have different views on the relationship between Scotland and the UK should also try to find different arguments to support their position about Scotland’s relationship within the European Union. There are arguments on both sides that draw on various legal authorities. The arguments put forward by people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) are much stronger than those that have been put forward by the SNP. None the less, I accept that arguments can be found from various sources to support different positions in the debate. Of course this is not just a legal and constitutional argument. Ultimately, whatever the legal position is, it is also a political issue that the European Union will have to face if Scotland were to become independent. Whatever side of the argument one takes, it is inevitably the case that if Scotland were to be independent, whether or not one regards it as one of the successor states to the UK or as a new state, there would have to be a new treaty. That is undoubtedly the case whatever one’s legal analysis of the position.
The new treaty would require a negotiating process, and we have heard today a number of the issues that would have to be clarified and resolved in that process. There are the institutional relationships and structures of the EU, internal matters such as the rota for which country takes over the presidency, and the number of MEPs and the number of votes. Even those matters have in the past been the subject of many years of negotiation in relation to new treaties.
There are also much weightier issues, such as the UK rebate and whether Scotland would succeed to some share of that, which would require substantial negotiation. There is also the common fisheries policy. Given the SNP’s position on fisheries issues over recent years, one assumes that it would want to see the repatriation of the common fisheries policy towards an independent Scotland. One cannot imagine that that is something that can be simply agreed within negotiations in a matter of weeks or months. It will clearly require considerable and lengthy negotiations as part of a new treaty. The same could be said of many other issues that have been referred to in this debate.
Such issues may eventually be resolved. However, in trying to resolve them, there are two factors that will have to be taken into account. As a strong supporter of UK and Scottish membership of the EU, I can say that the EU does not do things quickly. We all know that it does not resolve outstanding issues quickly, because it is a complex organisation with many member states.
Following the precedent of Greenland, will the hon. Gentleman not accept that even if he is correct and there will have to be negotiations, those negotiations will be done not outwith the EU but within, as happened with Greenland when it wanted to leave the EU. Scotland will still be a constituent part of the EU after independence until negotiations are complete.
That is an arguable position. I will not go into that debate now. My point is that there will have to be lengthy negotiations whatever happens. Moreover, wherever those negotiations take place in an organisational sense, they will be the subject of horse-trading and of give and take. Let us take, for example, the fisheries policy. If the SNP wanted to achieve its objective in relation to the fisheries policy, another country somewhere in the EU would demand something else. If the SNP were to get the opt out of Schengen, which it seems to want, someone else in the EU would want to achieve something else. Even with goodwill on all sides, which may be a matter of some question given that other member states might not wish to encourage easy secession, to put it mildly, from another member state, this is a process that will be lengthy and complex. That is why it is right to point that out and right to ask the question, “At the end of the day, would the benefit from leaving the UK be worth the substantial negotiations and the period of time that would be spent in undertaking those negotiations?” More importantly, it also means that it is only reasonable to ask another question: “What would be the outcome of this process?”
For the SNP to suggest that even asking those questions is in some sense disloyal to Scotland does a disservice to the people of Scotland, who are asking those questions themselves. They want to know at the end of the process what will be the relationship of Scotland with the EU? To know what that relationship would be, we need to ask the questions and we need to try to get some answers from the Scottish Government and the SNP. We then need to find out from debates and discussions with other European states what the likely response would be to the demands coming from the Scottish Government and the SNP if independence were to be supported in a referendum.
Once we have that information, the Scottish people can decide in the run-up to the referendum whether they should support independence or oppose it because of what I believe is the situation—the fact that we would be worse off in a smaller member state, even if that smaller state were able at the end of the day to enter into and complete negotiations, than if we were part of a larger member state, with all the negotiating strength that we have at the moment and that I would not want to see us lose.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate.
It is the passionate belief of the Labour party that the United Kingdom is stronger together and that the United Kingdom is stronger in the world as a member of the European Union. The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 is an incredibly serious matter that will affect all of us in the United Kingdom and, as has been stressed by several of my hon. Friends, when the Scottish people vote in that referendum they deserve to have at their disposal the full facts about the implications of a separate Scotland.
Unfortunately, far from providing clarity about the facts, the Scottish Government have created a great deal of confusion about the potential consequences of Scottish separation for Scotland’s relationship with the European Union. It is pretty extraordinary—indeed, it beggars belief—that, as has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North, in response to a freedom of information request from one of our colleagues in the European Parliament, the Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, the Scottish First Minister initially said that he would not disclose legal advice, only for him to be contradicted by the deputy First Minister of Scotland who said that such legal advice had not even been sought, let alone received.
Just in the last hour, it has been announced in the Court of Session papers regarding that FOI request that the Scottish Government stated that to reveal whether or not they had received legal advice would cause mischief. That is an extraordinary statement, given the Scottish National Party’s supposed links with the people of Scotland and given their ability to know what the facts of that case are. Does my hon. Friend agree that that lack of transparency, which included taunting people for the number of FOI requests that they had put in to the Scottish Government, is indicative of a Government who are actually scared of telling the truth?
That lack of transparency is of concern to all of us, and it has blown a hole in the credibility of what the First Minister has said on this issue.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has made a speech today, which I have had the fortune—or misfortune—to have read before the debate, in which he made some strange references to giant pandas and “The X Factor”, but remarkably he made no reference to the European treaties and perhaps more tellingly he also did not refer to any other European Union member state. If he had cared to take a look at them, he would have seen that those treaties make it very clear that new member states must apply for membership of the European Union. Article 52 of the treaty on European Union lists the members of the European Union, including the UK, and article 49 of that treaty states that new member states must apply for membership of the European Union. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) has made clear, the European Commission President has also stated the clear facts. He has said recently:
“A new state, if it wants to join the EU, has to apply to become a member of the EU, like any state.”
The hon. Lady keeps going on about new states, but the point is that Scotland is already a member of the EU. We have already cited the position of Greenland. Scotland is not a new state; it is already a member of the EU; we have rights as European citizens, as has been said by other experts; and we will not be starting from the same place as Croatia, which keeps being mentioned by Labour Members.
I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman. The four nations of the United Kingdom are a member of the European Union, by virtue of being part of the United Kingdom. I will quote another European Commission President, Romano Prodi, who was a very respected President. He confirmed that
“a newly independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the European Union and the treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply any more in its territory.”
Beyond the pronouncements of European Commission Presidents current and past, there is the brutal truth that the SNP must face up to—that this decision about a separate Scotland’s membership of the European Union would be a political decision and one taken by all of the other 27 member states, who are soon to be 28.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman—he should listen to this carefully—that, as has already been stressed in this debate, the pronouncements by the Spanish Foreign Minister are not encouraging. That is hardly surprising. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North has already pointed out that the context in which we find ourselves in the European Union is one in which we are going through the most challenging and volatile period in European history. In September, 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets in Barcelona in an independence rally.
I will give way, in a minute.
It is therefore unsurprising that the Spanish Government are concerned about any precedent being set and it is equally unsurprising that the Spanish Foreign Minister recently told the Spanish Senate that an independent Scotland would need to “join the queue” and negotiate its accession as a new member state. In addition, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) set out in his very eloquent speech, there are other EU member states that would also have great concerns about any precedent being set by Scotland; Belgium is one of them. Furthermore, the EU member states that do not wish to recognise the independence of Kosovo—namely Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—would be concerned about a precedent being set by Scotland. It is within that context that the framework of any hypothetical case in which an independent Scotland—if there were one—applied to join the European Union must be seen.
Unfortunately—I say this with regret—there is enlargement fatigue in the European Union. For example, France has said that for any future accession beyond that of Croatia there will be a referendum in France. Two weeks ago, we discussed the case of Croatia and we know that for a period of 10 years there has been negotiation about Croatia’s accession, and the last member state to join the EU in less than five years was Finland, which joined in 1995.
Consequently, it is absolutely clear that the SNP and the Scottish Government have no basis on which to make the claim that Scotland’s membership of the European Union would be automatic. They also have no basis on which to make the claim—made by the First Minister in the interview with Andrew Neil earlier this year—that a separate Scotland would also inherit the United Kingdom’s opt-out from the single currency and Schengen. The facts fly in the face of that assertion. There has been no member state since 1973 that has negotiated an opt-out, since the agreement in Maastricht, from the single currency. With regard to Schengen, an opt-out from that agreement would have to be negotiated.
It is also clear that Scotland would have to negotiate its own contribution to the European Union budget, and according to the House of Commons Library—[Interruption.] Maybe the SNP Members want to listen to the objective facts, as set out by the Library. According to the House of Commons Library, without a rebate Scotland’s contribution to the European Union is likely to rise from £16 a head to £92 a head.
Leaving the United Kingdom would leave a separate Scotland in limbo in Europe. There would be no automatic accession and no automatic opt-outs. Instead, there would be a sensitive and difficult negotiation with the 27—soon to be 28—other member states of the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Mr Crausby. May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate? May I also congratulate hon. Members on both sides on their contributions and on the insight they have provided on this critical issue?
I need not remind hon. Members that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union touches the lives of all our citizens. Much of our trade is with the EU: our total exports to the EU in 2011 were worth £234 billion. The single market underpins a large portion of our economy, allowing our businesses to trade freely across a market of half a billion people. The EU facilitates collective action on issues that are too big for any one nation to tackle on its own. It magnifies our voice in the world on pressing international questions, such as the current situation in the middle east and our concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is the United Kingdom, of course, that is the member state: it is named in the European Union’s fundamental treaties as such. It is the Government of the United Kingdom that must therefore negotiate in the EU’s various formations in the best interests of all its citizens. That means that we take into account the interests of the devolved Administrations when formulating the UK’s position on EU negotiations that touch on areas of policy that fall to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. That is good for people in businesses in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as in England; it means that they all have a strong voice in the formulation of policy that matters to them.
Will the Minister give way?
The hon. Gentleman was not even in the debate.
The voting weight, capability and credibility of the UK’s negotiations in the EU are mobilised in the service of all UK citizens. However, that does not mean the devolved Administrations are involved in EU policy only when we are coming up with an agreed negotiating position for the UK. The Government have been open to having Ministers from the devolved Administrations in the room, where appropriate, during the negotiations themselves.
The current devolution arrangements allow the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be championed by one of the largest and most influential member states. Scottish independence, with a complex accession negotiation and no guarantee of favourable terms of membership at the end of it, would inevitably put a stop to that. Those advocating splitting off from the UK need to be clear about what that means in practice and to use evidence to set out their position.
As we have heard this morning, some advocate a fundamental reworking of the existing constitutional settlement that so benefits the people of the UK. Those who argue for an independent Scotland suggest that only independence will give their nation a voice in Europe. Their argument is underpinned by the assertion—it is only an assertion—that an independent Scotland would simply continue in membership of the EU, automatically inheriting the same arrangements that pertain to the UK now.
We learned only a few weeks ago, and we heard again this morning—the SNP was forced to reveal this following a freedom of information request—that it had not previously commissioned any legal advice on an independent Scotland’s place in the EU. Yet, the SNP has been making assertions that it had for several years while in government. Many will find it absolutely astonishing that while seeking to make its case for splitting Scotland from the UK, the SNP has been basing its case on unfounded assertions, rather than cold facts.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whom I like very much indeed, referred to his earlier musical career in Runrig. He will remember a song, which he may have written, called “The Message”. It says:
“You take your message to the waters
And you watch the ripples flow”.
Perhaps it is time he and his colleagues made sure that that message was backed up by substance and fact.
I do not need to remind hon. Members that the UK has, over the years, managed to negotiate exemptions from membership of the euro and the Schengen common visa area, ensuring that the UK can maintain control over its monetary and border policies.
I am afraid I have no time. I will at the end if I have time.
In addition, hon. Members will be only too aware of the importance of the UK’s rebate, negotiated with great skill and determination more than 25 years ago. The rebate continues to ensure that the UK taxpayer is relieved of some of the burden of supporting some of the most imbalanced parts of the EU budget, which is of great concern to us all at the moment.
The UK therefore has a permanent opt-out from the euro and from the Schengen border-free zone; a permanent rebate on our net contributions to the EU budget; a choice whether to join new EU laws in justice and home affairs; and a protocol on how the charter of fundamental rights applies to the UK. However, if Scotland left the UK and applied to join the EU, all those issues would be subject to negotiation, and there is no guarantee whatever that it would obtain any of the special rights the UK currently enjoys.
It is precisely the UK’s weight and influence as one of the largest member states that has helped us to succeed in negotiating such arrangements. Scotland, like England, Northern Ireland and Wales, derives enormous advantage from them. I can see why the SNP is so keen to suggest to those voting in the referendum before the end of 2014 that those arrangements would simply continue in the event of independence, as if nothing had changed. However, the fact is that if Scotland became independent, everything would change. Independence is not simply an extension of the devolution arrangements that have worked so well; it is not merely a further point on the constitutional continuum; it is a fundamental change—a definitive split from the rest of the UK, and an irreversible step. Independence would bring devolution to an end.
As set out in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into a separate Scotland, independence would create a new state, one that would have to take its place on an already crowded international stage. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would continue the international legal personality of the UK; Scotland, having decided to leave the UK, would start afresh. The overwhelming weight of international legal precedent underscores that point. There are many examples. One is India and Pakistan: following independence, India continued the UN membership, and Pakistan joined the UN as a new state. Another, as we have heard, is the USSR: Russia continued the legal personality of the USSR, and the other former Soviet Union states were treated as new states. There are also Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Sudan and South Sudan.
The new state would need to decide which international organisations it wanted to belong to, in the context of its overall foreign policy. Obviously, it could not simply assert its membership of any of those organisations. The most likely scenario by far is that an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU as a new state, involving negotiation with the rest of the UK and other member states, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.
Scotland would no longer be represented through a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Nor would a separate Scotland qualify for the G8 or the G20. In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) about the WTO, there have been no discussions with the Scottish Government on the issue. We are not in the business of pre-negotiating, as we do not believe the people of Scotland will vote for independence.
The UK Government are not alone in taking a factual and legally based approach to the issue. José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, made clear:
“A new state, if it wants to join the European Union, has to apply to become a member like any state.”
Recent correspondence between the Spanish Government and Commissioner Reding on the issue also supported that interpretation.
In simple terms, an independent Scotland could not just assert that it would be a member of the club; the other members would need to agree as well. The comments of the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel Garcia-Margallo, to the Spanish Parliament on the 23 October must be noted:
“in the hypothetical case of independence, Scotland would have to join the queue and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all Member States to obtain the status of a candidate country.”
