Tuesday 27 November 2012
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Humber Economy (Fiscal Support)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
Hon. Members will have noticed new clock displays in the Chamber. The top display is the current time, as before. When a speech is not being timed, the bottom display will show the time it started, also as before. If it becomes necessary to introduce a limit on speeches, the bottom display will change to show the time remaining to the Member who currently has the floor. As in the House, the display can award an extra minute for each of the first two interventions in a speech, but there will be no time limit today.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your wise and sagacious stewardship. On this miserable, damp morning, I thought we might begin with some poetry. One of my predecessors as MP for Hull was Andrew Marvell, who wrote the following line in his most famous poem, “To His Coy Mistress”:
“I by the tide of Humber would complain”.
I realise that I am addressing not a coy mistress, but the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), and I am not here today to complain. This debate is not about disagreements with the Government—not that disagreements do not exist, but that is for another time and place. This debate is about the contribution that Hull city region, which is centred on the Humber estuary and embraces the four unitary local authorities of Hull, East Riding, North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, makes to the UK, and our determination to forge a new economic future for our sub-region. It is a debate about working with the Government’s stated policies, not against them.
MPs have worked across the political divide and the geographic divide of the River Humber to establish the Humber local enterprise partnership. We are extremely grateful to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is still the Minister for cities, for his assistance in securing a pan-Humber local enterprise partnership last year. Historical mutual suspicion had always divided the north and south banks, thus ensuring that the huge economic advantages of working together across the estuary were never realised. We failed in the past collectively to market the area, its capabilities and its opportunities, engaging instead in internal competition that meant that effort and resources were not used to best effect.
It was recognised a long time ago that the best way to build a bridge across the Humber was to build a bridge across the Humber, but the ever-increasing cost of using it undermined its benefits. We are grateful for the help we received from Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Transport in our campaign to halve the Humber bridge tolls. The subsequent radical changes required to the composition of the Humber bridge board and the way in which future tolls will be set will be established in the Humber Bridge Bill, due to be published this week.
The Government have recognised the potential of our sub-region by establishing not one, but two enterprise zones on the Humber, one of which, at 534 hectares, is the biggest in the country. While I am in the unusual position of praising the Government, let me add that the Treasury is to be commended for abandoning its plans to impose a 20% VAT rate on static caravans. Given that 95% of the caravan manufacturing sector is based in East Yorkshire, that was a welcome decision, which almost makes amends for the trauma caused by proposing it in the first place.
We are determined to build on those advances, and to move away from a culture of dependency and to take on more responsibility for our own destiny in accordance with the Government’s localism agenda. We are fortunate to have secured the services of Lord Haskins of Skidby as chairman of our local enterprise partnership. He and his colleagues are in the process of producing a five-year plan for the Humber. However, Chris Haskins realises more than anyone that our success will depend on delivery rather than documents, and on tangible achievements rather than worthy aspirations.
Let me talk a little about our sub-region. The Humber is the largest trading estuary in the UK and the fourth largest in Europe, with a chemicals and processing sector worth £6 billion a year and international expertise in ports and logistics. It has a world-class university; it has an international airport, and, contrary to myths about its geographical isolation, it is within a four-hour drive of 40 million consumers and more than 60% of the country’s manufacturing capacity. Colleagues will no doubt focus on the many attributes of this beautiful part of the world and the opportunities that exist there, but I want to focus on four specific issues where the Government need to concentrate their attention.
First and foremost is the new economic opportunity presented by the emerging renewables sector. The Humber is at the forefront in developing biomass power generation. It has significant potential for tide and wave power, but offshore wind power provides the most significant and immediate advantages. Siemens chose the Humber as its preferred location to site a multi-million pound investment in a manufacturing and final assembly plant, primarily because of our strategic location within 12 steaming hours of the large round 2 offshore wind farms and the three huge round 3 zones at Hornsea, Dogger and Anglia.
Green Port in Hull has existing and planned port infrastructure with deep-water access next to large available development sites. If Siemens comes to the Humber, it will bring tier 1 suppliers and begin to populate the renewables manufacturing cluster that can transform our economy and that of the UK. With the added advantages of the Able marine energy park on the south bank, Grimsby’s well established operations and maintenance hub and the marine research expertise at Hull university make the Humber uniquely well suited to offshore wind and able to attract other manufacturing companies to the area.
The Minister will know that, although local institutions and politicians have done all they can to finalise the Siemens investment, we have yet to move from memorandum of understanding to signed contract, the main stumbling block being a perceived lack of commitment by the coalition Government to the long-term support that will be necessary if substantial sums are to be invested by companies that operate globally and have plenty of alternatives to manufacturing in this country. If Siemens does not come to Hull, it will not come to the UK, and Germany or Denmark will be the likely beneficiaries.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change takes the lead on energy policy, but the Treasury has been extolling the virtues of shale gas to a degree that has concerned potential investors in renewables and led them to believe that a dash for gas will downgrade the commitment to renewables. We understand from press reports that the Energy Bill will be published this week. We hope that its contents will give the necessary reassurance to Siemens and other potential investors. We suggest that its publication be accompanied by a high level of engagement by the Chancellor and his ministerial team personally to reassure the sector in general and Siemens in particular of the Treasury’s commitment to the goals set out in the climate change legislation and to providing the means to ensure that they are realised.
The second specific issue relates to the fact that the problems facing us in the Humber area are more economic than social. It is true that since the collapse of the fishing industry, Hull and Grimsby have struggled to cope with the social consequences, but it is equally true that few companies came to the Humber to take advantage of the large pool of surplus labour that was created. It is also the case that, as far as I am aware, not a single Department has ever been relocated to the Humber sub-region.
As the recent, splendid report by Michael Heseltine proposed, more Government work needs to be relocated to the north, and our city region should be a prime destination. However, as well as relocating Government work, the coalition needs to devolve public funds. If the commitment to localism is genuine, there must be a recognition that with the LEP in place we are better able than Whitehall to allocate financial support for skills, welfare to work, regeneration and other important issues, such as transport.
I understand the importance of city deals, and the Humber LEP will put forward a bid in the next few weeks, but the Government need to be more radical in their approach to localism. This is an over-centralised country and if regional development agencies are not to be the solution, LEPs are the only show in town. I believe that the best way forward is for the Government to conduct some pilot schemes for devolving money to those who know how to spend it more effectively to deliver the outcomes required for meaningful growth, and the Humber LEP is keen to be one of the pilot locations.
The third specific area is something that is of great interest to the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells in his capacity as cities Minister. For the city region to work effectively, Hull, as the 10th largest city in England, needs to be given the same opportunities as the other nine. The Core Cities Group is understandably reluctant to admit new members and thus dilute its effectiveness in lobbying the Government, but Hull and the Humber can benefit from the advantages afforded to core cities. Indeed, it would be perverse not to provide assistance on the basis of need, rather than on whether a city is part of a club, membership of which is outside the Government’s control. The tightly drawn boundaries around the city of Kingston upon Hull are one reason why it suffers in some comparisons with cities where the leafy suburbs are included in the city boundary—that is practically all of them—but that must never be allowed to become an excuse for poor performance, particularly in education.
As the Heseltine report rightly points out, a factor holding our economy back is the absence of a meaningful economic focus on the sub-region. That does not require our city boundaries to be changed; it requires a genuine commitment to the cities at the heart of all city regions, rather than just those in the Core Cities Group. We are keen to find innovative economic models, perhaps built around tax increment financing, that could create revenue streams to increase Hull’s economic asset allocation.
The final issue that we want the Government to focus on is the investment in our transport links that is so essential to economic growth. In 2010, the Government accepted that the case for addressing the problems on the A63 on the north bank and the A160 on the south bank had been made. Although those schemes were not affordable in the reduced highways investment programme announced at the last comprehensive spending review, we received assurances that they would be among the first to be addressed in the next spending round. Hull MPs were due to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), regarding the A63 today, but the Department has cancelled the meeting for the second time. Given the importance of transport infrastructure, we trust that that meeting will be given sufficient priority and that it will be rearranged quickly.
As far as the rail network is concerned, the pressing need to electrify the line to Hull beyond Selby has been raised with Ministers and requires urgent attention. There may well be an opportunity for some private sector funding if we can get the prospect of electrification on the agenda either by devolving some of those matters to sub-regional level, as I have mentioned, or by moving more quickly to address those issues from Whitehall.
I have only touched on the Humber LEP’s potential to drive the kind of economic growth that our country needs. I have not mentioned, for instance, the huge potential for developing our strengths in digital gaming, content creation and the creative sectors. With the first 4G wireless network in the country, strong existing skills provision and expertise on both banks of the Humber, we aim to release that potential, and the Minister will be relieved to hear that there is nothing that he needs to do to help us.
I have set out some areas where we require the Government’s help. Lord Heseltine’s report could have been written for sub-regions such as the Humber. His visit to the area obviously influenced some of his thinking and his basic analysis must be right. With devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with a mayoral system in London, the north of England needs significant devolution to local enterprise partnerships so that economic development is tailored directly to the individual challenges and opportunities of our communities. The Chancellor commissioned the Heseltine report, and we would like to bring a deputation from the Humber LEP to talk to the cities Minister.
Time is of the essence. The Prime Minister told the CBI last week that he wants
“every Department in Whitehall to be a growth department.”
He compared our current industrial situation to being on a war footing. I have never known a time when the business community on the Humber has been more willing to engage with the challenges that we face, or when local authorities have been more innovative in seeking solutions to our problems. Local MPs are working together, cross-party and cross-Humber, like never before, but that will all be in danger of dissipating if we do not move swiftly to turn five-year plans into actual projects.
I started with Andrew Marvell, and I will end with his plea in “To His Coy Mistress”, by Humber’s tide. It is famous for the couplet:
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;”
The debate is a plea to ride the chariot rather than be knocked down by it.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I agree entirely with the compliments that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) paid to you.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on the Humber economy, particularly as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and I have put in three applications for such a debate. The right hon. Gentleman was the lucky one, so well done to him on that score.
The debate is on fiscal support for the Humber region, and there is no doubt that the sub-region needs support if it is to benefit from the great opportunities that present themselves. Such support can come from the Government or from Europe but, most significantly, it can come from private enterprise. I do not mind where it comes from; I am eager to provide jobs and growth for my constituents and the area more generally. The infrastructure that would be key to the area’s development is vital and, to a great extent, support for that would come from the taxpayer.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly points to opportunities from green energy, especially the renewable sector. However, I add one caveat: if we are to succeed with that, there must be Government support, but there are limits to the size of bills with which households and existing business can cope. My constituency contains a number of very intensive energy users who are—I shall not say “crippled”—finding things extremely difficult as a result of energy costs.
We must consider how we channel public sector money, and the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the importance of the LEP. The two councils on the south bank showed good judgment by joining two LEPs. They recognised that although the Humber estuary may be key to the area’s economic development, considerable support is available by looking south into greater Lincolnshire, particularly in relation to food processing and tourism, which are important for the Cleethorpes area.
Lord Heseltine’s “No Stone Unturned” report, which has been referred to, highlights the role of LEPs. They will be absolutely key to future investment, but I have one or two concerns about them, in that they are, to a great extent, unaccountable. I strongly feel that public money should always be spent by accountable bodies, rather than anonymous quangos. Nevertheless, given that they harness the private and public sectors together, they have a key role.
I can speak only for the councils on the south bank, but I would make one criticism, particularly of North East Lincolnshire council, about consistency. There have been far too many changes of direction on what is important for the area’s economic regeneration. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) will know that we had the “Greater Grimsby” initiative, during which everything was promoted under that label, but that has been replaced by yet another initiative. We need a much more consistent approach. I commend the councils for working together much more closely. There were a few stumbling blocks when we were setting up the LEP, and I have to say that I have found it easier to work on a cross-party basis here than back in Humberside. Local rivalries need to be tamed if we are to work together.
I am concerned that Government initiatives place too much emphasis on cities. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle pointed out the importance of city deals and city regions. They are important, and the idea of the city region and its trickle-down effect for the wider local economy is fine in principle, but I urge the Minister to consider the fact that provincial towns, such as Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Scunthorpe, Brigg and Goole, need support from the Government, because such support might be too concentrated on the core cities.
I have spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of local leadership, and I noticed that Lord Heseltine’s report spoke of its neutering. The LEP plan for the Humber says the region has experienced “under-investment” and “weak…leadership and governance”. I am in favour of broadening the talent available to local government through elected mayors, although I know that that notion will be cast aside by many. It was a mistake that cities did not take up the opportunity of encouraging their local communities to go for elected mayors because that has left a void, and the provincial towns and smaller cities might steal a march on the cities that rejected the concept—perhaps a brave local leadership might go for it, but I have my doubts. I note that Lord Heseltine is still a great advocate of that approach.
There is a danger that we could talk ourselves down. I recognise that there have been major blows to the area: significant job losses on the north bank in recent times, and the announcement three or four weeks ago of the closure of the Kimberly-Clark factory in my constituency—in Barton-upon-Humber—with up to 500 job losses. Although there have been major setbacks, we must also acknowledge the excellent opportunities that exist, and not only those in the renewables sector.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the potential Able UK investment in the south Humber energy park. That alone could produce upwards of 5,000 jobs, but 5,000 jobs in two or three years’ time is a very distant prospect for someone who has just lost their job at Kimberly-Clark or Comet. Two years’ time is 24 mortgage payments away for someone who has just been put on the redundancy heap, so support is urgently needed. I welcome the Government’s energetic support for the various taskforces set up following announcements such as those from Kimberly-Clark and Tata Steel in Scunthorpe.
We must not lose sight of our potential, however. When measured by tonnage, the Associated British Ports Grimsby and Immingham dock complex is the largest in the UK. It is a major engine of the local economy and ABP has plans for future investment. I have mentioned intensive energy users, such as the oil refineries and chemical processers that also play a major part in the local economy.
The Minister might like to comment on the fact that biomass seems to be stalling. We had projects in the pipeline, and two in particular on the south bank: one in my constituency and one at Brigg, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. Those projects promised a considerable number of jobs, but they seem to have stalled on the basis, the investors tell us, of Government uncertainty. That “uncertainty” probably means certainty, but just not certainty that those particular investors approve of. I hope that the situation will change in the not-too-distant future.
We have other major plus points, such as, in effect, £150 million of Government money through the reduction of the Humber bridge toll. We also have enterprise zones and, significantly, the Government announced last week that the A160 upgrade, which will improve access to Immingham docks, will definitely start in 2015. An important investment that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I have been pushing for is a rail link between the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area and King’s Cross, serving Brigg and Scunthorpe.
I appreciate that time is moving on, so I shall conclude by saying that although we all recognise the difficulties the Government are in, Humberside has taken severe knocks. We need a lift to kick-start private investment. I look to the Minister not only to list all the good things that have been happening, but to give us a positive direction on what he can do now and in the coming couple of years.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing the debate and setting out, in his usual erudite way, an excellent analysis of the situation in the Humber, the possible solutions the Government should actively consider adopting and how they could secure the future of the Humber economy. I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I am pleased that we will, I hope, have contributions from both banks of the Humber—north and south—because, to coin a phrase, we are all in it together.
I was particularly interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about tourism. People on the north and the south banks of the Humber see great potential in developing a tourism strategy. I particularly note the proposals in my home city of Hull for a Hockney gallery. The da Vinci drawings at the Ferens art gallery are attracting huge crowds, which is welcome. East Riding has the Yorkshire wolds, and the south bank obviously includes the traditional seaside resort of Cleethorpes, so there is much to recommend the area for tourism.
I shall focus my remarks on the proposals in Lord Heseltine’s report, “No Stone Unturned”. It has many sound recommendations for the Government, especially if they are serious about their commitment to rebalance the economy, and that means between the north and south, as well as the public and private sectors. The report points to what can be achieved in regeneration locally and regionally, if there is the will, the determination and a sustained effort for the long haul to make it happen. Lord Heseltine draws on his experience of the regeneration of areas such as Liverpool and London docklands. I want consider the regeneration of London docklands and compare it with Hull and the Humber area over the past 30 years. I know both areas well, having been a councillor in the docklands in the 1990s and a Hull Member of Parliament for the past seven years.
If Members will bear with me, I want to set out the context. In the 1980s, traditional employment in the docklands ended, which was paralleled with the decline of Humber-based industry in the Hull area. The divergence in fortunes of the two areas is particularly marked. Docklands has now had more than 30 years of determined regeneration, largely due to its proximity to the City of London, but clear lessons can be learned and applied to Hull and the Humber. Hull has had far less attention, tucked away in a corner of east Yorkshire. It has an excellent university and is home to such world-renowned companies as Smith and Nephew. We have the Deep—an outstanding museum quarter and one of the busiest port complexes and estuaries in the country.
There has been some regeneration and economic growth, but not nearly enough. I certainly do not want to be accused of talking down the area, but we must recognise that in recent years, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said, the Humber area has taken severe knocks. Under the current Government’s policies, Hull is now suffering a huge loss of local spending power. Public sector cuts have been deeper in Hull than in wealthy areas of the south. Hull city council has had a cut of £163.50 per head, compared with £2.70 per head for West Dorset district council, and only yesterday it announced more than 170 job losses. That has to be linked to announcements in the past month that 1,200 private sector jobs are going or are at risk, and the fact that 50 people are chasing every job vacancy in my constituency—the highest figure in the country. Social housing investment has been cut, and the £160 million Orchard Park housing scheme has been axed.
Against that background, what would be a successful regeneration strategy for Hull and the Humber? First, we need to attract private investment by having a clear plan of what we want to achieve and by signing up all key stakeholders. It is interesting that the Government and the London Docklands development corporation courted Canary Wharf investors Olympia and York and others in the 1980s. There was a clear plan for developing a centre for banks, finance, the media and legal and support services, and measures were put in place, while the plan was also encouraged by big tax incentives.
What is the plan for Hull and the Humber? As we have already heard, the Humber LEP has recognised renewables as a key area for economic growth. Hull’s geographical position is its great strength, with its proximity to the North sea and the largest offshore wind farms in the world. The North sea has been described as the Saudi Arabia of renewables, and the Humber area has the potential to be a world centre of excellence for renewables. As hon. Members have already said, potential green energy investors have identified Hull and the Humber as their preferred location, but such investors need long-term reassurance that the coalition is committed to renewables and has a coherent energy policy across the whole Government.
