Wednesday 6 February 2013
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
England-Wales Transport Links
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Simon Burns.)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts, and to raise cross-border travel, which is critical for Wales. It was the subject of two inquiries by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in the previous Parliament, and, as is so often the case with such inquiries, the issue is now being revisited by the present Committee. The Government will of course have the opportunity to respond when we have agreed our report.
I shall not pre-empt that, but would mention one way in which the reports are characterised: there has been a lot of discussion of north Wales and south Wales connectivity, quite rightly, but some colleagues may empathise with me when I say that mid-Wales is often lost in the debate. However, a few Select Committee veterans are here among my hon. Friends and colleagues, and others with border constituencies will no doubt want to talk about the important issues of Severn bridge tolls, First Great Western franchise arrangements and the quest for electrification in north Wales. Should I stray intermittently into devolved matters, I apologise from the outset, but responsibility for transport is fragmented, as our report of 2009 stated, and that requires robust co-ordination between the Governments at Cardiff Bay and Westminster.
The 2009 Select Committee report said that rail
“improvement schemes are too often only evaluated on their local benefits”,
that we require greater co-ordination of rail franchises and that we have seen
“a general failure to predict increases in passenger demand and...insufficient rolling stock is available on certain routes particularly at busy times.”
Those, certainly, are characteristics of the debate about the rail line that ends in my constituency in Aberystwyth and passes through that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies).
Arriva Trains Wales operates the Cambrian coast line service between Birmingham International and Aberystwyth. The absence of an hourly service across mid-Wales is not merely a parochial matter, nor is the loss of a direct service between Aberystwyth and London some 20 years ago. The economic benefits of connectivity, for the movement of people and of goods and services, should not be understated. The town of Aberystwyth has strategic significance. We do not hear much about the mid-Wales corridor. We hear a lot about the A55 and the M4 corridor, but there is a mid-Wales corridor, and the Select Committee made that point in another of our many inquiries—we are a very busy Committee—into inward investment:
“We are concerned by evidence that the quality of transport links in Mid and North Wales and the connectivity between the rest of Wales and England deters overseas investment in parts of Wales.”
Part of that debate is about roads, and colleagues may want to talk about that, but I want to discuss rail and my belief that mid-Wales is being held back, which is why arrangements across the border are so critical. The local perception is that we have a second-rate service. That is not always a failure of the franchisee. Sometimes, it is a failure of political will and opportunity.
My enthusiasm on the matter led me to suggest to the Select Committee Chair that not only should we take evidence on transport matters in Aberystwyth, but we should travel there by train. Not all members of the Committee were brave enough to experience that, although some were. I salute the hon. Members for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and for Swansea East (Mrs James), for their support in travelling by train. I could have written a soap opera script. We left Euston on time, to embark on our journey of four hours and 40 minutes. It was regrettable that that was compounded by a two-hour wait at Birmingham International station, as we missed the connection. There are limits on what one can do for two hours at Birmingham International station.
A word of advice: go to Paddington. It is much easier to get to Aberystwyth from there.
Sadly, in my constituency, people then have to contend with the roads—I live in the north of Ceredigion. I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie of the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, but two hours sitting there waiting is a trial in many ways.
In evidence to the Select Committee, Passenger Focus
“identified inter-franchise connections as one of the main sources of dissatisfaction with cross-border services amongst passengers.”
The report was produced in 2009, under the previous Government, so perhaps the Minister can give some good news now, but we concluded:
“At present, there is no incentive for different train operating companies to provide connecting services or to ensure that connections are maintained when there are delays.”
When we finally got on our train, the journey continued to Machynlleth, in Powys. There we had the spectacle of the four carriages being reduced to two, and passengers scurrying from the back of the train to the front, to get into carriages to Aberystwyth; otherwise they would risk a prolonged although scenic journey—but it was getting late—up to Pwllheli. Those are the realities of the service that my constituents must use.
There has, overall, in the generality of Wales, been progress since the report was produced, not least because of the coalition Government’s commitment to rail electrification in south Wales. That is commendable and necessary, and progress is being made, for which I commend the Government. A debate is emerging on rail electrification in north Wales—the arrival in the Chamber of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) is timely, as is this important debate. The Assembly Minister announced in January that he will draw up a business case for that, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the liaison and discussion between the Government and Assembly Ministers. However, the lack of an hourly service in mid-Wales and the two- hour wait between trains across mid-Wales is not simply a matter of mild inconvenience. It is an impediment to the area’s growth.
During its inquiry on inward investment, the Welsh Affairs Committee heard from Professor Stuart Cole, of the university of Glamorgan, that
“if Wales was to compete successfully with countries in Eastern Europe, its transport facilities had to be able to help overcome the cost differentials and distances from these markets by becoming ultra-efficient and influence competitiveness for inward investment”.
If that is a message for Wales as a whole, it is a very poignant one for mid-Wales. We heard from UK Trade and Investment officials, who said that the current transport infrastructure in Wales could act as a potential deterrent to investors. We need to make sure that existing businesses and manufacturers are not hamstrung by any impediment such as lack of development of the transport network. The pressures that that could put on the tourism sector and the all-important higher education sector in my constituency are something that I reflect on. The Wales Tourism Alliance has said:
“If we are to succeed, we must get visitors, the lifeblood of the economies of Wales, into each and every corner of our country. At present internally and cross border we simply do not have the transport infrastructure to deliver the economic potential of many of our leading destinations.”
I contend—surprise, surprise—that many of those destinations are on the west Wales coast.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the historic under-investment in transport in Wales. If High Speed 2 —essentially an England-only railway—goes ahead and given that, despite the fact that transport is not actually devolved, Crossrail resulted in a 100% Barnett consequential, does the hon. Gentleman agree that a Barnett consequential for HS2 investment is essential, so that the Welsh transport infrastructure can keep pace with developments in England?
I welcome that intervention. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall come on to that point because HS2 is of great interest to many of our constituents.
This is a historic debate. Seven years ago the National Assembly’s development committee heard evidence from the mid-Wales manufacturing group in Newtown. At the top of its list of key requirements for businesses to flourish were improved roads, rail and broadband. I would give five out of 10 for broadband but fewer marks out of 10 on rail.
What we need—there is a role for both Governments in this—is a stimulus that supports growth and creates a dynamic transport network in Wales. Much of the debate is internal and the exclusive responsibility of our National Assembly Government, but while that is appropriate, the fact that 16.4 million people live within 50 miles of the border makes cross-border services vital. Over the years of the rail franchise, we have seen strong development in that area, with Arriva Trains Wales reporting growth in its cross-border services of typically between 8% and 13%. On the Cambrian main line, which is a primary cross-border route connecting Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury and beyond, 900,000 journeys are made every year, and the average loading—I hesitate to use the word load to describe passengers, but it feels a bit like that sometimes—is about 125 passengers, which is slightly higher than the UK average. Although I appreciate that, in the current economic climate, there are great constraints on the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster, small, limited enhancements could bring genuine benefits to the community.
I will start with the modest aspirations. SARPA, the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association, has called for the improved utilisation of rolling stock resources, which could bring improvements to the service at minimal increased cost. Dealing with commuter trains in and out of Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth would be a good start. For example, at Shrewsbury, there is an early arrival from Aberystwyth at 7.11 am, but the next train arrives at 9.25 am, which does not make sense for the many people who need to get to work or college by 9 am. There is a lot of demand for travel to and from Shrewsbury for job opportunities, further education and medical services that are not readily available in mid-Wales, but the current timetable does not serve that demand effectively. Since privatisation, franchise holders have been instructed by the passenger service requirement to run trains with a two-hour frequency. Operators have happily taken the subsidy offered, but little thought seems to have been given by the franchisee to providing a service that reflects the demand for travel across the border.
I acknowledged at the start of my speech that transport policy is fragmented between the Assembly Government and the UK Department for Transport, but I know that there is a healthy dialogue between the Welsh and UK Departments because the Minister convinced me of that when I questioned him in the Welsh Affairs Committee. We also took evidence in Aberystwyth from the Welsh Minister Carl Sargeant, who spoke of an emerging much more positive relationship, so I know that to be the case.
Network Rail is, however, the responsibility of the Department for Transport. I salute the work of its Welsh division—the very fact that we have a Welsh division is an important message for those of us who believe in devolution. Network Rail has undertaken extensive infrastructure work, including the building of passing loops on our line, and we acted as guinea pigs for the development of the European rail traffic management system—the new signalling system that will be rolled out across Great Britain.
I am interested, however, in the Minister’s view on why we still do not have the hourly service. I do not want to damage his relationship with Mr Carl Sargeant, but does he regret, as I do, the apparent lack of will at Cardiff? There has been promise after promise after promise. Since 1999, we have been told that we will have our hourly service, and we have now been told that, as we do not figure sufficiently high in the priorities, we will have to wait until 2015. The service would plug an important gap in the timetable and make genuine commuting opportunities possible across mid-Wales.
At the same time, the Welsh Government have tried to kick-start a market between north and south Wales, with 10 services between Cardiff and north Wales and lower passenger numbers, and many argue that the route could effectively be served by three or four trains, rather than the 10 that it enjoys. An hourly service is a modest aspiration. We have been promised it before, and I hope we can push further for it following this debate.
There is a more ambitious proposal for train services in and out of mid-Wales and to London, which is the re-establishment of a direct service between Aberystwyth and London. Three years ago, we faced more disappointment when the Office of Rail Regulation threw out Arriva Trains Wales’s bid to develop the direct service. I declare an interest: I spend up to 10 hours a week on the train, somewhere between London and Aberystwyth. I have rarely driven here. My wife used to be an employee of Arriva Trains Wales—and a very good job she did, too. Arriva Trains Wales’s bid was an attempt to right a wrong that had emanated from privatisation legislation, which had meant the withdrawal by the successors to British Rail of a direct link to the capital.
In 2010, Arriva Trains Wales’s bid for a twice-daily service to London Marylebone was rejected. The company stated that the bid would unlock the potential of the mid-Wales rail market and bring it in line—that was music to my ears—with that of south and north Wales. It proposed to route a line for the direct service via Shrewsbury and Birmingham International, and the latter is important because many of my constituents and those who live in other parts of mid-Wales use the airport there; it is the airport for mid-Wales. The proposed service would have continued through Banbury, West Ruislip and Wembley to London Marylebone, and plans were drawn up for timetabling and rolling stock. The Office of Rail Regulation gave as its reason for rejecting the bid a concern about the “financial viability” of the new service. There were concerns about the abstraction of revenue from the sadly now former Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway Company, and there were concerns from Chiltern Railways.
I well remember nearly 30 years ago InterCity 125s leaving Aberystwyth at 7 am. It was not exactly robust commuter traffic on a daily basis, but it sent an important signal of connectivity from a peripheral area to the rest of the country. I also remember freight being delivered on that service to Aberystwyth. I am flying the kite to the Minister, resurrecting the ghost of that service, in the expectation that he can help us, and that the Minister at Cardiff Bay is listening, too. We should at least explore the possibility of a direct service once again, and I hope that the Department for Transport and the Assembly Government will look favourably on that. The consequences of the rejection of the Arriva Trains Wales bid has been that, since 1991, Aberystwyth is one of the few towns in Britain left without a direct link to the capital.
I want just to touch on two other things; I know that colleagues want to talk about issues that affect their localities. In 2018, the Arriva Wales franchise will be up for renewal, so can the Minister clarify who has ultimate responsibility for arrival at the new franchise? Can he confirm that there are two signatures on the documentation for it? Or, is it the sole responsibility of our Assembly Government? Either way, the matters will, I am sure, be part of the Silk commission’s work when we look at the devolution of responsibility. Clarity about rail franchises will be considered as Paul Silk embarks on part 2 of his inquiry into further powers.
I also want to talk about the historical matter of the initial subsidy agreement, which was not signed under the Minister’s watch, between the then Strategic Rail Authority and Arriva Trains Wales. There was an agreement for a one-year subsidy of £120 million, which would reduce over the 15 years of the franchise to less than £100 million. The Welsh Assembly Government, rightly within their remit, have decided to pursue a positive policy, including increasing train lengths, acquiring new trains and extending platforms, but I just wish we could see a bit more of the money in mid-Wales.
The policy resulted in the subsidy increasing, in 2012, to £140 million, and it has been suggested by some, including our Select Committee, that some of the problems with congestion and overcrowding are the result of inadequate modelling of predictions for growth in the industry. The Select Committee concluded in its 2009 report that
“overcrowding is the result of poorly designed franchises which paid no heed to industry forecasts for passenger growth.”
Consequently, the Government in Wales are paying for investment. Some have suggested that Wales is being short-changed.
Many people I talk to have a wrong perception that HS2 will directly affect train travel in and out of Wales. HS2 will have an effect. Perhaps if we get the electrification that we all want in north Wales, it will have a positive effect on travel. I am dispelling a perception in my constituency that, somehow, we might step off a slow Arriva Trains Wales train somewhere in Birmingham and hop on to a fast train and head off down to London with 40 minutes taken off our journey. Of course, that is not the reality, which leads me to question the benefits that will accrue to large parts of Wales. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made a point about the scheme’s possible Barnett consequences.
I could go on at great length. The debate is as broad as the border is long. I could talk about so many issues, but I am keen to flag up one persistent problem: the more we talk about north Wales and south Wales, the more our constituents in mid-Wales say that we are somehow being short-changed. We are not getting the service that we need, not just for those daily trips in and out of Shrewsbury to do some shopping at Marks and Spencer, but to access the services that we require to develop our area economically.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments on north Wales, south Wales and the exclusion of mid-Wales, but does he recognise, for example, the Conwy Valley railway line in my constituency? The line links to Meirionnydd, which I define as being in mid-Wales. One of the key issues for the Conwy Valley railway line is that timetabling means someone leaving Blaenau Ffestiniog on the 7 o’clock train to Llandudno junction will miss the trains to Chester and London by four minutes. Is timetabling not part of better servicing mid-Wales?
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his arrival. I am not sure whether he was here when I talked about timetabling. Franchise arrangements are slightly different in that instance, but there is a need for franchise agreements to ensure synergy between timetables, because one of my constituents’ persistent complaints is that we do not have the integrated approach that he and I both want.
I have used this at the end of many debates on Wales, and I say “chwarae teg” for trains in mid-Wales.
Well done to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this debate. I am sorry that I was unable to be on his marathon six-hour train journey, but he has made a persuasive case for mid-Wales, and I am sure the Minister is listening. I also thank him for giving us an opportunity to lobby on other transport matters. As a south Wales MP, I will address the Severn bridge tolls and rail, which he has already mentioned.
The Severn bridge tolls are a thorny issue. A Wales Office Minister recently told me that reports commissioned on the impact of the tolls on Wales gave a mixed picture. He may well say that, but constituents and businesses tell me loud and clear how hard they find absorbing the increased tolls each year when their pay is frozen, their hours are reduced and the cost of living is rising. I am aware of their misery, because it is a major local issue about which I am contacted as an MP. Businesses, particularly those in the haulage industry, say the tolls mean they bear a cost that competitors across the bridge do not and that they have to add that cost to their bottom line, which hits their competitiveness. A Welsh Assembly study, about which the Minister may be aware, shows that scrapping the tolls altogether would improve the economic output of south Wales by some £107 million.
For many, the light at the end of the tunnel is the end of the concession in a few years’ time. I say a few years’ time, because every time someone ventures to say the concession will end on a certain date, the duration of the concession lengthens, which is worrying to say the least. That is mild: I think the concession is becoming a farce. In 2005, the concession would end in 2016; last year, it was 2017; and it now appears to be shifting to the end of 2018. Will the Minister confirm his current estimate?
The first reason given for extending the concession was reduced traffic due to the downturn; then it was the cost of installing the card-handling system, then industrial building allowances and then higher VAT. Now, because the concession may well extend beyond 2018 into 2020, we have the mystery debt from the construction of the bridges, about which another Minister wrote to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and which might push the date further into the future. The announcement in December obtained by the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was news to all of us on the Committee. The information was never mentioned in our recently completed inquiry. Will the Minister explain how the debt came about and why we were never told of it?