The Spanish Foreign Minister was referring to the list of candidate countries wanting to join the EU, which include Iceland, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey. Those are the remarks of a Foreign Minister of a major EU member state with an obvious interest in this issue. The Scottish Government must be prepared to respond and to be up front about the uncertainties surrounding their position.
An independent Scotland would not, therefore, simply continue automatically in membership of the EU. The EU treaties would have to be amended to allow it to join, and that would involve a negotiation. What terms would Scotland secure? Would it be able to avoid the commitment to join the euro or the Schengen area, which every new member state since 1992 has taken on? The simple answer is that we do not know—none of this is clear.
In contrast to the SNP, the UK Government are taking a transparent approach to analysing the legal issues, including by engaging with eminent legal experts. On 2 October this year, the Advocate-General for Scotland—one of the UK Government’s three Law Officers—delivered a speech at the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, setting out the Government’s initial view on the legal questions. The Government have also made it clear that we will provide detailed evidence and analysis so that people in Scotland can make an informed decision about whether to stay in the UK and about the implications of leaving it. We will publish that analysis over the course of 2013.
It is the clear position of the UK Government that Scotland is better off in the UK, and the UK is better off with Scotland in it. We are backing up that position with a robust programme of analysis and evidence. Those advocating independence for Scotland are making assertions and pursue their argument with no solid foundation in fact.
Housing Benefit (Under-25s)
I am grateful to have been chosen to lead this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
I want to say first that although I understand that the Government have not yet adopted the policy in question, the mere suggestion that the Prime Minister proposes to cut housing benefit to those aged under 25 has raised great concern nationally. I have received—for which I am grateful—briefings from several relevant organisations, including the Prince’s Trust, Places for People, Crisis, Shelter and the National Housing Federation, organisations that help and support the most vulnerable young people aged under 25. I intend to draw heavily on their evidence in the debate.
We all know that cuts are necessary to balance the country’s books, but the burden of paying for them must, as we all know and believe, fall on the shoulders of those most able to pay. That does not include those who are just starting out in life, or young people who, through no fault of their own, have no family support to help them into adulthood and towards independence. Nationally, the policy would affect more than 380,000 households. The cuts would save £1.8 billion, but cutting housing benefit to under-25s is a false economy, as I shall demonstrate.
I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country. About a third of my constituents are under the age of 24, and there is an explosion in the number of 20-year-olds moving into the constituency. Nationally, last year, a third of those accepted by their council as homeless were aged 16—that is very young— to 24. Of those, 10,000 said that the reason they lost their previous home was that their parents would not or could not house them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s approach seems to ignore the reality of family breakdown? It is a reality for many young people in my constituency.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will refer to those statistics. Unless we have been through the same situation as those young people, none of us can imagine it, and I wonder how it will affect their future.
Of those aged under 25 who claim housing benefit, 17% are in work, but, as the Prince’s Trust has pointed out, they need that benefit to close the gap between their earnings and accommodation costs. Many young people earn only low rates of pay, and the national minimum wage for 16 to 17-year-olds is only £3.68 an hour; it is £4.98 an hour for those aged 18 to 20. Young people on apprenticeships earn only £2.60 an hour. The Low Pay Commission has found that young people are disproportionately likely to be paid the minimum wage for their age: 13% of young people aged between 18 and 20 are on the minimum wage of £4.98 an hour. Most young people who claim housing benefit are not in work, but young people all want to work. In a recent survey by the Prince’s Trust, young people who had previously been unemployed were asked how many jobs they had applied for, and the most common response was that they had made more than 100 applications.
The Government say that they want young people to take up their apprentice schemes, but apprenticeship wages are low, at £2.60 an hour. If the Government take housing benefit from those young people—particularly the most vulnerable, whom we want to get into apprenticeships—it will be yet another barrier to their future in work. The Prince’s Trust has also pointed out that young people who want to strike out on their own in business, and take up the trust’s enterprise programme, are often lone parents who claim housing benefit. They need housing benefit to supplement their incomes until their business is profitable enough to allow them enough salary to cover accommodation costs. Why should those young people be denied opportunity because they cannot afford a roof over their head, while the very rich get huge tax breaks from the Government?
The Government have said that some young people will be exempted from the cuts, but how will those exemptions be worked out, and who will be eligible? I hope that the Minister will tell us.
The issue will be one of the biggest in my constituency, and I perceive great difficulties, come next year. Is the hon. Lady aware that there have been discussions with the Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly about changes that may help the system to work? Perhaps the changes proposed for Northern Ireland could be brought across to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are not getting everything we want for Northern Ireland, but I understand that we are getting some helpful concessions. Would the hon. Lady want to suggest that the Government might discuss that with her, and that they might enable the changes to be made UK-wide?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and hope that the Minister will have listened to what he said.
Many young people live with their parents, because that is the only way they can manage work; they simply cannot live in a home of their own. The consequences for young people who cannot live with their parents are serious. Crisis has found that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, one third of those accepted as homeless by their councils were under 25, and 10,000 had lost their home because their parents could not or would not house them. What will happen to those young people if housing benefit is cut?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I have a concern about the night shelter in my constituency, which receives a third of its funding directly through housing benefit. The hon. Lady mentioned exemptions, and representatives have raised with me the question whether the shelter would be supported exempt accommodation under the new rules. Has the hon. Lady considered that point? Perhaps the Minister would respond to it.
That is a concern of several agencies and organisations that are in the same boat. I hope that the Minister will say something about it.
Half the young people who receive housing benefit have children. Moreover, 28,000 young people receiving housing benefit are sick or disabled. How would the Minister expect those people to cope without any housing benefit at all? While places such as St Mungo’s provide accommodation to more than 17,000 people every night and help thousands more who are sleeping rough or are at risk of homelessness, we can only wonder what it would be like if those who rely on housing benefit were to lose it and no longer have that safety net. How would those figures be magnified?
I am pleased to say that in my constituency, there is a scheme called Maritime Court, which is run by Places for People as an individual support project. It is a customer-led service that offers support and guidance. Everyone using the scheme is encouraged to discuss their needs, and appropriate information is provided to assist them to make informed decisions. They get advice and support on issues such as life skills, benefits, budgeting, employment and education, with the ultimate aim of developing life skills to enable independent living within the community. The service offers a low to medium level of housing-related support. It has 24-hour staffing all year round. Young people get support for up to two years, living in accommodation there until such time that they are able to move into accommodation in the community. As has been mentioned, such projects are concerned about proposals for the future.
The issue of affordable housing is one that Barnardo’s, Save the Children and many other organisations are raising. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Government need to address the issues of affordable housing and of housing that is suitable within the housing benefit range?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a particularly important point—one that we come back to time and again. When we see the low wages for apprentices and many young people, how else can they afford a home, with or without housing benefit?
I want to give a couple of examples to show how young people’s lives need to and can be turned around, and why housing benefit is crucial; obviously, I will use supplemented names. The following case study is from Maritime Court. A young woman, Sue, went into the project when she was 17, with a number of support needs. She had been re-homed and resided in one of Depaul UK’s lodgings within a family home environment, because she had been asked to leave her parents’ house. She had some skills but no experience of living on her own or managing a tenancy. She had led a chaotic lifestyle, as a lot of young people do, which was compounded because her mother had moved around, having had a lot of debt and rent arrears. Her parents had separated, and she had an awkward relationship with her mother. She was often left to fend for herself and her young sister from an early age. She received no family support when she was at home with her mother, so she was a young person on her own. She had also suffered domestic abuse from family members and friends, so she was a vulnerable young person. The support that she needed was with money management, how to develop relationships and tackling offending behaviour. She also had mental health and communication problems, to say but a few.
During Sue’s time with the scheme, the massive support she received enabled her to overcome many of her problems, and she became a mature person, who was able to deal with difficult situations. She has moved on through Maritime Court and has been able to work with North Tyneside council and get into independent living. The case study explains how the staff worked through issues with her and provided support. She has now moved on—she is starting a placement and is looking forward to training for a new career. That would not have happened had it not been for Maritime Court and for housing benefit.
Another referral that was made to Maritime Court was from North Tyneside council’s men’s direct access unit. Lee, as I will call him, had mild learning difficulties and cerebral palsy. He engaged well with staff from day one, but he seemed to rely on staff for company. He would often go out and have a good drink, but he was never aggressive. Staff realised that he was a very vulnerable person because the only way he could have friends was by allowing people into his flat in Maritime Court. He lived on the ground floor, so the staff moved him upstairs, which helped to solve some of his problems.
Lee was on a lot of benefit because of his disabilities, but he would often come back with no money once he had got paid, because people were taking advantage of him. The people at Maritime Court took over the management of his money and helped him with his benefit. He started to turn his life around. Eventually, staff found him a place in South Shields, which is across the river, in an area near where his girlfriend lives. With all the support he had, he was able to set up in Dock street in South Shields, and he is still doing extremely well there.
I could go on, but I cannot give more examples in the time allotted. What I want to put to the Minister is that, should the proposals go ahead, as I and others have said, thousands of young people who are now able to enjoy a roof over their head will be made homeless.
As I have asked, and as my hon. Friend has pointed out, what will become of those young parents and their children? What will become of the organisations that enable young people, such as the ones I have talked about in Maritime Court, to have an independent life, with housing benefit as a crutch until they are able to stand on their own two feet? The system will be complicated. How will exemptions be worked through? I hope that the proposal never becomes policy, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure all of us present who, on behalf of probably many other people and many of our colleagues, feel that such a move would be wrong and would simply condemn many young people to a life of misery.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) not only on securing the debate, but on presenting her case so passionately. May I also say how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) in his place? He has taken a keen interest in the issue, and I will refer to him again towards the end of my remarks.
The hon. Lady said that the idea is something that the Government might effect, but the fact that something was said at a Conservative party conference does not mean that it becomes coalition policy. At the moment, it certainly is not. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will know that both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that, were such a move to become reality, vulnerable groups, particularly those in care, will be protected.
I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that the Government are willing to seek what advice they can from Northern Ireland. We will certainly look forward to any comments that he can forward to us. On the important issue of affordable housing, he is absolutely right that one of the key things we have to do is increase its availability. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington knows only too well, when the Labour Government were in office, we saw a reduction of some 421,000 social homes.
The Government intend to ensure that we move forward with the provision of affordable housing by committing to provide 170,000 affordable houses by 2015.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned night shelters. Clearly, as that is not a Government policy, I cannot comment on who would or would not be affected by that, because I currently have no details and such details may not be forthcoming.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside raises an important issue, and I recognise that young people face difficult circumstances. The effects of what is, after all, the worst recession in a generation continue to cause hardship for households across the country. That is why homelessness and housing support remain a key priority for me, my Department and the Government as a whole, but we need to keep the issue in perspective. As a result of the work of local authorities, their partners and the Government, and of the investment we are making, homelessness is half the average rate that it reached under the previous Administration. The homelessness rate remains lower today than in 28 of the past 30 years. Of course, I recognise that that is no comfort to those currently dealing with the trauma of homelessness, and we are determined to take every opportunity to move forward. That is why the Government are providing support through investment, reform and leadership.
The homelessness prevention grant was protected in the spending review, and we are investing £400 million in homelessness prevention over the four-year period. We recognise that continuing financial pressures have made it hard for many people, which is why we provided an additional £70 million last year to address homelessness. That included a £20 million homelessness transition fund and a further £18.5 million for the first ever single homelessness prevention fund.
Additionally, the Government are providing £390 million to help families in difficult situations adjust to changes in the welfare system. I recognise what the hon. Lady said about troubled families, and she will be aware of the Government’s successful work to address that issue.
In addition to the funding, we are reforming the system. The Localism Act 2011 gives local authorities more freedom to move people quickly out of expensive temporary accommodation and into suitable settled homes, thereby reducing costs on councils and housing waiting lists. That power allows local authorities to use good quality accommodation in the private rented sector so that households are not left sitting in expensive and inappropriate temporary accommodation while they wait for social housing.
The Government take homelessness seriously, and we have established a ministerial working group on homelessness that brings together eight Departments to address the complex causes, which include not only housing, but, just as importantly, health, work and training. The group provides the leadership we need to address homelessness.
The group produced its first report, “Vision to end rough sleeping”, in July 2010. Since then, we have made significant progress and provided £20 million through the homelessness transition fund to help roll out, for example, the Mayor of London’s “no second night out” approach. We announced the most recent tranche of grants for the fund in August 2012 with a further £3.6 million to 21 homelessness charities. Five areas, including 51 local authorities, have now introduced “no second night out”: Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.
We have committed to a new rough sleeping helpline that will ensure that anyone who is concerned for someone sleeping rough can contact the right service to get them help. StreetLink, as it is to be called, will be in place by Christmas 2012, and the website is already live.
Preventing youth homelessness was a key part of the ministerial working group on homelessness’s second report, “Making every contact count”, which we published in August. The report considered how to address the complex underlying causes of homelessness, how to prevent homelessness at an earlier stage and how to deliver integrated services. It focused on youth homelessness and set out an innovative approach to addressing that important issue.
The Government are providing investment, reform and leadership, but we are also calling on local agencies across the country to respond with innovation and passion. England has one of the strongest safety nets in the world for families with children and for vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Sixteen and 17-year-olds, care leavers under the age of 21 and people over 21 who are vulnerable as a result of being in care are priority groups and, as such, should they find themselves without a roof over their head, they will be housed by local authorities.
Local authorities already know that it is in nobody’s interest for things to get that far. Preventing homelessness, through supporting young people to resolve issues at home—the hon. Lady raised that point—and stay with their families, must remain a priority.
My Department continues to work with the Department for Education to support local authority homelessness and children’s services to prevent homelessness and to address its effects on young people. We have funded youth homelessness charity St Basils to support local authorities and their partners in that work. Thanks to the work of young people’s homelessness charities such as St Basils, Centrepoint and Depaul—and others mentioned by the hon. Lady—and to the work of local authorities, it is now very rare for young people under 18 to end up on our streets.
Many people experiencing homelessness have had a range of negative experiences in their childhood or youth. We accept that young people are a key risk group—35% of those accepted by local authorities as homeless in 2011-12 were under 25. As the hon. Lady rightly said, family breakdown is a prime cause of youth homelessness. Young people with experience of care are particularly vulnerable, with 16% of rough sleepers surveyed by a recent study having experienced care at some point during their childhood.
Supporting vulnerable young people to make a successful transition to adulthood helps them avoid long-term benefit dependency and expensive interventions by specialist health services, social care, the criminal justice system and, of course, homelessness services. Homelessness is a stigmatising experience for a young person, and an integrated approach to preventing that is needed.