There is serious international competition for the new green energy jobs. If companies such as Siemens do not come to Hull, they will be lost to the UK altogether. This is about potential growth not only for the Humber but for the whole UK economy. The coalition needs to be as interested in attracting Siemens and green jobs to Hull as it is in attracting jobs that benefit Surrey or London. Although various big tax incentives were offered to investors in London docklands, MPs in our region have had to fight off plans to introduce the caravan tax on an existing industry and to fight for enterprise zones to attract future industries to the area. We are still waiting to see the effectiveness of such enterprise zones.
My second point is about the importance of local decision making. Lord Heseltine has stated that LEPs need to be more powerful and better funded—more like Labour’s regional development agencies, possibly. The role of city region status has already been raised, and I hope that we all support an approach that ensures money is best allocated and spent at the sub-regional level. I support the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle about the use of pilot schemes to deliver at that local level, and the Humber area would be ideal for such a pilot.
Questions still have to be answered about the impact and value for money of some of the Government’s policies—for instance, of the regional growth fund and its ability quickly and effectively to provide support on the ground in places such as Hull and the Humber. As we know, the green investment bank is to be located in the two already prosperous financial centres of London and Edinburgh. Might it not be possible to establish a branch on the bank of the Humber, either in Hull or somewhere in the Humber area? That would establish a formal link between the bank and opportunities involving renewables and the Green Port Hull development.
Thirdly, transport infrastructure is a vital part of any successful regeneration policy. London had the docklands light railway, the Jubilee line extension, London City airport and so on. In Hull, we have Hull Trains’ daily train service to the capital, a new transport interchange, a local airport and, of course, the important reduction in Humber bridge tolls. Although we have had good news about the A160, major investment is still needed for the A63 upgrade. If Hull is to reach its fullest potential, we need rail electrification all the way to Hull and not for that to stop, rather bizarrely, at Selby.
My fourth point is about the important role of education and training. Docklands showed that, with initiatives such as SkillsNET, we need actively to equip local youngsters and others for them to get the jobs of the future; that cannot just be left to chance. In Hull, we have three excellent colleges, with fantastic records of providing lifelong education, particularly for people returning to education in their 20s, but 2012 has seen the withdrawal of funding for the Humber Education Business Partnership, the removal of comprehensive careers advice in schools, the axing of the education maintenance allowance and cuts in university and science funding. University of Hull applications have fallen by 18% this year. There now needs to be not only a stronger national strategy, but a local one for vocational skills relevant to the green jobs of the future that we hope to attract locally. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for the work that he has done on that with the LEP.
In conclusion, London docklands had a long-term effort to attract big employers in the skilled industries of the future, which boosted spending power and created further employment and a broad-based local economy resilient enough to weather the credit crunch of 2008-09. Meanwhile, Hull has continued to lose skilled and other jobs. Unfortunately, that has accelerated since 2010. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle has stated that we will work constructively with the Government to use LEPs and city region applications to help regenerate the sub-region. However, what is also utterly true is that we cannot create a vibrant, resilient and prosperous local economy for Hull and the Humber around Starbucks, McDonald’s and Cash Converters, with people in low-paid jobs often now being forced to go to charities or food banks to feed their families. We need a strong, focused regeneration plan that links transport, education and local decision making for our region of Hull and the Humber to have the future that it deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for securing the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) stated, he and I tried to get such a debate, so this is another example of cross-party working.
I apologise for missing the first three minutes of the speech of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. He started and ended with Andrew Marvell, which reminded me of walking past Marrell’s statue every day during my schooldays. We did not pay much tribute to him then, because his left hand was broken; it was restored only in 1999. Marvell was important to us, but not enough to have that fixed for a couple of decades.
This is an important debate in which I have a couple of asks of the Minister as well as some words of thanks. I take on board the point of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) about not wanting to talk down the Humber; we all have a responsibility not to talk it down, because this region is not just struggling today. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, I was born and bred in the Humber. My family has lived on both sides of the river for the past couple of centuries; we do not like to move far. [Interruption.] Nowhere too far anyway. I feel very invested in the region and also very proud of it; it is a fantastic region. None the less, it is a region that has struggled not just in the last two or three years but over the past few decades, due partly to the fall-off of the fishing industry and other industries. People forget that there used to be an awful lot of foundries in Hull. My dad worked in one, but he lost his job when it closed its doors in the early ’90s. There has been a lot of change over the past few decades in the profile of our local economy to which we have not responded particularly well. Even today, we are still faced with many of the challenges that go back a number of decades.
It is important to remember that there are a lot of positives in our region, and some of them are happening as we speak today. I want to be positive about the things that have happened already before making my requests of the Government. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned the caravan tax. Sadly, it is a measure of all Governments that they sometimes do things that are not good for our local area; we are not alone in doing that. However, the first thing that our Government did when they came to power was to scrap the ports tax, which would have had a similar effect on our local economy as the caravan tax, and I thank them for that. As a result, 62 businesses in Hull, 59 businesses in Goole and 44 businesses in Immingham have been protected to the tune of about £30 million.
Back in the 1980s, the biggest land grant in the history of this country was given to Hull for the Victoria dock by the Thatcher Government, and of course we had the housing action trust money in the early 1990s. Anyone who was around at the time will remember how that funding was used for the mass regeneration of places such as the North Hull estate. We have done well in the past, and also done well locally. For example, we secured £150 million for the Humber bridge. Again, that was something that had never been delivered before and was due, in part, to the strong cross-party campaign from all of us in the region. The number of vehicles crossing the Humber has now increased significantly. On Saturday, I was in the Brigg tourist information centre, asking the staff about how things were going since the tolls came down. They showed me the postcode list; there were not just the DN postcodes from the south bank but many HU postcodes. The investment is having a real impact on tourism, which the hon. Lady mentioned.
We are also grateful for the infrastructure funding that we have received. The A164 is important for connectivity from the Humber bridge to Beverley. Similarly, the announcement of the funding for the A160 is welcome. I am keen to support work on the A63, which is some miles from my constituency. When an MP who does not have a constituency interest in a project comes and demands the money for it, perhaps their view should carry a little more weight. Infrastructure on to the A63 is key to unlocking the docks, which would have a huge impact on our whole economy. It is odd to argue for a road scheme that is outside one’s constituency, but we do so because we can all see the bigger picture in the Humber. I urge the Government to do everything they can on that road, because it a problem that has plagued the city, the docks and the local economy for a very long time.
We have had terrible news recently with regard to job losses. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, I pay tribute to Jobcentre Plus and the local councils, which have responded positively to the situation. I met Jobcentre Plus last week to talk about Scunthorpe and Lloyds TSB, and was informed that the majority of people who had lost their jobs there have now found alternative employment, thanks to the hard work not only of those people but of Jobcentre Plus staff.
We are also grateful for the regional growth funding in both east Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. To date, the funding in northern Lincolnshire has created 344 jobs and is well on target to create 500 jobs, and only about half of that money has been allocated. I pay tribute to the councils that have worked so hard on that matter and the businesses that have come forward.
Northern Lincolnshire has had a 68% increase in apprenticeships, and I pay tribute to the council for investing significant resources into creating apprenticeships within its authority and for trying to identify other local businesses to take on apprentices.
I briefly want to echo the concerns that have been raised about renewable energy. I make no bones about my position on onshore wind, which is a huge concern to my constituents, but on offshore wind, there is complete and utter unanimity in our region about its potential and about our support for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and I recently wrote to the Prime Minister urging some consistency on the matter. I was heartened by the response that we received:
“I will continue to voice my strong commitment to the growth of the low-carbon sector…and agree that Government has to continue to act coherently and consistently to put green growth at the top of its priorities.”
Those are excellent words; we now want action. Offshore wind is hugely important to our region. We can develop the skills base to support that sector, which will help not only our region but UK plc.
I have a couple of asks of the Minister in relation to biofuels and bioethanol production. We have two plants in the Humber; one planned on the south bank and one on the north bank. There is uncertainty over whether the Government are committed to bioethanol. The fact is we must have it in our fuel, and at the moment it is coming from Germany or elsewhere. We should be growing that industry here, so I make a call for as much support as possible.
On biomass, places such as Drax and Eggborough, on the edge of my constituency, have coal-fired power stations that wish to co-fire with biomass. Again, uncertainty exists. I met representatives in Eggborough who were concerned about the subsidy system. They have asked us to raise contracts for difference, which the Minister, I am sure, will be fully apprised of, so I will not give him a great deal more detail—obviously, I am not saying that because I do not fully understand it. None the less, it is something the sector is keen to unlock for co-firing biomass. I will end now because I have had my time.
Oh, I am not at the end yet. My hon. Friend is meant to pass me a note when I am.
We are trying to unlock significant European regional development fund money for the Capitol Park project in Goole, which will bring thousands of jobs to the logistics sector in the region. I am heavily involved in that project at the moment, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that, if we do not progress that matter in the next couple of days, he will add his considerable weight to solving some of the issues. The development is really important for our local area.
I end by saying that more needs to be done, especially on broadband delivery UK funding, which is particularly important to many of our small and medium-sized enterprises, and on the A63. Furthermore, we must have certainty on offshore wind and renewable energy for our region.
Let me first express my almost inexpressible pleasure at serving under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time ever, Mr Amess, and also my pleasure at participating in this debate secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who is a doughty fighter for his constituency. The attendance today symbolises the close co-operation that exists between all MPs of all parties in the Humber area. It is a new and welcome thing, and I hope that it speaks well for our development in future.
I just want to say that I shall be referring to “Humber” —which is a river, not a group of people—or to “Humberside”, as I and other members of the old-fashioned generation call it, rather than to “the Hull city region”, a term that tends to create antibodies on the south bank of the river. Before I came into Parliament I always used to crack jokes about the two banks of the Humber being united in mutual antipathy. However, that was about the rivalry over fishing, which is now gone. Now the future lies in co-operation and working together, in the Humber and through the local enterprise partnership. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said that North East Lincolnshire is hedging its bets by also participating in the Lincolnshire LEP, but our eggs are really in the Humber LEP basket, because that is our future. The two banks of the Humber will develop together and flourish together or not at all, because falling apart would weaken the magnetic power of both of them as part of the country’s last undeveloped estuary, which has enormous potential for development.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, I welcome the Heseltine report, which is a prime indication of what our future should be, involving more localism, more power for the LEPs and more power for the regions, and enough money to compensate for the loss of the regional development agencies under this Government. In an interview with The Guardian yesterday, Lord Heseltine was rather modest when he said that he was not proffering his report as a plan B. I think that he is saying that to make his report more popular with the Government, but effectively it is a plan B for the Government. I hope that we shall see signs that the Government are taking up the very wise advice that Lord Heseltine gave them, because from our point of view it is “the Heseltine, the full Heseltine and nothing but the Heseltine” for regional development. That involves more power and more backing for our LEP. At present, it is under-resourced; it needs a bigger staff and better organisation to carry through its policy. I am delighted that we have a development agency for the Humber, but it needs to be strengthened and resourced in the way that Lord Heseltine says in his report.
A major part of our development prospects must be wind generation at sea. The aim must be for the Humber to become Britain’s cluster of wind energy facilities, industries and development. We started on that path with the Siemens contract in Hull, which has been hovering, and I hope that the new clarity of the Government’s energy policy and the support that the Government will give to wind energy at sea, if not to wind energy on land, will cause Siemens to finalise the contract in Hull, because we need it. We also need the development that is going on in Grimsby to provide service and maintenance for the wind turbines out at sea.
That is not all that is involved in the development of wind energy. We have the prospect of developing a cluster on the south bank of the Humber as well, in the Able UK development, which will also be an industrial facility—a factory area for the creation and assembly of these huge wind turbines. They will be absolutely enormous. It is difficult to visualise them. They certainly would not pass under the Humber bridge erect. We need that factory facility, but we also need the dock facility that could be provided by Able UK, which holds out great prospects for the south bank area. However, it has been held up by all sorts of things. It has been held up by the birds, which seem to hold up most developments in our area; by Natural England, and by planning problems. Now it is being held back by a kind of rearguard action that is being fought by Associated British Ports. I must say that I deplore that action. ABP has a monopoly on the port facilities in the Humber—in Goole, Hull and Grimsby. It is not reasonable for ABP to try to frustrate the development of a competitive facility by Able UK. I hope that ABP’s action can be stopped; we are making representations to the Government to stop that delaying activity.
We need to have those development prospects in the Able UK development on the south bank if the wind energy sector is to flourish as a cluster. Michael Porter’s work suggests that the best form of development available is to cluster an industry, with the research, the ability and the management in one area. I hate to see firms such as Areva going to Scotland. Areva is a French firm, and probably does not understand this country, which is why it is going to Scotland rather than to the much more attractive and alluring situation that is available in Humberside.
I emphasise that we do not need to put all our eggs into the basket of wind energy; we need other renewables too. We need the Government to support and encourage biomass development, which right hon. and hon. Members have referred to. There is the prospect of a biomass development at Barton. What has happened to that? Why has it been held up? Indeed, why has it disappeared from the horizon? The development at Immingham to produce ethanol from grain has been held up, partly by European decisions and partly by Government inertia. We want to develop alternative energies as a cluster development, rather than just having wind energy production, although wind is clearly the major part of alternative energy development, so I put in a footnote for those other alternative energies.
I am reaching the end of my speech, Mr Amess; I know that the look in your eyes is not boredom but enthusiasm that I should continue. All good things come to an end and my speech will come to an end eventually.
In Hull as in Grimsby—the towns are very similar, in their problems and in their make-up—we need a policy of urban regeneration, which could come mainly through housing. The pathfinder project in Hull was aborted by the Government. The housing authority in Grimsby, which is now a housing association, has received no financing for new building this year. It is one of the few housing authorities to miss out on such financing.
We need housing development, because it is a stimulus to the economy. The obvious thing to do when a homelessness problem is building up and a housing crisis is developing is to invest in housing to stimulate the economy in the way that it did in the 1930s. We need that stimulus, in Hull, Grimsby and the whole area. We need more support for the local authorities, which at present are cutting back because of the draconian insistence that there should be a 26% cut in local authority spending before 2015. That is a folly at a time when local authorities could be a big stimulus to development.
As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said, we need a direct rail link to Cleethorpes and Grimsby. Hull Trains has done wonders for Hull, and we need the same development and stimulus on the south bank of the Humber, which could be created by a direct rail connection to London. That would help industry by making the area more attractive for investment, and it would help communications. We are a bit too isolated for our own good on both banks of the Humber, and a direct rail link would help to alleviate that problem.
Unfortunately, I cannot stay for the Minister’s brilliant summing-up of our case and his total acceptance of the need for development in Hull, because I have to attend a meeting of the Public Accounts Commission that starts in two minutes. However, in a spirit of unctuousness towards the Minister, I must say that we have had a good deal so far from this Government. I welcome those concessions that have been made: for instance, on the Humber bridge tolls; on the cancellation of the historical dock charges, which was carried through; and on the development of the A160. I hope that that progress can continue, because the Government now need to develop and implement the Heseltine report in full.
I can say with some certainty that it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, because, although I am a relatively new Member of the House, I have served under your chairmanship on numerous occasions already.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing this important and timely debate. I am delighted that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is here to respond, and I urge him to listen carefully to hon. Members’ remarks and, perhaps more importantly, to act on them. It is often said that, in government, the power is in the purse, and policies across every Department must have sign-off and approval from the Treasury.
Before I make my plea for bespoke, targeted financial support for the Humber region, I would like to give a flavour of where the economy in Hull is now. I hope to offer a snapshot of the reality on the ground for people living in east Hull—and, indeed, struggling to live there as a result, let us be clear, of Government policy, which is hitting them particularly hard.
In the good-natured spirit of the debate, however, let me first thank the Minister for the Government’s support on issues such as the Humber bridge tolls. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—or Goole and Brigg, as he likes his constituency to be called—was very involved in the tolls campaign before, during and after the general election campaign; indeed, Members of Parliament from across the parties were involved in it. Similarly, I thank the Government for the £25 million in regional growth funding to help the Green Port project, although the money is slow in coming.
I acknowledge the promise of help with infrastructure projects such as that at Castle street involving the A63, which runs through Hull West and into east Hull. I want to press the Minister on the Government’s continued support for the project. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle mentioned that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), has today cancelled, for the second time, his meeting with Hull MPs, which is particularly important given the concerns raised in this week’s British Chambers of Commerce report. Areas in east Hull have been awarded enterprise zone status, which offers businesses potential benefits, but all policies should be reviewed in terms of their outcomes, and I am sorry to say that the outcomes for the unemployed have failed Hull.
Much more targeted support is needed from the Government. The jobs crisis in Hull and the region more generally needs to be addressed as a matter of absolute urgency. It would be difficult to overstate just how desperate times are with regard to jobs in Hull. Forty people are chasing every job vacancy in my constituency, and those figures are replicated across the city. I suspect that the Minister will cite falling unemployment nationally as an indication that things are improving, and while I of course welcome any reduction, I reiterate the fact that that dip is not happening in east Hull or across the city. I fear that we may be seeing a generation of underemployed people—the working poor—who fall off the unemployment figures, but still live in real financial poverty.
Unemployment continues to rise every month in my constituency, but youth unemployment is of particular concern. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of people not in education, employment or training in Hull was reduced by 6%, from 17% to 11%. That was still far too high—we must be honest about that—but the figures were definitely heading in the right direction.
Previous reassurances from the Government that the private sector will pick up the slack resulting from cuts to public sector jobs are simply not borne out in the Humber region. The Chancellor’s promised rebalancing of the economy has failed in Hull, and long-established private companies are going bust or making significant redundancies every week. In recent weeks, job losses have been announced at BAE Systems, Seven Seas, Kimberley-Clark, McCain, Comet, Willerby Holiday Homes, Smith and Nephew, and Crown Paints, to name a few household names. Yesterday, Hull city council also announced a consultation on a further 171 potential job losses.
We are currently in a 90-day consultation process with Seven Seas, after which we may see 259 skilled jobs leave Hull. Seven Seas was established in Hull 73 years ago off the back of the fishing industry and the trade in cod liver oil. We are working with the business’s representatives in an attempt to persuade them not to leave the city just because, as they put it, the economy is failing them. Without a shadow of a doubt, they blame the Government’s economic policies for the firm’s failure and for the need to consider outsourcing production. Comet is another company that started in Hull a considerable time ago, and hundreds of people are praying that a buyer will come in to take over now that the company has gone into administration.