That highlights the problem with the concession. I note that Ministers have recently been using the Severn bridge concession as an example of why private companies’ investing to improve our roads, with motorists paying tolls, is a good idea. I have heard Ministers say on the radio and on television that there are tolls on the M6. Well, I think that the Severn bridge concession is a terrible example. The concession, fixed by law years ago, allows the company to whack up the tolls every year until it reaches its target. The toll is completely inflexible, as we saw when there were calls to accept debit and credit card payments. Help for regular users, off-peak travel for businesses and the ability for car sharers to share the tab are all too difficult for the concessionaires who just care about getting the revenue. Calls from customers for any sort of flexibility fall on deaf ears, and the motorist yet again gets stung, with no protection when times are hard, as they are now.
We need something to look forward to when the concession ends. There is a niggling fear that the Treasury sees the bridges as a useful revenue stream after 2017, 2018 or 2019, or whenever the concession ends, and is looking to bank in advance the anticipated revenue from the bridge tolls. Will the Minister please tell me that is not the case?
We need to know what discussions are taking place and whether the Department is engaging with the issue now, rather than waiting until the last minute. Crucially, we need to know that not only reduced tolls, but other creative ideas such as reductions for regular users and off-peak travel for businesses are being considered.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, on the announcement we heard in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee that the UK Government intend to continue the tolls at their current level, following the return to public ownership because of a previously undisclosed debt, the general impression in Wales is that the UK Government are fleecing Welsh motorists?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, the Welsh Assembly has expressed an interest in running the bridges when the concession ends, and I would be happy with that, as I suspect would many of my constituents, if it pledges in advance to reduce the tolls. It would be helpful if the Minister told us what discussions are ongoing with the Welsh Assembly Government.
The Severn tolls are the highest in the UK. It is true that we have to pay the tolls because the bridges had to be built, but the situation is now out of control. The Government stepped in for the Humber bridge and the Dartford crossing, and they ought to do the same for the Severn bridges and give us some reassurance for the future.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Severn bridge in south-east Wales is seen as an opportunity for the company to fleece motorists. Is the toll not also a real economic difficulty that places the Welsh lorry and logistics industries at a competitive disadvantage?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The logistics and haulage industries, many of which are based in our constituencies, are hit hard by the toll because they cannot pass on the extra costs that their competitors do not bear.
On train connectivity, many of my constituents travel to work in places such as Bristol. Constituents at the Monmouth end of Newport East have for years faced ill-thought-out connections, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned, and a decline in the number of train services stopping from places such as Severn Tunnel Junction. A local campaign group, the Severn tunnel action group, have fought a tremendous and successful campaign to bring back many of the services that that station lost. The group has highlighted the local demand for commuter services. The station’s footfall has increased substantially recently—by about 14%—and it is ideally placed to be a major park-and-ride station, with investment.
Even after winning back services that were due to be axed, STAG pointed out that the station’s potential was not being fully realised. STAG highlighted the ill-thought-out timetable, which failed to recognise the importance of connecting commuter trains to services coming from places such as Lydney, Chepstow and Caldicot. For example, Arriva Trains Wales eliminated a service at Severn Tunnel Junction that connected to the First Great Western service and that STAG had negotiated and won back only six months earlier. The replacement Arriva cross-country service leaves Severn Tunnel Junction just minutes before the First Great Western service arrives, so passengers must wait hours for connecting trains, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned. That is not acceptable. Moreover, peak trains are often so full that passengers must stand for the whole journey or wait a few hours until the next one.
All those factors, particularly cross-border connectivity, put commuters off local train services. I ask the Minister to bear those points in mind when he talks to train operators, and perhaps to agree to meet the Severn tunnel action group—a fantastic example of a local group campaigning for rail services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate on a matter that is of huge interest to me and has been for most of my adult life. I want to address specifically how we deal with cross-border links in a devolved United Kingdom. It is not just because my constituency is Montgomeryshire; I worked for a long time to develop the economy in mid-Wales with my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), and one part of the strategy that we always knew was important was transport links. It was much more important for mid-Wales to have a link out than it is for England to have a link in, which lies at the root of the problem.
I was going to talk about road links, particularly two specific ones, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned rail links, I should say how important they are as well. When we discussed the Aberystwyth-Euston link, it was part of an initiative that we in mid-Wales developed. We got every organisation there to come together in a partnership and invest in the Cambrian line, because it was so important to us. Although we have lost the Aber link, we hope that the Shrewsbury-Euston link will be restored soon. I hope that the Minister will reconfirm the position on that; we have been left feeling optimistic about it.
The hourly service that we all desperately want is now in the lap of the National Assembly for Wales. The investment in the line has been made; it now just needs extra investment in the infrastructure—the trains and the cost of the line. I am hopeful that it will happen at some stage. It has been delayed, because there is cost pressure on all forms of Government, including the Welsh Government, but I am hopeful that it will happen before too long.
The Shrewsbury-Euston line is important. Clearly, we would like the line to go to Aberystwyth, but the Shrewsbury line is key because Shrewsbury is so accessible to us. If we were confident in that line, there would be investment in car parking. Particularly as the prison in Shrewsbury is closing, I can see opportunities for that station to become a key station for mid-Wales, but the link to Euston is important. The newly renegotiated Virgin contract may deliver that.
Road links are hugely important to us in mid-Wales, and there are two that I want to speak about. One is called the Middletown bypass; it is actually the connection between Welshpool and the improved road to Shrewsbury. I am talking about half the length of that road. The same principle applies to the Llanymynech-Pant bypass, but it is much further down the pecking order, so I will base my points on the Middletown bypass.
When I was involved in developing the economy in mid-Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the bypass was a key part, and we thought we had secured it. Then an Act was introduced relating to protecting the badger population, and it was suddenly found that the agreed line, which would almost certainly have gone ahead, ran through a badger sett, which delayed things at a key time in the early 1990s. The Government then, like the current Government, needed to cut expenditure, and there was a bit of a fashion to be anti-roads. At that stage, the scheme slipped back and back, although it has been resurrected since then.
The Assembly Government are enthusiastic to proceed with their part of the scheme, and would make the commitment. I do not know the exact figures, but the road scheme would probably cost about £30 million. The Welsh Government would commit about £25 million, and the Highways Agency over the border would commit about £5 million. The Welsh Government want to do it, but the Highways Agency has no priority whatever to come into Wales. There is no economic benefit, and any cost-benefit analysis will give it no priority, so the scheme cannot go ahead.
As a consequence of devolution, cross-border schemes —not just in mid-Wales; I think that there are four or five—have simply been put on the back burner, and there is no prospect that they will ever proceed. That is a massive blow to mid-Wales, because we need that road out. Anybody who has travelled from Welshpool to Wollaston Cross knows that it is the most appalling road. Drivers settle in to travel at 30 or 40 mph, because that is the way it is; they get stuck behind lorries they cannot overtake. That is not acceptable. The whole economy depends on it.
We need the Government at Westminster to recognise that it is not just the cost-benefit analysis for the west midlands that counts; Westminster must consider the impact in Wales. That applies to every single devolved service. If we do not consider the impact on Wales, although we do not have a direct responsibility, the post-devolution United Kingdom cannot operate with anything like the fairness or efficiency that it should.
The same issue applies to the Llanymynech-Pant bypass. That scheme is further down the pecking order, but it has been seriously considered in the past. The bulk of that scheme is in England, so I can see why the issue will be much more difficult to resolve. Again, the west midlands body will consider that scheme, as it has done, and put it right down the list. There is a big local campaign—I have been to public meetings—because anyone who travels through Pant and Llanymynech can see that it is not a modern highway. It attaches to the road to Manchester and Liverpool and the north of England, which is crucial to the economy. It is not good enough.
We have cross-border links, but devolved Britain—nobody is more committed than I am to a devolved Britain that works—works negatively in terms of cross-border roads. We must address that, not just from the Welsh side but from the English side. We all want devolution to work. We want a country whose governance operates well and efficiently, so that we can feel comfortable with it, but in mid-Wales—certainly among those who depend on its economy or are trying to create jobs there—we are furious. It is one of the biggest negatives about devolution that could possibly be created, and I think it will get worse. I hope that the Minister has heard the points that I have made and will not only address them today but ensure that they become part of the Government’s thinking.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this important debate. I know that the Welsh Affairs Committee reviewed this key issue recently, and doubtless will return to it.
Good transport links are a crucial part of the infrastructure needed to support economic regeneration in Blaenau Gwent, which is one of the most deprived county boroughs in the UK, with 24% worklessness and 17% youth unemployment, twice the Wales average. We are high in the league tables for deprivation. Having said that, in recent years, we have received investment in major transport projects that have made our valleys communities much more accessible. For example, considerable progress has been made in dualling the A465 to improve regional and national connectivity. The Tredegar to Merthyr section of the A465 is terrific, and the Cwm bypass is a big success as well. In recent years, the hourly train service from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff has been a stellar success. However, an hourly service is not good enough.
This progress has enabled access to the perhaps under-recognised advantages of Blaenau Gwent of an attractive environment—we have the Brecon Beacons national park on our doorstep—and proximity to the urban centres of Newport, Cardiff, and Swansea in Wales and, importantly, to our east, Birmingham and Bristol. We have goodish access to the M4 and, to help our economy, we retain significant capability in manufacturing.
These geographical advantages see us well placed to take the opportunities that improved cross-border transport could bring. It is helpful that the designation of Ebbw Vale as an enterprise zone specialising in manufacturing offers us new investment potential. Already, private sector developers want to site a world-class motor sport development in the area. That is exciting. Connectivity to markets in the midlands and south Wales, and on into London, is an important element of those developers’ investment plans. However, given our economic challenges, much more still needs to be done on transport connectivity.
Lille in France is often cited as a town with a similar history of reliance on heavy industry and of decline, comparable with areas in south-east Wales, such as Blaenau Gwent. A high-speed rail link has boosted the regeneration of Lille and I think that similar good transport links could help south-east Wales and our valleys, too.
Last Easter, the Secretary of State for Transport was considering proposals for the electrification of the valley lines. I spoke to commuters on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line, to hear what they thought of existing services but also to find out their ambitions for future services. Over a two-week period during the Easter holidays, we surveyed 350 passengers and gained in-depth knowledge of their concerns and ideas for improvement. Unsurprisingly, almost 70% of passengers supported electrification. I welcome the Government’s confirmation last year that all the valley lines will be electrified—that is important to the eastern valleys. However, the job now is to ensure a completion date, rather than a start date, of 2019. I hope that the Minister will confirm that date later in the debate.
Although a majority of my local commuters value their current service, they want a more frequent service, which I hope electrification will deliver. This will really open up our valley towns. However, there is also support—important in this debate—for extending electrification to Newport and then on to Bristol. Many respondents thought this a good idea.
Recently, I spoke to constituents who have a car club and together travel every day to the Ministry of Defence facility at Abbey Wood, near Bristol. Bristol now has enterprise zone status, focusing on creative and technological industries. People from south-east Wales may want to take higher-paid job opportunities, which would be available if commuting was made feasible.
The nub of the matter is that we need through trains or improved links through to south-west England from south Wales; that is crucial for the economy of Blaenau Gwent and the eastern valleys.
I hope that the Welsh Government, the South-East Wales Transport Alliance, neighbouring English local authorities—it is a shame there are not more English Members from the other side of the Severn here—and the Department for Transport will all work together, to deliver the accessible, sustainable and integrated transport system that Blaenau Gwent and all our communities on the Welsh-English border deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on calling this important debate. It is a privilege to have a UK Minister with responsibility for transport, particularly in England, here to respond to points that we make about our connectivity across the border.
The issue is especially relevant to my constituents, as Brecon and Radnorshire covers almost a third of the Welsh border with England but is relatively poorly served by transport connections between the two countries. The A44 and A438 are key east-west routes connecting Leominster in the north of Herefordshire to Rhayader, and Hereford with Brecon. It is always a bit of a disadvantage for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), because he makes many of the points that I would like to make. However, I should like to reinforce those points.
These trunk roads are the busiest in my constituency and are managed by the Welsh Assembly Government through a partnership between Powys and Ceredigion county councils, but they still require an input and funding from the English Highways Agency, to maximise the benefits of any improvements that are to be made. That can be a problem, as I have highlighted before with my Assembly colleague, Kirsty Williams, because priorities in England are continually focused on the larger conurbations. Consequently, priorities do not match up and inputs and funding are inadequate to make changes that are essential for road safety and making general improvements to our economic development.
The A483 Pant to Llanymynech bypass scheme was considered by the West Midlands Regional Transport Board as part of the regional prioritisation in 2006, in which the region considered the relative priority of major schemes in the region. The board advised that this scheme was a low priority due to its low cost-benefit score and the modest contributions it was thought to make towards economic development and housing in the area. Following the decision of the West Midlands Regional Transport Board in 2006, the scheme was reviewed to assess whether its cost could be reduced while maintaining a substantial proportion of its benefits. However, due to the route’s not being deemed a priority, that study concluded that possible small-scale solutions along the route would still offer poor value for money. Consequently, the Highways Agency was instructed by the Minister to stop developing the scheme altogether and that it could be revisited in future only if the West Midlands Regional Transport Board decided that it was a priority. Finally, in May 2012, the Government announced a series of schemes that would be developed to enable potential construction in the next spending review. This scheme was not selected and no work is currently being undertaken by the Highways Agency.
The A40, which travels through my constituency and forms a section of the unsigned Euroroute E30, has been described by the Welsh Assembly Government as
“one of the lowest standard sections of the Trans European Road Network in the United Kingdom”,
because of prioritisation discrepancies between England and Wales.
We still require a reciprocal agreement between England and Wales on bus passes. At the moment, Welsh residents can travel only on buses that start or finish their journey in Wales—likewise, English passengers. For example, consider passengers on a bus journey from Hay-on-Wye to Hereford. Hay is intersected by the Herefordshire border, which is also the Wales-England border, but due to bus passes being issued by Powys county council in Wales, those passengers are not able to travel to Hereford without being charged a small fee for doing so.
For many the bus is a lifeline, not only in respect of health, but for those who need to travel for specialist treatment and for jobs, and suchlike, in Hereford and Shrewsbury. My colleague in the Welsh Assembly, Kirsty Williams, inquired into this matter in 2010, asking Ieuan Wyn Jones, then Minister with responsibility:
“Will the Minister make a statement on what discussions he has had recently with the UK Government and Scottish Government about the harmonisation of the concessionary bus pass schemes in England, Scotland and Wales across the United Kingdom?”
Ieuan Wyn Jones answered:
“I have had no recent discussions with UK and Scottish Government Ministers about the harmonisation of concessionary bus travel schemes across the UK.”
I ask the Minister, have there been any discussions on this important matter?
Turning briefly to rail matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion stressed the need for better train services. I am delighted that Network Rail’s 10-year, £1 billion modernisation plan for Wales’s somewhat antiquated line is about to take place, and the £220 million electrification of the valleys line will bring a lot of benefit, but we need to make a start on the electrification of the London to Cardiff line, which will also reduce journey times to Swansea. I am pleased to see the inclusion of a scheme to re-signal the critical Marches route between Newport and Shrewsbury, which will provide train companies with the ability to run more frequent and faster trains between north and south Wales, serving a number of my constituents. I am by no means calling for a reversal of Dr Beeching’s axe of 1963, but the reshaping of the rail network in Wales will still leave large towns in my constituency, such as Brecon and Ystradgynlais, without any connection. People from those towns will have to travel 20 miles to reach a railway station.
I am sometimes told that the people living in Painscastle and Rhosgoch in my constituency take longer to get to New York than anyone living in any other part of the UK. Isolation and peripherality—if that is a word—are not only a perception for the people I represent, but a reality. Small changes, however, could make a real difference to their lives.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Betts, and I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for introducing the debate. He focused on some important issues for his constituency, and I intend to focus on important issues for mine, which need to be addressed by the Government.
North-east Wales is adjacent to England and we form part of the powerhouse economy of the United Kingdom. We have some big businesses in my part of the world—Airbus, steel, paper and tourism—and my constituents work in those areas and depend on such jobs, but they also work in England, in places such as Chester, Liverpool, Manchester and Ellesmere Port. The cross-border connectivity in my part of the world is not a north-south issue, but an east-west one. That east-west link is vital for the development of jobs and services and of the economy of our area. In the short time available, I want to focus the Minister on four particular matters.