I am pleased to hear about all those programmes and about the investment the Government are making. What commitment is there to keeping housing benefit for those young people under 25? Once they have benefited from all the support, not being able to work may stop those in rented accommodation being able to pay the full rent. What assurance is there that that cushion will remain for as long as people need it so they can live in a home of their own?
The hon. Lady tempts me to predict what announcements will be made in due course, which I cannot possibly do. I cannot give her an assurance one way or the other. All I can do is tell her that that is not currently the Government’s policy. We will both have to wait to see what emerges.
The hon. Lady will be aware that, as a country, we are facing a very difficult financial crisis, and we have to address that. Unless we get the economy straight and create the growth that we desperately need to get people back into work, problems will continue to multiply. That will continue to be our first priority.
The hon. Lady is well aware of the Deputy Prime Minister’s statements on the importance of ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders make the greatest contribution.
I end by saying to the hon. Lady that we have worked with charities to develop a pathway to try to ensure that we provide the necessary support. I hope that she will listen to her colleague, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who on 13 December is organising a huge event in Parliament on youth homelessness. He is to be congratulated on organising that event, and I hope we will be able to continue the debate on that occasion.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this important issue, which the Government take seriously and are doing an enormous amount of work to address.
[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]
I am pleased to open this debate on cycling safety and the wearing of cycle helmets. I know that the topic is incredibly important to many Members and many of our constituents. Rather appropriately, we are in the middle of road safety week, organised by the charity Brake, which is held every November to raise awareness of death and injury on our roads and the steps that can be taken to improve road safety, including for cyclists.
Since the last debate here in February, we have had the Olympics. I want to take a moment to put on record the enormous contributions of our cycling sportsmen and women to cycling and to raising its profile internationally. The Olympics showcased the best of British. Some of our cycling Olympians, such as Sir Chris Hoy, were already household names, but others have joined the sporting pantheon. In addition, individual gold medals were won by Jason Kenny, Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins. In the Paralympics, Sarah Storey won a sensational four individual gold medals, and David Stone, Anthony Kappes, Mark Colbourne and Neil Fachie also won individual Paralympic golds. Team gold and silver medals and individual silver and bronze medals were won as well, adding up to a record medal haul. Also, the incomparable Bradley Wiggins kicked off our summer sporting celebrations by winning the Tour de France, a truly magnificent achievement.
For those of us glued to the television or lucky enough to be in the velodrome, each British win was a memorable moment. It was a golden summer for British cycling. Undoubtedly, when a country does well in a particular sport, as we did in cycling, and produces new sporting heroes, it inspires a new generation to take up that sporting discipline, or at least think seriously about taking it up. Sometimes, it even inspires those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth to take up an activity once again. I am sure that all Members will agree that that is a thoroughly good thing.
Cycling obviously has positive benefits for individual health and the environment. The organisation CTC has cited studies showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20 to 1. Estimates from the Department for Transport—perhaps the Minister will give us more detailed figures if he has them—suggest that 11% of adults in England now cycle for at least 30 minutes once a month. However, that is still some way behind numerous other European nations.
One key thing that holds people back from cycling is concerns about road safety. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of road accidents involving high-profile individuals, which has brought the issue of road safety for cyclists to the top of the national agenda once again. Early this month, Bradley Wiggins was knocked off his mountain bike by a van coming out of a petrol station near his home in Lancashire. He was taken to hospital with bruises to his right hand and ribs. The next day, Shane Sutton, head coach for the GB cycling team, was knocked off his bike by a car while cycling along the Stockport road near a junction. He suffered a concussion and small bleeding on the brain, but thankfully, his condition soon stabilised.
As we all know, those accidents made the national news. They even took the US presidential election out of the top news spot for a while. “Newsround”, the BBC children’s news programme, asked its viewers whether they felt safe on their bikes. Many did not. One caller said:
“Although it helps you to keep fit, I think riding a bike on roads is dangerous and unsafe because vehicles may not be able to see you.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the point about road safety, does he also accept that the Government recently made available an additional £30 million to tackle dangerous junctions and £15 million for infrastructure, including cycle routes and facilities at stations and across the country?
Of course. I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have made additional moneys available to the £600 million sustainability fund, to which I will return. Funding is right, and it is one aspect of ensuring that we have a road infrastructure that works for everyone.
To return to the issue of children and cycling safety, if there is a perception among the young as well as adults that being on a road is dangerous, it is a serious deterrent to cycling, which is particularly bad news. The latest statistics from the Department for Transport are concerning. In the year ending June 2012, the number of pedal cyclists killed or seriously injured on our roads increased by 9% compared with the previous year, and so far this calendar year, 108 cyclists have been tragically killed in the UK. The total for 2011 was 107. More than 3,000 people were seriously injured on UK roads while riding a bike last year, a 16% increase in the number of reported serious injuries to cyclists.
It is absolutely clear that more must be done to improve conditions for cyclists on our roads. Cycling organisations such as British Cycling have been calling on the Government to put cycling at the heart of transport policy to ensure that cycle safety is built into the design of all new roads, junctions and transport projects. I absolutely endorse that view. In the 21st century, we must plan for and ultimately have a transport infrastructure that is safe and fit for purpose for all users: drivers, pedestrians, commuters and cyclists.
In recent years, there have been a number of campaigns to improve safety for cyclists. One of the latest, launched in February this year, is The Times newspaper’s Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, which involved the publication of an eight-point manifesto. The campaign, which has attracted cross-party support, was launched by The Times after one of its reporters, Mary Bowers, sustained serious injuries in a collision with a lorry while cycling to work. It is an excellent campaign that has provided an impetus for a continued focus on road safety for cyclists. It is also helping provide funding for the all-party group’s report, which will be published next year.
I know that Members present will be familiar with the eight-point manifesto, but I will set it out again for the record. The Cities Fit for Cycling campaign calls for heavy goods vehicles entering city centres to be fitted with sensors, audible turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars; identification of the 500 most dangerous road junctions, and their redesign or fitting with priority traffic lights and Trixi mirrors; a national audit of cycling; the earmarking of 2% of the Highways Agency’s annual budget for next-generation cycle routes; improved training of cyclists and drivers, including making cycle safety a core part of the driving test; a mandatory default speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes; invitations to businesses to sponsor cycle schemes, as has happened in London; and the appointment of a cycling commissioner in every city.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, who unfortunately could not be here, secured a debate in February relating to the campaign. It was incredibly well attended, and I know that some Members present today also contributed to that debate. In his response to that debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) set out the Government’s thoughts at the time on the campaign’s manifesto points. On the first point, my hon. Friend responded that his Department was involved in discussions at European level about improving standards for heavy goods vehicles to help reduce accidents. I would be grateful if the Minister responding to this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), updated us on any progress in those European discussions.
On the second manifesto point, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes noted that he had already given all local authorities in England the authority to install Trixi mirrors as and where they deem it appropriate. Again, it would be useful if the Minister provided us with any statistics his Department may have on the number of Trixi mirrors installed by local authorities over the past six months.
On the third point, relating to a national audit of cycling, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes explained that his Department had commissioned a new question in the Sport England active people survey, to provide more detailed information on cycling at local level. I was pleased that in August the Department published for the first time ever local authority data on cycling, based on responses to the active people survey. I hope that the Minister will tell us how often he expects these data to be published, so that we can start to gauge the trend in cycling across individual local authorities. This should, over time, prove to be a powerful tool in helping to focus on which authorities are good at encouraging cycling and which need to try harder.
Regarding the earmarking of 2% of the Highway Agency’s annual budget for next generation cycle routes, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes was understandably hesitant about adopting a specific figure, but mentioned that the Department was undertaking a stocktake of Highway Agency routes to consider what might be possible in future. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister has an update on that stocktake and what this may mean for improved cycle routes.
The hon. Gentleman might know that I am chairman of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Will he include in that stocktake the fact that we must go back to having targets for accident reduction, whether in respect of cyclists or other category of road user, including pedestrians? We have in the past two years renounced targets, but we know that if there are no targets across Europe casualties start to increase. Will he make a plea in his speech for getting back to targets, so that we can get accident reduction for cyclists and other road users?
The hon. Gentleman has eloquently put on the record his views on targets. I am sure that the Minister will give us his thoughts, and those of his Department, on that point.
On improving training for cyclists and motorists, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes also talked about the work of the Department’s Bikeability initiative, among other matters, as well as noting that he had established a cycle safety sub-committee of the stakeholder forum. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister has in recent weeks led his Department’s THINK! Cyclist campaign. I am grateful for the work that he is doing to improve road safety, but it would be useful to have some feedback on, and his view of, the work of the new safety sub-committee.
With regard to the sixth issue in The Times’ campaign—the 20 mph speed limit— my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes noted in February that he had already taken action to make it easier for local authorities to introduce 20 mph zones and a 20 mph limit. Does my hon. Friend the Minister have any update on the number of new 20 mph zones introduced in the past 12 months by local authorities? If he has, I hope that he will provide that in his response.
The Times’ campaign’s seventh manifesto point relates to encouraging businesses to follow the lead of Barclays in London and back cycling schemes and initiatives. There is universal support in the House for this idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes said that his Department would send out the message to encourage this. Will the Minister update us on whether the Department has had any traction in this respect with other potential business sponsors?
The manifesto’s final point calls on every city to appoint a cycling commissioner to champion cycling-friendly reforms. Clearly, this is a matter for local authorities, but I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes wrote earlier in the year to the leaders and chief executives of each council across England, encouraging them to consider whether someone in their organisation should take a lead role on cycling. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister provides some feedback on the responses that he has received and on the number of local authorities that have appointed a cycling champion.
I have asked my hon. Friend to respond to a range of issues, but I also want to put on the record that I know, having talked to him, that he is committed to improving road safety for cyclists. His Department has provided £600 million through the local sustainable transport fund to support local authorities in their use of transport to lever growth and cut carbon locally. Many of the 96 projects have a cycling element. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) mentioned a number of other funding streams that have come on line from the Department and I am sure that the Minister will give us a full view on everything that his Department is doing to provide further funding to help cycling and cyclists.
On road safety and cycling safety, the figures that I have from the DFT say that in 2011, 111 people were killed in cycling incidents and 3,085 were seriously injured. Does my hon. Friend have any evidence showing how many of those incidents, whether fatality or serious injury, could have been avoided if those persons were wearing a cycling helmet?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a good point. There is clear evidence that using a cycling helmet, whether as an adult or a child, reduces the risk of injury. I will talk about cycle helmets, but in this debate there is almost a gulf between those hon. Members who believe that cycle helmets should be made compulsory and others who do not. Organisations out there have similar or differing views, as well. My hon. Friend is right—it has been concluded in independent reports and reports produced by the Department—that wearing a cycle helmet makes a difference in terms of improving safety.
I was talking about the contribution that the Minister and the Department have made. He is also committed to supporting Bikeability cycle training for the remainder of this Parliament, which is welcome. I am pleased about that good news. However, I shall return to my central theme. All hon. Members who are supporters of cycling want cycling to be put at the very heart of transport policy. I hope that the Minister will tell us—apart from all the funding streams and all the work that is going on—how cycling will be, or is already, a central part of his Department’s policy.
Proper provision for cyclists on the road is not just something that cyclists want. Hon. Members will know that the AA recently undertook a survey of its members, and 62% of the 20,261 AA members who responded to it said that there are not enough cycle lanes. An increased number of cyclists on busy roads is leaving many motorists feeling insecure about how to interact with cyclists. The majority view is that clearly defined cycle lanes would be good news for both motorists and cyclists. That means a lot more than slapping down a few white lines intermittently along the pavement, as happens, unfortunately, in my home town of Reading.
Ahead of this debate the Mayor of London’s office was in touch with me—I am sure that it was in touch with other colleagues as well—setting out the Mayor’s commitment to making London even more of a cycling city. The aim of the Mayor’s cycling strategy is to increase cycling by 400% by 2026, from 2001 1evels. I understand that record levels of investment in cycling over the past four years have supported the cycling strategy, with investment levels now approaching those of other leading European cycling cities. A number of European cities have significantly higher per capita spending on cycling than we do in many of our cities. It will be interesting to hear the Department’s view on that, and on how the situation can be rectified. Alongside the Mayor’s flagship schemes of Barclays cycle hire, cycle superhighways and biking boroughs, a range of complementary activities has led to a 70% increase in cycling in the capital over the past four years. Many of our cities, towns and local authorities can learn from the example of London and, no doubt, Members will have other best practice from their own areas to share.
The second part of the debate relates to the wearing of cycle helmets, which can be a controversial subject, but I have no wish for a particularly emotional debate. We need to be dispassionate in discussion, and to debate on the basis of evidence rather than emotion. I asked for the debate today because I was prompted by a recent meeting with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a national, award-winning charity based in Reading. The trust is committed to saving young people’s lives by promoting safer cycling and, in particular, the use of cycle helmets. The organisation was founded in 1988 by a paediatric nurse who, through her work, saw the devastation that head injury can cause, not only to the child but to the whole family. Since the charity’s conception, it has grown in drive and commitment to be an advocate for the child and young person. It also provides a community service by highlighting the need for safer cycling practices that incorporate the distinctive needs of children and young people. The charity is a national resource working with parents, teachers, police, road safety officers, Departments and health care professionals by promoting and providing educational programmes in schools on the need for helmet use and safer cycling practice throughout the United Kingdom.
The trust has worked successfully with the Department for Transport in the past and it recently submitted another proposal, for a project that aims to complement the Bikeability programme. It would engage with areas in need, which may not be part of training programmes due to social challenges, and work with young people to develop their understanding of road safety and self-safety. As part of its proposal, the trust wants to work in local communities to develop partnerships and to draw on local private sector organisations to provide safety packs to children who, because of the cost, might be without helmets, lights and reflector bands, or without access to training. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet representatives of the trust and me, so that we can explain to him in detail the objectives of the latest proposal, and that we will secure his personal support for the project.