Let me mention some of the positives about the region, and particularly my city. My right hon. Friend said that the renewables sector and the Siemens investment could deliver for Hull what oil did for Aberdeen. The Siemens factory is expected to be built in 2014, with the berth built the following year. About 700 jobs will be created almost immediately, with thousands more following in the supply chain. It is crucial, therefore, that we get some certainty from the Government, because it is fair to say that we have had mixed messages from them in recent months. The Liberal Democrats swear that this is the greenest Government ever while the Treasury scraps subsidies to solar energy and gives tax cuts to offshore gas exploration. The Energy Secretary says that wind is wonderful, while having to slap down a junior Minister—the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes)—for stating that the Government have had enough of wind. We need absolute clarity from the Government if we are to secure this terribly important investment in the city.
My right hon. Friend touched on education, and Hull has some excellent educational establishments, of which Wilberforce college in my constituency is just one. However, organisations such as the Humber Education Business Partnership, which historically brought educational bodies and industrialists together, have lost Department for Education funding.
The LEP is an important factor, although I do not think that it provides as much support as the regional development agency. The Government should take recommendation 61 of the Heseltine report seriously, because it reinforces the fact that LEPs need more power and money to deliver for the areas they plan to provide for.
I want briefly to touch on the city deal. I welcome Hull’s opportunity to bid for city deal funding, and I hope the Humber bid is successful. The leader of Hull city council, Councillor Stephen Brady, is looking forward to working with public and private sector partners from across the Humber to develop a Humber city deal proposal. Hull needs targeted, bespoke support, and the city deal may go some way towards helping us to sort out the current economic downward spiral.
I also want briefly to address the issue of the A63 at Castle street. This week’s British Chambers of Commerce report said that just three out of 13 transport projects identified by the Government as crucial to economic growth have been given the go-ahead. I hope there is nothing sinister about the Under-Secretary of State for Transport cancelling appointments—and doing so, I have to say, at rather late notice. I really want to hammer home the point that the A63 at Castle street is crucial to the economy of Hull and the region.
In the short time that I have—because I want to leave enough time for the Minister to respond, and there might need to be dialogue with local Members—I want to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for the skilful way in which he talked about the perhaps unrecognised and untapped advantages of the Hull economy and what they might offer. Those advantages include the fourth largest trading estuary in Europe and the fact that it is within four hours of 40% of the UK economy, as well as the excellent cultural and creative offer that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) talked about. There are some fantastic assets waiting to be tapped. However, as we have heard, this is a tale of two cities, and I want to spend a couple of minutes giving the perspective of the Opposition Front Bench.
We are undoubtedly at a critical moment for the economy in the Humber area, and the recession has not been an easy time for that part of the world. We have heard about Comet going into administration and about Kimberly-Clark in Barton. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) talked about difficulties at the Seven Seas plant. Employment opportunities will be crucial for future prosperity. We want a diverse economy, rather than one where a part is doing well but the rest is not. We must make sure that there is the ecosystem—the right mix—to sustain the region, and my hon. Friends are very focused on that.
Enterprising businesses in the area have been battling against headwinds in the form of the Government’s tax rises and spending reductions, which have sapped confidence in recent years. We have heard this morning about an aspect of the Government’s approach: the Work programme might be worse than if they had done nothing. Given the performance of some schemes, things are going backwards. We are in a critical period and must focus every effort on getting things right.
We have heard from hon. Members of all parties about specific matters to do with critical Whitehall decisions. I am struck by the need to get clarity about renewables policy and the green energy sector. The point was well made about Siemens being poised for investment. The Humber is a part of the world where there are massive advantages for offshore wind, in particular, but others have talked about the biomass sector in Barton and elsewhere, about which we need clarity from the Treasury in particular. The Chancellor of the Exchequer obviously has strong views about renewable energy policy and we need more clarity about where it is intended that the country should go in the context of decarbonisation. We hope that the energy Bill will bring that, but a mist has descended over where the Government are going—and that is putting it kindly. My hon. Friends have been forceful in saying that they want clarity about that.
Transport infrastructure is also critical. The Minister needs to arrange a meeting with his colleagues in the Department for Transport as a matter of urgency because, as someone who had occasion many years ago to spend quite a lot of time in east Hull, I know well that the question of Castle street and the A63 upgrade is crucial to unlocking much of the area’s potential. The Minister could do worse than give us an update on how the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Act 2012 might help in the present case, perhaps in connection with guarantees, or the underpinning or underwriting that it facilitates.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle had some great ideas about the relocation of public projects, and Whitehall Departments might have the opportunity to move to the area. There is a strong case for that, especially on the question of cost-effectiveness, when the cost of buildings and infrastructure in the capital is compared with that in other parts of the country. That is the sort of thing that we should be considering. There have been signs that the Government are willing to listen with regard to some of these questions, because the Humber bridge toll decision was a good one, and the U-turn on VAT on static caravans was also very welcome.
Finally, some critical governance decisions need to be confronted. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who has had to leave early, was right to say that the future rests with the co-operation of all players and bodies in the Humber region. The Humber local enterprise partnership is an important body, and we need it to make progress with development. It is a pity that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is not responding to the debate, because he has a particular brief for cities policy. We want the Humber region to be in the vanguard of new cross-authority working, because that is how it has to be. We must have clarity about leadership and decision making in that part of the world so that it is possible to ask loudly and clearly for delegated decisions and the devolution of resources, which are evidently needed at the coal face—on the front line.
I commend hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber for the vocal and tenacious way in which they have made their case. They bang on the table effectively, and leave no stone unturned—if I may mix my metaphors—in making the case for the area. It is a strong case, and the Treasury must respond to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for securing the debate and for taking a thoughtful and constructive approach to an important issue. I also thank the other hon. Members who spoke: the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), and my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).
First, I will quickly give an overview of the Government’s priorities, using their fiscal capabilities, which have been set out in Budgets. We repeated them in the Budget of 2012, and they are the creation of a stable economy and a fairer, more efficient and simpler tax system, and the bringing in of reforms to support growth. The Budget and the national infrastructure plan that we published at the time of the autumn statement in 2011 set out the relevant steps and the priorities for the country as a whole, and included specific measures for the Humber economy.
Three areas in which the Government have acted to help the whole UK quickly are cuts in corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to 22% by 2014, which will benefit companies throughout the country, including the Humber region; changes in the personal allowance, which have already meant that 74,000 people in the Yorkshire and Humber region are being taken out of tax altogether, and 1.8 million will benefit; and increased spending in the Growing Places fund, which has been established to provide funding for infrastructure needs. We have heard much this morning about local enterprise partnerships and two in the region have already received almost £70 million.
Several hon. Members mentioned Lord Heseltine’s report “No stone unturned in pursuit of growth”, and I am pleased that it has caused excitement. Most people talked about it positively and that is welcome. I hope that they would agree that the Government deserve credit for looking at new ways to stimulate the economy and for commissioning the report. We are considering it, and I am pleased that hon. Members have taken note of it.
A number of Members mentioned unemployment in the region. They are right to be concerned about it; we all are, and the Government most certainly are. In the Yorkshire and Humber region, unemployment rose by 1.8% between 1997 and 2010; but so far under this Government, it is down by 0.6%, which I am sure all Members welcome.
I want to move on to some of the specific issues raised by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. He made three or four key points, and I want to address them all in the time that I have. First, he mentioned energy policy, and Siemens in particular. He referred to the fact that, last week, the Government announced an agreement for going forward on energy policy, which has, I think, delivered a clear and durable signal to investors, including Siemens. He is right that the Energy Bill will be published this week and, naturally, the Bill will bring a lot more information forward. The agreement and the Bill will show that the Government have taken a serious approach to the issue. We believe that they will bring forward up to £110 billion of much-needed investment in the economy, which will support up to 250,000 jobs, of which at least 700 will, we hope, be secured by Siemens in the Humber region.
When the energy Bill is announced, colleagues will see that we have taken a constructive approach. With that and the national policy framework that has already been announced, coupled with the strong support for renewables in the Humber region through the regional growth fund, companies such as Siemens and others in the region that might want to establish themselves in renewables will find some Government support.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned the possibility of having a branch of the green investment bank in her region. I will most certainly make that representation on her behalf to my colleague the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
A number of colleagues rightly mentioned transport, and the importance of that type of infrastructure investment in the region, both now, in creating jobs during the investment period, and in the longer term, in making the region more attractive for investment. The Government have made substantial commitments to improving major road connections in the Humber region. Two road schemes in the area are being developed by the Highways Agency, and construction will potentially start in the next spending review period: the A63 Castle street improvement and the A160/A180 Immingham scheme. I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole regarding the A63; it is good of him to support a road that does not run through his constituency but that, no doubt, supports the wider region. Those are two of only six schemes in England that the Department for Transport announced development funding for in May 2012. In addition, on 20 November the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the A160/A180 scheme will be part of a programme of accelerated development for four major road schemes, which will aim to cut 18 months off the original construction timetable.
Work is under way on the East Riding of Yorkshire council’s A164 Humber bridge to Beverley route improvement scheme. The £10 million scheme, to which the council is contributing £2.3 million, was confirmed in the Chancellor’s statement last November.
Briefly, on a couple of other Government initiatives that have helped the region, I have already mentioned the local enterprise partnerships, of which there are two for the region, in a wider sense. There are also more than 24 enterprise zones throughout the country, two of which are in the Humber, and which will be allowed to keep the growth in business rates that are created in the zone over the next 25 years.
There is also the regional growth fund, worth £2.4 billion, which will help to grow private sector-led jobs throughout Britain. Winners from the first two rounds are expected to create more than 10,000 direct and 16,000 indirect jobs in the Yorkshire and Humber region, including a £25 million joint bid by East Riding of Yorkshire council and Hull city council to stimulate private sector investment in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned city deals, and he will know that the Government have agreed a set of ambitious city deals with eight core cities outside London, to help them to maximise their growth potential. Following that, the Government have taken forward what we call the second wave, and he will know that Hull and Humber is possibly one of the 20 other cities that have been invited to submit an expression of interest in taking the deal forward. A decision will be made in the early part of next year.
I noted the right hon. Gentleman’s request for a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I have already asked my right hon. Friend about that, and he would be absolutely delighted to meet the right hon. Gentleman. He wanted me to specifically point out that he takes a very keen interest in the Humber region.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes was absolutely right to say that when we focus on cities we must not forget the provinces. The Government must ensure that our policies help all areas, including smaller towns and villages, and not just our great cities.
I want to talk a little about public spending. A number of Members referred to the changes in public spending and their potential economic impact, perhaps suggesting that local authorities in the Humber region have taken disproportionate cuts. It is fair to say that the previous Government left the public finances in—let us put it generously—a very difficult situation, and we have had to take necessary action to deal with that.
I am grateful to the Minister for his commitment to my meeting the Financial Secretary. We are all mystified as to why the A63 was not mentioned in the same announcement on 20 November. I do not expect the Minister to have an answer to that, but does he agree that since a junior Minister at the Department for Transport has twice cancelled a meeting with Hull MPs, the Secretary of State for Transport should now meet us as soon as possible?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. I do not know why that meeting has been cancelled. I am sure that there is a constructive reason, but I will take his point to the Minister and ensure that he is aware of the strength of feeling on that issue.
I can probably assist the Minister. I think that that Minister cancelled on one of those occasions because he was on holiday. Perhaps the Minister might want to visit Hull, to see the A63 and Castle street for himself. He would understand the need, if he did.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is inviting me, but I would be happy to come to Hull. I love Hull. I have lots of friends there, and am happy to go and make some more.
It is only right that the Government protect the most challenging regions from public spending cuts, to the extent that they can. The formula grant in Humber was £609 per person in 2011-12, compared with an average of £372 across England and £190 in Richmond upon Thames. I am sure that Members will agree that that reflects, to a large extent, local needs.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby rightly mentioned housing. I want to point to the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill, which has now received Royal Assent. Up to £10 billion of the £50 billion of guarantees are earmarked for housing spending, and if Members know sponsors of such projects in the region, I encourage them to make an application to the relevant Department to find out whether it is possible to take advantage of the guarantees.
In conclusion, I again thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle for securing this constructive debate, and I also thank all the Members who have taken part. I noted the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the great Andrew Marvell, and if I understood him correctly, I think that he is basically telling the Government to get on with it. I think that it is fair to say that the Government have taken a lot of action, but I hear him loudly and clearly, and the Government will continue to take action and pay a great deal of attention to the region.
Winter Fuel Allowances
I am pleased to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.
When I introduced a private Member’s Bill on this topic, it received the support of hon. Members of all parties, which demonstrates the depth of concern about the off-gas-grid energy market. The issue has also been constantly raised by Members during energy debates. Unfortunately, Government Whips objected to my Bill, and it is now suffering a lingering death in the twilight zone of the Order Paper.
I do not intend to use this debate to address the general problem of fuel poverty, the details of which should be well known to Members of all parties. I note, however, that 15% of all households in the UK are not on the gas grid, and that some 32% of such households are in fuel poverty, as opposed to 15% of those on the grid. Unfortunately, it seems that little has been done to address the immense problems that have been raised over the years. The present Government, to their credit, got the Office of Fair Trading to undertake a review of the market, but to almost universal disbelief, frankly, that decided that the market was working fairly. Despite that, much of the OFT’s work on the market is of great interest.
I have raised the issue of winter fuel payments for off-gas-grid pensioners on numerous occasions, as I am sure the Minister knows. Ministers in this Government and the previous Government have indicated that the idea has merit but, of course, nothing has happened. Back in March 2010, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, of which I was a member, raised the issue in its report on fuel poverty.
My Bill would not extend winter fuel payments to additional groups, nor would it tread on the contentious issue of means-testing winter fuel payments, which concerns some Members. My Bill does not attempt to address the many issues that surround off-grid energy. It is tightly drafted to give some relief to a particularly vulnerable sector: those pensioners who are off the gas grid. There are many such pensioners in my constituency, and they face a number of particular problems.
First and foremost, there is the cost of home fuel oil. As with all forms of energy, the price of home fuel oil has rocketed in recent years, but there is clear evidence that the price rises in the early autumn and stays high over the winter. Even valueoils.com, which sells the oil, states:
“Winter months are typically more expensive than the summer given the rise in demand across Europe, the summer months of June and July will usually provide the lowest rates.”
The graph on its website shows a dramatic price increase in all areas of the United Kingdom over the winter months, and it is important to note that that is as much an issue in rural areas of Wales, England and Northern Ireland as it is in the highlands and islands of Scotland.
When I secured this debate, Mike Foster, the former Member for Worcester, contacted me to point out that the Oil Firing Technical Association
“suggest a typical rural household could have saved £170 if heating oil was bought in June 2010 compared to January 2011 nearly doubling the value of the Winter Fuel Allowance.”
Even the House of Commons Library note that was produced for my Bill’s Second Reading states:
“The average costs of heating and providing hot water for a typical three bedroom house with LPG have been estimated at around £2,300 per year (based on April 2012 prices with a conventional boiler), heating oil is thought to cost around £1,700 and gas around £1,200.”
It is also worth noting that over the past four years the cost of heating an average home with propane or home fuel oil has increased by £850 and £750 respectively, while the cost for gas has increased by £400. Not only are off-grid homes more expensive, therefore, but the costs are rising much more sharply. In short, heating a home with liquefied petroleum gas costs almost twice as much as heating a home with access to the mains gas grid. Importantly, the main use of LPG and home fuel oil is for heating, so although those homes generally—as most homes do—have electricity and benefit from the discounts offered by energy companies, they still face greater costs, particularly for heating and cooking.
The traditional Government response has been to call for an extension of the mains gas grid as one way to address the problem. Indeed, the Scottish Government recently announced a new scheme to do that but, realistically, such schemes are going to help only those households with a mains gas supply relatively nearby. Even then, the cost of connecting to the gas grid can be substantial and well out of the range of many people who would like to be connected. I have dealt with cases in my constituency just outside towns when although there is a gas main relatively close by, residents have been quoted many hundreds of pounds for connection to it. Furthermore, many rural and island areas will never be able to connect to the gas grid. The grid simply does not exist in many remote areas, let alone in island areas, so in such areas the cost of connection would be enormous.
I have an example from my constituency. The marshland villages to the south of Goole are not on the grid. I have raised that with the network, and it has no intention of putting them on the grid. Such communities face the double problem of being more reliant on their cars and often living in the worst insulated houses.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I was going to address some of those problems. In many rural areas, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that much of the housing is old and of a construction that makes it difficult to install energy-saving measures such as cavity wall insulation. Many houses in rural Scotland are of a solid wall construction, and there is a limit to what can be done to save energy. Once the roof insulation has been put in, the only real option is to install some sort of solid wall insulation, which is difficult in many of those houses.
Such households will receive the same winter fuel allowance as pensioners on the gas grid, but there is a crucial difference in how the energy is delivered. Those who are on the gas grid will receive their winter fuel bill around the time that the winter fuel allowance is generally paid, so the system works well for those people. Indeed, in the explanatory notes to the regulations that last amended the benefit, the previous Government specifically stated:
“They are paid in a lump sum each winter to ensure that money is available when fuel bills arrive.”
No one could dispute that that is a good thing, but that is not how it works for those who are off the gas grid. Such people face the difficulty of having to pay for their LPG or home fuel oil up front at the beginning of the winter, well before they have the benefit of the winter fuel allowance. Many find it difficult to do so and may not completely fill up the tank, leaving them having to do so in the depths of winter, which brings its own problems, and not only due to the cost.
The OFT’s report found that there are many competing suppliers in the market, but by definition many of those suppliers are small. Although some of the larger players offer greater payment flexibility, smaller ones are unable to do so. The Minister may be interested to know that some of the bigger players have expressed an interest in doing something, but they sometimes have difficulty finding vulnerable customers because of the regulations. Although electricity companies, for the purpose of the discount, can access such information, I understand that other energy companies cannot because of the way the regulation was drafted under the Energy Act 2010.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing such an important issue to the House.
The same thing happens in Northern Ireland. Gas is available in Newtownards but not on the peninsula, while gas is available in Comber but not a few miles away in Ballygowan. For those reasons, accessibility is being held back for a great many people. Is it not time for the Government to consider issuing licences generally so that gas can be accessible for everyone?
That is an excellent idea. I note that the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party, among others, supported my private Member’s Bill, because this is a huge problem in Northern Ireland, although Northern Ireland has different regulations because social security is a devolved matter.