First, rail electrification for north Wales is an important, long-standing issue, and, to give the Government some credit, the Secretary of State for Wales is looking at it. My colleague, Carl Sargeant, who represents Alyn and Deeside in the Assembly and who the Minister knows well from previous travel to the area, is now the Welsh Assembly Transport Minister. He is developing a business case for the electrification of the north Wales main railway line. It will be a robust case that emphasises the social, economic and public benefits. I want the Minister to place on record where the Government are on the business case for electrification. What is the time scale? What co-operation and discussions are there with the Welsh Assembly on the electrification business case? How can we start to put it on the table as part of the wider discussions of rail development in north Wales?
We have good rail links to my part of the world. Over the past 15 years, we have improved the rail service to north Wales, but we still need to develop electrification to bring tourists and business to north Wales, and to ensure that we have a better, more environmentally friendly rail service in the area. That is my first challenge to the Minister.
Secondly, how does rail electrification fit with High Speed 2? I want to place on the record my support for HS2, which will bring speedier links to the north as a whole—north-west and north-east. In particular, I want to hear the Minister’s view on how to ensure connectivity at Crewe. He is planning, as part of HS2, a development at Crewe, which will be a major hub for north-west England and will improve links to Manchester airport. I put it to him that there is also potential to improve links to north Wales, speeding the traffic there and providing north Wales with a speedier link to Manchester airport, our nearest major airport hub. That needs to be looked at as part of the long-term development of HS2. I would welcome some genuine engagement with the Minister on such issues.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. HS2 in its existing spine form up the centre of England will bring improvements to people in north and mid-Wales through connections from the various parts of Wales to Birmingham and to Crewe. HS2 is a spine at the moment, but there is nothing to stop spurs running off it—given a business case, a justification and a need—to north Wales, south Wales, the south-west of England or wherever the demand is.
I am grateful for the Minister’s contribution. In the spirit of a cross-party wish to improve transport links—HS2 was discussed under the previous Government —I want the benefits of that valuable north-south link to be extended, so we can look at how to achieve connectivity with the potentially electrified north Wales line and with a better spine from Crewe, including links to Manchester airport, so that my constituents get a speedier train route to the airport through the HS2 development, which many people in my area, businesses and others, would welcome.
I live in the town of Flint, where the main link station is on the north Wales line in my constituency, and the town council is very concerned to support rail electrification and to look at the benefits of HS2. I will report back to the council on the Minister’s encouragement. We will look at how to work on that in due course.
I also want the Minister to focus on the Barnett consequential for Wales as a result of HS2. Can he put a figure on that now? If so, what discussions will he have with the Welsh Assembly on how it might be spent?
I have a couple of quick, final points. As the Minister knows, my part of the world has a great need to link to Liverpool. I can open my bedroom window in the morning and see both Liverpool cathedrals, and I can easily drive to Liverpool on dual carriageway, but there is no connectivity by rail. The pressure put on previous Governments, and indeed on this Government, to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line, so that my part of Wales can have connectivity, is extremely significant. I hope he responds to that point in his winding-up speech, because connectivity is important to economics, jobs and our ability to attract business to help our economy to grow. It would also help the commuters of my constituency.
Finally, I support the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) in his concern about bus passes. I, too, am a border MP. We have a free bus pass in Wales and a free bus pass in England, but the two are not connected. Many of my constituents cannot understand why on one bus pass they can travel to one part of my constituency, which might be 20 miles away, but they cannot travel to Chester, which is 5 or 6 miles away. That connectivity would be useful.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate, because we all know that getting connectivity right across the UK is economically important.
I welcome the Government U-turn on electrification to Swansea, restoring the original Labour plans. It is a pity that we had to spend time on that discussion when we could have spent it discussing going further west with the electrification, which is obviously a direction in which I would like to see it go.
In this country, we have a real difference between east-west and north-south connectivity. I remember, when I was at school, drawing a map of the UK according to how long it took someone to get from A to B, and the elongation from east to west was clear. That is exactly the same today. I take two hours to get from London to Cardiff, which is 150 miles, and a further two hours to travel the 50 miles from Cardiff to Llanelli. The main reason for that is the change at Swansea station, which is a lot pleasanter now because we have a nice new waiting room—very much improved—but much as I enjoy the company of tourists and the families going on the boat to Ireland in the summer, in winter it can be extremely lonely, dark and open to the Swansea high street.
The real reason that puts people off coming to and investing in west Wales is not enough through trains. We must look at that and perhaps in the new franchise insist on many more through trains all the way from London to west Wales.
The first problem we encounter when travelling from London to west Wales is Reading where, for ever and a day, there seem to be delays, problems and congestion. I hope that the Minister will look at that and prioritise the way through Reading so that we are not held up at the first point on our way westwards.
The recent wet weather saw access through Bristol Parkway limited because of flooding and the perennial problems with the Severn tunnel. I want the Minister to ensure that everything is being done to try to bring together the relevant agencies to improve flood prevention in the Bristol and Severn tunnel areas. The sort of floods we saw recently are unlikely to be an isolated event, and will be repeated.
I welcome the Welsh Government’s intention to purchase Cardiff airport. It is a tremendous opportunity to turn it around from a rather run-down business and to increase the opportunities so that people do not have to travel all the way from Wales to Heathrow with all the costs involved—often an overnight stay or high car parking charges. It will open up an opportunity for people in many areas around Wales, such as Worcester, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Bristol, to come to Cardiff airport for their flights abroad. That will depend on transport into Wales, and at the moment, apart from the M4, there is weakness in that midlands area, as the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) highlighted. There is a significant need for improvement.
When I went to the Corby by-election, it was quicker to go via London. South Wales has good links to London, and to Manchester and from there to the north and the north-east, but there is a weakness in anything that goes through the midlands. Trying to travel sensibly and as the map would suggest through the middle of England seems to be incredibly difficult, and we need a further emphasis on what can be done to make services better. The north has the trans-Pennine route, but we do not have an equivalent route from Birmingham to the east midlands, linking back into the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion. We must improve that.
The hon. Lady is making a valid point. Perhaps one of the great benefits of electrification —we all welcome it, and it is coming to Swansea—is that, as some transport experts have suggested, a case could be made for the possibility of a regional Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels. That would open up Wales to the wider European Union market.
Indeed, but for that to be successful we need many more through trains, and connectivity when we come into London so that we are not stopped half way because of difficulties in Reading, Bristol and the Severn tunnel area. I hope that the Minister will look at the matter in the round and try to improve our east-west connectivity in this country.
I will be very brief, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it. As many hon. Members know, I have a personal interest in transport, and specifically rail. My constituency will benefit from the rail electrification all the way to Swansea and the advent of city region status, which is really important for my locality. A lot will be happening, and I thank the Government for that. However, I am a little concerned about the Landore maintenance depot, and perhaps the Minister will think about that. There is a possibility that we may not have that depot in its current shape and form for the maintenance of high-speed trains. I would appreciate an update, and any information.
The development of infrastructure in Wales has been vital to everything, and I have been involved in that since 1999 when I worked for the rail industry. Much has happened. I have looked back at previous reports of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and many of the things we asked for have been achieved or are moving forward. That is heartening to hear and good to know. However, we keep returning to the basic problem of interconnectivity, and the joined-up writing and ideas for timetables and how to link successfully and efficiently places in Wales beyond Swansea and into the hinterland. People in west Wales and mid-Wales are equally deserving.
I am worried about the problem in Swansea because it is the gateway to west and mid-Wales. Many people have to come to Swansea, as previous speakers have said, and must change trains. One thing we know about passengers is that they do not like changing trains. It puts people off, and delays them. If we want to move forward economically in south-west and mid-Wales, we must have interconnectivity. I urge the Minister that, when speaking to his counterpart in Cardiff Bay, he puts that at the top of the agenda.
The local authorities have been working together, and the various rail groups and franchises are working together. We have seen huge improvements and big leaps forward. Working in isolation is no longer an option in the rail industry. We have seen the piecemeal break-up of the rail industry, and I am constantly amazed at how many people still refer to it as British Rail. I meet people on the train every day when I travel. I invariably travel by train because I am a great supporter of public transport, and in the eight years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have not once driven to London, but have relied on the trains. Through thick and thin, I have stuck with them.
The industry is growing exponentially and becoming more popular. We need a world-class service, which is why I was so adamant about fighting for rail electrification to Swansea. We must not be left behind. We do not want to be left behind. It is imperative to recognise the interdependency of local authorities, service providers, transport initiatives and so on, because the issue is all about the economic well-being of Wales; the economic well-being of south-west and mid-Wales. It is not reinventing the wheel. The economics and ideas are simple, but they are very important.
Tourism is a key and growing industry for us in south-west Wales. We have a wonderful product and many marvellous places that are accessed via the rail infrastructure in Wales. It is well worth coming to Wales to see them. They are world-status places, and many people visit them. I do not want them to be put off visiting Wales or—this is my horror—to have to depend on the car. If we want improved public transport, people must use it and have confidence in it. I urge the Minister to put that at the heart of his discussions.
When the Minister next meets Carl Sargeant at Cardiff Bay, will he discuss interconnectivity of the timetable? We have heard from the hon. Member for Ceredigion about our wonderful experience of travelling to Aberystwyth, missing a train by one minute and then having to wait two hours at Birmingham International station. It was good to be there, and I met some interesting people, but they had tales of woe about how that happens too often. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I meet people at Swansea station who must get off the train, carrying their bags, because they are going on to a much longer journey.
I certainly agree. When I worked for the rail industry, we had more through trains. At the time, I described it as “the thin end of the wedge”, as we contracted that service, including the regular service down to the ferry ports in far-west Wales. It is not a joke when you are travelling there. It is very picturesque, lovely, and it is great to be on the train enjoying yourself, but it is a long haul, wearisome and sometimes very frustrating for people. I do not want them to be left with that impression of Wales. I want them to have the impression of Wales as a modern country with a modern infrastructure, so that they will want to come back.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate, and I have listened with interest to the knowledgeable contributions by hon. Members from all across Wales.
This is an important debate, as has been said. Transport links and connectivity are not only a lifeline, but vital for business investment, thereby improving employment prospects and reducing poverty. Historically, Wales has suffered from under-investment, leading to congested road and rail links between England and Wales. It is suffering from very high tolls levied on the Severn bridge on passengers travelling into Wales only, and it continues to suffer from disputes over responsibility and fragmentation and more distant relationships between Welsh local authorities and Whitehall than with the Welsh Government.
Roads are still the main link between England and Wales, but there is heavy congestion. The M4, which is the main route, is still inadequate at key points, and it runs close to capacity, with traffic volumes expected to grow. For example, around Newport, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) knows, there are concerns about capacity, safety and resilience at peak periods. That is not the only area by any means, and I welcome the Welsh Assembly consultation on measures to tackle the shortcomings, and I await with interest the outcome of its appraisal of possible solutions.
As was mentioned by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), there are also other issues. I highlight one: the A494 is an important link, but improvements to the road have only been made on the English side, so the good road stops at Wales. Co-ordination is needed on those important issues.
I turn to the Severn bridge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East mentioned so ably. It is a vital link, but the toll has been increased above inflation to £6.20, and it only applies to traffic entering Wales. Business groups have long said that that is a barrier to much-needed investment in businesses in Wales. What are the Government’s proposals to remedy the situation and what options are they considering when ownership of the bridge returns to the UK Government? I support my hon. Friend in wanting certainty over when that will be. I believed that that would happen in 2018.
As the hon. Lady is aware, it is the policy of the Welsh Government, who are controlled by the Labour party, to seek ownership of the Severn bridges. Will she give a commitment today to the people of Wales that, if Labour form the next Government after the general election in 2015, those bridges will be passed on to the people of Wales?
I was going to come to that point. Early discussions with the Welsh Government are essential, and there should be acceptance of the underlying principle that they should play a central role in determining future arrangements, and in accessing and utilising any future revenue streams for the people of Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke about buses, which are a lifeline for many people, particularly pensioners, but the two national concessionary bus passes are not valid for pensioners who wish to cross the border from either side. They are left to rely on voluntary schemes provided by local authorities. There is also a lack of awareness about the convenience of bus routes into Wales from Bristol, despite the fact that they have a competitive price, due to exemption from tolls. Will the Minister say what is being done to address both those issues and how he will promote cross-border bus services?
I turn to rail, where there are significant challenges, as we have heard, around capacity and infrastructure. I am pleased that the Labour Administration in Wales is exploring not-for-profit models, including the co-operative mutual model, when the Wales and Border franchise, currently operated by Arriva Trains Wales, expires in 2018. I hope that that will prove a pathfinder for England. A major electrification project for the Great Western railway line to Swansea was introduced by the previous Labour Government, but put on hold by the coalition. Despite that delay on the Government line—perhaps it was caused by the weather, perhaps by leaves—that has now been reconfirmed, and the journey time from Paddington to Swansea could be reduced by 20 minutes. However, will the Minister say why the work is to start in London and not in Wales?
As we have heard many times, closer co-operation between train companies is vital if they are to be financially viable. What is the Minister doing to promote that? Inter-franchise connectivity is a key component, as has been mentioned, and it is certainly not helpful to have companies such as Wrexham and Shropshire, which ran the cross-border services between 2008 and 2011, withdraw, as they were not allowed to stop at Virgin-run stations. It is important that franchises co-operate with each other to ensure that journeys are made with the minimum disruption and that they do not have to go through convenient stations, simply because they are operated by another franchise holder.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion will be interested in the fact that the Welsh Government have committed to a long-awaited hourly service between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury—I am sure that 2015 is too far away for him—but more emphasis needs to be put on improving services to north Wales, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, and electrification is a key component. Will the Minister update us on the progress of the business plan for that?
Does the hon. Lady accept that the 16 years that we have been waiting for this really is too long? We were promised in the previous Assembly Administration that the money was there, that the remedial engineering work had been done and that there was no impediment to getting that service. Here we are, years on, still waiting, only to be told by a Welsh Assembly Minister that we now have to wait another two and a half or three years to have that service. That wait really is unacceptable, is it not?
It certainly is an extremely long time, and the Administration have said that it will happen by 2015, so let us hope that they will advance it further and that they have listened to the pleas of hon. Members from all around.
On the HS2 connection at Crewe station and connectivity, the Government need to give proper consideration to ensuring that the benefits extend into Wales. I am pleased that the Minister intervened to give support and provide information about the electrification of the south Wales line, which needs to be progressed urgently.
I apologise for not being present for the earlier part of the debate; I was chairing another meeting. It is absolutely essential that we get fast trains stopping at Crewe. With the upgrade on the west coast main line, although many fast trains went to Manchester and Liverpool, they did not stop at Crewe, so people going to north Wales and west of that did not benefit. It is essential that we get that in HS2.
My hon. Friend makes the point well that Crewe is an essential stopping-off point for Wales. HS2 needs to stop there, and there should be connectivity, so that people are not waiting for a long time at Crewe to get to Wales. I hope that the Minister will explain more fully the impact on cross-border links and say exactly how much the project will benefit Wales. Equally, it is not only about people who travel, but about freight. The Wales Freight Group was disappointing, and I hope that the establishment of the new group will invigorate the discussion and look at providing sustainable solutions for freight. We have heard of the problems that hauliers have had, particularly with the Severn bridge.
In conclusion, I believe that there is a general agreement that cross-border links are vital, and I am sure that no one would disagree with Carl Sargeant, the Minister in the Welsh Assembly with responsibility for transport in Wales, that good transport is critical for economic growth, social inclusion and the reduction of poverty. It is clear that roads, rail and buses all have an important role to play. Addressing any barrier to integration between England and Wales is vital, as is linking with the communities in north Wales, south Wales, and mid-Wales that have high deprivation. We are committed, in England and Wales, to achieving that aim.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on what has been her first debate as a shadow Minister in this Chamber. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing what has been an interesting, useful and important debate on transport links across the England-Wales border. He raised a number of issues, as did many other hon. Members. Sadly, given the time available to me, I will not be able to respond to all their questions, but I can give an assurance that I will write to them to answer points that I cannot deal with in the debate.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion will know, as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee—he raised this from time to time in his remarks—that cross-border links have been subject to inquiry by the Committee more than once. Its work has been extremely useful and has helped to give a greater understanding of the complexities and importance of the issue. As he will be aware—I, too, am aware, as I gave evidence to the Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), last October—it is currently considering the issue again. I look forward to the publication of its report.