The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust is absolutely committed in its advocacy for children and young people to wear cycle helmets. I very much share that view, and the statistics on serious injuries to cyclists bear out why wearing a cycle helmet is so important, especially for children. In 2011, just over 3,000 seriously injured road casualties involving pedal cyclists were recorded by police. In addition, almost 16,000 incidents of pedal cyclists being casualties in slight accidents were recorded. Of the 3,000 serious injuries, 349 casualties—or 12% of the total—were children aged nought to 15. However, according to NHS statistics, almost 9,000 emergency road traffic hospital admissions last year involved pedal cyclists, so there is a threefold understatement in police-recorded injuries compared with NHS admissions. One reason for that is that not every injury or incident takes place on a road—it can be off road, in particular for children, and I will focus on that as I progress. Furthermore, of the 9,000 emergency road traffic hospital admissions, more than 3,000 were of children aged nought to 15—35% of the total. The understatement in police-recorded injuries compared with NHS admissions for children in connection with cycling injuries was therefore tenfold. That demonstrates that, when children are involved in accidents, a lot of the time, they do not happen on the road or the highway, but off road. Children may be cycling with friends in the playground or in woods, and we must bear that clear distinction in mind when we discuss cycle helmet usage as potentially compulsory for children as opposed to adults.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I am sure that anything we can do to make cycling safer would receive broad support, although I draw to his attention the attempt by the former Member for Carlisle, Eric Martlew, to introduce a private Member’s Bill. The manner in which he and the Bill’s supporters were attacked was absolutely unbelievable, yet beneath it all were people with a genuine desire to see children cycling safely, whether on roads, on footways as toddlers, in playgrounds or elsewhere. We need to do something to tackle that, to see a definitive decrease in the number of injuries.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and he makes it passionately. It is vital that we see a reduction in injuries and fatalities not only for children but for adults. I will come to the 2004 private Member’s Bill, but we have moved on since then, because there is more evidence. As I said at the start of the debate, however, there is clearly a chasm between those who believe that wearing helmets should be mandatory and those who do not.
Members might remember a few weeks ago when Bradley Wiggins tweeted on the subject. In my view, he is an absolute god, but even Bradley Wiggins came in for quite a lot of stick, and he of course then made further statements about his views on the compulsory wearing of helmets. Yet we cannot get away from the fact that wearing helmets saves lives and cuts down on injuries.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when we organised the seat belt legislation some 28 years ago, a passionate group attacked us for undermining individual liberty? Many made the argument that wearing seat belts would make people drive faster and therefore kill more people. The proud record is that we have saved many lives over that 25 years.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I will come on to that. That Bill eventually became law because of the courage of Members in the House at the time, and it is now second nature for us to wear seat belts. There is no question but that wearing seat belts saves lives, and there is no kind of negative impact.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. I wanted to reinforce his point. According to emergency departments that see children, 90% receive injuries from non-vehicle-related accidents. We always hear, “Oh, it’s because you are going to be knocked over by a car”, but most accidents do not involve a vehicle and are cycling accidents alone.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and for reinforcing the fact that we are discussing wearing helmets not only on roads but off road.
We were discussing the understatement in police records compared with NHS records of injuries and why that could be. One of the key reasons, for children, is that many such injuries take place off road, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out. The total figure for cycle-related hospital admissions, however, includes only patients who occupy a bed. Those who attend A and E are not included in that 9,000. That, of course, does not include any gap between unreported and reported incidents involving only slight accidents, so the total number of cycle-related injuries receiving hospital treatment is likely to be much higher than any of the statistics that I outlined suggest. It is appropriate that the debate about cost includes not just the human and social cost, but the financial cost of cycling injuries and fatalities. We must look at the broader picture, and the larger figures.
Head injuries ranging from fatal skull fractures and brain damage to minor concussion and cuts are common in cyclists. I understand from the information published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents that hospital data show that an estimated 45% of child cyclists admitted to hospitals have suffered head injuries. That is a high percentage indeed. Undoubtedly, some of those injuries would have been reduced or may not have occurred if a cycle helmet had been worn.
A recent Transport Research Laboratory report, which was published in 2009 and commissioned by the Department for Transport, reached several conclusions about the efficacy of wearing cycle helmets. It concluded that helmets, assuming that they are a good fit and properly worn, are effective in reducing the risk of head injuries. They are expected to be effective in a range of accidents, particularly the most common accidents that do not involve a collision with another vehicle but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, are falls or tumbles over handlebars.
The report concluded that a specialist biomechanical assessment of more than 100 police forensic cyclist fatality reports predicted that between 10% and 16% of fatalities could have been prevented if the cyclists had worn an appropriate helmet. Those who do not believe that we should have compulsory wearing of cycle helmets say that, at the end of the day, helmets will not save lives. It has been shown conclusively in an independent report produced by the Department that in some cases they do.
Most interestingly, the report concluded that cycle helmets would be particularly effective for children. I could go into the reasons for that, but I am sure the Minister, if he has time, will explain them. Yet a 2008 Transport Research Laboratory report, commissioned by the Department for Transport, estimated that only 18% of children and 35% of adults wear helmets on the road.
Apart from the terrible human and social cost of cycling fatalities and serious injuries, there is a financial cost to the country and to society. According to the Department for Transport’s own report, the total value of preventing reported road accidents in 2010 was estimated to be £15 billion. Let me put that in context. The entire transport budget for 2010-11 was just over £12 billion, and The Times manifesto calling for 2% of the Highways Agency’s budget to go towards cycle routes would amount to around £80 million. The average value of preventing every reported road accident was almost £1.8 million for a fatality, over £200,000 for a serious accident and over £20,000 for a slight accident.
One clear way of cutting down on the human, social and financial cost of cycling accidents, particularly those involving children, is through wearing cycle helmets. I am pleased that all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate so far agree. The time has come for the Government to consider very seriously the case for introducing the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets for children. I know that this is a controversial issue, and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) shakes his head, so I presume that he does not agree.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) said that a private Member’s Bill in 2004 did not make progress, but it was supported by a wide range of organisations including the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the safety charity Brake, the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the Child Brain Injury Trust, and the brain injury association Headway. Last year, the British Medical Association welcomed a Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly to make wearing helmets compulsory, but unfortunately it did not make progress. The World Health Organisation has also stated that laws mandating helmet use can be effective in reducing road traffic accident injuries.
Many countries in Europe have laws on wearing cycle helmets, and we would not be the first to introduce such a law. In Europe, it is mandatory in Finland, where all cyclists are required to wear cycle helmets; in Spain, it is mandatory outside built-up areas; in the Czech Republic, it is mandatory for children under 16, in Iceland, for children under 15, in Sweden, for children under 15, and in 2010, it became mandatory in Austria for children under 10. Outside Europe, helmets are mandatory in Australia, New Zealand, 20 states of the USA and some Canadian provinces. We would not break new ground by at least considering the introduction of such a law.
Introducing a cycle helmet law will not suddenly solve the problem of road safety, and many hon. Members in previous debates have made that point. That is why I started this debate by talking about other measures that need to be introduced to make our roads safer. They include segregated and dedicated cycle paths and routes.
Returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made, we can make our roads safer, but that may not reduce cycling injuries in children, because many of their injuries occur off road. The argument that we would drive people off the roads and discourage them from cycling does not hold water.
Wearing cycle helmets saves lives and reduces injuries, and even the most hardened opponents of cycle helmets acknowledge that. A key argument by anti-helmet campaigners is that making them compulsory will put people off cycling, will therefore not help in reducing carbon emissions and will discourage a healthier lifestyle. Some organisations have produced statistics showing that the mandatory wearing of helmets might save tens of lives, but that a reduction in the number people cycling would result in people perishing earlier than expected because of obesity. I am not sure that that is a serious contribution to the debate.
International evidence suggests that mandatory helmet wearing, particularly for children, does not result in a long-term drop in cycling. Some studies have concluded—one in Australia is often cited, but it was about 20 years ago—that introducing compulsory helmet wearing may result in a temporary decline, but that the medium to long-term effect is likely to be negligible. Other studies have concluded from experience in the States and elsewhere, particularly where laws were introduced only for child cyclists, that there has been no reduction in cycling following the introduction of such laws. International experience suggests that the wearing of helmets can be introduced successfully without resulting in a long-term decline in cycling.
Logically, a rule affecting only children should not discourage adult cyclists. The right hon. Member for Exeter has in previous debates made the point that the more people cycle on roads, the safer it will be. Children of five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 are not part of a group that consistently cycles on roads, so introducing a cycle helmet law for them will not deter adults from cycling.
One thing that puts children off wearing cycle helmets, of course, is peer pressure, especially as they enter secondary school. It is not always considered cool to wear a helmet, but if we can change attitudes by introducing a law, so that it becomes the norm—almost second nature—to wear cycle helmets from a young age, that will stick with children in adolescence and adulthood. I have two young daughters; we go out cycling fairly often, and they were brought up wearing cycle helmets. I must admit that I do not always wear one, but when I cycle with my daughters, the peer pressure works the other way, and they absolutely insist that I wear a cycle helmet, too. If we can get children into a mindset whereby they think it is absolutely the norm to wear cycle helmets, we will see a change in attitudes, and they will wear cycle helmets into adolescence and adulthood. That change will mean that we see significantly fewer fatalities and injuries, not only on the roads, but off them.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who has left his place, made a good point about wearing car seat belts. I was a teenager when the law was introduced, and wearing seat belts certainly was not the norm. I was not a particularly rebellious teenager, but I did not always follow the rules. However, after a few months, when everybody else is doing it, we do it too, and it absolutely becomes the norm. Thinking back, people will say, “Wasn’t it astonishing that people railed against the introduction of a law on seat belts?” If we get to the point where we can introduce a law making it compulsory for children to wear helmets, I hope we will look back after a few years and wonder what the fuss was all about.
The Department for Transport’s report concluded that wearing helmets is beneficial, especially for children. I am asking the Department to commission a definitive, independent report on the benefits and costs of introducing a law requiring children to wear a cycle helmet. In particular, I want it to look at whether such a law would deter cycling in the longer term and whether parents would support it. I am a parent; I cycle, and my children cycle. I am not part of any lobby or group. There are millions of people like me and my children, and they are the ones we should be listening to and whose views we should be getting, before we decide whether it is right to introduce such a law.
The Department could make a pretty easy start by introducing a few extra questions in the Sport England Active People survey. It could ask cyclists whether they regularly wear helmets or ask their children to wear helmets. It could ask them whether they would support a law making it mandatory for children to wear helmets.
The Horses (Protected Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990 made it mandatory for young children riding a horse on the public highway to wear protective headgear. If such a law makes sense for young horse riders, surely it should make sense for children on bicycles. We are talking about a measure that will save lives, and prevent injuries and unnecessary cost. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Order. Before Members start, I should point out that it is 3.13 pm, and four Members have indicated that they wish to speak. To help you manage your time, I should say that that is roughly five or six minutes each, if we are going to have interventions. If Members could bear that in mind and help one another, it would be appreciated.
Thank you, Mr Havard. Let me say at the outset that, given the time the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) has taken for his speech, I do not intend to take interventions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman very much on securing the debate, which is one of a number we have had recently on cycle safety. This is a very important issue, not least given the worrying news that this year, for the first time in many years, there has been an increase not only in deaths and serious injuries on the road, but in cycle deaths and injuries. The hon. Gentleman made a brilliant speech about a whole range of measures that could be introduced to help take those figures back in the right direction, and I was absolutely with him until he came to cycle helmets. I was even with him, to start with, when he talked about encouragement and exhortation, but I am afraid that as soon as he used the term “compulsion”, he lost me, and I will outline briefly the reasons for that.
I urge those hon. Members who press for compulsory cycle helmets, and the organisations that have lobbied them, to study the evidence. The hon. Gentleman said he wanted a policy that was based on evidence, and we should study not only the evidence, but the myriad debates we have had in the House since I came here in 1997. We should also talk to the organisations that represent cyclists. I speak as a lifelong cyclist, a former chairman of the all-party group on cycling, a former Health Minister and someone who cares deeply about the safety of cyclists and young cyclists in particular.
The reason why the House has repeatedly rejected the idea of compulsory cycle helmets is that, overall, it would create a public health disaster, and I will explain why. Wherever cycle helmets have been made compulsory —whether in Canada, New Zealand or Australia—that has had such a detrimental impact on cycling rates that the overall impact on children’s health and the health of society as a whole has been deeply negative. The hon. Gentleman used an important statistic, which is essential to the whole subject of cycle safety, when he said that the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20 to one.
In Western Australia, which has had a lot of experience of this issue because it has had a law on it for more than 20 years, cycling decreased by more than 30%, and it decreased faster among young people. That has been the experience in every country that has made cycle helmets compulsory. By all means encourage, by all means exhort and by all means have campaigns, but please do not, based on the best intentions, pursue a policy that is deeply counter-productive and that will cause more premature death, more obesity and more ill health among young people.
This is completely different from the seat belt issue. The last time the British Medical Journal was asked for its opinion on this issue, its board of education and science concluded:
“Cyclists are advised to wear helmets but legislation to make them compulsory is likely to reduce the number of people choosing to cycle and would not be in the interests of health”.
The BMJ added that research suggested that
“non-cyclists tended to be most in favour of helmets. In fact, a much greater number of lives would be saved if pedestrians and car occupants were encouraged to wear helmets.”
An analysis of the experience in Western Australia, which was the first place in the world to impose uniform mandatory cycle helmet legislation, showed that the legislation increased hospital admissions per cyclist on the road, reduced the popularity of cycling, damaged public health and increased all road casualties.
I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to the evidence and the debates that we have had in this House, and to pursue with all his energy and time the many measures that will help to protect children and improve child health and cycling safety. He himself cited the excellent campaign by The Times and its eight-point wish list. I gently suggest that The Times took great care in assessing the most important things that needed to happen to save the lives of cyclists and young cyclists. Compulsory cycle helmets were not among them, and there is a reason for that.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), although I am afraid I agreed with virtually nothing that he said. I welcome the new Minister, for whom we have great hopes. He is following on from an excellent Minister, who is now in the Northern Ireland Office, and whose work on cycle helmets we certainly appreciate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on being brave enough to introduce this really important debate. By the time he leaves this room, the Twittersphere will be filled with hate mail for him. It is extraordinary how members of the public and cycling groups can object to anyone who suggests that we recommend wearing a helmet; that is so wrong.
There is a simple statistic that always amazes me: 15% to 21% of young people wear a helmet and 35% to 40% of adults wear one. So parents are happy to go out and put a helmet on their heads to protect themselves, but will not do it for their children. I do not think anyone would regard me as a pinko lefty liberal. That is not the view of me in the House. Yet it is clear to me that the right thing to do is to bring in the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets for young people. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to that effect. The reason for that is simple. Children’s skulls are not developed, so the protection of a helmet is even more important for them than for an adult. Children cannot assess the dangers as an adult can. If adults freely decide to wear helmets it is absurd not to tell children that they must wear them.
My hon. Friend talked about horse riding. We now require children to wear helmets on the cricket field when they are batting and if they are keeping wicket. That has worked well, and now more adult players wear helmets, both when they keep and when they bat. If I had been wearing a helmet when I tried to hook this guy for four off a bouncer, I would not have lost most of the sight in my right eye. I was old enough to make that decision, but when it comes to cycling, surely we should protect children by law.