The price of fuel is rising—often quite substantially—as winter approaches. Even those suppliers that offer a fixed winter price will be doing so at a price higher than in the summer. As the Minister will appreciate, there can also be a problem getting a delivery. Hon. Members will recall the dreadful weather of two winters ago, when many of my constituents faced huge difficulties getting their tanks filled. Some were left with no fuel in the run-up to Christmas. The situation is exacerbated by how the oil companies work, because some modern tanks have a gauge, and the companies will deliver only when it falls to a certain level. If somebody cannot get their tank filled when they want to because the oil company has decided that it is not an urgent case, and bad weather then comes quickly, it can cause huge problems.
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine share problems involving off-grid gas. Does he believe that if there were a more focused approach on paying winter fuel allowances to those in greater need, some of our constituents might be better served?
I said at the outset that I would not get into that argument, because I do not think that that is the way to proceed. Personally, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because I think that the bureaucratic problems created might be great. I am trying to focus purely on those who would, under any system, receive their payment earlier because they are off the gas grid, and I shall go on to explain why.
The situation of two winters ago was perhaps exceptional, but it shows the additional problems faced by off-gas-grid consumers. My Bill proposed a suggestion for tackling those problems. Currently, winter fuel allowances are paid through a system involving regulations that specify a date by which pensioners must apply. It is worth noting, however, that once they are in the system, they do not have to reapply every year. Clause 1 of my Bill would have varied the regulations to bring forward the qualifying date from late September to late July for those off the gas grid. Clause 2 would have brought forward the payment date for those off the gas grid to no later than 30 September to allow them to buy a complete tank of gas before the winter.
When my Bill was presented, the House of Commons Library produced a note that considered how the problem might be tackled, including my suggestions. The Library identified two possible objections. I am not sure whether they are the same objections that the Minister will offer today, but I will comment on them briefly.
The first objection was that ordinary claimants might feel aggrieved at being denied early access. The whole point of the Bill, however, was to tackle the problem of having to pay for energy up front. Ordinary claimants, as the note describes them, would have access to the allowances, as stated in regulations, when their quarterly bills become due. I reiterate that the explanatory note to the relevant regulations state that the payment is meant to be made available when the bill arrives. For those who pay up front, the most appropriate way to achieve parity would be to make the payment as close as possible to the time of the outlay, which was precisely what my Bill attempted to do.
The second objection was that moving the application date forward could cause some people to lose out on the payment. I recognise that that could be a problem, but it is hardly insurmountable. It would be a problem only for the first year of each claim because, as I said, once applicants are on the system, they need not reapply each year, as they receive the allowance automatically. It would be possible, for example, to allow off-grid consumers who miss the earlier date to apply at the later date, but then to be transferred to the earlier date in year 2 to prevent difficulties. If the Government have other problems with an earlier date, will the Minister explain them? If it is just that they do not want to move the date at all, we could keep the September date, and simply allow payment to off-gas grid consumers at an earlier date from year 2.
There is nothing revolutionary about my proposals, which would simply make a minor change to begin to address off-gas-grid consumers’ problems by targeting a particularly vulnerable group. It seems to me that none of the difficulties are insurmountable with political will, but the whole issue of off-grid consumers seems to have been kicked into the long grass as being too difficult. The Bill would not solve all the problems, but it would make a start.
As I said, I have raised the issue on numerous occasions with Ministers in this and the previous Government. My Bill was born out of frustration that nothing had happened, but Ministers did not seem willing even to debate the issue. Although the Bill in front of mine was talked out, my Bill was not allowed to go to Committee so that the issue could at least be debated—it was objected to by the Whips and now presumably will make no progress. I secured this debate in the hope that the Minister will give us some answers about what the Government object to in trying to tackle the serious difficulties faced by this particularly vulnerable group.
Good morning, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) on securing this debate and on the efforts to which he has gone to raise the issue. I recall the Friday in question, when I had forsaken the joys of Thornbury and Yate to be with him in Westminster. I stood fully ready to respond to his debate, but unfortunately did not have the opportunity to do so. It is good to have the opportunity now to respond to the important and serious issues that he has raised.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that for a section of the population—as he rightly said, not just in rural Scotland but in rural parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland—when they pay their big winter fuel bills is an issue. Whereas many people might pay around Christmas or early in the new year, the folk that we are talking about might pay in the autumn, for instance. He asked whether we could pay those folk their winter fuel payments early, and suggested that we would not do so during the first year after they reached women’s state pension age, because then they would lose out by a couple of months, but we could perhaps do it from year two.
One challenge of ours in responding to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is that at the moment the Government have a fairly slick and efficient way of getting those important payments to people. We have about 12 million pensioners in the land, and we make the payments as automatically as possible. To give him a feel for the problems involving claims, there is a set of men who are below the men’s state pension age but above the women’s state pension age who must claim for winter fuel payments, because we do not know that they exist. A 63-year-old man is entitled to a winter fuel payment, but does not receive a pension, so he must make a claim. It creates a big problem of complexity and take-up if a claim must be made; it is far better in terms of getting money to the people who need it if the process is as automatic as possible.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as I want to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Angus.
The hon. Member for Angus wants to ensure that the Government get payments to people. We want to ensure that we do so when we need to. Even with our systems, we do not manage to get the money to everybody before Christmas, although we get it to the vast majority—more than 95%, I think. One way to address his concern would be to bring forward the eligibility date for everybody; for instance, we could bring it forward from September to July. That would achieve his goal of getting the money to the folk who are off the grid when they need it.
The problem is that the vast bulk of people would then get their lump sum in autumn, rather than when the winter fuel bill arrives, which would be to their detriment. Surprising research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that because the money is labelled, branded and seen as a winter fuel payment, even though it is just cash and people can spend it on what they like, they are far more likely to use it for fuel bills than other cash coming in. We would be reluctant to move the bulk of payments away from the time when people’s principal bills arrive.
In that case, the hon. Gentleman’s proposition is that we identify a separate category of people who are off the mains gas grid. He said in his remarks that people would have to claim only once. I will return in a moment to the point about the claims process, but we would have to ensure that the data were accurate every year. To give a simple example, when I bought the house that I live in, which is not in the middle of nowhere by any means, it had no mains gas, so for one year we were off-grid. Had I been a pensioner when I bought it, I would have been entitled to early payment. The next year, we were connected to the gas grid. Somebody would have had to know that I was no longer entitled to the early payment. Either I would have had to report it to the Department for Work and Pensions, or the Department would have had to send people into back gardens; I do not know.
We would need a mechanism. Although the bulk of properties would be the same from one year to the next, there would be in-flow. New properties are built off the grid, and properties off the grid would come on to the grid. It is not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It would not be a one-off process in which once someone was in, they would qualify for ever.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but I have two points. First, surely the churn would be relatively low. Secondly, with other payments, it is not unusual for claimants to have to notify the Department of changes in circumstance. Why would it be such a problem in this case?
When the Department’s books are audited, we cannot say, “We think it’s broadly all right in most cases.” We have to make efforts to ensure that we are paying money only to people who are entitled. Although the stock would, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, be largely the same from year to year, with some in-flow and out-flow at the margins, we have to ensure that the records are accurate every year. We need a mechanism in place to ensure that that is so.
To get this scheme up and running, we would have to identify which of the 12 million households were eligible for it and we would have to invent a claims process—I assume that the hon. Gentleman would suggest that people should be able to make a claim to us—and advertise that. We would then have manually to separate the potentially hundreds of thousands of cases, if not more, and process them differently. We estimate that the running costs to the Department would be several million pounds. It is not a trivial task. Is this the best way to help vulnerable households of the sort that both the hon. Gentleman and I want to help and support?
The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting issue about data on vulnerable households, which we deal with at the moment through the warm home discount. We have a deal with the big energy suppliers, through electricity bills, which helps people who are off the gas grid. We tie up their data, as customers, with ours on pension credit, age, and so on, and send a flag to the electricity companies to say, “This is a vulnerable household. Will you make a deduction at source from the electricity bill?” The figure at the moment is £130 this winter.
I did not particularly mention that issue. Those who get the warm home discount will get it whether they are getting winter fuel allowance on-grid or off-grid. At least one large energy supplier told me that it would be interested in something similar, but because the Energy Act 2010 only allows data sharing with electricity companies, they cannot get hold of that information. Will the Minister at least consider whether it is possible to extend that regulation to gas and off-grid suppliers, some of which are fairly major now?
Yes, I will. Our data sharing with pension credit customers is covered by the Pensions Act 2008, so in principle we can share our data, although we would need separate regulations for a different scheme. I am happy to explore that. If the hon. Gentleman provides me with details of the suppliers who expressed an interest, we could perhaps have a conversation with them. We might be able to do something constructive.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that some of the properties that we are talking about are hard to insulate, but I have always thought that far and away the best way to help people who are in fuel poverty is to tackle energy efficiency and wastage. I would far rather pay somebody £200—the winter fuel payment figure—to get their home better insulated, than pay them £200 simply to help them pay a sky-high bill for a house that is poorly insulated. Although some properties in the 1 million, or however many we are talking about, are of the sort that the hon. Gentleman described, many are not. These are important issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned his English constituency experience. Many properties are off-grid because of where they are, but they are not necessarily solid-wall insulated, or whatever.
We need to do a lot more. We have set up the energy company obligation, which is specifically designed to ensure that help goes to low-income and vulnerable households to enable them to heat their homes more affordably in the long term and to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. We are now setting up the green deal. The capital costs of home insulation are often quite large, but because of the cost of off-grid fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas, oil, and so on, people could get substantial saving on bills. Under the green deal, essentially, people take a loan up front for large capital expenditure, but they then have a flow of savings. The golden rule of the green deal is that people are not lent more at the start than will be covered in repayments by savings on the energy bills. That is similar to the hon. Gentleman’s argument about there being a capital cost up front, as people would get their insulation done up front. That scheme might be particularly relevant to the sorts of households that we are talking about, because if their unit cost of energy is high, the savings they get from insulation will be high and the loan will be paid back within a reasonable time.
As the hon. Gentleman says, many people will use budgeting schemes with the larger oil suppliers. A colleague told me recently that they were off the gas grid and bought oil, but paid a flat amount every month. If people are in a position to budget through the year, there is no need for the Government to start moving winter fuel payments of £200 or £300 around a couple of months early. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that some smaller suppliers might not offer such a scheme.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but although somebody like myself, for example, would pay for my gas or electricity by direct debit and get a lower rate, not everybody is able to do that. Many off-grid pensioners simply cannot afford to do that. That is the basis of this problem and if we are going to tackle it—the same thing applies with green deal—we need to consider whether a pensioner can afford to take out a long-term loan to insulate their house. Probably, they cannot. There are difficulties in that regard.
Perhaps I failed to explain the green deal properly. People can afford to do that, because the green deal only goes ahead if the savings on their energy bills due to insulation more than cover the repayment and debt-servicing costs of the loan. It is not a question of whether they can afford it, because it does not cost them anything. They get the capital up front and they have lower assessed energy bills, because the green deal does not apply unless they pass that test. So even including the repayment on the loan, they would be no worse off overall and they are living in a warmer home.
No. Because the home is better insulated than the one next door, the fuel bills are lower. The net effect is the same, except that when the loan is finally repaid people are living in a home with cheaper fuel bills. If I could choose between two properties in a street, one which had been green dealed and one that had not, I would go for the former, because the loan will come to an end and then I will have lower fuel bills than the house next door.
No, because the debate was called by the hon. Member for Angus.
The hon. Member for Angus was right to say that some pensioners may be wary of this scheme. I accept that. We need to look, for example, at budgeting support. I am a great fan of the credit union movement. We could find out whether we could do more to help low-income customers of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentions with budgeting through the year. I am worried about our changing significantly a system, which runs pretty smoothly and efficiently for the vast majority of low-income pensioners who really need it, for a sub-group, within which many could manage with the right support.
A better approach would be to ensure, first, that the homes of the people we are talking about are as effectively insulated as possible and, secondly, that where it is a budgeting issue, which it essentially is, we help those with budgeting problems through other routes. Just being off the grid does not make the million or so households that are off-grid poor. I was not poor when I bought my house, but I was off the grid. So I would not need my winter fuel payment, if I were entitled to it, two months early. If we changed the system, we would be doing a lot of administrative messing around and keeping track of properties, with people making claims and signing off the system, and all of that, when this could be much more targeted.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. People who heat their homes through off-grid routes are paying more and are more at risk of fuel poverty—that is correct—but we need a more targeted approach, rather than a broad-brush approach. We have to ensure that we do not mess up a system that works relatively efficiently. Although winter fuel payments are made to 12 million people every year, most Members of Parliament only get the odd complaint or a handful of letters each year, saying, “I didn’t get mine” or “I got it late”. Broadly, the system works. We do not want to mess up a system that works and spend millions on administration that could be better spent supporting vulnerable households.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. His suggestion that, if the oil companies want to do more for vulnerable customers, the Government should try to help them, is good. I am happy to explore that. If he lets me know which suppliers are interested in doing this, the sort of data they would require and what schemes they would come up with, I am happy to explore whether there is more we can do to help in that regard.
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Hon. Members will have noticed the new clock displays in the Chamber, which I am sure we are all extremely impressed with. The top display shows the current time, as before. When a speech is not being timed, the bottom display will show the time it started, also as before. If it becomes necessary to introduce a speech limit, the bottom display will change to show the time remaining to the Member who has the floor. As in the House itself, that display can award an extra minute for each of the first two interventions in a speech, but as things stand, I do not intend to impose a time limit.
I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about knife crime. I intend to speak for only about 10 or 12 minutes to give others the opportunity to contribute.
In September, only a few weeks ago, 17-year-old Jay Whiston died after being stabbed. I cannot say more or elaborate on the detail as the matter is to go before the courts. I can, however, say that Jay, a student at Tendring technology college, is desperately missed by his family and his loved ones. Jay’s death has raised concerns locally about knife crime in Clacton and I want to address some of them today.
Jay’s mother, Caroline Shearer, is a formidable woman, with enormous reserves of energy, determination and grit. However enormous and unimaginable her grief must be, she has not withdrawn into despair. She has set up a campaign organisation aimed at changing attitudes towards knives and knife crime—Only Cowards Carry. Caroline’s efforts have struck a chord in our part of Essex. Thousands of people have rallied to support her efforts. Young people, including some who never knew Jay, have volunteered to help. I was struck by this last Saturday, when a shop that was given voluntarily to the campaign group was staffed by dozens of young people. Many hundreds of people have come forward to show their support.
Why have Caroline’s campaign and the efforts of the local Gazette resonated so widely? Why have thousands of people signed up in support? Why have hundreds of people, including teachers, offered their time voluntarily to support Caroline’s efforts? Such support is a good thing. It shows a strong sense of civic-mindedness and community spirit in Clacton, and a sense that together we really can change things. However, part of the reason is a little less positive, because it is also a reflection of how widely shared concerns about knife crime are.
Too many young people have come forward in Clacton with a story to tell involving someone carrying a knife or offensive weapon. I have been struck since Jay’s death by how many young people have said things to me about knife crime. That shows how ubiquitous carrying a knife has become for some people in our community.
There have been far too many incidents in my part of Essex. Liam Mearns died of stab wounds last December. In January, a security guard was stabbed in Walton. A 24-year-old was stabbed in St John’s road. In March, a 23-year-old was stabbed in Dudley road. The strong prevailing thought among local people is: enough is enough; something must be done. However, as is so often the case when we hear people say that, we must ask what can be done. I shall offer my thoughts and will be keen to hear what colleagues think.
First, we need an acknowledgement that knife crime is a problem. It is a problem locally. Too often in the past, incidents involving knives have been treated as one-off, ad hoc incidents. I remember being told—I am not playing the blame game—that part of the problem was caused by sensationalism. We need to recognise that the problem of knife crime is not a problem of perception; it is a real, genuine problem. We must recognise that there are legitimate concerns that must call forth a public policy response. The criminal justice system and those in charge of it need to recognise that there are legitimate concerns, but the response of the criminal justice system has simply not been up to matching those concerns.
Secondly, we need local solutions. The Minister might be pleased to hear that I will not ask him to do anything. I am not looking for central Government action or hoping for ministerial fiat to solve the problem. I mean no disrespect to the current Minister, who is honourable, decent and highly competent, but decades of central direction and hoping that the man or woman in the Home Office will do something has been part of the problem. Generic, one-size-fits-all answers are almost by definition too bland to have specific meaning. We need the very opposite of a one-size-fits-all solution from Whitehall.
We now have locally elected police and crime commissioners. This debate is, as much as anything, an appeal to the Essex police and crime commissioner to act. Essex has an excellent police and crime commissioner, Nick Alston, who is absolutely not a party politician. He was born in a local police station. He has given years of service to his country and served in the Navy. He owes his loyalty not to the party machine—not to the dreadful party hierarchy in London—but to local people. Local people gave him the job by a narrow margin and local people will hold him to account. I hope that Commissioner Alston will take a lead and devise local policing priorities for Clacton that reflect local concerns about knife crime.
Whenever we have a debate about public service provision or public policy, we often hear about so-called postcode lotteries and the concern that provision differs among areas. A postcode lottery is what happens after years of policing being run from the Home Office. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, when the setting of standards and priorities is left to the Home Office, we end up with postcode lottery policing. The police commissioner will give us the opposite of postcode lottery policing: postcode-specific policing.
Let me set out what I should like policing in the CO15 postcode to be. I should like there to be much more aggressive stopping and searching. The police need to stop and search on a targeted basis, and they need to be prepared to do it unapologetically. At certain times and in certain places in Clacton, young men—I am sorry to say that it is mainly young men involved; I do not mean any disrespect to the male half of the human species, but that tends to be the case—should be targeted, and stopped and searched. We should not be apologetic about that. Carrying a knife in Clacton ought to carry a risk of being stopped and searched, and if people are found to have a knife, they should be prosecuted and convicted.
Stop-and-search can be controversial. I am pleased to say that English people naturally resent any form of arbitrary intrusion, but people in Clacton would not regard such a measure as arbitrary. It would command local support and be regarded as legitimate. This is a brilliant example of how directly elected local police commissioners can do things because they have a certain degree of legitimacy and local support. If the police in Clacton stopped and searched certain people at certain times, it would command widespread support within the broader community.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. Northern Ireland’s figures for knife crime are not as high as those for the mainland; we are into tens of thousands here and the figure in Northern Ireland is around 1,000 in the year up to September.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the local community. There needs to be support from the local community, whether on stop-and-search or whatever, but there also needs to be proper protection for the local community—for those willing to give evidence, to report knife crime or to report that someone that they know is involved in it.