The Government have made clear in the coalition agreement our commitment to a modern low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. We have also reiterated the importance of investment in our infrastructure, including our rail and strategic road networks, to ensure that they can support the economic performance of the country, including, equally importantly, that of Wales. Transport and travel are rarely ends in themselves. It is as a driver of economic growth that the Government attach so much importance to, and place so much stress on, investing in transport infrastructure. We consider the cross-border movement of people and goods in the context of growing the economies of England and Wales.
A positive return on investment requires a background of good governance. The hon. Member for Ceredigion will know that co-operation on and, where appropriate, the co-ordination of transport matters between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government are important to the successful development of cross-border links, as well as to improving transport infrastructure and connectivity within Wales. Relationships between the Welsh Government transport group and the Department for Transport have advanced significantly, and processes have been agreed to further that. The Welsh Government and the Department for Transport enjoy a constructive working relationship that enables officials to provide their Ministers with the best advice possible to deliver on the aspirations of the respective Governments. That includes recognition of the importance of engaging on devolved and reserved issues.
On a personal basis, I am extremely pleased about what I consider—I am fairly confident that I will not be contradicted—to be the relationship that I have established with Carl Sargeant in the past five months since I have been at the Department for Transport. We speak regularly on the telephone. He has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I look forward to having a meeting with Carl Sargeant in about a month’s time, when we will be able to discuss issues such as those raised by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) and, I am sure, a number of other issues that have emerged during the debate. I will, rather than going into some of the details of what I was going to say on the generality, seek now to answer some of the questions that hon. Members have asked.
A number of hon. Members talked about electrification. I welcome their support for what the Government are doing with regard to the electrification of the Great Western line from London through to Cardiff and on via Bridgend to Swansea and of the Welsh Valleys lines. A question was asked about the time scale. I hope that hon. Members will be pleased to know that the time scales for completing the electrification are, between London and Cardiff, 2017; between Cardiff and Swansea, 2018; and throughout the Welsh valleys, 2019.
The hon. Member for Swansea East talked about the importance of the depot near Swansea. I can fully appreciate her concerns about that. I would be grateful if she left that issue with me; I will look into it and get back to her.
Equally importantly, a number of hon. Members raised the electrification of the North Wales line. I can fully appreciate that for those hon. Members whose constituencies are along that line, that is an important thing. As they will be aware, a bid was not put in, through the Welsh Government, in the relevant control period for electrification of that line. We recognise, and I am sure that the Welsh Government also recognise, the importance of looking at that, to seek improvements in the quality of journeys and standards.
The Minister is right to talk about the importance of electrification for north Wales constituencies and north Wales as a whole, but it is also important for links to Ireland, to get fast movement of people and goods to the Republic of Ireland, which is our biggest trading partner.
I fully appreciate the valid point that the hon. Gentleman makes. My understanding is that, in recognition of the importance of this matter, the Welsh Government are currently looking into it. They are looking at the requirements, the business case, a cost analysis and so on, with a view that it could be included in the next control period, control period 6, which will run from 2019 to 2024. We will have to await the outcome of their producing a business case and working with Network Rail and others to see how that can be moved forward.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) referred to the Bidston-Wrexham line and asked whether there could be an update on the current situation. I hope that it will be helpful if I tell him that both Merseytravel and the Welsh Government are keen to see that line electrified. However, the quoted Network Rail cost of £207 million has been considered poor value for money and unaffordable for both bodies. Merseytravel is currently considering other options to improve services on the line, which could include partial electrification. The specification, funding and management of ATW services between Wrexham and Bidston is a matter for the Welsh Government, and we are encouraging them to continue to work with Merseytravel on that issue.
A number of hon. Members raised individual, specific issues with regard to train timetables and the number of trains travelling within their constituencies and beyond their constituency borders inside Wales. My advice to all those who raised those important issues is that, as they will appreciate, the operation of the railways within Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Where hon. Members believe that there should be improvements, I would urge them to lobby the Welsh Government and bring their concerns to their attention if they are not already aware of them.
With regard to a direct service between London and Shrewsbury, which would certainly help mid-Wales, as I think was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and possibly the hon. Member for Ceredigion, although I am not quite so confident on that point, I have some encouraging news. As the Secretary of State announced a few months ago, as a result of the extension of Virgin carrying on with the west coast main line, it will be providing from, I believe, December of this year a direct service from Shrewsbury through to Euston.
Mr Betts, I do not want to fall foul of you by running out of time and we are coming up—to use a phrase—against the buffers. I have not been able to answer all the points made by hon. Members, but I will certainly ensure that they all get letters giving responses to the issues that they raised that we have not had time to discuss today.
Tax Transparency (FTSE 100)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
Many Members over many years have spoken eloquently in this House about the differences between tax avoidance and tax evasion and how the lines between them have become blurred. Tax evasion is clearly wrong, illegal and unfair to the rest of society, because everyone else has to pay more in taxes to make up for those who do not pay their fair share. We cannot have mob rule and many Members are very much in favour of the positive contributions that large FTSE 100 companies make to the larger overall tax take.
Just before Christmas, there was an explosion of public interest after the Public Accounts Committee named and shamed some well known companies that use transfer pricing to offset their tax liabilities in the UK—basically, to avoid paying tax. I am aware of the strong argument that UK tax authorities could do more to enforce tax payments. The Government have done a lot of work on tackling tax avoidance—so much so that I fear that the general anti-avoidance rule that will be introduced might be too severe and end up penalising sole traders and small and medium-sized enterprises more than larger companies.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, which has been put to me in the more than 60 responses I have received from FTSE 100 companies. I agree that we need to get the legislation right, but later in my speech I shall explain how there are more companies registered in Jersey than in the whole of China, despite tens of billions of pounds of trade with that country.
My interest in tackling tax avoidance stems from a meeting I had with Christian Aid supporters in my constituency last September, when the “tax justice” bus visited Stevenage. The tax justice campaigners believe that tax dodging by international companies costs the UK about £35 billion and developing countries an estimated $160 billion a year. Many of the FTSE 100 companies that replied to me questioned the figures, but, in reality, the figures are large, irrespective of the measure used. Imagine for a moment the dramatic difference such a huge sum of money would make, if it were available to invest in public services, infrastructure and other services essential for economic growth both at home and abroad.
There is growing anger and concern about the fact that some large companies are hiding behind complex accounting rules that may be strictly legal, but are considered to be unethical by the public. The problem of the missing billions in tax is not just a problem for the UK; it is worldwide, and it does the greatest damage to poor and developing countries that cannot stand up to massive corporations. ActionAid told of a lady selling beer in Ghana who paid more in tax than the large brewer in the facility next door. That large brewer’s parent company in the UK declared profits of £2 billion. Governments all around the world will agree with the sentiment of greater tax transparency—I know that the Minister agrees with it—but they will struggle to introduce it, because every nation competes in the global race.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s initiative to make tackling tax avoidance a priority when the UK takes over the presidency of the G8. He made strong references to a particular company needing to
“wake up and smell the coffee”.
I must be one of the few Members who does not have any such coffee chains in my constituency. The Chancellor, with whom I do not see eye to eye on many issues, has also agreed that aggressive tax avoidance is “morally wrong” and “abhorrent”. We have had the words; it is now time for action.
My first question to the Minister is, what plans do the Prime Minister or Chancellor have to convene a cross-Whitehall meeting with tax justice experts and campaigners to identify what a tax transparency policy would look like in practice? There is real concern and feeling that transfer pricing is at the heart of the problem, so what measures will the draft finance Bill include to create enforcement in respect of transfer pricing and put a stop to it?
As I mentioned, ActionAid commissioned interesting research in October 2011 into the use of tax havens by FTSE 100 companies. It found that the FTSE 100 companies at that time had 34,216 subsidiary companies, joint ventures and associates and that 38% of their overseas companies were located in tax havens. Ninety-eight groups had declared tax haven companies; only two groups, Fresnillo and Hargreaves Lansdown, did not. There were 623 companies registered in Jersey—a tiny island just off our shores—and despite our tens of billions of pounds of trade, only 551 are registered in China. ActionAid struggled to get the research and, like me, would like to see Companies House enforce sections 409 and 410 of the Companies Act 2006, so that information on UK-registered multinationals is more accessible to the public.
The Minister and Government have the best of intentions, but in the end, it will be up to the companies themselves to lead the way, and they will do so only if their customers—the British public—drag them kicking and screaming towards tax transparency and a fairer tax system for all. With that in mind, last November I wrote to the chief executives of all the FTSE 100 companies asking them individually whether they were willing to pledge their support for corporate tax transparency and whether they would support a new international accounting standard for country-by-country reporting.
The current international accounting standards require multinational companies to report accounts on a global consolidated basis only, which makes it incredibly difficult to know where taxable economic activities are occurring and where profits are declared. I gave the example a few moments ago of a lady in Ghana paying more in tax than a massive, multi-billion dollar, multinational company. Companies, particularly multinational corporations, move billions of pounds of profit between jurisdictions in order to reduce their tax bills, and large companies are allegedly manipulating their centres of interest through the use of holding companies, offshore accounts and intellectual property rights.
I am not saying that FTSE 100 companies are engaged in tax avoidance or aggressive tax planning; the point I am trying to make is that whether it is tax avoidance or tax evasion, illegal or immoral, the British public and most Members believe that it is wrong and should be stopped.
A recent inquiry by the Select Committee on International Development called for
“legislation requiring each UK-based multinational corporation to report its financial information on a country-by-country basis. Such information should include the names of all companies belonging to it and trading in each country, its financial performance in each country, its tax liability in each country, the cost and net book…of its fixed assets in each country, and details of its gross and net assets in each country.”
Some of the FTSE 100 companies that replied to my letters believe that there could be greater tax transparency. All agree that they are as transparent as they possibly could be and that people would not like them to be even more transparent because it would make their accounts more unwieldy.
I look at the extractive industries, the work coming out of America on the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the proposals for EU directives on transparency and accounting, and I wonder whether such legislation could be used for our multinationals. The extractive industries are being forced down a line of country-by-country reporting with more focus on transparency, because it has been felt over many years that they have not been as clear as they should have been. Do we need a more even playing field?
The only way to resolve the problem is to introduce greater transparency. Members will be pleased to learn that, in the interests of transparency, I have published all the responses that I have received on a website: www.taxchallenge.co.uk. The responses from over half the companies are online. With the responses, I have given people an opportunity to sign a petition to demand greater tax transparency.
The responses from the FTSE 100 companies have been wide-ranging, but generally disappointing. HSBC offered to help design a tax transparency standard. BT and others welcomed the transparency initiative, but not the new accounting standard. Hargreaves Lansdown, which we now know was one of the few FTSE 100 companies not to have tax havens at the time, questioned the value that it receives for the taxes that it pays.
More positively, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s agreed that consumers are best placed to encourage companies to pay the tax that they are supposed to pay, as they can vote with their wallets if they do not think that the company is making a fair contribution to society. Capita stated that it was both interested in and supportive of the establishment of a new international accounting standard. Morrisons suggested that the Government should force all companies to disclose their corporation tax payments in the UK. Does the Treasury have any plans to do that? The refreshingly honest response from Aggreko summed up what many other companies felt—that they pay lots of tax and probably more than is needed, but that greater tax transparency is “a lousy idea”.
I agree. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and has a wonderful legal mind. Many of the companies believe that they have a responsibility to their shareholders, but shareholders, to push up their returns, are interested only in the overall amount of tax that they have to pay globally. In their responses, some companies claimed that their overall tax rate is more than 45%, while others claim that it is about 25% to 28%. Although they all believe that they are as transparent as possible, it is perfectly clear that they are not being as transparent as the general public would like to see and understand.
We must move to a simpler tax system, in which it is much easier to see what is going on, and what companies have to pay in tax. I do not want this debate to appear to be anti-business or anti-FTSE 100. I am a Conservative Member of Parliament who is going to end up in the Morning Star as a result of this debate—probably the first one to do so—but the reality is that FTSE 100 companies make a huge contribution to Britain, including through the whole range of taxes that they pay. I understand that the FTSE 100 are responsible for almost 10% of the tax take in the UK, including the income tax and employer’s national insurance contributions that they collect on behalf of the Treasury.
The FTSE 100 are therefore massively good companies for the UK, and I am delighted that we have them in our country, but I want them to be a little more transparent, so that we can all have a bit more faith. As I have said, I believe that we have to lead the way in forcing them to accept the idea of tax transparency. Aggreko has said that it pays lots of tax and probably more than is needed, but that greater tax transparency was “a lousy idea” because it sees that as 500 new pages of the tax code and a great load of regulations that it does not want.
I could go on about the responses—I will if hon. Members wish—but the general thrust is pretty simple: the biggest companies in Britain believe that they all pay their taxes honestly and make a huge contribution to the economy by employing people who pay taxes. So far, most responses clearly show that they are not prepared to be proactive, and will comply only with current laws. Unfortunately, fancy corporate lawyers can blur the lines between tax avoidance and tax evasion, but that is clearly wrong, illegal and unfair to the rest of society, as I have mentioned.
I firmly believe that most employees in most of the FTSE 100, the FTSE 250 and other companies in the United Kingdom would expect their employers to pay their fair share of tax in the UK. We must start thinking about tax and tax transparency as a measure of corporate social responsibility.
I apologise for missing the first few sentences of my hon. Friend’s speech, but he knows that I am very much with him in this campaign. Has he thought of using his website to encourage shareholders of each of the top companies to raise the issue at their annual meetings and to force the issue internally, in the way that many green and environmental issues have been raised from within as well as through pressure from outside?
My right hon. Friend makes a wonderful point, as he often does about tax transparency. I genuinely believe that that is an excellent way of moving forward. Many of the companies have offered to meet me, and I know that they have meetings with Christian Aid and ActionAid. Those companies are huge organisations that struggle to understand the complexity of what is going on within them.
I had a very positive response from the chief executive officer of AstraZeneca, who explained in great detail how he holds each member of his staff personally responsible for conducting its business, how he considers them to be ambassadors, and how he wants to help in any way he can to create tax transparency. There is, however, a fear that greater tax transparency will lead to greater regulation. He believes that many of the issues we are raising are already covered in the company’s accounting reports—the information is already collected—and that the question is how to go about demonstrating and sharing that information.
If we can demonstrate that there is great political will, shareholders will show great will to move the idea forward, saying, “Yes, this is important to us. It is like being green. Tax is part of our corporate social responsibility.” We will then be able to make progress. I very much take on board my right hon. Friend’s suggestion and will try to promote it.
The companies that I was referring to have a very devolved and developed sense of corporate social responsibility. British customers, employees and consumers want them to create greater tax transparency. There has been a huge hoo-hah about some large, non-British companies moving their profits overseas. Those companies have had difficulty in interacting with their own customers, and one of them has volunteered to pay tax. It should not be a voluntary option; it should be a legal requirement.
My new website—www.taxchallenge.co.uk—gives hon. Members’ constituents an opportunity to sign a petition calling for greater tax transparency, so that everyone will know which FTSE 100 companies are willing to sign up for that and which are not. Every one of us can then decide individually whether the biggest companies in Britain really care about the poorest in our society, at home and abroad.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this debate and setting out his case so clearly. In recent months, he has shown great tenacity on the issue, including by raising it on the Floor of the House a few weeks ago.
I want again to put on the record the Government’s view that companies must pay tax in accordance with the law, and it is crucial that they are seen to do so. Many businesses help their cause by releasing data or other information relating to their tax payments, and I very much welcome greater transparency from businesses about their tax affairs. As a Minister, I have said for some years that businesses need to do much more to explain the taxes that they pay and how they comply with their obligations. Such transparency can go a long way towards building greater trust between them and their customers, and might end up having commercial benefits.