I know that that is not the Government’s view, and I entirely understand their point of view. The previous Minister made it clear; but he also made it clear that he would do anything outside legislation to promote the wearing of cycle helmets, and in the past few months I am afraid that things have gone backwards from that. I want to read from a letter to the Prime Minister, from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, which is a splendid organisation. I deal with many charities in my role as a Member of Parliament, and there are those that do something at grass roots, and care about something, and those that just talk about things and are worried about their next grant. The trust is a small charity that cares and does something about it. Angie Lee is a feisty lady who has been fighting on this question for a long time. She is a trauma nurse and sees the results of dreadful injuries. I think she needs to be supported. She has written a powerful letter to the Prime Minister, which is dated 16 October, and which unfortunately has not been replied to or even acknowledged by him, but she puts the case much better than I can. She says:
“When we last communicated back in March this year, you conveyed to me that the Government and the DfT encouraged the use of cycle helmets, especially for children. This offered me some assurance along with the confidence we had in the then Roads Safety minister, Mike Penning. I have not had the opportunity to meet his replacement, Stephen Hammond, as yet.
However, what you conveyed to me is in reality not the case. There is a fundamental conflict between sectors of the DfT, the road safety sector and the sustainable transport unit, with helmets being the ‘sell off’. Over the last two years we have seen a systematic move to undermine helmet use and its benefits and to exclude stakeholders, like ourselves, from being included on forums where cycling and helmets are discussed. It was only through the commitment of Mike that helmets remained high on the agenda.
Your coalition minister, Norman Baker, has publicly voiced his negative views on helmets and their use. Mr Baker’s personal choice and opinion have been widely used by cycling trainers and organisations to legitimise opposition to helmets. The attached document used by the UK’s largest provider of Bikeability training, Cycle Training UK, demonstrates this. This organisation also uses your picture to support its stance. We understand that Mr Baker has set up and leads a forum of selected cycle stakeholders. This is not open to all, but only a selected few who appear to us to be of a similar opinion. Mr Baker appears to be using his ministerial position to support his personal preference not to wear a helmet.
This is not the only conflict to be of concern to us. Last month the DfT launched a new Think! Campaign. The poster design is dreadful. It depicts a ‘green man’ cyclist without helmet, bike lights or reflector band. The ‘green man’ car driver has no seat belt on. These fundamental safety actions were all identified by a group of ten year olds whom I showed the poster to. I also understand that the DfT had discussed using Olympic cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, to launch this campaign but the CTC objected and Mr Wiggins was excluded because of his positive views on cycle helmets. If this is the case, then there is a serious strength of bias that is undermining the independence and impartiality within the department.
These conflicts, bias and segregation are damaging the work of organisations like ourselves, who have little or no access to DfT funding. We had drawn up a business case following a meeting we had with Mike Penning but since his departure, this, not surprisingly, has not progressed as we were expecting. We have invested vast amounts of energy, conviction and hard earned funds in the attempt to protect child and youth cyclists and support the road safety agenda. We have the skills and knowledge to take child cycle safety forward. However, we are not able to overcome constructed obstacles, bias and use of poor science.
Both adult and child cycling casualties are increasing. This is down to poor guidance, personal obstruction and a failure to be open and objective to all views in the interest of a holistic approach to this issue.
I have had the support of the DfT for 20 years, working with changing Governments and numerous ministers over this period. It is, however, the first time that I truly believe that children and young people are being ‘sold off’ in the interest of sustainable transport. Who are the winners? Who is gaining the most and what checks and balances are in place to evaluate this?
You know how hard our charity works. We have been held up as the true ‘big society’. Child cycle safety needs people who are in tune with child and youth needs, who are not financially driven and who are determined to lead on this issue despite external negative extremists.”
I am conscious that I may be running over time, so I will not complete it, but I think the Minister has got the flavour of what Angie says. The issue is important; if possible would he nudge the Prime Minister to reply on that vital issue? I know that the Minister’s sympathies are with people wearing helmets, but I think that there has been a movement away from that in his Department in the past few weeks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Havard, on the first of two occasions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing the debate, which comes after some high-profile cycling incidents, and today’s report in The Times.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Bradley Wiggins being knocked off his bike on 7 November in Wrightington in my constituency. For obvious reasons the case received significant national media coverage and highlighted the dangers for cyclists on the roads. Prior to the incident Bradley Wiggins had often spoken about the need to improve road safety for cyclists. Our roads grow ever busier, and there is an absolute need for all road users, whether cyclists or motorists, to take individual responsibility for being as safe as possible on the roads. That responsibility means not behaving in a way that endangers other road users, but for cyclists it also means taking the appropriate precautions to keep their bikes and themselves safe, including always wearing a helmet. For motorists it would include not speeding, and being cautious when passing cyclists.
Today The Times not only showed the serious dangers that cyclists face, but referred to the fact that this year, which is unparalleled in terms of the success and popularity of cycling, the number of cyclists killed on British roads is sadly on course to reach a five-year high. According to analysis by Transport for London, which was quoted in the article, 56% of cyclists’ deaths are caused by motorists’ “unlawful and anti-social” manner, yet only 6% of collisions are caused by cyclists behaving in the same way. Some people argue that we need to consider how properly to integrate cycling into the modern transport network. I would not, however, encourage anybody to follow the example of West Lancashire borough council, which has invested section 106 money building a cycle path to junction 4 on the M58. We certainly do not need to encourage cyclists towards the motorway network.
It is important to discuss whether making cycling helmets compulsory can improve cyclists’ safety. It does improve it, but the reality is that there are times when a helmet does not offer enough protection from dangerous driving. In such cases, we need to consider how motorists who cause fatal collisions are dealt with through the judicial process. At present, a view is that the inconsistencies in the charging and sentencing of motorists involved in collisions with cyclists is very worrying.
Everybody knows of Bradley Wiggins, but people will not know of Christine Favager, who was another cyclist involved in a collision in my constituency. Tragically, this time it was a fatal accident. Sixty-nine year old Christine was cycling along a rural road, Asmall lane, in Scarisbrick. The accident happened at about 7.40 pm on a July evening in 2011—not on a dark, wintery night. The 19-year-old driver was travelling between 59 and 63 mph as he raced into a bend. He was travelling too fast and too close to another car as he entered that bend, and witnesses saw the car swerve right across two lanes. In over-correcting, the driver was forced across the road to avoid hitting the car in front, which meant that Christine was hit head on. She had been cycling in the opposite direction. Initially, the driver was reported as being arrested under suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. He subsequently pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. A 20-month custodial sentence in a young offenders’ institute and a three-year driving ban were handed down to him. Christine’s family lost a very dear member.
That case highlights one of the complaints from cycling groups, which is that often the lesser charge of death by careless driving is pursued, as opposed to the charge of death by dangerous driving.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point. The case I described happened in my constituency, which is why I referred to it, but there truly is great outrage out there at the sentences being handed down to motorists who kill in such circumstances.
If we are to improve the safety of cyclists on our roads, there has to be an extensive range of measures that will offer protection and act as a deterrent to erratic and dangerous behaviour on our roads. All road users, whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or motorists, depend on us getting the law right.
I will move fairly quickly over some of the issues that have been raised, and I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing the debate. He comprehensively covered the whole range of measures that we need to take to improve cycling safety. With cycling, there must be a package of measures, right through to dealing with those important instances highlighted by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), when we are all concerned about sentences perhaps not matching the incident in question. I understand the points that she made.
For a long time, I have been involved, in a fairly small way, in promoting cycling. It is so important—environmentally, for transport purposes, for health and leisure, as well as for family activities. In the early 1990s, I was chair of planning and highways at Poole borough council, where we introduced a big network of cycleways. We are moving forward; how exciting it was this year with the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins, the Olympic success, and then seeing all those youngsters out on their bikes. It was absolutely amazing. I am still staggered walking the streets in London to see the number of people on bikes. It is all absolutely fantastic. I wholeheartedly support The Times campaign, which has driven this issue much further forward than we could have hoped to do by ourselves as parliamentarians.
I want to touch briefly, however, on the issue of cycle helmets. I, too, have worked with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, and I have also worked with local organisations. I am a patron of Headway Dorset and in Dorset, we have an organisation called Streetwise. It is a safety centre that covers all aspects of safety education, but it and the volunteers who work there are very concerned about cycling safety. A competition has recently been promoted among schools to design cycle helmets to raise awareness of how important it is to wear them. Raising awareness of that issue is crucial, and if we could achieve all that was needed to be achieved by doing that, we would not have to look any further.
I sometimes wonder why we need to go further. I look at BMX cycling on the television, and they are all wearing helmets, as, for the most part, are the children at the local skate parks. However, there does seem to be a common issue that it is not quite cool enough to wear one. It is certainly not good for a young person’s hairstyle at the age of 12 or 13, and it does not help if their friend is not wearing one. I have spoken to so many parents who say, “If only there was a law about this, I would feel happier about my child cycling.” When I raise such issues—I am thinking of this from the children’s standpoint—I have only ever looked at the possibility of a law for 14-year-olds and under. There is an issue of freedom of choice, but it is a vulnerable age group, and are we doing everything that we can?
It is suggested that my comments will result in the next generation of children being obese, but I find that difficult to believe. I would like to join the call made by my hon. Friend, not for the setting up of the law, but for a review of the evidence. I have heard the Australian evidence quoted to me so many times, but we need to know whether we would be deterring children in large numbers from cycling. There must be a lot of evidence out there; we should look at it and at the end of the day, ensure that we put our children first.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing the debate, which comes at a time when cycle safety is so high on the public agenda, and on the compelling case that he made for improving cycling safety.
The work of campaigning organisations, coupled with high-profile accidents, has raised awareness and led to demands for better protection for cyclists. It is heartening to see Members on both sides of the House here today, and I hope that anyone watching the debate will be left in no doubt that MPs are taking cycling safety seriously. Politicians have a duty to promote cycling and to help create environments in which cycling can flourish. The health benefits of cycling are well known, and we now have a better understanding of how high levels of cycling can lead to cleaner and stronger communities. However, safety concerns are a serious barrier, especially for those people considering making the switch to cycling. It is imperative that those barriers be lifted. I pay tribute to the cyclists’ organisations that have lobbied for higher standards for many years, as well as to the Cities Fit for Cycling campaign by The Times.
Although cycling is generally a safe activity, there are still issues to be tackled. There are many areas where cyclists’ safety can be improved, but it is equally important that we do not undo the progress that has been made. Cycling casualties rose by 12% last year, with serious injuries rising by 16%, as we have heard. The Times reports today that fatalities are now set to outstrip last year’s toll, making this year the worst for cycling deaths since 2007. Although that tragic rise may not have a single cause, the abolition of national safety targets was condemned by many in the cycling community, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) was right to raise that issue today.
National targets had been in place in one form or another since 1987 and had enjoyed cross-party support. Although there is scope for reform of national targets, I wanted to highlight their importance early in this debate, because I hope that this is an area where a new cross-party consensus can be achieved. Indeed, the need for national safety standards is a theme that should be emphasised. Better training for both cyclists and drivers would cut accidents and fatalities, but local programmes are too often dependent on bids for central Government funding. Labour has called for long-term dedicated funding for cycling proficiency training under the Bikeability programme to be restored, along with the restoration of school travel plans to raise awareness of walking and cycling among children. Cycle safety should also become an integral part of the driving test.
Cyclists would also benefit from dedicated funding for improvements to existing infrastructure. That is why Labour has called for a portion of the roads budget to be ring-fenced—so that communities can build up networks of cycleways. Too many junctions are dangerous for cyclists and need to be redesigned. That approach has been highly successful in northern Europe, and we should seek to replicate that success. Those improvements can be delivered, but planners need to know that funding will be available.
We also back the call by The Times for cycling commissioners in every city, to encourage local initiatives. They would benefit from a cycle audit, which would help to map out danger spots, as well as a new planning toolkit that drew on the lessons of the successful cycling city and towns programme, which was axed by the current Government. A new test—a cycling safety assessment—should be met before new road and major transport schemes are granted planning approval. Our existing roads were not designed with the needs of cyclists in mind, but we can at least correct that historical imbalance in the future. The “Manual for Streets” guidelines, which placed pedestrians and cyclists at the top of the user hierarchy, represented a good start. We should look to build on that principle.
Everyone agrees that reducing speed will improve road safety and save lives. Real progress has been made on lowering speed limits in residential areas, with a city-wide 20-mph limit being introduced in Portsmouth and many additional schemes in other towns and cities. We are looking at ways to support more local authorities to make the switch to 20 mph, but the removal of funding for speed cameras and the possible raising of the motorway speed limit mean that we have had mixed signals on road safety from this Government.
We also need to see action on one of the major safety hazards for cyclists—heavy goods vehicles. They account for a disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads—a risk that was brought home to us last year when Mary Bowers, the young Times reporter, almost lost her life after being crushed by a lorry. A collaboration by Queen Mary, university of London and Barts and The London NHS Trust looked at the effect of heavy goods vehicles on cyclists’ safety. The conclusions that they reached are startling. Of patients brought to the Royal London hospital, cyclists hit by a car suffered a mortality rate of 6%. For those hit by HGVs, the rate was 21%. Of the most seriously injured cyclists, 82% had been hit by some form of motorised vehicle, but the overwhelming majority—73%—had been hit by a heavy goods vehicle. According to Transport for London, goods vehicles now account for half of all cyclist fatalities in the capital.
There is a clear need for action, and we have set out our support for reform. We would work with the industry to equip lorries with safety equipment, including blind-spot mirrors and side protection to help to stop cyclists falling under their wheels. Those upgrades could be funded through the proposed HGV road-charging scheme. We would invest in on-street infrastructure, including Trixi mirrors at junctions. More rigorous and comprehensive training is needed for lorry drivers, and we would work with the industry to achieve that as a priority.
According to the Department for Transport’s own figures, rail freight use would have gone up by 732% by 2025 if the decision had not been made to allow longer HGVs. Rail freight is now projected to go up by 262% instead. I hope that, in the interests of tackling congestion and improving road safety, the Government will look again at the issue, with a view to reversing that change.
All the measures that I have described would have safety benefits in their own right, but the overall impact is of vital importance as well. The wider effect would be to normalise cycling. I have seen for myself how cycling is a way of life for a striking number of people in Copenhagen and Malmö, where the long-standing determination of national and local politicians to deliver investment has reaped dividends. We need the same quality of leadership on cycling in the UK. We should not accept the Government’s retreat from promoting national standards.