That is absolutely spot on. I want us to do much more to encourage people, especially young people, to report knife crime. If one knows that someone is drink-driving, telling someone about that is no longer seen as snitching, but as the sensible, legitimate thing to do, because the price we all pay for allowing drunks to drive a car is the risk that innocent people will be killed. We must have the same mentality about carrying a knife. If people are to be prepared to tell someone in authority—that could be children telling a grown-up or a teacher, or young adults telling the police—they have to be able to do so not only confident in the fact that they will be treated confidentially and that there will be action, but with the recognition that doing so is legitimate, that they are not a snitch and that they are doing the right thing. That is vital.
One of the reasons why the campaign against drink-driving—I will talk more about this in a moment—has been so successful is precisely because people who know that someone is drink-driving are not prepared to stand or sit idly by and let that person carry on getting into a car under the influence of alcohol. We should have exactly the same social constraints on people who are prepared to walk around with an offensive weapon. That action must be seen as illegitimate, and reporting it to someone in a position of authority must be seen as legitimate. Incidentally, one of the great achievements of the Only Cowards Carry campaign is the attempt to get that message across to young people aged six or seven so that they realise from an early age that if they know of someone carrying a knife, they have a responsibility to tell a teacher, an adult or someone in a position of authority.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that ideally we need to personalise and localise the campaigns. The issues surrounding stop-and-search might be a little more toxic in the parts of London represented by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and me. Hitherto, knife crime might have been regarded as a problem specifically in inner cities, or even only in London, but we now recognise that it goes far further afield.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in particular among young men, there is an almost toxic mix of the possession of a knife with alcohol use and misuse? A frenzy of disorder sometimes leads to such incidents. Personalising the campaign in the way in which he is setting out is entirely the right way to try and re-educate a lot of young men to ensure that they do not go on to the streets with a knife.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the vital need for a tailor-made solution that commands support and legitimacy among the local population. I am deliberately not asking for a one-size-fits-all, blanket solution. I fully understand that the approach for which I am calling could well cause resentment in some parts of the country, but we are discussing democratically legitimising the actions of authority. Robert Peel said, when he founded the police:
“The police are the public and the public are the police.”
We can use the new instrument of democratic legitimacy that is given to us through police and crime commissioners. A creative commissioner will be able to do things that would previously have caused resentment.
Absolutely. There are strong parallels with the campaign against drink-driving, but it is important to remember that the success of the campaign against drink-driving was not simply due to high-profile publicity. Such publicity had a role to play, however, as raising awareness is vital, and raising awareness of knife crime in that graphic way could be important, especially in schools.
I do not want to sound cynical about human nature, but we must remember that the fear of getting caught also changed attitudes. Some of us will remember that 30 or 40 years ago people complained about the police campaigns to stop and breathalyse drivers. Many of the arguments that we would hear if we encouraged the police to carry out more stop-and-search would be about whether that would be legitimate. People used to say, “It is not an offence to have a few beers; the offence is to have an accident.” We now recognise that being drunk is the crime, just as it is the carrying the knife that is the crime. We change such attitudes through a combination of high-profile publicity campaigns and a criminal justice system that is prepared to be aggressive. I mean to use the word “aggressive”, because the system needs to be more aggressive.
A generation ago, incidences of drink-driving seemed to be rising inevitably. If we were having the debate in the 1970s, we might have seen ever-higher drink-driving as inevitable, saying, “Alcohol is getting cheaper,” “More people are driving,” “It is family breakdown,” or, “It is social disorder.” We now know such arguments to be nonsense, however. The police started carrying out the equivalent of stop-and-search—breathalysing. They did not, however, use blanket breathalysing. On the contrary, they targeted certain times, places and, probably, types of people—again young men, most likely. It therefore became clear that drink-driving carried the risk for someone not only having an accident, but of being caught, and there were serious consequences if they were caught, so attitudes started to change. We need a similar approach to carrying a knife—not blanket solutions, but targeted stop-and-search.
The criminal justice system also needs to change its response when someone is found to be carrying a knife. Imagine if, in this day and age, someone was found to be over the drink-drive limit and the police only cautioned them. Of course that would not happen, because someone who is over the limit can expect the police to bring forward charges and the criminal justice system to prosecute. We need to make it absolutely clear that knife crime is unacceptable. Blanket rules are never a good idea, because they always have unintended consequences, but the default rule in normal circumstances should be that if people are found to be carrying a knife or a concealed offensive weapon, they can expect to be prosecuted. If that started to happen, attitudes would change.
A higher incidence of drink-driving once seemed inevitable—it was thought that nothing could be done—and we could expect to hear many of the arguments against breathalysing to be used against stop-and-search. However, with a much more robust attitude from the criminal justice system, and with a willingness to target certain people at certain times in certain places, attitudes can shift. Absolutely nothing is inevitable about more knife crime. Just as we reduced the incidence of drink-driving, we can change attitudes towards knives and those who carry knives.
Clacton needs a criminal justice system that is prepared to reconfigure its priorities and to shape a specific public policy solution to meet concerns about a Clacton-specific problem. It can be done, as the criminal justice system now has a measure of local accountability that allows it to be more experimental and to do things that it might not have considered over the past generation. The criminal justice system and those who run it would find that, if they were to do that, they would command widespread popular support. Most people in Clacton, including the overwhelming number of young people, are good, decent, law-abiding people who would not dream of carrying a knife. All too often, however, there is a minority—not as small as we once thought—who are prepared to carry knives. Unless we are prepared to tackle that minority, the many tragic, awful, hideous incidents to which I referred will become part of a long roll-call of tragedy and mishap.
I hope that the criminal justice system acts. As I said, I do not expect the Minister to have the answers; in fact, I think that the solution lies with the police and crime commissioner. I very much hope that we will now begin to see a change in attitude in the criminal justice system in Essex and among those who run it. If that happens, I am confident that we can reduce the number of incidents involving knives in Clacton.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he made his remarks. I fully agree with aspects of what he said, in particular on the importance of the criminal justice system, but in some areas I would choose to differ.
I have now been in the House for 12 and a half years. Tottenham is my home and the community I grew up in, and when I first became its Member of Parliament, it had been in the news for many but not great reasons—I am not now talking about the football club—so I expected the tough, gritty inner-city issues to be my fare. One would expect London’s housing crisis and its immigration challenges, and issues such as welfare benefits and crime and disorder to be mainstream stuff for the Member of Parliament for Tottenham to bring to the House for debate, discussion and even disagreement, both with one’s own Government and that of other parties. What I did not expect 12 and a half years ago was that serious crime, such as murder, would escalate from being an issue affecting individuals and small communities to a serious national problem.
My period in the House has coincided with Operation Trident, which was set up to look at gun crime in parts of—I emphasise “parts of”—the black community. People use the phrase “black-on-black violence”, but it is not one that I have ever been comfortable with, and I have voiced that on several occasions. A small group of criminals, who were trading in drugs that originated in the Caribbean and America, made their way here through drug-trafficking routes and created a gun crime problem in certain neighbourhoods and communities in London. Legislation covering guns, together with serious enforcement by the police, bore down on that problem, and to some extent it has been contained, but in our capital city and our major cities we still see guns go off and we see crime related to guns. At the same time, the problem of knife crime has increased.
I am happy to confirm that that is exactly the case, and that goes to the point that gun crime morphs into knife crime. We saw knife crime morph from something we associated with particular tough, inner-city environments into a real problem across London, Manchester and Birmingham. It is significant that the hon. Member for Clacton is raising this as an issue in his community. This is a moment to pause and ask ourselves what has really happened, and why teenagers and young people so callously take life in this way. It is a criminal justice and enforcement issue, but only in part. There are underlying causes in our society which we must uncover.
There was a time in the 1980s when many of us would have looked across the Atlantic to north America and wondered whether drive-by shootings in cities such as Los Angeles and New York were just part and parcel of life in that country and had to be accepted, or whether the authorities would bear down on the problem and deal with it. Knife crime in this country is at that junction.
When we debate this issue, I think of so many families whom I have comforted in my surgery because they have lost children to knife crime in north London. The names do not now take up whole pages and sections of newspapers, but are small columns because knife crime has become such a regular occurrence in our country. Teon Palmer was 23 when he was stabbed to death in Edmonton last month. Pavel Zekaj was stabbed to death outside Burger King in Wood Green last month. Kevin Duhaney from Bruce Grove in my constituency was stabbed to death in Hackney over a girl, and his mum had to fundraise £7,000 for a funeral. Steven Grisales was 21 when he was stabbed to death on his way to Silver Street station in Edmonton where he was pelted by conkers by a gang of youths.
The case of Godwin Lawson touched me greatly, as did his parents. He was a wonderful and incredibly talented young man who went to a great secondary school. He was just 17 and doing so fantastically well at football that he had been picked by Oxford United. He was training in Oxford to become a great footballer of the next generation, and perhaps to play for Spurs one day. He came back to north London for a weekend to see his family and friends, and when walking innocently down the road in the Stamford Hill area of my constituency he was stabbed to death for no reason other than being on the wrong side of the road and looking in the wrong way at someone in a gang of youths. He lost his life. I pay great tribute to his parents, who set up the Godwin Lawson foundation.
What lies behind such actions? Why are young men—on the whole it is young men, but sometimes it is young women—choosing to pick up knives? Why do they need that weapon? Is something going on in our society in how young men are forming a mature understanding of masculinity? Should we look at that in a more meaningful way? Does it matter that the young men who commit those crimes have so often not had responsible male role models in their lives? Is fatherhood a feature, and are we willing to discuss that, or is it irrelevant that there is an absence of responsible role models, be it a father figure or a school teacher? Does it matter that some of our primary schools have an absence of male teachers? Does it matter that we are living in a society that has made decisions similar to those in the United States of America, which have led us down the road of rampant materialism and consumerism, creating deep feelings of violence and misogyny, and leading to a culture in which whole groups of young men think it is okay to stab someone for no reason? Is that relevant to the debate and, if so, what are we going to do about it? I think it is relevant.
I was deeply disturbed to be contacted by a games console company a few months ago, which was putting together a game for which it was using the Tottenham riots as the backdrop. Is that acceptable? The company rang my office to ask me whether I wanted to feature in the game. What kind of society are we living in if it is okay to profit from something that caused so many Londoners and others across the country so much despair, and indeed, in which five people in Britain lost their lives? Does this matter?
I have come to the view that only five things are the ingredients of a successful society and country: education, employment, community, aspiration and parenting. We have a lot of discussion about education in the House and, although there is still much to do in our schools, my sense is that teachers are doing a hell of a lot, and there has been a great deal of attention on that area of policy.
We see problems when we look at the environments that so many of the young men who are committing this crime come from. They are from some of the toughest housing estates in the country, and particularly, from some of those tower blocks—such as the one that I grew up in; Broadwater Farm in Tottenham—that have gone from being working-class environments to workless-class environments. That workless class is not just about our GDP; it is about the character and dignity that comes from work, and particularly, about what surrounds the masculine culture in the environments that these young men come from and thrive in. If there is a culture of sitting around and doing nothing, then we get decay, and then we get petty criminality. There is a lack of value, particularly as regards women, I might say, so we get domestic violence and so on. We see repercussions from income not coming in. There are neighbourhoods and estates where those things happen. I know—because I have visited them—that those environments are to be found in places such as Essex and Kent, and particularly in some of the seaside towns.
There is the business of aspiration and what one aspires to. Is someone aspiring to have the latest pair of trainers? If they do not have them, are they prepared to stab someone who does, or to break into Foot Locker or JD Sports, as we saw during the riots? What we are aspiring to is hugely important. How do we create a culture in which the idea of aspiration is deeper and more meaningful than some of the frankly lightweight and superficial ideas of it that we see? I do not want to knock shows like “The X Factor”, which I enjoy, but I worry that there is a dominant idea that aspiration relates to being in the public eye, like a pop star, when it can just mean doing meaningful work, and contributing to and raising a family. Those are much simpler notions of what genuine achievement is.
There is also community. One thing that we saw during the riots in Tottenham was that the idea of community is problematic, because there can be communities within communities. There, we saw a community on Blackberry Messenger, which was exclusively made up of young people and was closed—the police could not see it—who communicated with each other and caused mayhem and violence across our country. Communities within communities exist on Facebook, on Twitter and in some unhealthy counter-cultures and sub-cultures that we are tolerating in a world that says, “Choice is everything. You can choose to be in that community or not.” The problem is that if someone’s child is knifed as a consequence of the violence and the obscene ideas of human life that exist in those communities, my God, they wish that someone had intervened in a meaningful way, to give a different vision of what was possible.
Of course, we come back to parenting, recognising that, in the end, two thirds of a young person’s life is spent out of school, so it is not sufficient for us to berate schools and tell them to do all the work. Parents matter, but it is also about recognising that where there is only one parent struggling in one of these housing developments where people are not able to make a living wage, so they cannot be with their kids because they are doing two jobs and do not have the time, that can militate against parenting and against being family. It is also about recognising that far too many of the young people caught up in this problem have been through our care system in this country, where the state was meant to be in loco parentis, but basically failed. That has been captured very well by Plan B in his film “Ill Manors”, which hon. Members should get on DVD, if they have not seen it. It is a good illustration of what goes wrong. I want to emphasise to the hon. Member for Clacton that yes, there is a criminal justice context to this issue, but we have to get to the bottom of some of the reasons for it.
The police, through the gangs initiative that was launched by the Government last year, are doing a lot around enforcement, certainly in communities such as mine. We are seeing many young people who are caught up in gang activity and knife crime being arrested and put through the criminal justice system. The problem is that I am not at all convinced that prison, with its recidivism rates, or Feltham and institutions like it are yet at the point at which I can say with full confidence that young people will come out reformed, and they will not get caught up in crime again. We seldom want to discuss that in the House.
The Mayor of London launched the important Heron initiative in Feltham prison, which was designed to work with young people before they left. There were bespoke services to help young people into employment, to work on drug addiction, and to work on the things that they needed outside, but unfortunately, the results of that were poor. It looks as though the scheme has been scrapped by the Mayor because it was costly, and the payment-by-results method that he hoped would underline it did not work.
There is a lack of ideas in this area. The Mayor said that he wanted to create a generation of mentors, which is hugely important in this area, and I am sure that young people in Clacton will need that. However, if people do not have the time to be a mentor, that is a problem. It is hugely disappointing that although he announced that he wanted 1,000 mentors when he was first elected in 2008, the Mayor has managed to get only 28. That, too, is an area that will need a lot of attention if we are to halt the decline.
I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about stop-and-search. Blanket section 60 notices, as we saw in the run-up to the riots last year, are not the way forward for Britain’s young people. Those notices designate a whole constituency as somewhere that the police can stop and search. In Tottenham, we saw the figure rise from 50 such searches in January 2011 to 237 searches in July of the same year, and we can recognise what is significant about that July, coming, as it did, the month before we saw serious unrest in London.
Doing intelligence-led, informed stop-and-searches is not the problem; the problem is when the police get lazy, frankly, about who they stop and search. We have found in London that the issue is about the police officer distinguishing between a young man on the way to the gym or university wearing a hoodie, and a young man carrying a knife. In the end, in our model of policing—policing by consent—we must carry communities with us. Our policing relies on good young people working with the police and, ultimately, not being in fear of them.
I caution the hon. Gentleman to ask himself whether stop-and-search will help, and to reflect on the underlying causes of the problem. In this era, when there is enforcement activity, the diversion and engagement of young people will be really important. That will require resources, and it will require us to understand fully what works, but it will also require us to be honest about the phenomena in our wider culture that are bringing us closer to the United States than to some of our continental European cousins, and that are driving warped senses of masculinity so that teenagers think that masculinity can be found in a knife or a gang, rather than in watching football or doing something constructive in their local community.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing the debate and on his speech. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), on his even longer speech. I join the hon. Gentleman in praising Jay’s mother and friends for what they are doing to highlight the general issue of knife crime on the basis of a specific case. He rightly drew attention to the support given by Colchester’s Daily Gazette, and I should also mention the players of Colchester United football club, who have backed the campaign so well.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we must not dwell on the crime that prompted this debate, because it is still being investigated. I am sad to say that that crime happened in my constituency, and the resulting campaign has resonated in the town of Colchester. I have had the good fortune, as a result of those sad circumstances, to meet Jay’s parents and all those involved in the campaign, because, as in Clacton, they had a campaign shop for a time.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that knife crime is not simply an inner-city or, indeed, a racial issue. I first became involved in the issue following a murder in my constituency. That led me, at Prime Minister’s Question Time in 2007, to draw Prime Minister Blair’s attention to the fact that
“three times as many people are killed by knives as by guns.”
I challenged the Government of the day to do more to deal with the consequences of knife crime and with the punishment and sentencing of those involved. In fairness, Tony Blair responded:
“we are introducing tougher sentences for the possession of knives as illegal weapons.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 924-5.]
The current Government have continued down that path, as the record will show.
The tragedy in my constituency involved a man in his 20s called Westley Odger. As a result, his mother, Mrs Ann Oakes-Odger, set up a campaign called KnifeCrimes.Org in memory of her son. She has also been in contact with Jay’s mother, and the two ladies are in conversation, because they come to this issue from a shared tragic background.
As a result of the incident in my constituency, I persuaded my colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee that we should hold an inquiry into knife crime, and we duly did so in spring 2009. Our seventh report—reference number HC 112-1—was published on 2 June 2009, and I hope the Minister will refer to it when he responds, because Parliament, through the Home Affairs Committee, clearly took the issue very seriously.
In preparing for today’s debate, I have looked back at my contributions on this issue and have found that, in addition to my work on the Home Affairs Committee, I have mentioned knife crime on 11 occasions, both in questions and in debate on the Floor of the House. When the Minister responds, however, will he give us an update on my parliamentary question from 2 June 2010, when I asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department
“for what reason the It Doesn’t Have to Happen.Co.UK programme on knife crime was removed from her Department’s website”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 11W.]
The programme had been included during the previous Administration to try to draw attention to what was going on with knife crime. As both the previous speakers have highlighted, knife crime is a growing problem, and I repeat that it is not just an inner-city or racial one.
On 21 March 2007, shortly after I put my question to Prime Minister Blair, I also presented a public petition to the House in the name of my constituent Mrs Ann Oakes-Odger. It was signed by 5,000 people and drew attention to the fact that, on 12 September 2005, her son, Westley Odger, was brutally murdered in Colchester.
All of us are aware of the problem, and I certainly share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about random stop and search, because the unintended consequences could take us into other areas of social unrest, which could create issues that go way beyond the tragedies that involve constituents of mine and of the hon. Gentleman.