Of course, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as the tax collector in the UK, has a statutory duty of confidentiality that protects the tax affairs of all taxpayers, and it is important that it continues to honour that duty. I make that point because that is one of the reasons why it is difficult for Ministers to engage in individual cases, some of which have been very high profile, because we do not of course see any information that is not in the public domain.
I want to focus on what we in this country can do to assist developing countries in collecting the tax that is due, which is at the heart of my hon. Friend’s concerns. We are committed to supporting developing countries to access sustainable sources of revenue, while balancing action in this area against costs to Government and industry. To achieve that, our priorities, which I will set out before turning to my hon. Friend’s specific questions, are capacity building; improving exchange of tax information and assisting developing countries in accessing the benefits from that; and increasing transparency, particularly in the extractives sector, to address corruption.
On capacity building, it is of course up to individual jurisdictions to make decisions on how best to run their tax systems, but the Government are committed to supporting developing countries to access sustainable sources of revenue and to collect the tax that is due. The most effective way of doing that is to provide the technical support to their tax administrations that will help them maintain sustainable domestic taxation systems.
The Government’s work with the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority, for example, has helped strengthen the accountability and efficiency of revenue collection in Ethiopia. As a result, tax collection in Ethiopia in 2011 was seven times higher than it was in 2002. Furthermore, Ethiopian customs clearance times for low-risk imports have been reduced from seven days to 10 minutes. The UK will also continue to work with international organisations such as the African tax administration forum, the World Bank and the OECD to support other capacity-building projects in developing countries.
There is increasing recognition that strong institutions are important for a country’s development. In the light of that recognition, the success or otherwise of the revenue-raising authorities in a developing country is absolutely crucial. We want to do everything we can to assist them.
The Minister will be delighted to know that many FTSE 100 companies see capacity building, revenue building and the secondment of HMRC civil servants to developing countries as positive steps towards helping create that tax base. Many have offered to help, so I would be delighted to pass on those names to him.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s constructive point. It is recognised that effective tax authorities are important. That feeds into political benefits as well, because a broad base of revenue raising will result in stronger political institutions that will be held accountable by the people of that developing country. I welcome his remarks and I know that he welcomes the measures that we are taking in this area.
Related to strengthening capacity building is ensuring that information is available to tax authorities around the world. The international tax transparency agenda, and the tax information exchange in particular, is a key tool in tackling offshore tax evasion, and we are actively promoting that agenda. Through the G20, we are providing leadership and direction in increasing tax transparency and the exchange of tax information. Through the global forum on tax transparency, we are ensuring that jurisdictions meet the international standard on tax transparency. Through the expansion of the multilateral convention on mutual administrative assistance to more jurisdictions, we are providing a mechanism to access the benefits of tax transparency, which is particularly suited to developing countries. Furthermore, our direct assistance to Ghana ensured that it was in a position to join the convention and access the benefits of exchange of information, and we look to build on that. I am confident that the sensible, considered conversations that we are having internationally, and the exchanges of information coming from them, will have a real impact on the overall tax landscape.
Extractive industries is the third area of international action that I want to highlight. This sector and the fears of corruption in it are of great concern to not only this debate, but the wider global community. My hon. Friend will therefore be pleased to hear that we are committed to greater extractives transparency through the accounting directive, which addresses civil society accountability without imposing unnecessary burdens on business. Not only do we support EU proposals to improve transparency in the extractives and forestry sectors, but we have extensively consulted representatives from civil society groups and industry to reach a position of reporting in greater detail that is proportionate with existing burdens upon industry.
I want to address my hon. Friend’s concerns about country-by-country reporting, which is a somewhat broader approach than the one that we have been taking on extractives and forestry. The country-by-country reporting model is currently being considered in the proposed amendments to the EU accounting and transparency directives. The UK supports EU requirements for extractives companies to ensure that they disclose the payments that they make to Governments—as I said, corruption is a particular concern in this sector—and that proposal will have an immediate impact on reducing potential corruption by allowing citizens of resource-rich countries to hold their Governments to account for their use of the extractives revenue received. However, we are not yet convinced of the merits of the wider model of country-by-country reporting proposed by some and neither is the OECD. We do not believe that the case has been made in terms of the costs and benefits of extending the proposals for EU mandatory requirements to report payments to Governments beyond the extractives sector and forestry. We will of course keep the matter under review, and it will be interesting to see how the experience of greater extractives transparency plays out.
On profit shifting, there are international concerns over whether the current international tax rules manage properly to capture the profits generated by multinational companies. It is an issue that all countries face, and we need to work together to develop the appropriate solutions. As with most major economies, the tax system in the UK is based on the internationally agreed OECD guidelines that mean that a multinational company pays corporation tax where it carries out the economic activity that generates its profits and not on its sales. We have already reaffirmed our support for the OECD work to address profit shifting by multinationals and erosion of the corporate tax base at the global level. At the G20 meeting of Finance Ministers last November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer issued a joint statement with his German equivalent calling for concerted international co-operation to strengthen international tax standards as a first step to promoting a better way of dealing with profit shifting and base erosion of corporate tax at the global level. To back that up, the UK, alongside France and Germany, has offered additional resources to the OECD to speed up progress. We will hear of that progress at the G20 meeting later this month.
My hon. Friend asked specifically what we are doing in the UK on the matter. The problem is essentially international, because the UK complies with the OECD rules, as do all other major economies. We are, however, strengthening HMRC’s capacity in the area. In the autumn statement last year, additional funding for HMRC was announced, much of which is to be focused on strengthening the transfer pricing capacity of HMRC, challenging multinationals to ensure that their arrangements are compliant with the rules that currently exist, and ensuring that tax is paid in the jurisdiction where economic activity occurs. I do not want to be drawn into individual cases, but it is clearly not acceptable for multinationals artificially to inflate the costs apparently incurred in a low-tax jurisdiction, resulting in tax not being paid on profits that should, in truth, be attributed to other jurisdictions. We are determined to give HMRC the capacity to deal with that. It is worth pointing out that HMRC’s activity on transfer pricing over the past four years, for example, has brought in some £4.1 billion. Last month, I visited one of the transfer pricing teams in HMRC and we should recognise the good work that is being done, but we want to build on that, which is why we are strengthening HMRC’s capability in this area, which my hon. Friend will support.
I hope that the Government’s actions, both domestically and internationally, also have my hon. Friend’s support. We have taken steps to address concerns and we are clearly moving to a climate of greater international tax transparency. The Government do not necessarily accept all the numbers that are cited on the loss to developing countries, but we want to strengthen developing countries’ capacity, and we are at the forefront of ensuring that we do precisely that.
Metropolitan Police Service
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Before I call Mr Gareth Thomas to speak, let me just say that we have a cast of thousands this afternoon for this important debate. So, if I can impose a five-minute voluntary time limit to begin with—not including Mr Thomas, of course—we will see how we get on.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate. It is right to begin by saying that we in the House owe a continuing debt of gratitude to the men and women of the Metropolitan police. They are, in general, superb public servants, doing a very difficult and very important job extremely well.
The Met was rightly praised for its work during the Olympics and the diamond jubilee last year, but its less high-profile work—the bread and butter of policing work, through its contribution to keeping our communities safe, pursuing criminals and supporting victims—remains fundamental, and the overwhelming majority of its officers do that with considerable skill and dedication.
Nevertheless, the future of policing in London is under scrutiny, and with good reason. Under the stewardship of the Mayor of London and the Conservative party, the Metropolitan police have already seen a drop of more than 4,000 uniformed police—police constables and police community support officers—on London’s streets since the general election, a period in which all Members will acknowledge that there were major riots and growing concern about gang violence. To take just one borough—my own borough of Harrow—we lost 100 PCs and PCSOs, a cut in front-line uniformed police officers of 19%, which is one of the biggest cuts. A cut of almost 20% in the Government’s grant to the Metropolitan police, which was supported by the Mayor and Conservative Members, is the driving factor behind the cuts to police funding that are now being debated across London.
Using a choice of statistics that the characters in “The Thick of It” would have been proud of, the Mayor’s plan promises more police recruitment. However, the truth is that there will be fewer police officers and fewer PCSOs by 2015, and that police officers are likely to be significantly less experienced than now. That drop in police numbers is noteworthy of itself, but comparing the number and percentage of crimes solved reveals that the Metropolitan police saw in 2011-12 a sharp drop in the number, and crucially in the percentage, of crimes being solved. In 2011-12, 22,600 fewer crimes were solved in London than in 2009-10, and the percentage of crimes solved dropped to 21.6%.
Those figures are perhaps not surprising when cuts to the number of prosecutors available to the Crown Prosecution Service in London are taken into account. It would be interesting to hear the Minister and the Mayor of London explain how they think that the number and percentage of crimes solved are likely to rise with fewer police and even fewer prosecutors.
According to the figures that the Mayor of London has published, two thirds of London boroughs will still have fewer police officers by the end of 2015 than they had at the time of the last general election. Estimates for the number of PCSOs per borough have not been published, but with further substantial cuts to PCSO recruitment—some 1,100 will be cut by 2015-16, according to the Greater London assembly’s police and crime committee—it looks as though every borough will have significantly fewer uniformed police officers in total patrolling their streets by 2015 than they did in 2010.
Some people think that PCSOs are an expensive waste of time. I am not one of them, certainly not after I saw the difference that two PCSOs made to stopping trouble outside the gates of one of my major secondary schools. The head teacher said that he and members of his senior team went from being called out to deal with an incident at school closing time four afternoons out of every five to just twice in three months, after PCSOs were stationed outside those gates for the 30 minutes from the end of lessons. So PCSOs do a vital job, offering a direct reassuring presence to the public, helping to build the confidence that is necessary to gain intelligence, and—crucially—supporting the victims of crime.
I echo what my hon. Friend is saying about PCSOs. In Newham, PCSOs have certainly been valuable when incidents have occurred that could possibly have heightened community tensions, particularly around the time of the riots and shortly afterwards. Being without PCSOs would be a real problem for us.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point based on her own constituency experience. I suspect that, as I do, she feels that the cut in the number of PCSOs is noticed in her borough, as it certainly is in mine, and I suspect that it is also felt more widely across London.
By comparison with 2010, when Members last faced the people to ask for their support, there will be considerably fewer sergeants in London by 2015. Some estimates suggest that 1,300 sergeants will be axed. Inspectors and chief inspectors are also going, and superintendents’ numbers are likewise being cut. In short, the positions occupied by experienced police officers are being axed. The Mayor’s plan describes those positions as “supervisory grades”. In truth, those roles, and crucially the experience and skill mix of the senior staff occupying them, are fundamental to the effective pursuit of the criminal, the passage of the accused through the legal process and the sensitive support of the victim.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the experience of those officers who have had many years in the police is vital for the coaching and support of officers who are new to the service? I have noticed in my own constituency the difference that that coaching and support has made, particularly in areas of Feltham and Heston that suffered a large number of burglaries before Christmas. The advice that those more experienced officers were able to give to PCSOs who were on the front line was vital.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the value that experienced police officers bring to the coaching of new recruits. It is worth noting in passing that the Mayor’s plan envisages specialist crime squads at borough level—such as local burglary, town centre or robbery squads—essentially being raided for staff, who will then be redeployed. So we sense that, as my hon. Friend suggests, a huge amount of vital experience is set to be lost to the Met when it is still needed.
It would be good to hear from the Minister what discussions he has had with the Mayor and the Association of Chief Police Officers staff in the Metropolitan police about how the cuts that I have described will also impact on national efforts to confront organised crime, or how cuts in the positions occupied by experienced police officers and the movement of staff from specialist units will impact, for example, on the work of Operation Trident. It certainly prompts the question how cuts in the Met will impact on its ability to support the UK Border Agency in its efforts to track down, arrest and deport illegal immigrants.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Like me, he represents an outer London borough. He has not said anything about the changes in the draft crime and policing plan to the resource allocation formula that was put in place by the previous Mayor. By 2015, my own borough will gain 117 officers compared with the number in 2011. Does he agree that changing the formula in that way is a welcome development for outer London?
It is good to have the hon. Gentleman here. However, looking at the figures between March 2010 and April 2012, I see that Croydon lost 175 PCSOs and police officers, and it experienced the same percentage cut in police numbers—a cut of 19%—as Harrow did. Moreover, the figures for 2010—just in terms of police officers for Croydon—compared with the figures for 2015 suggest that there will be a net increase of just one police officer in Croydon. Add in the likelihood of further significant cuts to the number of PCSOs, in the way that I have described, and I suspect that the reality of police numbers in Croydon will be a significant fall.
I just want to point out that it depends on what people’s starting point is in 2011 as to whether we end up with more or fewer police officers in Croydon. If we take as our starting point the month immediately after the riots that deeply traumatised people in the borough, we end up with fewer police officers than at that time, and the public generally view the number that we had immediately after the riots as wholly inadequate—
The hon. Gentleman is not necessarily comparing like with like. He is comparing the number of officers that were working in Croydon in 2011, which is the basic borough command unit strength plus additional officers who were temporarily allocated, with what the Mayor is saying the fundamental borough command unit strength will be in 2015. If he makes a like-for-like comparison, he will find a significant improvement for many outer London boroughs. Does he welcome that improvement?
I welcome any increase in police numbers, given the significant cuts that have been made and, in truth, will continue to be made up to 2015. The figures that I cited are from a freedom of information request about the cuts between March 2010 and April 2012, and the hon. Gentleman has said nothing about whether he supports the Mayor’s decision to axe 175 posts in Croydon during that period. The figures that I gave for the numbers of police officers in 2015 and in 2010 are from evidence given to the London assembly’s police and crime committee.
As I have said, the Mayor and his staff deliberately chose 2011, because it was the lowest point for police recruitment, with a freeze on recruitment that no one was told about. With respect, the hon. Gentleman will be judged by his constituents on what has happened since March 2010, when the general election campaign started, and what the position will be by 2015, and I am afraid that they will see a reduction in the number of police officers and PCSOs in Croydon, unless there is a dramatic change before then.
Local police teams are essentially being squashed under the Mayor’s plan. Instead of each community in Harrow having at least a sergeant, three police constables and three PCSOs, there will be only one PC and one PCSO dedicated to policing each community. In my constituency, the areas of west Harrow, Rayners Lane and north Harrow, which cover four wards, will go from having 28 uniformed police officers dedicated to those communities to just eight. Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, in July last year, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, commenting on the Metropolitan police, noted the plans to cut police officers and PCSOs, as well as police staff, by 2015.
The inspectorate’s survey of whether police officers were available when they were most likely to be needed showed a decrease in the proportion of police officers and PCSOs in visible roles at key times. In an FOI request, I asked for the proportion of safer neighbourhood team staff on duty at 9 pm on a Friday at the end of November, and the answer was just 20%. Response teams were, of course, available, but I was surprised by how low the figure was. We need to be cautious with such figures because they offer a one-off snapshot, but that underlines the concern that many constituents and many Members of Parliament have about whether enough police are now available on our streets at key times.
Although the Mayor’s plans are at pains to appear committed to safer neighbourhood policing—they retain that language—in practice, it is clear that that model of policing is as good as over. There is talk in Boris’s plans of one borough-wide safer neighbourhood panel, but local ward-based panels, which enable local people to develop a relationship with the local police teams and talk through the challenges faced in their communities, are not mentioned at all. Will the Minister explain whether such forums are to be abolished?
Victim satisfaction rates in London are poor, compared to those in the rest of the country. The ambition to lift the rates is laudable, but having fewer senior and experienced police officers and lots of new inexperienced ones, along with less of a visible deterrent in the form of vital reassurance policing hardly suggests that a convincing plan to increase victim satisfaction is at the heart of the Mayor’s thinking on the future of the Met. The plan that is being touted around London boroughs is being aired for just one hour, and the Mayor of London himself cannot even be bothered to go and hear ordinary Londoners’ concerns around the capital. The Metropolitan police service is one of our city’s greatest assets and deserves inspired political leadership, but instead it is being asset-stripped, and our constituents will lose out.
No debate about the future of the Metropolitan police can take place without a reflection on the story of Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the failure of the investigation, because it still resonates all these years later, in part because of the continuing failure to ensure that the senior ranks of London’s police reflect the communities they aspire to serve. If recent media reports are to be believed, there is not one black or ethnic minority participant on the strategic command course, which is
“the conveyor belt for middle-ranking officers being groomed for senior-officer rank.”