That leads me to the issue of helmets and the case that some people have made for them to be compulsory. I have no doubt that helmets can effectively protect cyclists, particularly in low-impact collisions, and I would encourage their use, particularly by children, but I do not believe that compulsion is the answer. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) explained, where compulsory helmet laws have been introduced, they have been associated with a decline in bicycle use, including by children. After helmets became mandatory in Australia in 1991, cycle use in Perth dropped by up to 40%. In New Zealand, cycling levels halved between 1994 and 2006. Compulsory helmet laws in both Israel and New Mexico were deemed to be unsuccessful, with cycling levels dropping to the point at which the viability of bicycle-sharing facilities was put at risk.
Any substantial drop in cycle usage can in itself have a serious impact on safety. The safety-in-numbers effect means that when cycling levels increase, so does driver awareness and demand for infrastructure investment; conversely, when levels fall, individual cyclists may be at greater risk. An example of the safety-in-numbers effect can be found in the Netherlands, where cycling levels are high and relatively few people wear helmets. British cyclists are three times more likely to be killed on the roads than their Dutch counterparts.
There is simply no quick fix for these issues. If we want more people to take up cycling, we need sustained investment and a more supportive attitude to cycling in general. British Cycling has said:
“Helmets can help save lives in many incidents and we recommend they are worn…What would contribute much, much more to making cycling safer is better road infrastructure.”
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) noted that there have been some unhelpful comments in the media about the causes of accidents, and I would like to deal with that point. Everyone on the roads has a duty to act responsibly. For cyclists, that of course includes using lights at night and cycling in a safe and law-abiding way. However, the truth is that cyclists are at fault only in a minority of collisions. That is why alongside training for cyclists, we urgently need better training for motorists and lorry drivers in particular. As I said, we need dedicated funding for infrastructure improvements. We need the Times Cities Fit for Cycling manifesto to be implemented in full and we need national standards to be upheld.
As a regular cyclist myself, I appreciate the importance of cycle safety standards. If we are serious about modal shift and tackling inactivity levels, we must make our roads safer and more attractive for cyclists and pedestrians. This debate has provided another vital opportunity to highlight the work that has been done and the work that we still need to do. Labour will continue to advance proposals to make our roads safer, and we will keep the pressure on the Government to strengthen their position on cycling safety.
I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I think that it would be presumptuous of me to provide an answer on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I certainly listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said and I will come to his comments in a moment.
I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and congratulate him on the debate. He made an excellent speech—a serious speech. A number of questions came up, and I will try to tackle as many of them as I can in the short time available. I am sure that if I do not respond to them all, he will want to write to me, and I will be happy to put the replies on the record. I particularly welcome the debate.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, and yes, of course there is more to do, but I hope that she recognises the great deal that the Government are doing. We take the promotion of cycling, the ability to cycle safely and our responsibilities seriously. Cycling is not just a convenient, healthy and green way to travel, as hon. Members have said, but relatively inexpensive, and therefore accessible to many. There has never been a better time for people to get on their bikes, and that is exactly what we are seeing.
The trend started after Beijing 2008, which reignited the passion for cycling for many people. As my hon. Friend pointed out, after the heroics of the Olympics, Paralympics and Tour de France, not only have we seen thousands more people cycling, but we expect hundreds of thousands more people to take to two wheels. In some parts of London, cyclists already seem to outnumber other vehicles.
I commend The Times’s excellent cycling campaign; we have taken much of it on board. The hon. Member for Nottingham South was right to commend also British Cycling, Sustrans, the Bicycle Association of Great Britain, London Cycling Campaign and C2C, all of which lobby heavily, carefully and thoughtfully for cycling. It is distressing that, although the number of cycling fatalities has been falling—fatalities decreased between 2010 and 2011—the number of serious injuries has increased. As road safety Minister, I am determined to ensure that our roads are as safe they can be for everyone who uses them, whatever the mode of transport.
The Government have invested substantially in road infrastructure and other safety angles, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) pointed out. The local sustainable transport fund is targeting £600 million of investment over four years to look at local networks. Almost all the projects funded so far include infrastructure improvements for cycling. I could give examples, but will not due to the time. Improvements include landscaping, resurfacing, repainting, new lighting and adding new parts to junctions to improve the safety of cycle routes.
The Department is working on other ways to reduce risk. We have made it considerably simpler for councils to install Trixi mirrors to improve the visibility of cyclists at junctions and to put in place 20 mph limits and zones. I strongly encourage councils to consider the greater use of such 20 mph zones in residential areas, because they clearly have an impact on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. We have also made it easier for councils to introduce contraflow cycling by changing signage laws, so fewer signs need to be used. I am working closely with cycle safety stakeholder groups on other issues and infrastructure measures that the local sustainable transport fund can bring forward. We have made £30 million available to local councils up and down the country to tackle the most difficult and dangerous junctions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West mentioned HGVs. The hon. Member for Nottingham South is right that training is crucial for HGV drivers, operators, transport managers and employers. That is why I am pleased that the Freight Transport Association, with Government support and backing, introduced a cycling code last year. I was delighted to be at the launch of the Mineral Products Association’s new drivers’ awareness campaign. It targeted young cyclists at Hyde park, where a number of them stopped to see how difficult it is for even the most well trained drivers to spot cyclists, even in the most well equipped lorries with a blind-side mirror and other safety implements. The Government are behind that awareness campaign, and I support the investment from the MPA and the FTA.
All EU member states have implemented the European legislation, which applies to almost all HGVs used in domestic and foreign trade. We continue to drive that agenda in Europe, to ensure that mirrors are required for new vehicles. We have provided £30 million to make potentially hazardous junctions across England safer for cyclists. Of that, £15 million is going to London, because we recognise that in London in particular there has been a huge increase in cycling and in the number of people wishing to access the roads more safely.
We are working with partners, through the Department for Transport cycling stakeholder forum, on a wide range of issues, including safety. I will meet the group in the near future. It is inclusive: it includes cyclists, motorists and representatives from local authorities and the Freight Transport Association, because not having all those people on such a body would mean missing out on opportunities. We strongly encourage local authorities to follow the example of some of the schemes that we have set up and those set up previously to consider actions to improve safety for cyclists
In the short time available, I shall touch on helmets, because the issue has come up a number of times today. In 2009, the Government commissioned and published a report entitled, “The potential for cycle helmets to prevent injury”. It concluded that helmets could be expected to reduce fatalities and injuries in the event of an accident, particularly if a vehicle was not involved. No evidence was found of helmets adding any additional injury risk. Let me make it clear that the Department for Transport supports the promotion of cycle helmets, through measures such as Highway Code rule 59. I was also pleased to initiate the recent THINK! campaign in September. The Government are putting more money into Bikeability cycle training and have committed more money to it over the next three years. The Department also makes its support clear on its webpage and through other schemes.
We equally accept that helmets are a matter of exhortation rather than compulsion. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made a powerful speech. He is right that the former Minister was excellent and showed strength on this matter—I am not sure that I will live up to my hon. Friend’s hopes. I entirely agree with him; anything outside legislation to promote and exhort the wearing of cycle helmets, I will do in my role as road safety Minister. I am happy, first, to nudge the Prime Minister to ensure that he answers my hon. Friend, and, secondly, to accept his invitation to a meeting. I am sure that he will write to my officials about that.
One of my first acts as road safety Minister was to announce the first THINK! Cyclist campaign. Many will know that we have used the THINK! label for a number of road safety campaigns, but we have not had a campaign dedicated to cycling for 10 years. It concentrates on the behaviour of cyclists and motorists, by getting those who cycle, who are often motorists as well, to think about how they behave on the road as motorists and how they want people to behave towards them as cyclists. I would like to go into more detail on that campaign, but I accept the comment that the little green man should have been wearing his helmet. A number of cities have taken up the campaign and I continue to spend time promoting it. I am convinced that THINK! Cyclist can have a beneficial effect on road safety.
I am acutely aware that we are coming to the end of our debate. Cycling offers huge benefits to both the individual and society. The challenge, which remains a challenge for the Government, is to continue to ensure that our roads are as safe as we can make them. Investment is therefore going into infrastructure and the training of young people, and we exhort people to wear cycle helmets. I hope that when we have a debate on this subject in a year’s time, as I am sure we will, the trends will not only seem to be downwards, but be proven to be downwards.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to raise this important issue. I am doing so because of a whirlwind or, as some might say, a force of nature, who entered one of my constituency surgeries earlier this year—my constituent, Jackie Hewitt-Main. She came to tell me about a project she had undertaken in Chelmsford prison, “Dyslexia Behind Bars”.
During that project, she assessed more than 2,000 offenders for special educational needs, and attempted to work with them to help them understand their learning difficulties and to succeed where the education system had so far failed them. The effect on the re-offending rates of the inmates who took part is truly astounding, and I want to bring that to the full attention of the House and the Government. I believe that Jackie’s work gives an invaluable insight into how we can break down the barriers that prevent offenders from becoming safe and productive members of their community, once they have repaid their debt to society.
I will explain Jackie’s project and her findings later, but first I want to analyse the extent of the special learning needs among our national inmate population. The sad truth is that no one is at all sure how many people in our prisons actually suffer from dyslexia or other learning difficulties. In most cases, the information accompanying people into prison is unlikely to show whether learning difficulties or learning disabilities have been identified.
I absolutely do, and given what I will be saying, I hope that many others will agree with my hon. Friend and me about that.
According to the Prison Reform Trust report “No One Knows”, fully half the offenders in British prisons have problems with basic literary skills. It notes:
“The most consistent information about the number of offenders with learning difficulties or learning disabilities is that no one agrees on how many exist.”
With regard to dyslexia, for example, estimates of prevalence among offenders range from 4% to 56%. However, the general average in prison-based studies is about 30%, although rates of serious deficit in literacy and numeracy generally reach up to about 60%. According to Ministry of Justice figures published earlier this month, we currently have more than 86,000 prisoners, so we can estimate that about 26,000 offenders in UK prisons suffer from some form of dyslexia, but we do not know for certain.
I was surprised and disappointed to learn that, historically, the Government have kept no data whatever centrally on the numbers or percentage of the prison population who have special educational needs, such as dyslexia, or even on how many are illiterate. I was surprised and disappointed because the two main aims of our penal system are to punish effectively and to rehabilitate offenders. “The Oxford Dictionary of Law”—my learned colleague, my hon. Friend, will know more about it than I do—defines rehabilitation as:
“Treatment aimed at improving an offender’s character or behaviour (including education, counselling, employment, training, etc.) that is undertaken with the goal of reintegrating the offender into society.”
All Members would agree that one of the most basic necessities effectively to integrate into our modern society is the basic ability to read and write.
With that in mind, I find it hard to see how the Government can allocate and target rehabilitation resources, or commission them effectively, if those data are not collected. Similarly, the Government cannot properly analyse any causal link between the lack of basic literacy and offender behaviour, or assess how far educational failure or the failure to pick up dyslexia in schools leads to offender behaviour in later life.
There should be a great deal more scrutiny on all factors, because there are others. In addition to literacy problems, there is a huge number of social factors, as well as the fact that many members of the prison population have had head injuries or personality disorders.
If we are to drill down, deal with our re-offending rates and our prison populations and, ultimately, achieve what we want by keeping our streets safer, all those factors need proper consideration. We always want to hear that people have been locked up and put away, so that they cannot be on the streets to offend, but they come out again and if we do not stem the tide, we will not address the problem. The issue is not new. For many decades, various social commentators have explained that there is a link between educational attainment and the propensity to commit crime. That only underlines my dismay that we are not doing more, and do not have a proper audit.
As I have said, one key advantage of having payment by results for rehabilitating offenders is that, through the introduction of market mechanisms, organisations—whether third sector or charitable ones—will put greater emphasis on identifying the causes of educational failure in our prisons and ensure that such factors are brought to bear on rehabilitation, whereas under previous Governments, we had one-size-fits-all solutions, particularly for education and training in prisons.
I speak as a dyslexic myself. That is why, when my constituent came into my surgery, everything she told me rang a bell and struck a chord. She came to the right Member of Parliament, because I was extremely interested. I know exactly how embarrassing and frustrating it can be to work very hard in school on a piece of work—coming up with all sorts of fantastic ideas and arguments—only for the teacher to hand it back with red marks all over it because of poor spelling or grammar. That is soul-destroying, actually. I also know what it is like to be told that I am stupid or lazy, or both. It does not take very long for someone in that situation to feel that they cannot trust their own judgment about themselves or about their peers and others around them.
Even worse, such people—perhaps to save face or from confusion and frustration—find it easy to begin to act up to the very labels they are given. Young men in particular often become difficult and disruptive, and that can lead them down a nasty and dangerous path from which it is hard to turn back. I was lucky enough to be diagnosed with dyslexia before I sat my A-levels, but, in fact, a large number of people with dyslexia have always slipped through the net of our education system. For those who leave school hampered by their dyslexia to the extent that they still cannot properly read and write, the frustration and embarrassment they felt in the classroom too often becomes a part of their daily life.
Many dyslexics, if not most, are very good at creating coping strategies and at adapting their day-to-day life to avoid situations in which they are hampered by their dyslexia. Certainly, the vast majority of them never become criminals; I have become a Member of Parliament—I am well aware that many members of the public think that the two are very similar. It is also true that a significant number of dyslexics try to avoid altogether any situations in which they have to read or write. If that aversion to reading and writing is severe enough to make it daunting even to fill in a simple form, they are really lost. Basic literacy is essential for interacting with the rest of society, while illiteracy can be a source of immense frustration and impoverishment and, of course, a factor in crime.
I will talk about the detailed findings of Jackie’s report in a moment, but one fascinating insight that she discovered was that a number of the dyslexic prisoners whom she interviewed were locked up for offences relating directly to their aversion to reading and writing, and specifically to form filling. She found that 10% of dyslexic offenders were serving sentences that were related to strings of driving offences involving driving without a proper licence or insurance. When Jackie asked them why they were not properly licensed, she found that most either could not pass the theory test or simply had not bothered trying because they knew that they would fail. If it is difficult to get through life without reading and writing, it is also quite difficult to get through life without driving a car.
The evidence from the insightful review written by my constituent, who is a dyslexic herself, seems to show that it is not working. We are not picking up people and, more to the point, we do not know how to reach them and treat them when we do pick them up.
The examples that I have given show not only how important it is to identify dyslexia in prison but why we should improve dyslexia screening provision throughout the education system, but that is a debate for another day and another Minister. I seriously believe that a greater focus on dyslexia will lead to a fall in reoffending rates and that the report from the “Dyslexia Behind Bars” project provides enough evidence and insight for the Government to look at the matter more seriously.
The project took place in Chelmsford prison and, on first glance, its methodology seemed simple—first, to assess the level of illiteracy and special educational needs related to dyslexia in the prison and secondly, to set up a stage-by-stage, one-on-one mentoring scheme among the offenders using Jackie’s teaching tools and methods to teach them outside the traditional classroom setting.