This comes back to education and awareness. I have been with Mrs Ann Oakes-Odger on at least three occasions when she has addressed gatherings. She once spoke at city hall, when 40 mothers and fathers were present, each of whom was holding a framed photograph of their child—it was mainly a son, but occasionally a daughter—who had been killed by knives.
The Home Affairs Committee inquiry showed that those who carry knives quite often bring crime on themselves; it showed that knives are not a protection for people, but actually cause others with knives to attack them. I hope that I am not paraphrasing the inquiry too much. Many deaths involve innocent people, such as those whom the hon. Gentleman and I have mentioned, but some people lose their lives through being mixed up in gang culture. That brings us to education, leadership and role models—all the things that have been mentioned.
Knife crime is a curse of the 21st century and a growing problem. We should have mandatory sentencing of those who carry knives, unless there are exceptional circumstances, as there sometimes can be. I was told of a horticultural student who had a pruning knife in his pocket. Of course, he should not have taken it out of college, but I mention that because there may be occasions when people innocently have a knife, although they are the exceptions. As a general rule, the courts must have more powers, but in finding a solution, we must be careful—I am repeating what the right hon. Gentleman said, because it is important—that it does not have an unintended consequence. Stop-and-search has been shown, particularly in inner cities, to have unintended consequences sometimes.
While we are talking about the influences on young people who carry knives—sad to say, many lives have been lost as a result—we should remember that most of the killers have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs. What should society demand that the House of Commons do about that? Relaxing the hours in which people can consume alcohol surely has unintended consequences, because people fuelled by alcohol can take a knife and quickly turn themselves into a killer.
I do not think that I am competent to comment on the specific details. Our inquiry showed there was drug activity around some knife crimes. I endorse the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention about licensing hours being too long, but I do not think there is a proven link between alcohol and knife crime. I stand to be corrected, but my recollection is that there may be drug-related activity around knife crime, whereas I am not aware of its alcohol side. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
All of us—politicians, the education system and communities, both individually and collectively—have a role in instilling the understanding in young people that if they carry a knife they could get a lengthy jail sentence or, worse, become a victim themselves. I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Clacton again on focusing attention on this issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. He spoke with passion and concern and reflected heartfelt constituency pressure to raise the issue and consider solutions to the problem of knife crime. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). They have shown by their remarks that not only in Essex, where the tragic incident that we have heard about happened, but in inner London, Northern Ireland—which I know well from previous ministerial involvement—and throughout the United Kingdom, the concerns that the hon. Member for Clacton has raised need to be addressed by the Government. There is a need to look for possible solutions, to reduce knife crime and the resulting deaths.
I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Clacton about the death of Jay Whiston and by the fact that because of that tragedy, irrespective of any pending court case, Jay’s family and friends, and people in Clacton, have said that it is not just for the Government and the police to deal with the issue; it is for us to make a stand and make comments and contributions, and act to save lives in future. Families have responded in that way before. I hope that there will not be further families in that position; but Jay’s family are taking the issue seriously, and it is a tribute to them as much as to the hon. Gentleman that they have brought it to his attention and that he has responded.
I cannot claim to be an expert in the subject, but I spent my last three years in government, before the 2010 general election, in the Home Office and, before that, the Ministry of Justice. Knife crime was on our agenda; it was something that we had to consider and deal with. I hope that we responded in a way that helps to militate against the likelihood of future deaths, despite Jay’s tragic death a few weeks ago. I say that because the solutions that we considered then are still worthy of consideration. I want to hear how the Government can develop those ideas, to help to put a stop to incidents and reduce the likelihood of injury and death.
One of the most tragic things that I had to face in government was the fact that with every knife death I received a report on my desk, containing the details and circumstances. Even when we had invested time and energy in taking steps to reduce, as I hoped, the number of further knife deaths, some of the most painful things that I, departmental officials and the police who were seconded to the Department had to do were meeting victims’ families, listening to their concerns and trying to set out some policy development to help them. I am not talking about what we did out of any sense of pride, but I hope that it will be understood that, as part of the development of a response to a growing trend, the previous Government considered several initiatives to bring the issue to the public’s attention and take effective action.
As a Minister, together with Jacqui Smith, I considered the supply of mobile search wands to police forces. In inner city areas, for example, or elsewhere on Saturday nights—in towns such as Clacton—police could bring forward mobile search arches, so that people who turned up for social events had to walk through an arch for the detection of knives or, indeed, guns. On average, I authorised 150,000 stop-and-searches in a year, which resulted in 3,500 knives being confiscated. That did not stop the problem, so I brought legislation through the House to double the maximum sentence for possession of a knife from two to four years. We increased the age at which knives may be purchased in shops for legitimate uses from 16 to 18 and ran a strong campaign with retailers, so that their staff knew that people who went into B and Q, Tesco, Sainsbury’s or other stores could not sell any knife over the counter to someone under the age of 18. Trading standards strongly enforced that as part of our work.
Among other solutions for the longer term, we considered how to give new powers of stop-and-search to head teachers in schools, because people often took knives into schools. That was a powerful deterrent. Equally important was helping to support and advise parents, so that they could understand what activities their young people were taking part in. That is why an important initiative for the future was the 5,300 safer school partnerships, with dedicated police officers allocated to schools to advise parents and carry out enforcements.
The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned advertising campaigns, and the previous Government allocated £3 million to an advertising campaign on television and in bus shelters and on boards, in areas with the highest rate of knife crime, to show people that knives are not about an individual carrying a sexy object around, but are about death, destruction and a potential 30-year prison sentence for someone who commits murder.
We need to revisit those ideas. I hope that the Minister will consider what the previous Government did. The present Government have taken forward some relevant issues. Education, enforcement and changes to sentences are important. They can send deterrent messages and give people the power to tackle knife crime effectively. I give credit to the Government for recent moves to ensure that such activity continues. Their gun and knife crime initiative last year was extremely valid, and they have undertaken a range of activities, similar in some ways to what we did in the last years of the previous Government, which raised the issue effectively.
Despite my best efforts and those of the Government, the evaluation of our work on all the relevant issues, such as enforcement and sentencing, showed that knife crime had not really changed. That is why I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham. Not only are there things that we and the Government can do about enforcement, education, sentencing, catching and deterring people and providing wider understanding, but there is the issue that he mentioned of the underlying causes and culture. I think that there is a culture—partly to do with the modern technology of games and other activity—in which human life is cheap and can be thrown away, and we need to look at that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham makes good points about adult role models, employment and social conditions. He also makes a good point about technology moving on, so that the Xbox can be used to communicate in a way that police and others cannot track. That takes us to other debates that we will have elsewhere about the potential to monitor that type of social media, and the balance between a legitimate interest of the state and the rights and freedoms of individuals to live without state interference.
There is one area where I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Clacton. He said that this is a localism issue. I think that it is—I would be interested to hear from the Minister how the new police and crime commissioners will deal with it locally and what the relationship between the Home Office and PCCs will be—but central Government can set down some key messages and policy directions, as has been done in the past, through the tackling knives action programme that the previous Government introduced and the current Government’s youth and gangs programme, which provide additional resources targeted at specific areas.
I am genuinely interested in the various initiatives that the right hon. Gentleman implemented as a Home Office Minister. I have learned something new. Is not the real significance, by his own admission—I do not wish to be confrontational or partisan—that, despite all that, the problem was not solved? Perhaps that centralist mentality and the idea that it can be solved centrally is the problem. Perhaps it is precisely because we are searching for public policy innovation in the Home Office that we are not getting anywhere. The place to find the innovation is out there locally.
There is a balance between the two. Some of the ideas introduced under my jurisdiction as a Minister and some of those that the current Government are taking forward were locally approved solutions. A money pot was available centrally for people to bid against under the auspices of our knife action programme. That is why we had imaginative solutions: in some areas the focus was on head teachers; in others, it was on knife wands; in others, on stop and search; and in others, education.
In a key area, the focus was on those people who had been sentenced for knife offences. One of the most innovative projects that I visited was at Liverpool prison and in Leeds, where people who had been involved in knife crime and been sentenced were going through an intensive programme of knife-related activities to show some of the consequences and how they could be deterred from committing such offences again. Most prisoners who have not committed murder will go out again in a relatively short time. I am interested in looking not just at prevention but, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, at the work with those who have been sentenced for offences that are knife-related but not murder.
In acknowledging some of the answers, we must not forget parental responsibility. Parents are responsible for their children in their homes. From speaking to the families of victims of knife crime, does the right hon. Gentleman know that there is a belief that quite often Parliament or Governments and their initiatives have been a reaction to events rather than being proactive? Is that a misconception, or do we need to change how we tackle the issue?
I think we do have to react to events. Governments often respond because things happen and that is perfectly legitimate. I want to press the Minister on one issue in particular. Given the evaluation of the work of the previous Government, taken with police and local authority advice and with budgets provided centrally, such as the TKAP activity, and given that it has been said that there was not necessarily a discernible change in behaviour, I would like the Minister to talk not just about the good initiatives that he is taking now to tackle knife, gun and gang crime, but about the equally important, longer-term behavioural issues and societal changes mentioned by hon. Members.
The Government are funding additional support to police forces in three areas—London, Manchester and the west midlands—where more than half the country’s knife crime occurs. There are prevention grants, further funds and a whole range of ongoing activities. That funding runs out in March 2013. Given the range of activities pursued by the previous Government and this Government’s initiative on guns, knife and gang crime, will there still be in 2013, as there will have been for nearly six years, a pot of money centrally allocated by the Home Office for distribution to local authorities and police forces such as in Essex or Clacton? Will that still be there post-2013? At the moment, the five years’ work that I have outlined and that the Minister will outline ends in March 2013. What is the post-2013 financial responsibility?
What relationship does the Minister see between PCCs and central Government? Where does the responsibility now lie? Will the solution be entirely local, or will guidance and suggestions still come from a central Government Minister? Will he particularly look at the worrying statistics that came out earlier this year? I took through the Commons legislation that increased from two years to four years the penalty for carrying a knife. This year, 51 of 1,100 juveniles caught with an offensive weapon were locked up in jail. We spent a lot of time taking that legislation through the Commons to increase the penalty. We spent a lot of time publicising it and enforcing it. Yet we have a situation where 51 out of 1,100 juveniles caught are given a custodial sentence. Is that where we should be? I am not saying that it is or it is not; I am simply asking the Minister to focus on those issues.
Although incidents that involve the possession of a bladed article or offensive weapon have dropped in this period, from 5,194 to 4,270, a smaller proportion of offenders is now going to jail. I simply ask whether or not we should take this route. I ask the Home Office what research is being done on the qualitative impact on prison population issues.
Will the Minister look again at the initiatives taken over the past five or so years to see which have worked in the longer term? The previous Government picked 16 or 17 geographical areas to look at serious knife crime. As I have mentioned, three areas—London, the west midlands and Greater Manchester—are where most knife crime occurs. If we want to reduce knife crime, we need to focus on areas such as Clacton where this terrible incident has occurred. However, to make a qualitative impact we need to look at the driving forces in Manchester, the west midlands and London that are leading to half the incidents of knife crime being in those three areas.
I suggest to the Minister that the Mayor of London; Bob Jones, the new police and crime commissioner for the west midlands; and Tony Lloyd, our former colleague, the new police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, are three people he should have in his office speedily to look at what can be done in those areas, over and above what has been done to date.
I throw those ideas in, not because I am an expert or have sage advice on such matters. However, experience has shown me that this is a difficult issue with many aspects that need to be addressed to resolve it. The hon. Member for Clacton has done a service to the House and his constituents by bringing this debate about those, such as Jay Whiston, who have lost their lives through knife crime. I hope that those who watch, listen and read about the debate recognise that there is a drive from all parties in the House to ensure that no other family and community need to face that ever again.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make the final contribution to this extremely important debate, which will be of genuine interest to people around the country who have day-to-day experience of the terrible circumstances that we are discussing. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for bringing the issue before us, as well as to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and the Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who have all spoken. Because I have a little more time to respond than is sometimes the case in such debates, I want to engage more directly in some of the points that hon. Members have raised.
It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton said that although the Government and the state—in the form of the police—have a role to play, this is not just about central Government finding solutions and telling local communities what those solutions are, but about local communities seeking their own solutions. Police and crime commissioners can play a leadership role on that. They are not the only people with responsibility, but they do have a responsibility in this area. The right hon. Member for Tottenham compellingly developed that theme when he talked about the cultural context. However many laws we pass in this House and however much advertising we use taxpayers’ money to fund, cultural issues are probably the biggest determining factor for success in this area.
Why do most people choose not to carry a knife? Some people might carry knives for a rational reason—because they may feel that it makes them more secure. They may, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester reminded us, be miscalculating, but they nevertheless made that miscalculation for rational reasons. Most people do not carry knives. Most people think that it is wrong to carry a knife, and that it is certainly wrong to brandish and use one. Why do they come to that conclusion and, interestingly, why does the opinion of the minority who do not come to that conclusion differ from the consensus? To a large degree, it is about factors beyond the direct control of central Government.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham talked about aspiration: what is smart and respected by peers, and what wins their admiration? Is the answer, in some communities—particularly, but not exclusively, among groups of young men—carrying a knife? Does that make someone seem smarter, tougher and more sophisticated than some of the boys and young men who do not carry a knife? Is that considered more worthy of admiration than being good at sport, for example? In a way, sport is a slightly lazy default object of admiration, so why is it not about being good at playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language, or helping disabled children’s groups in the community? Why are those characteristics, which are much harder to attain and require sustained application, not regarded as being as worthy of peer admiration as something as simple yet mindless as carrying a knife? That interesting fundamental question goes beyond what we can legislate on.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham also talked about parenting, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; we are in the same Government, but not the same party. Members might have different views about the ideas he puts forward on behalf of the Government, but he is grasping the nettle tightly and showing an obvious personal interest in trying to get to the root causes of social failure in our country, rather than paying people to be out of sight and out of mind. Intergenerational social failure can have the devastating consequences of not only violent crime, but the waste of time, effort, talent and ambition by those squandering their lives doing nothing much in particular.
What is the role for parents and role models? The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting observation about the shortage of male primary school teachers. Socially, my constituency is in many ways different from his, but it is striking that we can go to a small to medium-sized primary school there and see no male teachers at all. Boys with a lot of energy—good boys with nothing wrong with them, but with a lot of energy to work out of their system—are placed in settings that may sometimes be excessively feminine for their requirements. They cannot grow up in the way that they might have done if they had male role models to look up to. I am not talking about superstars on TV, although they can be role models, but about ordinary older boys and men in communities whose influence such boys could be exposed to in a positive way.
Having talked about things for which the Government are not directly responsible, it is important for me, as the Minister, also to discuss things for which the Government are directly responsible. It is important that we have this opportunity to discuss knife crime. It is worth saying that knife crime is wholly unacceptable and has devastating consequences for our communities, as we have heard this afternoon. Tackling it is a key priority for the Government, but we know that there are no quick fixes or magic bullets to tackle knife crime and violence. If we could pass a law to solve the problem, we would do so, but it is not as straightforward as that. We need long-term, evidence-based solutions to get a proper grip on the problems, and that needs concerted effort across a wide range of areas.
We believe that cautions are being used excessively for possession of a knife, which was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton. The Prime Minister announced a review of knife sentencing on 22 October. We want to ensure that such offences are dealt with appropriately, which is why we are working with colleagues from across the criminal justice system to review the punishments available for carrying a knife. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also revised its guidance on the investigation, cautioning and charging of knife crime offences. The guidance states clearly that there is an expectation to charge all those who illegally carry and use knives. The right hon. Member for Delyn touched on whether there is a gap between what the House expects to happen and what happens in practice. I acknowledge that there is a gap, and we are looking at ways in which it can be filled.
Knife crime, like any form of violence, cannot be tackled in isolation. We need every partnership agency to engage to solve the problem. It is about not only the police and the courts ensuring that they take knife crime seriously, but many other organisations, such as the health service and schools. The right hon. Member for Tottenham mentioned care homes and institutions, which look after children in the most severe disadvantage when the state has taken responsibility for their upbringing. There are also voluntary services, and I have already touched upon communities.
Tackling knife crime is also about parents taking responsibility. It is worth making the point that most parents do take responsibility, but if a parent has a teenage child—probably a son—out at night after dark, which may be a particular problem at this time of year, do they know where that child is? It is always difficult with teenagers, but there is a rightful expectation that parents treat 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds as 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds. They are not fully-fledged adults. They need guidance and supervision, and parents have a responsibility to help to provide that supervision.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of citizens are law-abiding and live responsible lives. Although this may go against the overall tone of the debate, I want to say that there is some cause for encouragement. Individual victims and their families are of course devastated by such crimes, and serious problems exist, but there are also reasons to believe that the overall picture is not as overwhelmingly bleak as people listening to the debate might imagine.
According to official statistics, the number of offences involving knives and sharp instruments has fallen by 9% in the past year. In 2011-12, the police recorded 30,999 serious violent crimes involving a knife, which represented a reduction. Before hon. Members try to intervene, I acknowledge that that is 31,000 very serious incidents with potentially devastating consequences, but it is worth pointing out that that is slightly fewer such incidents than in the preceding year. I hope that groups—whether officials in the Home Office who are trying to devise more effective policy, or people working for youth or community organisations in hon. Members’ constituencies—feel that what they do makes a difference and that they do not have to bow to a counsel of despair.
My hon. Friend is right that, regrettably, I do not have the figure for 10 years ago. The inference behind his question is that if we have seen a substantial rise and perhaps some encouraging signs that this is beginning to subside, we must also recognise that, until it has subsided to its earlier level—and ideally lower still—there will be a lot more work to do. I would not for one moment wish to suggest otherwise.
The figure that the Minister cites is welcome but, perhaps after the debate, I would welcome a breakdown of juvenile, domestic violence and adult crimes. The debate has focused on juvenile crime, but not on domestic violence and adult crime, which are equally important. Will the Minister reflect on that outside the Chamber?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the disaggregation of statistics. We are talking about a crime that causes people huge concern. Even those who have never been or known victims fear the seemingly random and devastating nature of the crime. I take that very seriously, and we will certainly look at the disaggregated statistics to see where we can make further improvements.
In the time remaining, I want to talk about police and crime commissioners, legal changes and wider Government policy, but I will start by addressing gangs and youth violence, because much knife crime happens in that context. Young people who are involved in gangs are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour generally and to carry a weapon. We cannot look at knife crime, gangs and gun crime in isolation, which was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester.