I find it difficult to believe that, in the 21st century, there is not one ethnic minority candidate with the talent to be groomed for a senior command position in the Metropolitan police—not one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Will he join me in commending the local commander in Harrow, Borough Commander Dal Babu, on all his work, and does he share my concern about the commander being one of the people not chosen to go on the strategic command course? He would have been admirably suited for the course.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to that point in a second.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has pledged to act on the issue. That pledge is extremely welcome, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister that he is encouraging the commissioner to be ambitious in his thinking.
My right hon. Friend just mentioned my own excellent borough commander. He was one of the Met’s few senior Muslim officers before he retired this week. Chief Superintendent Dal Babu’s story reminds the House of the ongoing need for, in his words, “radical measures” to boost ethnic minority recruitment into the Met, into its specialist units—for example, firearms and the criminal investigation department—and, crucially, into its senior ranks. During his time in the Metropolitan police, Dal Babu helped repeatedly to challenge discrimination and bias. Just one example of his work is a pilot mentoring scheme for talented senior officers. Surprisingly, however, ACPO rejected the idea of rolling the programme out more widely, to encourage more black and ethnic minority officers in middle and senior-ranking posts to be ready for higher commands. As Chief Superintendent Babu points out, there is a significant gap between our collective ambitions for a representative police force in our city and the reality. It would be useful to hear the Minister underline publicly what I believe is a cross-party view, that the senior ranks of the Met need to be much more representative of the communities of London.
More recently, the Mayor of London announced plans to close some 65 police stations and sell them off. In my borough, Pinner police station and the front counter at the civic centre are set for closure, although I understand that there is now a question whether Pinner will be closed after all. Given that the civic centre front counter has long been manned by volunteers, I would be surprised if much in the way of revenue savings would be generated. What is striking, though, is the scale of the cuts to police stations in some parts of London. Croydon will lose five of its six stations. Barking and Dagenham will lose three of its four. Havering will lose four of its five, and Waltham Forest is set to lose four of its five. I understand that the police station in Tottenham—a visible signal of reassurance to a community devastated by the riots—is set for closure, too. What is far from clear are the rationale and criteria for each closure, particularly when the deputy Mayor has promised that, where a face-to-face service closes, it will be replaced with another such service. I ask gently, as the Minister can perhaps throw some light on this: how much money will be saved by that scale of closure, given that promise of replacement face-to-face services?
The Mayor’s plans create uncertainty about not just police stations; there has been a sharp reduction in the number of police cars available to the Metropolitan police. The car is a fairly fundamental bit of equipment for police work. According to information obtained through freedom of information requests, almost 200 police response vehicles were axed across London in the first two years of this Government—a 16% drop. I am not sure why the Mayor thought that it would be a good idea to cut by almost a third the number of unmarked and marked police cars in Haringey, which was a flashpoint of the 2011 riots.
Gang crime remains one of the most modern challenges that the Metropolitan police face. It is a huge issue in much of inner London, but it is becoming a problem in the suburbs as well. In a debate in this Chamber on 4 December, a series of Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), but also my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—pressed the Minister on the future funding of the anti-gang initiatives that are in place. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North noted that funding had been cut already and was likely to face further significant reductions.
The police and crime committee of the Greater London assembly has noted that community safety funding often pays for independent domestic violence advisers, who are crucial in supporting domestic violence victims to come forward. Such funding also pays for restorative justice projects, substance and alcohol misuse programmes and, crucially, programmes to divert young people from gang and youth violence. Concern about whether such funding will continue threatens to destabilise projects that have made a difference in addressing gang crime, supporting the victims of domestic violence and preventing antisocial behaviour.
I ask the Minister, as my hon. Friends did in the debate on 4 December, to clarify whether Home Office grants to London for community safety, youth crime and substance misuse will again be substantially cut back next year. Does the Home Office still plan to end funding to London through its ending gang and youth violence funding pot in March?
Championing the safety of constituents is surely a Member of Parliament’s most significant responsibility. The cuts in police funding, coupled with the Mayor’s half-baked crime and policing plan and further cuts to programmes that address some of the causes of crime, leave my constituents and Londoners in general less safe and more vulnerable. I urge the Government to think again.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing this timely debate. We all know that for London to remain one of the best cities in the world it must also be one of the safest. London has been well served in that respect.
The Metropolitan police, although no stranger to controversies or mistakes—my hon. Friend has mentioned some high-profile concerns—is one of the best police services in the world, considering the challenges that it faces. Given the sheer expanse of the city and the ever-present concern about terrorism, the need to forge links across all communities is an important hurdle that the Met overcomes. We would all want to give great thanks to the men and women who serve in our areas.
That is all testament to the previous Labour Mayor, who invested in our police service and in policing technology; it is a testament to the previous Labour Government, who revolutionised neighbourhood policing. The resulting model for the Met that the previous Mayor and Government bequeathed to their current Tory masters was defined by three principles. The first principle was strength in numbers. The number of officers available to the Metropolitan police broke the 33,000 barrier, complemented by 4,000 police community support officers and 4,000 special constables.
The second principle is a relentless focus on the local and the very local. Community relations were forged on the ground, not just over the airwaves. New sergeants and their teams were embedded in neighbourhoods and communities, ensuring that they knew not only the faces of people serving the community, but their first names and addresses.
The third principle was an inescapable presence. The Metropolitan police had a permanent and visible presence in every neighbourhood in the capital. Whether it was an expensive or expansive police station or a local shop front, Londoners knew where to find their police on the high street, and residents and businesses felt safer for that.
As my hon. Friend has outlined so well, that model is now under threat. Those pillars are slowly being kicked away by the swingeing axe that this Government and their Mayor have taken to budgets. Where they have not entirely demolished community faith in policing—I shall come to concerns in Tottenham shortly—they have found a deputy Mayor who has not been present at all in the communities that he is supposed to be serving.
We have already lost 1,500 police officers and 2,000 PCSOs since the spending review. The safer neighbourhoods teams have been decimated, and a quarter of sergeants have been cut. Just last month, we found out that the Mayor has ordered the effective withdrawal of the police from our high streets. Sixty-five police stations are proposed to be closed, and the hours of more than 30 others are being downgraded. Of particular concern to me and my constituents is the fate of Tottenham police stations.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend’s flow about Tottenham, but may I tell him that Newham faces the same problem? Almost half of our police stations are going, and so is the police station in Stratford, which, as hon. Members may recognise, is a place of major growth and regeneration. How can someone possibly think that that is a reasonable police station to close?
My hon. Friend makes her point well. She will appreciate that constituents such as ours in Newham and Tottenham fear the closure of police stations and the hours that police stations might now be open. Concerns in complex, multicultural areas must command the Mayor’s attention, and a present deputy Mayor is needed to answer them urgently.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this important debate.
Ten short days ago, my constituency was home to an appalling tragedy. A 16-year-old boy, Hani El Kheir, was brutally murdered in the street. Walking along Lupus street, Pimlico, literally a mile or a mile and a half away from here, in the early evening, Hani and his girlfriend were approached by a group of 10 to 20 youths carrying a range of weapons. When he tried to escape, he was tripped and set upon, receiving a number of stab wounds as he was attacked, one of which pierced his heart. Having completed their deed, the pack of killers left Hani bleeding in the street. The emergency services arrived swiftly, taking only five to 10 minutes to get to the scene of the crime. Medical staff worked hard, but Hani eventually died some two hours after the attack.
Hani was the only child of Pauline Hickey. As a father of two young children, I cannot even begin to imagine her anguish. She has lost the most precious gift, a son with whom she had, as she put it, an “unconditional and unbreakable bond.”
Everyone here will have read the newspaper reports of the attack, and I suspect in my constituency such attacks bring more headlines than is perhaps the case in some parts of outer London. I do not wish to repeat those reports other than to say that the witness accounts were chilling and posed questions about how such people operate in our society. I am well aware that comparable brutalities occur on the streets of Harrow, Tottenham, Hackney and Peckham that are no less a tragedy because of their location.
All but one of the constituents who contacted me after Hani’s murder were women, and I suspect that such cases strike a particular chord with mothers, daughters and sisters who sympathise so deeply with Pauline Hickey. One of my correspondents said:
“Hani’s death is a tragic example of the escalating brutality that our young men in the area are being exposed to.”
A number of warrants have been issued across London and local ward resources have been beefed up, with weapons sweeps conducted on local estates in Pimlico and beyond. Police have been working closely with Westminster city council and information is being shared with local schools, especially with regards to the siblings of any victims and suspects arrested in relation to this high-profile case, and there have been many arrests. A big public meeting is taking place tomorrow to bring all of us together—police, council, residents and elected representatives—to discuss how we might prevent similar tragedies in future.
I have mentioned this in the House several times, as has been mentioned, but it is worth repeating that Westminster city council, under the energetic chairmanship of Councillor Nickie Aiken, who is a cabinet member, has pioneered innovative work with gangs in this city. Under the “Your Choice” programme led by the integrated gangs unit, gang members are given real choices. If they wish to leave their gang, they are helped with employment, mentoring and support. If they choose not to, serious enforcement action will be taken, including clamping down on those living in social housing who create misery for their neighbours through antisocial behaviour. I am glad to see that the Mayor of London is committed to rolling such measures out.
Many criticisms are made of the Metropolitan police, particularly in these difficult financial times. In the aftermath of Hani’s murder, I received some relating to the fact that there seemed to be a visible police presence only after the tragedy. Where had those bobbies on the beat been before? If they had been more visible, could they have prevented Hani’s murder? Those are the sorts of question coming through.
I confess that I do not recognise some of the criticisms that have been made by the two hon. Members who have spoken in this debate and, I suspect, will be made later by others among this great phalanx of London Labour MPs. [Interruption.] I felt as outnumbered as this in 2001, when I was first elected to the House. It may happen again in future.
This is an important debate, and rest assured that Conservative MPs have had various meetings on these matters with Stephen Greenhalgh, deputy Mayor of London, and with the Mayor himself.
The new local policing model reflects the financial constraints that any Mayor, of whatever colour, would have experienced. Part of it involves making police more accountable to local people. One reason for closing down our local police stations is that we are trying to put more money into bobbies on the beat rather than necessarily into bricks-and-mortar institutions. There will be an extra 2,600 officers in the safer neighbourhoods scheme as the role of safer neighbourhoods teams changes to cover reassurance and enforcement. Neighbourhood officers will be available for far longer hours, and neighbourhood inspectors will be a key point of accountability. That is good news, and I hope that the Met starts connecting with local people so that communities can work together to protect our youngsters.
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the figures from the police and crime committee of the Greater London Assembly show that by 2015, there will be 202 fewer police constables patrolling the streets of Westminster than there were in 2010, and that does not take into account how many police community support officers will go as well. Even according to the Mayor’s figures, there will be significantly fewer police officers in the hon. Gentleman’s borough.
I shall. I appreciate that many others want to speak. I just wanted to mention that particular local tragedy.
I fear that the voice of young people is often being lost in this debate. That is why Westminster city council is working in partnership with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion to deliver the youth secure streets programme, in which young people and community representatives develop a local strategy for dealing with some of these issues. In my constituency, particularly in the Ebury Bridge and Churchill Gardens estates, a lot of effort has gone into reassuring residents—in many months gone by, not just in the last 10 days—and encouraging them to come forward. That has often been something of a missing link.
There is so much more I should like to have said, and I am sure that many other Members will say those things. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I recognise that these are deep concerns across the political divide. As London MPs, we feel that they are our particular concerns and problems, and I hope that he will give us some reassurance when he sums up the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on initiating this debate and rightly drawing our attention to some of the ways in which the debate on police numbers has been presented by the Mayor’s office. He is completely right, as he pointed out in his intervention, that the presentation showing one additional police officer in Westminster does not tell us the whole truth, and that we are down by 202 police officers since 2010. He is also completely correct to draw our attention to the changes in the safer neighbourhoods structure, which I think will seriously dilute the connection between safer neighbourhoods teams and their local ward areas. Local leadership of safer neighbourhoods teams is what has made them so important and successful over the past seven or eight years, and it is a great shame that that structure is now being changed.
Although the debate has been framed generally around numbers and premises, one important thing that we can all agree on is that what really matters is how the police demonstrate their presence in a community. It is presence that is significant, not necessarily the bricks and mortar in which police are housed. Police must be visible and accessible, and visibility is not the same as audibility. Communities want to know that their police are present, and not simply as a siren in the street.
I welcome the fact that, under the new proposals, more police officers will be moved into the safer neighbourhoods pool of police, albeit in larger local units, but that brings us back to police premises. It is all very well for the Mayor to make the case that there are 65 stations and counters with a low footfall for reporting crime, and that they can be closed without an effect on the community, but we all know that where police work from matters in terms of how they are perceived by the community. The withdrawal of police stations, particularly from areas of deprivation such as the Harrow Road police station in my constituency, will matter if we are not given a clear indication of the criteria, budget and structure for the alternative way in which police will operate.
The whole consultation has put the cart before the horse. We have been asked to make our comments on police station closures without having had any clear indication of what will replace them or, above all, where the safer neighbourhoods teams will work from to ensure their local police presence. That matters not just in terms of reassuring the community about police presence but to the close relationships between police and their local communities.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) is completely right that one important example is the relationship between police and young people. In recent years, progress has been made on improving that relationship. It is always difficult, but it has improved, and overall progress has been made on stop-and-search, which lies at the heart of a lot of the tensions. It is therefore worrying that young people have come to me who have undergone strip searches for cannabis possession under the new enforcement regime. It seems to me that proportionality is an issue in how we operate stop-and-search. It is an important tool and it should be used, but proportionality should be borne in mind.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was completely right to draw our attention to gangs and the terrible murder in his constituency. It is of deep concern to me that we have yet to hear from the Mayor’s office on the funding of the gangs unit. Westminster council has told us that the £225,000 that it received from the Home Office ending gangs and serious youth violence fund will end, and that we have yet to hear where the replacement funding will come from.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this debate. I want to raise a couple of local concerns, as well as an issue of which I think the Home Office and Government counter-terrorism should be aware.
I was on the pilot police parliamentary scheme with Jacqui Lait and Neil Gerrard in the late 1990s, and I am now doing the graduate police parliamentary scheme. If colleagues have not done it—I know that some have—I highly recommend it. I place on record my appreciation, which I am sure is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), of our borough commander, Chief Superintendent Dave Stringer, and his deputy superintendent, Robert Revill, for keeping us informed of all the developments throughout the consultation. Like other colleagues, we also appreciate all the staff of the Met—back-room staff, officers and support officers—for the great work that they do to protect us.
One local issue is the closure of stations. At the moment, we have six stations: two 24-hour stations, and four day stations. That will be reduced to one 24-hour and two day stations, although obviously, there must be rationalisation of some description. The reductions in numbers in safer neighbourhoods teams have been well documented by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West. Safer neighbourhoods teams were piloted in the Shadwell ward in my constituency before being rolled out to the rest of Tower Hamlets, the rest of London and then across the country, so we have seen the value of them for probably longer than anyone. The evidence in Tower Hamlets is that, for the six years after their introduction, there was a year-on-year reduction in crime. For the past two years, however, there has been an increase. There is therefore real concern about police presence, police visibility, safer neighbourhoods teams and access to police stations.
The second issue I want to raise is the future of the Wapping marine policing unit. It is based in the country’s oldest police station, and it was founded because of the docks in east London. That was before Peelers were introduced and walked the streets of this great capital city. It has been suggested that there will be a 40% reduction in staff, with the loss of night patrols. When I was a Transport Minister, one of the big security issues was the Thames. The attack in Mumbai, which came from the sea, adequately demonstrated the risk of sea-borne attacks. During the Olympics, HMS Ocean was based on the Thames at Greenwich to support marine units. That demonstrated that the risk was still there.