Jackie began work with 20 prisoners with exceptionally low literacy levels. They were generally prisoners who would never have engaged with the prison education service because they saw it as the same pen-and-paper classroom experience that they had previously hated and been failed by, which is why the approach of Jackie, a fellow dyslexic who was undiagnosed until her 40s, was so different. I can entirely identify with the relief simply of being diagnosed dyslexic, let alone being diagnosed by a fellow dyslexic who has overcome the condition. It is a huge opportunity for someone to reappraise how they view themselves and to give them an incentive to try again.
The prisoners who had been taught to read and write by Jackie offered to share their experiences with other prisoners. Literate prisoners also came forward, wanting to learn how to teach and mentor greater numbers of inmates. Jackie trained 40 of them to support fellow prisoners through the project. In that way, her unique, multi-sensory and original teaching and mentoring programme spread to all wings of the prison. More than 200 prisoners were individually taught and supported over the first part of the project by Jackie and her trained mentors, but that figure quickly grew as the project developed and spread. A further 70 prisoners were successfully helped by mentors who transferred to Wayland prison to extend the reach of the project to another part of the prison estate.
Fifty male prisoners went through learning workshops with Jackie. Their literacy levels were at the lowest pre-school level, and they needed to develop early learning and life skills. They discovered that they had a range of strengths which they could build on to develop their learning and to gain self-esteem. They were all helped to create their own highly individual learning plans to understand how to manage their own life, attitudes and behaviours.
Overall, 53% of the 2,029 offenders interviewed at Chelmsford during the project were diagnosed with dyslexia, which is a huge statistic. When they came out of prison, the great majority of them were either working or in education. Within weeks, several prisoners with the literacy skills of an average four-year-old had learned enough to write their first letters home and to read the letters that they received back.
A testimonial from Prisoner J said:
“Jackie has shown me things that no one else has ever been able to do before: reading, writing and sums. I have learnt more in 8 weeks than in all 41 years of my life.”
Jackie and the mentors helped prisoners to learn how to read and fill in forms, to take and pass the driving theory test and to take and pass the building site construction skills test, which meant that they could legally work in construction. That helped to give a sense of optimism and direction to prisoners in preparation for their release.
The project also transformed the prison as a whole—I am sure that the Minister would like to know that. Prison officers commented on how much calmer even the most violent prisoners became as their self-esteem rose along with their progress, resulting in a calmer and happier atmosphere across the whole prison. In the two years, prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults fell dramatically—the figures really are quite dramatic—which prison officers have attributed to the “Dyslexia Behind Bars” project, although, unfortunately, they rose after the project ended.
All prisoners involved in the project improved their literacy skills to a level advanced enough to extend their choices of work and leisure activities and prepare more effectively for their lives outside. Of the 17 prisoners in Jackie’s first two groups who were released four years ago, only one has reoffended. That represents a 5.9% proven reoffending rate within four years, compared with the national rate of 55% within two years, or 68% within five years. Clearly, that sample is too small to be statistically reliable. However, it is a useful indicator that shows that the reoffending rate of the project participants is less than a tenth of the national average. An example of that reduction in recidivism is the case of three serial offenders who had each been in and out of prison more than 40 times—none of them has reoffended since their release four years ago.
Of the first 17 prisoners to be released, four are employed in trades, two in building, one a fork-lift driver and one a film producer; two are employed by charities, one teaching disabled people the skills to get into work and one mentoring young offenders; two are voluntary workers, one mentoring adults with learning difficulties and one supporting men on probation; two have started their own businesses; five are currently unemployed; one is at a top university doing an engineering degree; and just one went back into prison.
Moreover, of the first 40 offenders to become mentors, 10 were also trained in PTLLS—preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector—qualifications. All 10 finished the course and passed with those qualifications. Chelmsford prison has now received many personal requests to transfer, as prisoners and their families hear on the grapevine of the success of the project.
I should like to extend my thanks to the Minister. I wrote to him on this matter earlier this month and received an extremely helpful letter and an offer to meet me and Jackie, for which I am grateful. Moreover, I also welcome the announcement yesterday by the Secretary of State for Justice that he will be reviewing the educational approach taken in the youth custody estate, where we are currently detaining about 1,800 young people, with a 70% likelihood of reoffending. It seems highly likely that among that cohort, there will also be a large proportion with undetected learning needs. There is an opportunity to use an innovative method of reaching and teaching them before they are released back into society. I am quite certain that that will dramatically reduce their reoffending figures.
Historically, education in prison has not been held in high regard by the public as an effective tool to rehabilitate offenders—a fact that was mentioned in an Education and Skills Committee report in 2005. Sadly, I do not believe that that perception has changed in the minds of the public today. The public does not have much confidence or belief in the educational work of the prisons and their ability to rehabilitate. The first role of our prison system should always be to punish offenders and so act as an effective deterrent to reoffending. My aim is not to raise the plight of dyslexics or in any way to excuse any form of offending behaviour but to highlight a way in which we can drastically reduce reoffending rates and ultimately keep our streets safer for the British public.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on securing this debate on a very important subject. I am grateful to her, too, for introducing me to the work of her constituent, Jackie Hewitt-Main. I look forward to meeting her and my hon. Friend on 5 December to discuss this matter further.
It is clear that Ms Hewitt-Main’s project, “Dyslexia Behind Bars” contains some interesting approaches to a substantial problem. Using a multi-sensory and mentoring approach, she has offered a great deal to the inmates of Chelmsford prison, and there is a great deal there that we will wish to explore. As far as I know, this work has not yet been assessed or reviewed by an independent organisation and although its initial results are promising, further work will be necessary to ensure that they are as good as they appear to be. It seems sensible to explore with my hon. Friend the ways in which we can change things to improve what is on offer.
It is also worth saying that the National Offender Management Service is considering a review of the evidence on effective working with offenders with learning difficulties and disabilities, and I will come back to what is already being done in a moment.
The particular areas of Ms Hewitt-Main’s work that my hon. Friend highlighted, and that are particularly interesting in the context of what my hon. Friend said we are doing more generally in the Justice Department, include peer mentoring. I have seen very good examples of peer mentoring in the prison system, with older, more established prisoners assisting younger and newer prisoners in a variety of ways. The work that my hon. Friend described is only one of those ways.
As my hon. Friend also said, teaching and learning in a non-classroom environment are important. We must recognise that the classroom environment did not work for a great many of the prisoners we are talking about at school, and it probably will not work for them in custody either, so we have to find new and imaginative approaches that, as she said, involve the whole prison.
It is also worth noting that, as I understand it, Ms Hewitt-Main’s programme involved some mentoring of people after they leave prison. As my hon. Friend will have picked up from the speech yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, that is also an area on which we wish to focus.
It may be helpful if I set out some of the work that is already being done, at which we are having another look to ensure that it is being done in the best possible way. Since taking up this post, I have been very keen to ensure that the importance of learning and skills within the prison estate and beyond is high on the agenda. Indeed, my hon. Friend will have noted that the Prime Minister also mentioned learning and skills in his recent speech on offenders.
In particular, of course, the low levels of literacy and numeracy among prisoners as a group should concern us all, not only because of the impact on those individuals and their ability to function in a world where reading and writing are essential skills, but because a lack of sufficient literacy and numeracy skills excludes people from the vast majority of employment opportunities. I am sure, as are many others, that having a job can make a significant impact on reducing reoffending, and that skills such as organisation, communication, teamwork, writing, speaking and listening are necessary to perform effectively in most, if not all, work roles.
Prisoners with dyslexia are, of course, disadvantaged in that respect, not only because dyslexia presents them with particular issues in terms of competence in reading and writing, but because dyslexia is recognised as impairing organisational skills. My hon. Friend obviously has a clear personal perspective on dyslexia and its effects, which has been extremely valuable in the debate.
Of course, engaging with prisoners on learning and skills can be difficult, as my hon. Friend recognised. Some prisoners may have had negative experiences in their education and even been excluded, and consequently they see little value in education. Statistics that I have seen recently suggest that nearly half of prisoners identified themselves as having left education with no qualifications at all. Dyslexia magnifies that problem. It can be very difficult to recognise and is often masked. Not all schools will have had the specialist provision to support children and young people who have this difficulty.
Since reading and writing are “gateway” skills that enable children and young people to engage confidently with their wider educational experience, as well as in many basic social relationships, poor educational experiences can create reluctant learners. The experience of being excluded from positive experiences of learning to read, write and communicate more widely remains with many prisoners into adulthood. That presents an additional challenge in custody, where engaging with reluctant learners can be particularly difficult if memories of the classroom act as a barrier to taking the opportunities that education can provide.
Dyslexia is only one condition in a range of learning difficulties and disabilities that prisoners may present with, and that require specialist and systematic approaches. We need to provide as much support as we can to prisoners with LDDs, to improve their chances in the workplace as well as their confidence, self-esteem and social skills. Without dedicated input, the impact of much learning support in reading and writing may be reduced or lost.
The NOMS learning disabilities and difficulties working group exists to oversee the national implementation of an LDD screening process for prisoners, and to develop a broader LDD strategy across prisons. Apart from various officials from NOMS, membership of the group includes officials from the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Prison Reform Trust. I welcome, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, the contribution made by the group, as these issues can be resolved only by partners across Government and the voluntary sector working together. The group is involved in the development of NOMS guidance for better outcomes for offenders with LDDs. It is also developing guidance on reasonable adjustments for prisoners with LDDs, to ensure that they are integrated into the prison community and that they have the best opportunity to participate in activities that support their rehabilitation. Further commitments for the current year include improving staff awareness, as well as prisoner and peer training.
Returning to a point that my hon. Friend made about the crucial importance of our knowing how many people in prison have dyslexia and other learning disabilities, a learning disability screening questionnaire has been piloted on three sites, and NOMS is considering whether it should be used across the prison estate. The Youth Justice Board is using a similar tool—the comprehensive health assessment tool—with young offenders. That will go some way towards addressing the point that she raised and on which my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) focused: identifying the number of people we are dealing with.
My hon. Friend and also mentioned the Skills Funding Agency and its hidden disabilities screening tool, which of course identifies issues wider than LDDs. It has been used by all the SFA’s custodial Offender Learning and Skills Service providers since August 2009. Our aim is that this tool will eventually be adopted and used by all OLASS providers, both in custody and in the community, and ultimately by all mainstream providers.
We are also making radical changes to the way that learning and skills are delivered in prisons, which will encompass the support that we want to be made available to all prisoners with LDDs. As part of that radical programme of change, we have published a document that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point may have seen—if she has not seen it, I commend it to her—called “Making prisons work: skills for rehabilitation”. That is the new offender learning strategy, which was published jointly with BIS. The strategy recognised that improving prisoners’ literacy skills was central to rehabilitation, as we have discussed today, and we are taking steps to ensure the implementation of the report’s recommendations.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem that literacy and numeracy difficulties present in prisons, in the academic year 2010-11 almost 30% of prisoners had such low levels of reading and writing skills that, in order to bring them up to a basic functional level, individual learning aims for literacy and numeracy had to be set for them. Overall, 65% of prisoners enrolled on literacy and numeracy programmes were successful in achieving the literacy and numeracy functional skills goals that had been set as part of their individual learning plans. For some, it meant learning to read and write, while for others it meant improving their basic literacy and numeracy so that they could operate with more confidence and competence.
The revised Offender Learning and Skills Service, which is OLASS 4, was implemented as a result of the “Making prisons work” strategy, and it will make additional provision against assessed need. OLASS 4 requires education providers to identify the support needs of offenders with LDDs or special educational needs through a learning difficulty assessment, or LDA. Requirements identified through the assessment should be addressed through personalised, customised programmes delivered by specialist qualified staff. My hon. Friend will recognise the importance of that approach, because not all offenders have identical needs. OLASS 4 providers understand, and are able to deliver, the specific and systematic approaches to learning that are required by prisoners with such difficulties.
Crucially, however, through OLASS 4 and the work that we are doing more widely with other Departments, we are more strongly linking skills to employment, and I believe that there is still more work to do in that regard. Arrangements are also in place to allow OLASS 4 providers to draw together funding to support prisoners with LDDs, through a specific adult learning support allocation that is designed to match the support that mainstream learners in colleges or training organisations receive. A budget for additional learning support of £7.1 million is available to the OLASS 4 providers, to enable the introduction of specific assessment processes to identify offenders with LDD needs and to provide those offenders with the expert teaching and support that they require.
In addition, my hon. Friend may be aware of the work of the Shannon Trust’s “Toe by Toe” reading scheme, which is also available in prisons. Again, this scheme uses peer mentors, supported by volunteers, teaching staff and prison officers, and it is based on best practice developed through teachers’ experiences of enabling children with dyslexia to read. That is enormously beneficial to many offenders.
In conclusion, I welcome today’s debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I assure her that, although we believe that much good work is being done already, there is still a great deal more to do, and we are certainly open to new and good ideas, including those that I look forward to discussing with her and her constituent.
Mobile Technology (Health Care)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Mr Havard. I welcome the Minister to his place. We were occupants of neighbouring offices in this House, but I tend not to see him quite so much now, with his promotion to the Government ranks.
In every aspect of our lives, technology is driving innovation, improvement and increased efficiency. Health care is no different, where the use of mobile communications technology is becoming increasingly important. We are reaching a point where mobile technology can take an increasingly strategic role in meeting today’s health care demands. That is because a number of critical factors are converging, including several extremely demanding health care challenges that, taken together, require new approaches and solutions; the remarkable computing power now available on portable devices such as tablets and smart phones; and the development of specific mobile technology-based health-care focused solutions that can improve quality, efficiency and a patient’s experience of their care. I shall cover each of those in turn.
Our health service faces unprecedented challenges that go way beyond the £20 billion cuts to national health service spending, and most health care systems across the world face similar situations. We are, as a population, living longer. That is undoubtedly a good thing, but it brings with it demands. Older people with multiple and complex health care needs constitute the majority of interactions with the NHS, and their care consumes the majority of health care expenditure, to the extent that health care costs are growing faster than gross domestic product. New drugs, diagnostics and treatments mean that we can treat conditions that years ago were simply considered beyond the reach of modern medicine. They are welcome developments, but they inevitably involve significant financial cost.