As part of our programme on ending gang and youth violence, we have provided funding and support to the 29 areas that have been identified as having the most significant gang and youth violence problems. I acknowledge that other areas have problems, but we are targeting Government attention on those where the problem is greatest. The Home Office has reprioritised £10 million of funding for this financial year to support those areas.
The new programme builds on work that is already under way, including the communities against guns, gangs and knives programme. As the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned, that programme has directed an additional £3.75 million over two years to three police forces—in London, Greater Manchester and the west midlands—in which there is disproportionately more gang crime and associated violent crime, including with knives.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to meeting the police and crime commissioners. I am pleased to inform him that all of them from England and Wales will meet throughout Monday at the Home Office with the Home Secretary and other Ministers, including me. We will certainly take the opportunity to talk to them about some of the good ideas and best practice that we have tried to develop as a Government or that has been developed in other parts of the country. That will equip them to implement good ideas from elsewhere, while also formulating their own.
As well as preventing young people from getting involved in violence and gang activity, action must be taken against those who break the law. As the law stands, carrying a knife in a public place is already an offence with a maximum penalty of four years. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that change was introduced a few years ago. As part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government have strengthened the law on the possession of knives by creating the new offence of carrying a knife or offensive weapon in a public place or school when the weapon is used to threaten or endanger others. There is clearly a distinction between someone carrying a weapon who claims that it is for legitimate purposes, and someone brandishing one in a way that is intended to threaten or intimidate.
I shall, once I have finished this short section of my speech.
That offence attracts a minimum mandatory sentence of six months for over-18s and a minimum four-month detention and training order for 16 and 17-year-olds. Those sentences are attracted not by stabbing someone with a knife, but by displaying one in a prominent way. By building on the existing tough knife crime laws in the United Kingdom, that provides a clear message to those who possess a knife to threaten and endanger others that they can expect to face imprisonment. The offences will come into force on 3 December—next week.
I do not have that information available. I think that the policy has been developed to deal with the specific problem of knife crime.
Hon. Members talked about stop-and-search. There have been calls for the police to carry out more stop-and-search. The police do an important job—obviously, they are an important part of the equation—including by having a focus on preventing, deterring and combating violent crime or the use of knives. Stop-and-search is a vital part of a police officer’s role in deterring and combating crime, but the Government’s opinion is that it is important that stop-and-search is used in a targeted and intelligence-led way, with the support of communities, because that is how it is most likely to have the desired effect of protecting the public. The children of people from all backgrounds can be the victims of violent crime, and it is in the interests of people across society that we help the police to combat that.
I have talked about the importance of tackling gangs in relation to knife crime, and I now turn to the wider society. Police and crime commissioners have an important role to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton talked about not having a postcode lottery. I think that he mentioned a precise, postcode-targeted—
A postcode-specific approach. We do not want police and crime commissioners to be only civil servants who implement Government policy in their force area; we want them to think of themselves as leaders in their force area. I want police and crime commissioners to learn from others who seem to be doing well and are tackling crime effectively in their force areas. I want them to work with groups that might not be seen as particularly fashionable, including the Churches and youth organisations such as cadets and scouts.
Many young people feel as though they are big and tough when they are brandishing a knife, but only five years before, in some cases, they were little boys. For some of them, being given an opportunity to have a structure or support network in their early and more formative years can be very beneficial. I hope that, by giving children from different backgrounds the opportunity to come together and learn from one another, the Government’s national citizenship programme will also make a contribution.
In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton on securing the debate and express the sympathy of the whole Government for the terrible circumstances that have led to our having this discussion.
Car Hire (Consumer Protection)
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I must admit that this issue was first brought to my attention not by a constituent or by a debate, but by my own experience while returning unexpectedly from holiday this year. The issues I encountered led me to do more research, and I found that consumer protection for my constituents and other customers of hire car companies is severely lacking.
My experience involved picking up a car from a well known company, having it for no more than three hours as I drove from one UK airport to another, and then returning it. There were no incidents and I caused no damage to the vehicle. A fortnight later, I was looking over my credit card bill and noticed a charge for £666.68 from the hire car company, levied the day after the hire. That was obviously charged without any warning or notice to me. To my surprise, when I looked at the small print on my hire contract, there was £800 insurance excess on hiring the car, which was never mentioned at the time. Such excesses should be made crystal clear at the time of hire, and an option should be given to reduce it through an extra premium. Some cursory research that I have conducted shows that some of the biggest car hire companies have excesses ranging from £600 to £1,000, often with reduction options that are offered only when specifically asked for.
Such excesses should be capped and the options openly advertised, which would make price comparison and consumer choice much easier. Surprise charges of hundreds of pounds are not welcome to anyone and could cause real financial problems for some. Will the Minister tell me what safeguards are currently in place to stop those excesses being charged without warning? What rules, if any, are there on how much excess a company can charge? What are the rules surrounding how much evidence the company needs to produce to prove that damage was caused and the related costs?
In my case, I found it particularly difficult to dispute the damage report as no photographic evidence was provided. Time-stamped digital photographs would be a real technical possibility nowadays. Lack of evidence combined with picking up and dropping off the car in the dark meant that I was entirely at the mercy of the company; it was its word against mine.
I requested a copy of the invoice for repairs but did not receive one. Surely, total transparency should be required when charging people for damage. Even if I had damaged the car, and accepted that there would be repair costs, I would still have liked to see an invoice; otherwise, as a consumer, I would be at the mercy of the hire car company which could charge whatever it wanted.
There is also the question of best price in these cases. It seems reasonable for car hire companies to have agreements and relationships with garages and mechanics they trust, but what checks and safeguards are in place to ensure that they are getting a competitive price for repairs? Do they receive commission from garages when they allocate repairs? There is currently no onus on them to shop around for the best deal for minor repairs, as all costs get passed on to the customer.
In my case, I objected to the charges. My first objection brought a reduction of £291.68, accompanied by some amazing gobbledygook:
“At the location the estimated cost of repair was £658.34 including the damage administration fee of £41.67. As per our pricing schedule the cost of the repair is £366.67 therefore I have now amended your damage charge to reflect the actual cost of repair and the damage administration fee. Our pricing schedule is based on previous damage repair costs to ensure that the locally made estimate reflects the actual cost of repair irrespective of whether the damage is immediately repaired or not.”
When I first complained, I was told over the phone that there was a dent and some scratches to the front of the car. There was no other evidence of what happened.
The starting figure in the explanation was different from what the company actually charged me. Even the refund did not quite balance with the explanation. Although I was refunded an exact amount, it left a suspiciously round figure of exactly £375 as my remaining charge. Again, that process could be a lot more transparent.
I am sure that colleagues will be pleased to hear that when I objected further I received a full refund. In a letter, a senior manager said:
“Having reviewed the vehicle condition report and the damage documents I am unable to uphold the charge.”
That obviously prompts the question: why did the company immediately charge more than £600 for damage in the first place if records were so poor? What is to stop companies charging consumers in the hope that it will not be noticed, not followed up, or that an initial refund of some of the money will suffice? Does that not imply that there may be a widespread scam going on whereby some hire car companies are simply seeing what they can get away with?
I have used my particular example to highlight the broader issues, but I know that my experiences will not be dissimilar to those of many other people. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association saw a 54% increase in complaints against rental companies between 2010 and 2011. In looking at lessons learned, it says:
“Rental companies should take steps to help customers better understand their obligations under the rental agreement.”
“Rental companies must ensure their staff follow the correct procedures and maintain accurate records so they can contest any disputes that may arise.”
In February 2010, the Office of Fair Trading published the results of an investigation into consumer contracts. It included research into five areas, one of which was car rentals. It highlighted various issues, including whether customers had adequate opportunity to read contracts and understand the implications of the contract; the visibility of additional charges; and whether customers understood the implications of waivers in the contract and pre-authorisations on their credit cards.
One key point was that people were put off by small font sizes and poor quality paper. People also had an understandable belief—a touching faith, in fact—that staff would highlight important points. No one could recall the detail of any extra charges for which they might be liable, and the OFT was critical of the way in which information was made available to help customers with their buying decision.
When Which?Money examined car rental terms and prices for a week’s hire, it found that costs for operational extras, high excesses and hidden shortfalls in cover were “commonplace”. It also said:
“While most car rental firms offer excess waiver policies, to reduce or eliminate the cost if you have an accident in your hire car, we found numerous underlying restrictions in the small print that could make you assume you’re insured when you’re not.”
That really compounds the felony. If I had been unhappy about my high excess and paid a premium to lower or take away the excess, Which? found that even that premium may not have actually bought me the cover that I expected. It also found that third-party excess reimbursement insurance policies suffered from the same shortcomings—that is, buying policies not from the hire car company.
There are many consumer protection issues here that the Minister should address. Key features of a rental agreement should be clearly summarised and not left buried in the small print. Car hire companies should clearly display the insurance excess included in their contracts in their advertising and at the point of hire. Customers should be given options to bring the excess down to levels they can afford, with policies that actually work. These extra premium options should also be clearly advertised in advance. Car hire companies should not be allowed to make charges for damages without notifying the hirer.
With digital photography and video now being ubiquitous, consideration should be given to having time-stamped photographic evidence to support damage claims. The hirer who is expected to pay for damage should receive a copy of the repair invoice, and consideration should be given to how hirers can benefit from the most competitive repair costs.
I thank the Minister for listening to my speech today, and I look forward to hearing her feedback and information about what plans the Department may have in place to ensure that there is more protection for consumers in the future.
It is, as ever, a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing this debate. He perhaps did himself a disservice when he said that this issue was not brought to his attention by a constituent, because I am sure that he is able to be an excellent representative for himself. We are all constituents even if we are our own MPs.
My hon. Friend explains, through the account of his experience, problems that are perhaps widespread within the car hire industry. Of course, not everybody who faces the problems that he has experienced would necessarily be able to get redress in the same way that he has. First, his ability to get redress relied on his noticing the extra charge on his credit card bill. Although most people would notice an extra £600 on their bill when they were already expecting a charge to come through from a car hire company, they might not always check the exact amount. Indeed, if the charge for any damage was lower than that and perhaps not so different from the overall hire amount that is the kind of charge that could be missed, which obviously opens up the potential for abuse by unscrupulous companies.
My hon. Friend detailed in his speech how he got the charge waived, by various efforts and by going back to the company on more than one occasion. Of course, we know that not every constituent will necessarily have the ability or the time to make that kind of challenge. So, although options for redress are available, and I will certainly outline the provisions that are in place, it is worth bearing it in mind that I am quite sure there are some people out there who have been the victim of this kind of practice by car hire companies who perhaps have not had the redress to which they are entitled. Consequently, I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has brought this issue to the attention of the House and indeed that he has given it wider publicity. I hope that car hire companies will be following this debate closely, and that they see that the Government are aware of this issue and determined to ensure that consumer detriment in this area is not allowed to happen unchecked.
There are ways in which this issue can be addressed. My hon. Friend might be aware that Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme took up this issue a little while ago and that it reported action being taken by trading standards officers in Leicestershire against a national rental company. That suggests not only that there is action that can be taken but that there is a problem, at least in some instances. I will not go into the details of that specific case, but it shows that the legislation that exists can have teeth when it comes to tackling offences in this area. Indeed, it also shows that the enforcement authorities have the power to act when cases are brought to their attention and when there are potential breaches of the law or unfair trading practices. The current regulations can provide protection, but it is fair to say that there are significant concerns about the experiences that have been highlighted by my hon. Friend.
Indeed, it is not only my hon. Friend who has highlighted such experiences. It is worth bringing it to the attention of the House that this is a subject on which, as the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs, I have received a variety of correspondence from hon. Members. In the last few months alone, I have had correspondence about it from six hon. Members, both Government and Opposition. That shows that my hon. Friend’s case is not an isolated occurrence. Of course, not everybody who has such an experience will necessarily go to their MP, which may suggest that this is widespread; if so, it is certainly a cause for concern. There is certainly room for improvement in this area, so I will also set out how we intend to ensure that we can develop and enhance the existing consumer protection regime.
The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 requires traders to carry out services with reasonable care and skill, and where charges are not agreed it requires that the consumer will pay a reasonable charge. If the trader fails to comply with the requirements of the Act, the law treats the matter as a breach of contract. So, if consumers believe that there might have been a breach of the Act, in the first instance they can get help by contacting Citizens Advice.
Another key piece of legislation affecting car hire companies is the snappily titled Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which require the material information that a consumer needs to make an informed decision to be expressed clearly. That helps to deal with my hon. Friend’s point about the importance of ensuring that, when they hire a car, customers can have that clear information, which includes information about their liability to pay for damage in the event of an accident or for other reasons. As I say, we think that that could well be material information, so it should be disclosed at the outset, although obviously that would ultimately be for the courts to decide.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and for her very fluent and helpful speech so far. She mentioned the need to display information clearly and to make it clear to customers. Does she have any view about whether such words apply to contracts that have, for example, extremely small print on the reverse, which most reasonable consumers would have no time to read, particularly if they were standing in a queue of other potential car-hirers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I say, it is ultimately for the courts, in ascertaining whether the law has been broken in a specific instance, to decide whether information is material. I think that we would all recognise that it is not necessarily practical for a business to provide an explanation of all its conditions of trade to each individual consumer, in a very large font and with the conditions highlighted. That would almost be too much information. It is about striking the right balance and ensuring that the information that is material—as the regulations point out—is expressed clearly. Being overly prescriptive about that would not be helpful because in different industries different types of information would be the key information that the consumer needed to make a decision.
Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes a really important point. Like other people, I have hired a car in the past and I cannot necessarily put hand on heart and say that I read every single bit of the six-point text on the back of the rental agreement. In fact, if we did a straw poll of people in Westminster Hall at the moment, I suspect that I would not be alone in that. We need to ensure that we have companies acting in a way that is reasonable and that the contracts that people are signing up to would not be deemed to be unreasonable.
Pressure of time is a factor. My hon. Friend mentioned the scenario in which someone is in a queue, with other people behind them who are also trying to hire a car, and very often—as in my hon. Friend’s case—a car is being hired to go from one airport to another to catch a flight, so there is time pressure. There are a whole host of reasons why every last letter of a contract may not be read in detail, which is why it is important that the key information is displayed clearly.
The contract should also set out clearly whether the person hiring the car has to pay an amount to replace petrol. If the contract does not spell that out, the consumer is entitled to challenge any demand for payment, and if the contract does clearly spell it out, the consumer of course has the choice either to pay the charge for petrol that would be imposed by the car hire company or to shop elsewhere. I suspect that it is often in a consumer’s best interests to shop elsewhere and return with a full tank of petrol, but obviously that is a decision that they can make for themselves.
This issue is partly about the terms of a contract being explained clearly and, where they are material, printed in a sufficiently large font, in advertising, publicity material and leaflets as well as the contract. It is also about the conversation that the customer has with a member of staff, who can explain exactly what the customer can expect. It is reasonable for subjects such as a customer’s liability for potential damage to be clearly spelled out. For many people, the charge that my hon. Friend faced—one of £600—would be a huge amount more than the actual cost of hiring a car, and a really significant charge to be hit with. It is important to ensure that people are aware of any charges and, if necessary, that there are alternatives in terms of lowering any excess.
That said, this is not the type of transaction that people do every day. If someone needed to use a car that often, they would consider buying one. Because people will typically undertake such a transaction only once or twice a year, there is a bigger challenge here for consumer information. We cannot rely on the same pressures that repeat purchasing gives, where if someone gets bad service they take their next bit of custom elsewhere. The information gap is an important issue, and there is a role for consumer websites on which providers’ performance is rated and information is given about their reputation, so that people know which of them to trust. Such signals can help consumers to make good decisions.
The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations are enforced by local authority trading standards and the Office of Fair Trading when there are practices that have wider effects on consumers. As my hon. Friend mentioned, this area was looked into a little while ago. There is also the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. Consumer law protections are available, but my hon. Friend has raised issues of genuine concern. If a consumer pays a headline price to book a rental car, they should not then find out when they collect the car that to reduce their insurance excess it costs them twice as much as they thought it would, or that there are other surprise high charges, such as for returning the car with an empty fuel tank or for repairs. Sometimes, a driver under the age of 25 finds out that there are extra charges because of their age, or a parent who needs a car seat for their small child has to pay more for a week’s rental of the facility than it would cost to buy such a seat. The Law Commission is considering whether the current unfair terms legislation adequately protects consumers from such hidden charges, and will make recommendations about whether tougher legislation is needed.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the rules on damage, and whether robust evidence must be provided. He talked about time-stamped photographs, and with technology these days that would be an innovative solution for a company that wanted to make it clear that it was not ripping off its customers. That is generally a contractual issue but, importantly, the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, the members of which are responsible for 80% to 85% of car rentals, is signed up to a code that is clear about ensuring that damage is recorded and that consumers agree it at the time. It also has a conciliation service to which consumers can take complaints, and by which the traders have to abide. There is, therefore, some protection in place, but it is not an entire solution because it does not cover 15% to 20% of the market.
The Minister rightly draws attention to the code of practice. Is she aware of what the industry does about companies that do not follow it? In the case I highlighted, there was clearly no communication at all—no attempt to make contact—about even the fact of damage, let alone the content, before the charge was levied. Does the Minister agree that that company was operating outside the industry’s code of practice?
My hon. Friend tempts me to make a decision on that specific case and I hope he will understand that I am not able to. What I will say is that if members do not comply with the code of practice, they could certainly be considered to be carrying out a misleading action under the consumer protection regulations and that could properly be taken further with trading standards, which might be able to look into it. Although my hon. Friend’s case has been resolved, I am sure he has a wider concern, in that he would not wish the same experience to happen to others, and so an investigation by the local trading standards department could perhaps ascertain the facts of the case.
My hon. Friend mentioned insurance, which I have already touched on. It is important that contract terms are clear, so that consumers understand whether they are buying an insurance product and therefore getting the advantage of any regulatory protection. When car hire firms offer consumers the opportunity to purchase an excess waiver, that is often not the same as buying an insurance policy, and is therefore not covered by financial services regulation. When consumers are sold an insurance policy, the policy has to be provided by an insurance company, and in the UK the regulation of such companies is designed to ensure that they treat customers fairly. One option open to consumers, therefore, is to buy their own insurance policy, separately from the car hire contract, to cover the excess, but they would need to negotiate that with the car hire firm, to ensure that it was okay with it. For a one-off purchase, that would be a convoluted way of getting protection but, ultimately, buying from an insurance company means that consumers have the protection of the Financial Service Authority’s rules, and free dispute resolution from the Financial Ombudsman Service.