The problem for the Minister is that the Mayor of London’s police and crime plan—MOPAC—does not mention the River Thames or what will happen to Wapping. The Home Office has ring-fenced funding for the counter-terrorism unit and SO15, and, given the counter-terrorism role the Wapping unit performs, this is partly a Home Office matter. The question for the Minister, therefore, is whether staff numbers at the marine policing unit will be cut by 40%. That is what is rumoured, but we have no details. Will that result in there being no night-time patrols at all, which is the word that has been put out on the river? Where will the metropolitan marine policing unit be based when Wapping police station closes? Where will the museum of river police be relocated when the station closes?
Some of those matters are for the Home Office and some are clearly for the Mayor of London, and the Minister may want to deflect some of our inquiries and criticisms to the Mayor’s office. However, there is a counter-terrorism issue here, and the River Thames is very much London’s Achilles heel, so I hope the Home Office will be interested in making sure that we maintain our vigilance for the security of the city.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing the debate. I want to make a few quick points, mindful as I am of the time.
First, I hope the Minister is struck by the degree of cross-party agreement on this issue. This is about our capacity to represent our constituents and to ensure that they are kept safe and secure. The concern about falling numbers and police counter closures is shared right across London.
Secondly, I want to put on record my thanks to the Met for the extraordinary job it did during the Olympics. I particularly want to reference the two borough commanders in my area—Matt Bell in Lambeth and John Sutherland in Southwark. They do their job every single day of the week, and they would never complain. However, we must reflect the hollowness of MOPAC’s stated ambition of doing more with less. We know that the resources available to our communities are stretched almost to breaking point.
On numbers, despite the commitments made in the heat and passion of the mayoral election campaign, Lambeth will see a reduction of 157 officers by 2015, while Southwark will be down by 132. That flies directly in the face of the assurances that were given.
On counter closures, I remind Members that the Mayor promised that no front counter would be closed without a new, improved facility being put in its place. All that we are being offered, however, is the empty MOPAC rhetoric about doing more with less. That is not a promise kept. In each borough, it is intended to retain only one 24-hour station—Brixton, in Lambeth, and Walworth, in Southwark.
There is enormous concern about abstractions on the part of the two borough commanders and the safer neighbourhoods teams in my area. Abstractions—the arbitrary withdrawal of police staff to deal with issues elsewhere—are unpredictable and unplanned, but absolutely required. Having reviewed the level of abstractions, I am concerned about the frequency with which police constables are abstracted from our safer neighbourhoods teams, diminishing teams’ powers of arrest and enforcement.
Finally, I want to say a word about safer neighbourhoods teams. There is unanimity in the debate about value of safer neighbourhoods teams and safer neighbourhoods policing in terms of the security and safety of London. I hope the Minister is listening and will reaffirm that in his discussions with the Mayor.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Like you, I recognise that the Home Affairs Committee, of which you were a distinguished member, constantly has inquiries involving the Metropolitan police.
I want to raise three issues, but I want first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on not only securing the debate, but becoming the deputy shadow Minister for London.
The first issue I want to raise is diversity. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the fact that the Metropolitan police, especially at senior levels, does not look like London, and that is not acceptable. Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Manchester, suggested that the police service adopt positive action to get a broader range of officers into the ranks of chief constable. Whatever method is adopted, the situation must change. For the six years I have been Chairman of the Select Committee, senior officers have said they must do more, but that is not enough. Given the population in London, it is vital that the police should change at the highest levels.
Secondly, I support what the Government are doing to restructure the landscape of policing, although they must carry the work force with them. That is not happening at the moment, and it is certainly not happening in the Met. I would like to hear very clearly where the counter-terrorism command will rest. Will it go to the National Crime Agency or will it stay with the Met? Judging from the speeches we have heard so far, there are a lot of bread-and-butter issues the Met should be concentrating on. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that decision has been made.
Finally, we are all concerned by the number of historical investigations—Yewtree, Alice, Elveden and Tuleta—occurring at the moment. Yesterday, we heard that Operation Hearn, which has cost £1.2 million and which has 20 or so officers working on it, has still not concluded. At this time, it is important that the Met is given the resources it needs—not from its agreed budget, but additional resources—to deal with some of these cases. In that way, we can deal with issues such as the one that was raised with the Committee only yesterday: undercover agents’ use of the identities of dead children in performing their activities. That is quite wrong, and it is important that the families are notified immediately. When Pat Gallan gave evidence to us, she said the issue had to be investigated thoroughly. I urge the Minister to give the Metropolitan police the resources it needs to conclude these inquiries.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this important debate. Like other colleagues, I pay tribute to the Metropolitan police and especially the officers in my constituency and across Tower Hamlets.
The Government’s announcement that the police budget will go down by 20%—£2 billion—in this Parliament and Mayor Johnson’s announcement that a further £500 million will be cut from the Metropolitan police service budget mean that we will lose 1,500 members of staff, on top of the 4,000 uniformed officers who have lost their jobs since the cuts began.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, police numbers have gone down and crime has gone up over the same period, and that is also true in my constituency. There are now 163 fewer uniformed officers in Tower Hamlets than when the Government came to power in 2010. Over the same period, crime has gone up by a dramatic 9% in Tower Hamlets. That contrasts with six successive years of crime reduction in the borough under the previous Government. When I raised that issue with the Home Secretary during Home Office questions on 7 January, as reported in column 14 of Hansard, she said that the Metropolitan police had indicated that they wanted to change the number of police community support officers to increase the number of police constables available. Yet the evidence shows that Tower Hamlets has 103 fewer police officers and 58 fewer PCSOs than in 2010. I wrote to the Mayor of London to seek clarification a few weeks ago, soon after that answer, and have yet to receive a response.
We face the closure of three police facilities, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, and a cut in proven and effective safer neighbourhoods teams, from six officers to one police officer and one PCSO. As he said, we were the first to innovate and pilot the safer neighbourhoods initiative, which has proved extremely successful at reducing crime in our borough and around the country. It seems bizarre that the Government and the Mayor of London want to reverse that important provision, with its proven track record of success. It is dangerous and simply puts public safety at risk. I therefore appeal to the Minister to re-examine those issues, especially in the light of the dramatic increase in crime in the borough.
My constituents do not have confidence in the proposals of the Mayor of London. They made that clear in a recent consultation led by the deputy Mayor, who was rather short of facts and unclear about what exactly was going on. We highlighted the risks and showed the evidence, and asked him to think again. In particular, it is critical that the Mayor of London and the Government should consider the matter in the context of recent risks such as hate crime, which the police dealt with valiantly and immediately, because they still have some capacity to do so.
Similarly, during the riots, community and police working together managed to stop a major riot happening in our borough; and we stopped the English Defence League exploiting those divisions across London to create more unrest. That required 7,000 police officers, despite a ban, and it shows how desperately we need police officers working with the community, and community support officers. I ask the Minister to examine those issues closely, and to see what the risks are—not just the risk of a rise in crime, but the risk to community relations in our city.
Last night, Hammersmith had an unwelcome visitor—the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, Stephen Greenhalgh, who is of course also remembered in the borough as the previous leader of the council. During his time there, he cut most of the things that are needed for civil society to be harmonious and law abiding, including youth clubs, Sure Start, housing and social services. He was a hugely divisive figure and his signature policy, of course, was the social engineering of the borough through the demolition of social housing and its replacement with luxury housing.
Since Stephen Greenhalgh was elevated to the post of deputy Mayor, he has been a controversial figure. He held the Greater London assembly in contempt by, at the first meeting, standing down the police commissioner. The tawdry incident before Christmas of inappropriate touching in a lift makes him unsuitable for his post, in my view; and for the past three weeks, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been deciding whether to investigate him for possible criminal activity. I want the Mayor to come to the borough to talk to us—not someone who is highly discredited and unfit to hold his position.
I was not able to attend the event as I was here for last night’s important vote, but my staff who attended told me that there was the usual bombast and platitudes; but that could not disguise what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham, which is that Shepherd’s Bush police station, in the poorest area with the highest crime, will close, and Fulham police station will go on to reduced hours. Despite that, the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) and the Conservative council support the strategy adopted by the Mayor and Stephen Greenhalgh. I do not accept that supermarket counters and post offices are an alternative to police stations for the reporting of sensitive and important matters. People want a police station.
A letter from my borough commander said:
“At this stage we are not intending to close Fulham or Shepherds Bush Police Station”.
However, I believe that once counters have closed, it is likely that whole police stations will close in due course, as the police sell their estates around the borough. We are told that we are merging with Kensington and Chelsea and will lose our borough commander. We are also told that the boroughs will be split into three—north, middle and south. That looks to me like a three-tier service, because the two boroughs have a poor north and wealthy south. I am sure that I know where the resources will be put.
Our safer neighbourhood teams are universally popular. The idea that they will be based on one police constable and one PCSO is disgraceful. We have already lost 5% of officers and 45% of PCSOs. That will not have changed, according to the Met’s figures, by 2015. All we get is spin and false statistics. Crime has not materially changed; concern about crime has gone up in Hammersmith and Fulham. The council spends more than £1 million on publicity, mainly aimed at telling people what a good job it does on law and order. It is a disgrace; it is similar to the Mayor of London’s saying after the riots, before the election, that he opposed police cuts, although now he proposes horrific police cuts.
It is burned into my memory that the cabinet member for policing in Hammersmith said, when asked a question at a sensitive public meeting following a murder a couple of years ago in the borough, that his solution to crime was to increase owner-occupation. Greenhalgh said last night that he was thinking of using money from estates sales to invest in policing. That is not the solution to crime in London. The political leadership—not the police leadership—of policing in London is unfit, and the Minister would be well advised to consider that and think about how we are to get the leadership that we deserve.
In my constituency, one of the most popular public policy initiatives of the past 20 years was safer neighbourhoods teams. Mitcham and Morden campaigned hard for them. Ten years ago, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) was the Policing Minister, she came to meet dozens of local people in Steers Mead who wanted to introduce safer neighbourhoods teams to tackle the low-level crime and antisocial behaviour that affected their part of Mitcham. Thanks to her, we were lucky enough to get one of the country’s first teams, and the model of one sergeant, two police constables and three PCSOs walking local beats has been a great success.
The police had drifted away from community policing for decades, but the safer neighbourhoods initiative meant that we had six people whom we knew, walking local beats, who could not be moved away from us. It also meant investment in communities that had been neglected. Police offices such as those in Lavender Fields, St Helier, Pollards Hill and Mitcham town centre have benefited the community in many ways. More obviously, they enabled our safer neighbourhoods teams to spend more time in the community, rather than travelling to and from distant police stations; but they also represented investment in local neighbourhoods. Previously, those offices were derelict—empty shops that attracted antisocial behaviour. Most of all, the new offices were an outward projection of the fact that the police cared about those communities, as they were part of them.
Now, all that is under threat. I feel sorry for my borough commander, Chief Superintendent Darren Williams, who has been in his post only a year. I have enormous respect for him and the energy that he brings to his job. I praise him particularly for his fundraising for Fight for Change—a scheme to encourage young men to turn away from gang violence—but he has a thankless task. Others have decided that cuts must be made, that the 1-2-3 model of safer neighbourhoods policing is no longer sacrosanct and that police offices and police stations are no longer a priority.
A campaign has been launched by the Guardian group of local papers in south-west London after, in their words,
“it emerged an area measuring about 75 miles squared—larger than any individual London borough—would be left without a 24 hour station”.
As the Guardian group explains:
“The exposed area includes Mitcham, Tooting, Earlsfield, Balham, Streatham, Thornton Heath, Norbury, Norwood, Dulwich, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Beckenham, and Catford”.
Tooting police station, which is just inside my constituency, will close; Mitcham police station will be closed at night; and the safer neighbourhoods offices that we fought so hard to get are also under threat. I want to take the opportunity to praise the Guardian group for its campaign.
When Boris Johnson’s office published plans to end the 24-hour service at Mitcham police station, to close local police offices and to scrap the 1-2-3 system, we were appalled. I am sure he will find out just how appalled we are when Stephen Greenhalgh comes to our constituency at the end of the month. The Labour leader of Merton council, Councillor Stephen Alambritis, will be there, and I congratulate him and Councillor Edith Macauley on saying that the council oppose any moves to close local police stations or cut the number of police and PCSOs in our community.
People in Mitcham and Morden are beginning to feel the difference: they are beginning to feel more unsafe. They are concerned that the police are surrendering their territory. I hope that I have, in this short contribution, been able to express their views about their No. 1 priority.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing this important debate on an issue of such vital concern to residents in the areas that colleagues and I represent.
I put on the record my concern about proposals to cut policing in Croydon, particularly in Croydon North, so soon after the worst riots in a generation, for which Croydon was one of the focal points nationally. This was a huge issue in the by-election just a few weeks ago, when I was elected to represent Croydon North, although at that point the proposals were not as severe or damaging as those that we now have before us.
People living in that constituency are still shaken by what they saw during the riots. London road, which is one of the main shopping areas running through the constituency, was in flames. People were appalled to see gangs of looters and rioters smashing through local shops, stealing whatever they could find.
Many people do not just have the memory of those riots: they are still experiencing the after-effects. Mr and Mrs Hassan ran a launderette on the London road that was burnt out by arsonists. They have not only received no compensation to enable them to set up their livelihood again, but they have no other means of income. As a result, they cannot pay the mortgage on their home and are threatened with losing it.
Charlene Munro, a young single mother, and her three-year-old son had to flee their home when they saw a gang of rioters approaching. They returned next morning to find their flat burnt out and all their possessions destroyed. They also received little support. Charlene has been left in debt and her son, now aged four, is still traumatised by the experiences that he suffered.
Those are just two of many examples of how people in Croydon North are still suffering from the riots. The riots are not in the past; people have to live with them today. At a time when people in that community so desperately need reassurance about their public safety, how extraordinary that the Mayor should introduce proposals to cut the police, offering people greater fear about their personal safety, instead of reassurance.
Croydon North is a densely populated area. It is relatively poor. It is a challenging area to police. It is extraordinary that the Mayor is proposing to close every police station in Croydon North and to leave police numbers below the wholly inadequate level that existed immediately after the riots. Croydon is losing out twice. The Mayor’s justification for closing down the police stations is that it frees up resources to provide additional police on the streets. Croydon North will suffer on both counts; it will not get the additional policing that the Mayor has promised. This is a breach of the promises that people in Croydon North were made after the riots.
Crimes such as street robbery, domestic violence and hate crime are on the rise in Croydon. The legacy of the riots is still strong in people’s minds. I hope that the Minister will support me in urging the Mayor of London to bring forward alternative proposals that meet his earlier promises and are fair to Croydon.
Like many hon. Members, I was elected in 1997 and at that time I went out on the beat with police officers, as many of us did. Some may recall John Hannington, who used to work in the House of Commons. He was one of my beat officers and we went round Barnhill ward together. We had one beat officer per ward then.
I had one of the earliest safer neighbourhood teams. We got the sergeant, two PCs and the PCSOs and it was a major success. We set up the ward panels and mapped out the beats, in terms of crime problems in a particular area. I set up initiative meetings—I still have them every quarter in each ward—where I meet councillors, police and local residents, and we tackle the problems together. We have launched projects for the young people, including anti-drugs, domestic violence and safety for the elderly projects. It has been an overwhelming success in building confidence in policing in the local area. That process has been destabilised since 2010.
Sergeant vacancies are either not filled or there are delays in recruitment, PCs are not replaced for long periods and PCSOs are not replaced at all, in many instances. Premises on estates in my constituency, where we have relocated teams, are now under threat of closure. In addition, staff are withdrawn from the whole area—I do not know whether other hon. and right hon. Members have noticed this—to police demonstrations, and so on. I understand that there are priorities, but there was a commitment that there would be sufficient resources so that safer neighbourhood teams were not withdrawn in that way.
What has happened in my community? If hon. and right hon. Members read the newspapers this morning they may have missed it, but as a result of the changes Hayes is now in the top 10 in the country for burglaries. Drugs are becoming a real problem, particularly drug dealers preying on youngsters. We were working hard in the town centre to reduce the fear of crime and attract people back in at night. However, the town centre teams have been hit hardest since 2010. I fear that we are going backwards rather than forwards.