A less welcome reason for increasing health costs relates to the increase in long-term and chronic diseases. Over recent years, we have seen the rise in the prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other conditions that have a significant lifestyle-related component. They contribute directly to health care requirements and lead to secondary complications. For example, the single most significant risk factor to the development of dementia is cardiovascular health. The NHS needs to address all those challenges while delivering an unprecedented 4% year-on-year compound efficiency savings. The Minister, as a former member of the Select Committee on Health, on which I still sit, will be aware that the Committee has correctly pointed out that such a level of savings has not been achieved by any other health care system.
I think we can accept that the face of health care and the challenges it faces are changing. How can mobile communications technology help deal with the challenges? It is worth reflecting that the power of today’s mobile communications technology—they are long words, but we would just call them tablet computers and smart phones—is comparable to some of the faster supercomputers of just a decade or so ago. I was interested in what is termed “always on” connectivity, which means that one can always be reached if devices are switched on, through secure wi-fi, 3G and the emerging 4G technology. Such devices can connect instantly with extremely powerful networks. That means that working practices established 10 or more years ago can be radically transformed. Through harnessing the power and capabilities of mobile communications technology, the health service can better support its health care professionals. Technology can reduce the time spent on administration and give professionals much more needed time to care.
Specifically, modern mobile communications technology can help patients and the public make healthier decisions, enabling individuals to manage their conditions more effectively and therefore to live independently. It can also help health care professionals collect information more effectively, which leads to improved efficiency, patient safety and care quality. I will draw on a few examples that relate to those areas. Mobile technology can help patients take more control of their health by encouraging healthier lifestyle choices; by giving patients more control and information to manage their conditions effectively; and by supporting more comprehensive remote monitoring.
I think the Minister is aware that there is already extensive clinical evidence that shows that patients who take an active role in their care do better. For example, a study in Toronto showed that diabetic patients who monitored their blood pressure using smart phones experienced a 25% drop in cardiovascular mortality. The Government have committed to giving patients the right to book general practitioner appointments, order repeat prescriptions and talk to GP practices online. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. The effect on the population’s health would be much stronger if patients were encouraged to monitor their care with support from their health care professionals.
Much closer to home, Leicestershire’s nutrition and dietetic services and the university of Chester in the UK have pioneered a secure smart phone solution to enhance the approach to adult weight management services. Achieving sustainable weight loss is hard, yet their service, known as LEAP—lifestyle, eating and activity programmes—weight management groups, based on national guidance, has achieved just that. They have found that the key to long-term weight loss is to provide follow-up support. After finishing the initial programme, patients take part in a three-month follow-up programme, focusing on self-monitoring with encouragement from staff via text messages. I understand that they are not alone in doing that kind of thing; the all-party group of which I was formerly chair, Slimming World, does something similar. To ensure patient confidentiality and data security, a BlackBerry smart phone is used with an application that converts text messages to e-mail and vice versa. That creates an accurate record of patient-practitioner dialogue. The results include statistically significant weight loss compared with a control group and an improved quality of life.
Those two simple examples show that by supporting individuals to use smart phones and tablets already at their disposal, people can take more control of their lives and make healthier decisions. There is scope for the NHS to become more proactive in encouraging such approaches without incurring significant cost.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is making a point about the importance of technology in preventing health care problems. As she will know, the preventive public health role is being transferred to local government. Does she agree that it is vital for the technology to have the funding needed when the preventive role is transferred, and that it is not left to local government, given the scale of the cuts that local government has suffered?
A serious point is being made here: public health is being transferred to local government, and the funds that go with it need to be spent on public health and preventive means. I am worried that councils might use some of the money to do work to which they are already committed. So, yes, they do need support, and we need to ensure that the money they get is spent correctly and wisely. Mobile technology can help to improve public health.
One of the perennial challenges of modern health care is to keep accurate, comprehensive records without detracting from the care-giving process, which is quite difficult. Too often the supposed solutions feel burdensome. As a result, clinicians can sometimes be difficult to engage—in fact, there is a view that sometimes clinicians rarely engage—and the accuracy and completeness of records suffers as a result.
We can show that there are tried and tested solutions developed by and in partnership with NHS organisations that have been shown to work. For example, digital pen-and-paper technology, supported by mobile connectivity, can be used to complete patient records. In turn, that can improve patient safety, care quality and efficiency. That technology is pioneered by Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust and allows mums-to-be to keep their paper records as normal, and because the records are made using a mobile-enabled digital pen and paper, the maternity department instantly receives an easily accessible electronic copy of the expectant mum’s paper records. That happens while the midwife is still with the expectant mum in her home. As well as improving safety when mums arrive at the hospital without their notes, the technology’s deployment has brought about real efficiency by halving the time that midwives spend on administration.
As well as solutions that can help health care professionals in the community, we need to recognise that most acute hospitals are large complex buildings that, all too sadly, often span several sites. There is strong evidence that the accuracy of patient records and the quality of clinical decision making may be improved if clinicians record information themselves and have access to it when they are with their patients, rather than leaving the process to administrators who are removed from the care. Realistically, that can be achieved only by making it easier for clinicians to record and access information wherever they are.
I am told that organisations such as University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust are making real progress in mobilising information so that clinicians have real-time, secure access to patient records. The foundation trust is using tablet devices and smartphones to achieve such improvements. As the NHS looks to implement new solutions, we need to encourage people to focus on secure approaches that patients and clinicians trust, which means designing privacy into the entire system, with security measures built into mobile devices. We also need reliable connectivity, which is fundamental for effective mobile working. Even in areas with the most advanced mobile infrastructures, bandwidth can sometimes be limited, so it is essential to choose hardware that can switch seamlessly between different mobile protocols and wi-fi connections. Such functionality would minimise bandwidth-related costs. We need to focus on approaches that complement patient-clinician interactions and that make the most of existing technology. Mobile solutions that can be rapidly deployed and that integrate with existing infrastructure would ensure investments that have already been made can be enhanced rather than discarded.
As the former chair of Liverpool Women’s hospital, I know there are now solutions to some of the problems in enabling midwives to spend the maximum amount of time out on the front line. Such improvements are a godsend and enable our professionals to deal with patients efficiently and effectively. I am aware of the Government’s plan to introduce a fund for technology to improve midwifery and nursing care, and I very much welcome that. As the plans for the fund are developed, it is essential to learn from those trusts that have already pioneered new approaches. I ask the Minister, therefore, to meet me and some of the professionals who have been involved in developing the examples I have cited so that he can hear about their experiences. That might help future implementation. The truth is that mobile communication technology will be a core strand in the 21st-century health service. We very much need it, and working together we can deliver for all the people who depend on the health service to deliver their care.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.
It is also a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing it and on highlighting an important focus of future health care policy. She is right to highlight the Nicholson challenge: for the NHS just to stand still and to continue performing at the same level so that patients continue to receive the high-quality care that we all believe and know they deserve, it needs to make £20 billion-worth of efficiency savings and to put that money back into front-line patient care. A key part of the debate is that better IT will improve the way we communicate with patients and keep people well and better supported in their own home and community, on the basis that preventive health care is much better than curative health care, both for the patient and, financially, for the NHS. Of course, I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and people involved in the IT industry at a later date to discuss things further.
Although we know that simple things such as in-ear thermometers, improved hoists in hospitals and better-quality equipment in operating theatres has improved the quality of patient care over many years and driven down the cost of providing health care, the hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that we need to harness and better utilise more modern types of technology such as telehealth and mobile technology to support people better in their own homes and to drive down the cost of care.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health outlined the NHS mandate, in which he set out the vision for the NHS and addressed some of the key challenges that we face. In her speech, the hon. Lady rightly highlighted that we have an ageing population with many people living a lot longer with long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia. The challenge for the NHS is ensuring that we deliver care in a better way that meets people’s care needs while ensuring that, where we can, at the same time as producing high-quality care, we reduce costs so that there is more money to go around to look after more people.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in the publication of the mandate that a real priority for the NHS is to improve the management of long-term conditions by helping people to better understand their conditions and to take control by supporting them to self-care, thereby realising the massive potential benefits offered by information technology both in supporting people to better understand and look after their conditions in the community, and in their own homes, and in supporting, better educating and better looking after the people who look after patients—the carers. That is an important part of providing high-quality health care.
We already know that there are 15 million people with long-term conditions, accounting for some 70% of all in-patient beds. We also know that many such hospital stays could be avoided through better management, including the better use of mobile technologies to prevent people from becoming so unwell in the first place that they need to be admitted to hospital. That would also help to prevent the revolving door of hospital admissions that sometimes happens when people do not necessarily have the support that they need and deserve when they are discharged from hospital, perhaps after a hip operation or similar stay.
Improving access and the quality of health care available to all patients is a key aim for the NHS, not just in meeting the Nicholson challenge but in improving day-to-day quality of care. Increasingly, technology will play a part in that: not just breakthroughs in simple day-to-day medical devices but changes in how we reach people in remote rural settings and in their homes and communities through the use of telemedicine, telehealth and mobile devices. We can and should take advantage of the deeply interconnected nature of modern society to improve people’s experience of health care and significantly increase our efficiency in delivering it.
There are infinite ways in which technology can transform how people access health and social care services. “Digital First”, a report published in July by the Department of Health, estimates that the NHS could save up to £2.9 billion by implementing just 10 simple actions to transform how people access health care. Those savings could be made almost immediately and with minimal investment by making use of existing technologies to reduce inappropriate face-to-face contacts.
There are many examples of simple things that can be done, such as having a doctor or nurse talk to a patient on the phone when they call to book an appointment or as an initial assessment. About one third of patients do not necessarily need a face-to-face GP appointment. Such conversations can reassure callers that they are okay and not that unwell, and that perhaps they should see how things go overnight or later in the day and call back if they need further help. They also help the patient access health care in the most appropriate way, as the GP triages the patient remotely.
Texting and e-mailing people to remind them of appointments has already been shown throughout the NHS to reduce the number of people who fail to turn up to their medical appointments. One big challenge in health care is getting patients to attend and comply with treatment, particularly those with longer-term conditions who must make multiple trips to a hospital or care setting. E-mails and texts are an effective way to remind people about their appointments and help educate them, removing the burden from the acute setting by ensuring that they understand how better to manage their conditions.
Those are simple changes, using the technologies that people use every day and are already familiar with, that can free hundreds of millions of pounds and provide more convenient access to NHS services, particularly for patients who live in more remote and rural parts of the country.
Technology can also improve the working lives of professionals. The funds that we are making available to nursing staff will enable them to access information faster so that they can spend more face-to-face time with patients, an important point that the hon. Lady made in her speech. Doctors, nurses and all health care professionals want to spend time looking after their patients. They do not want to be bogged down in paperwork. Technology, whether used on the ward or to access and look after patients remotely via telehealth or mobile technology, is a good way to ensure that front-line health care professionals have more time to do what they want to do and what they are trained to do: care for and look after the sick and patients.
I have seen at first hand the potential of telehealth and telemedicine to transform and save people’s lives. Earlier this month, I visited the telehealth hub at Airedale NHS Foundation Trust, which I know is on the other side of the Pennines from the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I am sure she will not mind my using it as an example. The hub is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by skilled nurses specialising in acute care. A consultant is also on hand if needed.
The aim of the service is to care for patients closer to home and keep them there whenever it is safe to do so. In other words, it ensures that people are properly supported and well advised in their own homes and other care settings, such as residential homes, so they do not become as unwell as they might otherwise. They are given appropriate health care advice, guidance and support in their homes and care settings, which helps reduce the burden on acute services in the area. It is particularly important in more rural areas, where the distances that professionals must travel to look after patients are so great that the only effective way to get around to as many patients as possible, in both financial and human care terms, is to use the benefits that telehealth brings to Airedale and the surrounding areas.
Evidence suggests that many patients are admitted into hospital when, as we have discussed, that is not always the best environment or the most appropriate place for them. Using telemedicine allows patients to manage their conditions with the hospital’s support. It can prevent time-consuming, costly trips to hospital for outpatient appointments. The patient’s GP is instantly informed and kept up-to-date about any consultations that occur via the telehealth care hub.
Importantly, the Government do not want such initiatives to take place in isolation. We believe, as I know the hon. Lady does, that we must ensure that they become day-to-day occurrences in the NHS as the years go on. Technology and the better use of information provide immense opportunities for improving the quality and accessibility of NHS care, not just in remote rural settings but in every care setting that we can think of.
The Government’s information strategy for health and social care, “The Power of Information”, is another example that highlights the importance of harnessing innovative new technology and delivering better health for patients. The strategy, of which I know the hon. Lady will be aware, was published in May, setting out ambitions for people to be offered online and mobile access to records, electronic communication with professional teams, online health and care transactions and the ability to rate services and provide feedback about how effective and convenient they were for the patient.
A small number of actions will need to be led nationally, such as setting common standards to allow information to flow effectively around the system. More detailed implementation planning will be led by organisations including the NHS Commissioning Board to ensure that current good localised initiatives in different parts of the country are rolled out nationally. We learn from areas such as Airedale, where looking after people in their own homes through the better use of technology is going well. Those examples should be rolled out to become the norm in the NHS. I know that the NHS Commissioning Board will be central to driving that through, which is why improving information technology was at the heart of the NHS mandate launched last week.
Mainstreaming assistive technology across the NHS is particularly important. As we have discussed, it is not good enough to have high-quality localised initiatives; we need a systematic, NHS-wide approach that embraces technology. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced at the Age UK conference last week that plans have been agreed that will ensure a further 100,000 people will be supported by telehealth in 2013, a sixteenfold increase in the number of people being helped by telehealth and telecare. It will make Britain the largest market in the world behind the USA, which is something that we can all be proud of.
The recently published results from the whole system demonstrator programme are potentially game-changing. We now have robust academic and scientific evidence that such technology can drive improvements not only in quality and value in the NHS but in patient satisfaction levels and outcomes. We all know that the most important people in all these discussions are the patients whom the clinician looks after and the telehealth provider wants to look after. Importantly, when we are designing telehealth services, like all other NHS services, we need feedback from patients in order to ensure that where services are working well, they can be rolled out elsewhere in the NHS, and that where improvements could be made and things are not going so well for patients, the NHS can learn from that and adapt technology to improve care in future.
At the Age UK conference last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced some significant steps on the road to supporting the 3 million people who stand to benefit from telehealth and telecare by 2017. As the hon. Lady said, the key is improving care for older people. They are the biggest users of NHS services, so they will see the most immediate changes and feel the most immediate benefits from telehealth. We have a growing elderly population and growing numbers of people with multiple long-term conditions. In order to meet the challenge of looking after them properly and providing dignity in elderly care, we must ensure that we keep them well at home and in their communities. One significant part of the answer is doing more for telehealth. The Government are well on the road to doing so. I welcome further discussions with the hon. Lady about what more we can do to look after people, particularly the frail elderly, in their own homes.