In heading towards a conclusion, I want to ensure that I have covered all the issues that my hon. Friend raised. He asked for the rental agreement to be clear, and although there are regulations that say that material information needs to be there, he makes a good point about whether in practice that happens as clearly as it should, particularly regarding displaying the excess that can be charged, because that is a key figure. An excess of £850, as he mentioned, would make many consumers think twice and at least ask the question, or be careful when they returned the car to ensure that they had a discussion, saying “And I hope you will see that there is no damage there.” I have just described the options for reducing the excess, either through insurance or an excess waiver fee, and the issue of damage notification is partially dealt with by the code of conduct, which is something that my hon. Friend can take further with his local trading standards.
My hon. Friend raised an important point about ensuring that if it is stated that a repair has been undertaken there is evidence that it has happened. Often, the repair service is being purchased by someone other than the person who is paying for it, so it is important to ensure that good value is achieved, and perhaps consumers could benefit from cheaper repair costs than those at whatever local garage the company seems to have a deal with. The company might not always be encouraged to get the best possible price because the customer who is paying is not standing there when they take the car in for repair. As there is not generally a repeat purchase, there is not necessarily always the time for the consumer to read every single bit of the small print, partly due to time pressures and partly because we know that that does not always happen in any event. Often when a car is dropped off late at night and the office is not open, the customer leaves the key somewhere and there is no opportunity to have a discussion, look at the car and agree that there is no damage. When it is not practical to have such a conversation, there is a particular challenge, and time-stamped photographs could certainly be part of the solution.
In conclusion, from the correspondence I have received I am concerned that in some cases there is a degree of sharp practice in the industry. I hope that car hire companies will carefully consider practices throughout their chains, and that if they uncover any evidence of this kind of practice they ensure it is stopped. We need, however, stronger consumer regulation, not just in car hire but across the board, and that is why we are introducing a consumer bill of rights, which will make regulation simpler and much more effective, ensuring a clear framework of rights that is easier for consumers and businesses alike to understand and use. We will carefully consider what the Law Commission comes back with from its review of what might need to change to give further protection to consumers in this area and, as there is legislation coming forward, I encourage any Members who have suggestions about how the regulation in this particular area could be improved to bring such proposals to my attention. We would, of course, be happy to consider what could be done to strengthen the hand of consumers in this and all other markets.
With that, I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is doing an excellent job on behalf of his constituents, and also for the wonderful charity Movember.
Boundary Commission (Great Grimsby)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, particularly as this is the first time I have served under your benign chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I warn against the crime that the Boundary Commission proposes to commit, namely the murder of the Great Grimsby constituency, which I represent. The commission proposes to kill the constituency by splitting it in two, with four of its eight wards going into a new constituency of Grimsby South and Cleethorpes, and the rest going north in a shotgun marriage with Barton in a new Grimsby North and Barton constituency. Barton is 10 miles from Grimsby. I do not know of any other historic constituencies that are being treated in such a way, and it is certainly the only historic constituency in Humberside to be so treated. I have been proud to represent Grimsby for 37 years. In fact, it was only under me that the constituency rose to greatness by becoming Great Grimsby, so the Boundary Commission’s proposal to abolish it is a particular blow. The great majority of my constituents, and many organisations in the constituency, feel the same way.
Representing Grimsby has been a delight, not only because it is a community within a constituency, which is fairly rare, but because it is an historic constituency. Grimsby was first represented in Parliament in 1295 by two MPs: William de Dovedale and Gilbert de Reyner. I deny the rumours that I have been here that long that one of them was actually me. I was not here in 1295—Augustinus de Mitchellius was not here—but I am sure that those two are turning in their graves. While we had two MPs at the start, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, we had one MP, who was always the borough Member, because the constituency coincided with the borough’s boundaries until the borough was abolished in 1992. I suppose that I am therefore the last of the borough Members.
Great Grimsby, therefore, is unique and historic, and it is one of the few parliamentary constituencies that is also a community. It is not a slice of a big city such as Hull or Bradford—or wherever it might be—and nor is it rural acres lumped together to build the necessary population. Destroying something as unique as Grimsby would be an act of simple political vandalism.
Grimsby’s one fault, if it has any faults—I do not think it has many faults—is that it is small. The electorate is only 61,000, which was big enough to survive all the previous redistributions, but not to reach the new norm of 76,000 electors per constituency, with only a 5% margin either way, that was necessitated by the Government’s decision to reduce the size of the Commons from 650 Members to 600. That proposal is wrong. The Government cannot economise on democracy by reducing the number of MPs to reduce expense. Reducing the number of MPs takes no account of their work load, which is increasing due to Select Committees and growing demand from constituencies.
Reducing the House in such a fashion will increase the power of the Executive by diminishing the number of Members outside the Executive. An Executive of more than 100 in a House of 600 would make them much more powerful than under the present situation. I deplore the change, and that unnecessary reduction has led to the redrawing of the constituency boundaries according to the new quota of 76,000 that has been imposed. Constituencies are now to be no more than 5% above or below that norm, which means that Great Grimsby and the neighbouring constituency of Cleethorpes have to be enlarged.
The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals would have sensibly enlarged Great Grimsby by adding two wards from Cleethorpes, and would then have compensated Cleethorpes, which encircles Grimsby like Indians round a wagon train, although I should not say that in the presence of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)
I speak as one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. He and I know that visitors to Grimsby and Cleethorpes will not know where the boundaries are because it is just one urban mass. We, of course, remember where the passport control points used to be prior to the creation of North East Lincolnshire council.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s good point that cutting Grimsby in half is totally illogical, but there was an equal strength of feeling in Cleethorpes when, as he suggests, the first proposal was to take the north end of Cleethorpes. Does he agree that the sensible thing would be to ignore the supposed boundary between Yorkshire, Humberside and the east midlands, which would then allow villages such as Holton-le-Clay, Keelby and Tetney to be brought into one of the seats?
I absolutely agree that that would solve all the problems. The problem is that the borders with Lincolnshire and Yorkshire have been so oppressive for the Boundary Commission, which says it will not ignore them. Humberside has to lose one Member, and the reshuffle results from that.
Cleethorpes was to be compensated by adding the south bank of the Humber up to Burton upon Stather and Winterton. The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals were sensible. They brought my constituency up to 78,000 electors and Cleethorpes up to 77,000, although stupidly that constituency was to be renamed Brigg and Humberston, which must have annoyed people in Cleethorpes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman could confirm. Both constituencies would have been big, and people told the Boundary Commission that they were happy with the provisional proposals, but that was to no avail, because the next stage for the commission was to review its decisions on the basis of representations made by the parties and local people.
In Humberside, the bulk of the review dealt with Hull and its surrounding area, and with Scunthorpe, which is to our west. As we were not concerned in Grimsby, we issued a statement saying only that we were happy with the provisional proposals. We left it at that, and so did the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in their national evidence—both parties recommended that Grimsby should not be split. The Conservatives, however, made more wide-reaching proposals, which included splitting up the Grimsby constituency. To our amazement, those proposals were accepted by the Boundary Commission, which I deplore. I consider that decision to be both disastrous and unacceptable; it does not make sense.
Why did the Boundary Commission change its mind so unpredictably? It gave a number of reasons that were more like excuses and had nothing to do with Grimsby. We were told that the commission wanted to accommodate some of the representations from Hull by changing its constituency boundaries, and there were therefore knock-on effects right down to Scunthorpe. The commission said that it did not want to split up the three wards of the Isle of Axholme, which is more of a geographical description than a community, so it took Burton upon Stather from the proposed Brigg and Humberston seat and gave it to Scunthorpe, thereby reducing the population of Brigg and Humberston.
The commission also used the excuse that it had received representations from Cleethorpes against splitting up that constituency. Well, Cleethorpes was not really split; it lost two wards but gained other areas along the south bank of the Humber. The constituency was supplemented rather than split, and it is silly to respond to a complaint about splitting Cleethorpes, which was losing two wards, by splitting Grimsby right down the middle. The commission’s proclaimed reluctance to split the Isle of Axholme was really an excuse for something that it wanted to do to the north and west, and we suffered the knock-on effect of those changes. Grimsby was sacrificed on the altar of change in Scunthorpe and Hull.
The commission therefore reversed its sensible provisional proposals and proposed the two new constituencies of Grimsby North and Grimsby South. Grimsby South is to go with four wards to Cleethorpes—the seat will be called Grimsby South and Cleethorpes—while Grimsby North will merge with the rural areas to the north. That proposal is unacceptable. The basic principle should be to keep existing communities together as far as possible. This is an historic constituency and a community within one constituency, which is the strongest claim for remaining a constituency. The commission has split up the one constituency in Humberside that is a genuine community.
The commission is also supposed to maintain common interests as far as possible. In Grimsby’s case, it is merging part of an industrial community with Cleethorpes, which has different interests and organisations, seaside and tourism concerns, and even a different school system in terms of the sixth-form distribution in the area. It is merging another part of Grimsby, to the north, with rural areas with which the town has little in common, given that our problems are urban—deprivation, poverty and low educational achievement.
The commission says that it has had a lot of representations on the lack of affinity that electors in rural areas feel with urban areas and vice versa, yet it proposes to ignore all that in the case of Grimsby. The commission is supposed to pay attention, too, to organisational and party links within a constituency. Our constituency boundaries are the same as the old borough boundaries, so the organisational links across borough organisations are strong and long-standing, and the political organisations in the wards are accustomed to working together. All that is now to be split up in Grimsby.
The whole procedure leaves a lot to be desired, given that the commission comes up with provisional proposals that we accept and therefore do nothing more, and then it changes them totally. No one in Grimsby has been given a chance to react to the new proposals until now. We face an uphill struggle, because the commission has published its views and we must now change a more settled view. Given that the commission is bound to be a little reluctant to change its mind again, this decision-making process means that we face an uphill struggle to upset the convenience of the commission. That is neither fair nor democratic, and I do not see how it can be viewed as reasonable by the commission.
I am therefore asking the commission not to divide Grimsby and not to abolish what I rightly see as the best constituency in the country. Some might say that Shipley has many claims, Mr Davies, but I think that Grimsby is certainly the best. The commission should go back to its original proposals.
As the commission has behaved in this unreasonable fashion and sacrificed Grimsby to suit other areas and constituencies with regard to issues that have nothing to do with us, I will be submitting evidence to show that it is perfectly possible to keep the two constituencies of Grimsby and Cleethorpes—I hope that that constituency will be called Cleethorpes, because it certainly should be—without splitting Grimsby. I will not go into the details now, but while it cannot be done by abolishing and adjusting wards, it can be done by splitting wards. I know that the commission will be loth to do that, but it can be done, and I shall be submitting evidence on a numerical basis to show that.
I know that the Minister cannot respond by saying, “Yes, the commission is wrong. You’re right, Mitchell, and the Government will intervene and help you.” I perfectly understand that she cannot speak for the commission. Several people have told me that it is a waste of time to protest about the abolition of Grimsby, however, because the commission’s proposals will not be accepted by the House of Commons. However, whether the proposals end up in force or in the dustbin, where I am happy to see that the Liberal Democrats intend to put them, they are still wrong, and yet the Government appear determined to get them through.
The position must be decided soon or we will face a farcical situation in which the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates for the next election on the basis of existing seats—they are comparatively new, after all, as the last redistribution was not too long ago—while the Conservatives select candidates for the new seats. All the fights that go on within the party about the redistribution game of musical chairs will then emerge publicly as people fight for a diminished number of seats. That is plainly ludicrous. Whether or not the Government see sense on this issue, they must make an early decision.
I want the commission to show that it has seen sense on its proposals for Grimsby by not abolishing the historic constituency of Great Grimsby. My main reason for securing the debate was to put the case for that, but I also put it to the Government that it is incumbent on them to make their decision on the redistribution clear before we have a farce in which different parties are selecting candidates for different constituencies.
My final plea must be to the commission. I do not want to be the last MP for Great Grimsby as a united constituency with one community and all the organisational links that join it together. Please rethink this in light of the evidence from Grimsby that we will be submitting and keep Grimsby one political unit and one constituency.
I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for allowing us to give these issues a good airing. It is absolutely clear that he is passionate about his constituency and its greatness, and I hear his desire not to be the last MP for Grimsby. That, however, is in the hands of others, as are so many things. I am sure that he will welcome the will of the people of Grimsby.
I will outline a few of the more factual aspects of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that I, as a Minister of the Crown, am in no position to suggest what the Boundary Commission for England ought to do or to comment on its proposals in detail. I shall have to stay carefully away from that. However, I can offer him my own experience of representing half of an extremely fine city, the city of Norwich. My constituents in the north of Norwich often confuse the boundary line. We do not have passport control; we reserve that for the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. Within Norwich and its neighbouring local authority area of Broadland, such issues are also raised occasionally.
The hon. Gentleman has focused on the proposals made by the Boundary Commission for England in the current boundary review concerning his constituency of Great Grimsby. As I said, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the conduct or content of the review. The Boundary Commission for England is independent, and rightly so. I am sure we all appreciate that about the democracy in which we live, so I will not go into the individual decisions made by the commission to date. I have no doubt that he and other hon. Members here have made known their views, and those of constituents and residents, to the commission. It is for the Boundary Commission to consider the substance of his comments and balance them with others that they receive.
The legislative position that applies is that the four boundary commissions across the UK will conduct boundary reviews and make recommendations in accordance with the statutory framework set by Parliament. We should leave it to the experience and judgment of the boundary commissions to make those proposals, in accordance with that framework.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Boundary Commission for England is consulting on its revised proposals, which it published on 16 October, and on which he has commented extensively today. The deadline for responses is 10 December, so there is still time to make further representations on the proposed boundary, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman is doing that. I urge not only hon. Members in this Chamber but anyone else who takes a serious interest in this matter to engage with that process. That is not just a matter for political parties; it should, as the hon. Gentleman said, be a matter for communities to voice their opinion on. I am sure that he is encouraging Grimsbians—he will have to let me know the word—
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is encouraging the fine people of Grimsby to do this.
Parliament will have the opportunity in due course to consider the final recommendations arising from the current boundary review, when the four boundary commissions have completed their reviews and submitted their final reports to the Government. We expect those reports in October 2013. The hon. Gentleman will know that all too well. We are in the period after the publication of revised proposals, and a written-only consultation of eight weeks follows.
All the boundary commissions are working within the proposals for a smaller House of Commons. However, in the light of the decision of the Liberal Democrats and the possibility that the legislation might not go anywhere, is it not a waste of time and money at a time of austerity? Surely the decision about whether the boundaries are going anywhere should be taken in this House, and it should be taken at the beginning of 2013 rather than in October 2013.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter, because it allows me to put on record a point that will no doubt be of interest to hon. Members. This is an example of Government underspending, which is always to be applauded. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree.
We estimated that the review would cost £11.9 million or thereabouts. Some £6.6 million has been spent by the four boundary commissions on the review and related purposes till the end of October, and £3 million remains in the budget for the rest of the review. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that coming in under budget on this exercise is to be applauded. I see that he is writing down those figures, but they have already been brought out in parliamentary questions. He may wish to consider that before he writes his own press release about them. It is important to have regard to the figures and the costs of what we do, in every case. The £9.6 million current estimated cost that I cited is less than the previously estimated cost of the review and less than the previous boundary review, which cost £13.6 million.
The legislative position is clear. The House of Commons passed the Bill that I will mention in a second so the legislation is on the statute book. There is an obligation on the boundary commissions to return with their proposals by October 2013, The expenditure that we are talking about was necessary for the conduct of the review, as required by that legislation. I think that the boundary commissions have been successful in securing value for money when carrying out their duties.
An early point always made in support of the legislation was that, contrary to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, reducing the number of MPs would bring us closer into line with other democracies and would deliver an estimated saving of £13.6 million a year, which is worth having.
Let me mention some other reasons why the Government thought it necessary to amend the existing rules for setting boundaries. Parliament debated these at considerable length, as all hon. Members know, during the passage of the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
There is a significant difference between the sizes of many parliamentary constituencies, and I can provide some particularly illuminating examples. Based on the figures as at December 2011, the East Ham constituency has 92,000 voters and Wirral West has around 55,000. The differences are even greater when compared across different nations. At the same date, Arfon in Wales had an electorate of around 40,000. I do not imagine that there is a great desire to see such inconsistency continue, because it has the effect of making some people’s votes count more than others’, depending on where they live. I am sure that the residents of Great Grimsby have their view on that, as others do. Our reforms are designed to restore equality and fairness in setting constituency boundaries. The 2011 Act seeks to achieve votes that are more equal in weight throughout the UK.
The concern has clearly been expressed today that setting boundaries should not simply be a numbers process, but should instead respect local ties and seek to unite communities. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck in boundary setting. A sense of place must be respected so that different localities and places that take account of local ties can be represented by single Members of Parliament, where that can be made to be true. However, the other side of the balance must be that we seek equality in the number of electors in each constituency, so that throughout the country votes have an equal weight—in other words, we uphold the fundamental principle of one elector and one vote. The boundary commissions are still able to take account of factors such as physical geographical features and local ties, but these are subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size to ensure we maintain that key principle.
The commission’s guide to the review states that the regional boundaries we are discussing are not inviolable, and it is open to the hon. Gentleman to make a representation accordingly. The guide to the review states that the regional approach
“does not prevent anyone from putting forward counter-proposals that include one or more constituencies being split between regions, but it is likely that compelling reasons would need to be given to persuade”
the Boundary Commission for England
“to depart from the regional-based approach we adopted in formulating our initial proposals.”
Again, we return to the fact that it is for the commission to take a view on the merits of the case, according to the legislation and other competing proposals for the area.
The consultation is open until 10 December. If the hon. Gentleman feels he has compelling reasons to put forward, he ought to do that. I would not dream of trespassing on the issue of whether Humberside or north-east Lincolnshire, or any other important aspect of the local geography, is more wanted by local people than others. That is not for me to say, as a mere Member for the fine county of Norfolk.
I think that all hon. Members agree with the principle that the boundary commissions should be independent. However, equality and fairness must be overriding principles in respect of something as important as people’s right to choose the Government of the day. The boundary reforms under the 2011 Act ensure that there is fairness in our political system and that votes carry a more equal weight throughout the country. I recognise the important points that have been made. I hope I have provided reassurance that the Government have taken and are taking these matters very seriously and that, crucially, there remains an avenue for the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and others to discuss them further with the Boundary Commission for England.
Question put and agreed to.