It is not just about numbers. Ben Bradford, the Oxford criminologist, made a valid point when speaking to the London assembly. He said that it is not just quantitative, but about the qualitative relationship: how police interact with constituents, to give them confidence, respect and reassurance. When experienced staff are lost, particularly sergeants with years of experience, and that level of supervision is lost for new, young officers coming in, it undermines the quality of the policing and the interaction between the police officer and members of the public, and it undermines an element of accountability upwards as well as downwards.
Right hon. and hon. Members may have talked to police officers. Morale is low in the Metropolitan police. Their pay and pensions have been hit and they have been hit with increased work loads and demands on their time. When the Police Federation ballots to see whether officers want the right to strike, that is a warning that morale is at rock bottom, and Ministers, mayors and others, should take heed. There now needs to be a halt to the cuts, proper investment in the police service and engagement with the community, rather than our being ridden roughshod over as we have been recently.
We have the consultative meeting in Hillingdon tonight at 6 o’clock, although I will be here objecting to one of the cuts in welfare benefits. I will communicate these views to the Mayor and others, but the view that I am getting back from the consultative meetings so far is that they are public relations exercises, simply set up to convince people that the numbers are going up when they know that the reality is that the number of police officers is falling and cuts are taking place. I hope that this debate will help.
My hon. Friend’s constituents should not get too excited, because I am told that the meeting last night ended with the deputy mayor saying that he was on the home run. Clearly, he believes that the task has been done and they are going through the motions. I apologise to my colleagues who still have to go through this process, but it is purely cosmetic and a matter of dressing up unacceptable cuts in false statistics in a way that will make those palatable to the media.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) who has done a service to his constituents and to the people of London in bringing this important issue to this Chamber.
The fact that 15 of my right hon. and hon. Friends have attended this debate, plus the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), shows that they share an interest in the importance of policing in this great city. I have not yet noticed a Liberal Democrat attending this debate. Perhaps they are too embarrassed about their general election pledge for 3,000 extra police officers to turn up in person. We will put that to one side for the moment.
In this debate about the future of the Metropolitan Police, my hon. and right hon. Friends have spoken with passion about their concerns for their constituencies. London is a complex city to police and faces many challenges. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) mentioned that the Olympics was an important event. Such international events in this great city are commonplace, week in, week out.
We have heard about the importance of recognising the potential for London’s being a focus for terrorist activity and about the prevention of terrorism. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) mentioned the river boat scheme. We heard of appalling acts of murder in this city from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. We heard about gangs and guns, and of the importance of neighbourhood policing, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked. We have heard about the historical hangover of the riots in Croydon from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed). During his election campaign, I was pleased to go to Croydon police station to see its importance to the community. Historical inquiries were mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chair of the Select Committee, who is also present, showing the importance of the debate.
Those are big issues, and policing London is a complex matter. The community reassurance that neighbourhood policing brings to London, which has been mentioned by all my right hon. and hon. Friends, and the cohesion not only to fight crime but to be a presence on the streets of London, to communicate with its citizens, have been important. Many of those matters are rightly devolved to the Mayor, but the central contention of my right hon. and hon. Friends today has been—I put this strongly to the Minister—that the choices made by the Mayor in London are wrong and that the choices made by the Minister on budget and organisation since 2010 have compounded those wrongs and made policing in London much more difficult.
As the Minister knows, we have an honest disagreement about funding. When I was the Police Minister, in the last year of the Labour Government, we planned to make some savings on policing—some 12%—but the Minister’s proposals have meant a 20% cut, which is effectively £540 million lost to the Met budget by 2015, or 4,200 police officers. That is a real challenge. From May 2010 to date, the Metropolitan police has lost 2,285 police officers and, importantly, 1,900 police community support officers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned the importance of those numbers, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden.
Police station closures are pivotal. We need to make savings in the policing budget in London, no doubt, but 65 police stations are proposed for closure. Today, my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Croydon North have mentioned the importance of those stations to their constituencies, showing that somewhere someone is getting this wrong. The reassurance demanded by the constituents of my right hon. and hon. Friends on such issues is simply not being given. No doubt the Minister will say that crime is down. I welcome the fact that crime in certain areas is falling, but it would be in certain areas, because, after all, Labour put 15 years of investment in as Mayor and as Government. As pointed out today, however, the rate of crimes solved has also fallen; and the level of recorded crime has fallen, but the level of reporting to police is falling.
The issues are serious, and in drawing attention to them I make no criticism of Bernard Hogan-Howe or the Metropolitan police. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West mentioned their service day in, day out, putting their lives at risk. Indeed, on Saturday, I will go to Southwark cathedral to pay tribute to Paul McKeever, the former chair of the Police Federation, who was a Metropolitan police officer. He knew and had pride in the service that the Metropolitan police provide to this great city. The challenges of the budget cut and of the decisions on how that cut is made have been reflected strongly in what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said today.
Will my right hon. Friend do two things? Will he join me in congratulating Joanne McCartney, a Labour member of the Greater London assembly, who has led the effort to explore the consequences of the Mayor’s budget cuts? Will he also ask the Minister for particular clarity on the Home Office fund for ending gang and youth violence and on whether it will cease in March 2013, as many of us fear, or whether there has been a rethink?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because we are not concerned only with the direct police budget. Resources also come through the community safety fund, which was mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members. In the last year that I set it, it was £13.2 million for London. This year, it is £5.3 million, and next year it is disappearing altogether. That is £13.2 million in the last year of a Labour Government but that is now no more, in the third year of a Conservative and Liberal Administration.
I am glad that the shadow Minister acknowledged that some serious crime rates are coming down in London. We all have great concerns—I share many of those expressed today—but is it not also fair to say that, given the financial constraints that any Government would be under, to be brutally honest, there is vanishingly little between what would have happened had there been a Labour Government in office today, in the sort of grants that they could give via the Home Office to the Mayor, and what has been happening in the past year?
Let me gently slap the hon. Gentleman down. There is a difference between the 20% cut on policing introduced by this Government in England and Wales and the 12% reduction that we had planned, which had the support of Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, which said that it was deliverable and achievable, and that we could have maintained police numbers. The difference in London between the votes he has voted for and the votes that we have voted for amounts to, at the moment, £230 million lost to London policing. That is the difference between him and me. Next Wednesday, he will have an opportunity to look again at the Minister’s budget. I can give the Minister a hint. Just between you and me, Mr Streeter, we will be voting against his budget next Wednesday. My right hon. and hon. Friends will do so because that budget needs to be reviewed.
My hon. Friends have mentioned gang and youth violence funding, gangs and knife violence funding and substance misuse funding. They are all difficult challenges for which funding has been lost. On the diversity issue mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, for example, in London 34% of PCSOs are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and when we lose 986 of them by 2015, the effect on the numbers of black and ethnic minority police officers and PCSOs on the streets of London will be disproportionate.
In conclusion, my right hon. and hon. Friends have made valuable points. We need to look again at the budget. When we reject it, the Minister will have the opportunity to go back and think about it again. We need to look at accountability, because now the London deputy mayor responsible for policing is not as accountable as the police board was in the past. We need to look at the role of the Met in national policing. We need to look at how we can improve diversity—perhaps the Minister can tell me why the last time the Home Office diversity group met was when I chaired it in December 2009. It has not met since, according to his parliamentary answers. The issue is real, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken for London, I hope the Minister will listen.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Streeter. I echo others in congratulating the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr Thomas) on securing the debate, and I echo his tribute to the Metropolitan police and to the police as a whole on the remarkable job that they continue to do. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) spoke about their performance, in particular during the Olympic and Paralympic games, when forces from throughout the country worked together in London to deliver the biggest peacetime policing operation in our history. That was a huge and undeniable success.
I will start on one of the things the hon. Member for Harrow, West said that I agreed with. He will not be surprised to learn that there were not many, but there were some. I completely agree with him and the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee on the importance of diversity in police recruitment and retention, and I have two concrete things to say in response.
I was pleased earlier this week to help launch the College of Policing, a new body set up with support from across the House to increase professionalism within the police, to improve standards and to share best practice. Clearly, one of the areas in which the college will have fruitful work to do will be on practical ways to improve diversity, which is obviously a particularly important issue for the Met. As has been said, chief officers as well as Ministers in successive Governments have said that something needs to be done. There has been no lack of push to do it but, so far, there has been a lack of sufficient success in doing it. I hope that the college will help to achieve that.
The shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), made a point about money. I admire the elegance of his phraseology: when the previous Government were organising something, he used the words “savings” or “reductions”, but when this Government do it, it is “cuts”. They are exactly the same, and wrapping it up in nice language does not make any difference.
When we came to office, we set the police a challenge to cut crime while playing their part in reducing the country’s record deficit, which the right hon. Gentleman’s party left us. In the case of the Metropolitan police, the response to that challenge is being ably led by the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We know about some of the difficulties that the Met has faced in meeting that challenge. They have been brought up by many hon. Members during the debate, but we also know that it is fundamentally determined to address those difficulties, and that it is being successful in doing so.
In November 2012, the Metropolitan police submitted a plan for a balanced budget and stated its intention to transform the service, prioritise the front line, and maintain officer numbers. The Mayor’s office for policing and crime is consulting on a draft policing and crime plan and estates strategy. I regret the way that the consultation has been criticised by various hon. Members during the debate. It seems to me that we should all welcome the deputy mayor’s visits to London boroughs to hear local concerns as a model of consultation.
It is right that we can have a mature debate about police premises and the best way to base the police in the community, but given that the Mayor said categorically that police stations and counters would not close until alternative provision had been found, why have we gone through an entire consultative process with no alternatives being offered, merely being asked to comment on 65 station closures?
I will come to station closures. I take the point, which has been raised by the hon. Lady and other hon. Members. I want to deal with it.
The consultation includes commitments about not only the level of resources that the Met will have at the front line but—this point has been neglected but needs to be injected into the debate—how those resources will be used. At the forefront of the Met’s plans is the Met change programme, which is being used to transform how operational policing is delivered in London. The programme has several strands, including plans to deliver a flatter management structure, thereby putting more constables on the beat, engagement with the supply services market to examine new ways of delivering the services they provide in areas such as human resource, technology and finance, and plans to release under-utilised assets.
I hope that hon. Members agree that the Met’s recently issued plans show that it is looking at a transformational approach to the way in which it delivers policing in London. Everyone has observed that London is a fast changing city that is difficult to police, so it needs to keep ahead of the curve. Clearly, there has been great interest, not just in the debate, but across London about the closure of police stations. As has been said, decisions about the number of stations and their operating hours are matters for the Mayor and the Commissioner. I am sure that many hon. Members will contribute to the consultation.
It is important not to confuse buildings with quality of service provided to the public. Fewer than 50 crimes a night are reported at front counters throughout the Metropolitan police area. Since 2008, the number of crimes reported to those front counters has dropped 20%, and internet and e-mail reporting is up by 32%. That shows how changes in the modern world must be reflected in changes in the way the police deliver their services.
I cannot keep quiet. I will give a concrete example of what will happen. Wanstead police station will shut, and there will be no replacement whatever. Response times will lengthen, and people will be put in danger. That will be a green light for burglars in the Wanstead part of my constituency. That goes directly against what Boris Johnson promised. People in Wanstead and throughout London want to know what Boris Johnson does not understand about the word “no”.
There is no reason why response times should go up. I have explained what is happening in the way people report things to the police. There are ever-increasing ways in which the public can contact the police. That includes contact centres on the new non-emergency number, 101, which takes some of the pressure off 999 services, and contact through supermarket surgeries and so on, where the police can meet thousands of people, instead of the very few who may come in to a police station.
Several hon. Members made the point that the quality of contact as well as the quantity of contact matters. It seems to be unarguable that getting the police out there into buildings where thousands of people are likely to be is a better way of making that contact than simply being inside a traditional big-building police station.
There is a proposal that throughout the entirety of my constituency police station hours will be reduced to 9 to 5. The matter also involves perception. The people of Tottenham do not want officers coming into the constituency from outside. They want officers based in the constituency for reasons that were echoed time and again after the riots in the summer of 2011. The issue is not just about a 9-to-5 operation; it is about visible policing on the ground in constituencies such as mine.
Indeed, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, one part of the MOPAC plan is to increase the number of police constables, so there will be more visible policing. The background that the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned in passing—he is honest enough to know that it must be the background to the debate—is that crime is falling, but someone coming to this debate cold would not recognise that fact from the tenor of the debate so far. It is a straightforward fact that crime is falling, and that includes a 3% reduction in police recorded crime in the Metropolitan police area in the first two years of this Government between 2010 and 2012. That refutes any suggestion that reduced budgets and fewer officers inevitably make the public less safe.
Does the Minister accept that the reporting of crime at police counters or contact points is marginal to the argument that most of us have about the police presence in the community? People want safer neighbour teams and police to be rooted in their neighbourhoods so that they do not end up having to report to a police station at the far end of the borough and, as is usually the case, the most deprived neighbourhoods are left behind.
I have just addressed that point. There are two things: the response to crime and preventing it, and the quality of day-to-day contact. That is why finding innovative ways of placing the police regularly in parts of the community where thousands of people go may prove to be a better way of establishing those contacts than the traditional way. I have seen that in action. The other week, I was in Newport in Gwent visiting a mobile police station in a supermarket car park. People of all ages and from all backgrounds were coming up and talking to the police naturally. That is extremely important.
The matter must also be looked at against the background of falling crime. Crime in Harrow—the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) introduced the debate—is down by 1.6%. We heard an impassioned speech from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) who must be aware that crime in Hammersmith and Fulham over the past year is down by 4.7%. In the interests of fairness, it is important to put that context in place, because the Metropolitan police are doing an extremely successful job in vast parts of the city.
I shall deal with one or two of the detailed points that have been made. Various funds that were mentioned have been rolled into the community safety fund, which is worth £90 million in 2013-14. The allocation of that within individual budgets is the responsibility of local areas, and in London the deputy Mayor. A point was made about abstraction of police constables, and overall the Met intends to increase the number of police constables.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked about the use of dead children’s identities, which of course shocked all of us—
BTEC (Public Uniformed Services)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for this debate, which is important to my constituency and my constituents and to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education.
In this half-hour Adjournment debate, I want to highlight the important part that MOD service personnel are playing in supporting cadet forces in state schools and, in particular, the involvement of service personnel in delivering the BTEC in uniformed public services. That course and well run school cadet forces generally are making a real difference to the lives of youngsters who attend state schools. Along with the Department for Education, more than £10 million has been pledged to expand cadet units into more state schools by 2015. I understand the budget pressures that the MOD currently faces, but I want to stress that I believe that is a good use of money.
Two state schools in my constituency—Walker technology college and Heaton Manor school—have cadet forces. The benefits have a real impact on individuals. Involvement in cadet units and work on the associated BTEC teaches participants the ethos of public service, as well as beneficial life skills, such as discipline and organisation. Not every pupil encounters those virtues outside the school environment.
The head at Heaton Manor school, Lynne Ackland, told me that the cadet force at the school has had a very positive impact. Attendance and attainment has increased among participants, their physical health has improved notably, and many have had their confidence and self-esteem reinforced. She said:
“As a head teacher who was sceptical at first I have been so impressed with the achievements and presence this opportunity has brought to the school”.
The staff and individuals who offer to help with cadet forces and in teaching the BTEC show great dedication. For many staff, including Ministry of Defence service personnel, the commitment is purely voluntary. Without their efforts, many units would not be viable. For the staff, the benefits are twofold. There is the personal satisfaction of teaching youngsters—sometimes very disadvantaged youngsters—and also the personal professional development through leadership and team-working skills. For the youngsters themselves, the results are even more marked, although not always easy to quantify.
I should declare an interest here, Mr Streeter. I am, and have been since 1980, a governor of Walker school—now Walker technology college. At Walker technology college, the uniformed public services BTEC is delivered as a curricular activity via the cadet unit. The qualifications gained by the pupils currently count towards the school’s value-added best eight GCSE or equivalent points score measure. The way in which Walker technology college has offered the BTEC course has helped to give it real status, and it has been praised by the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation as an example of excellent practice. The model has even been adopted by a number of other schools. The school has seen success with the qualification, which has included groundbreaking work with the Ministry of Defence and 15 (North East) Brigade at Catterick. Both the MOD and the school have made significant financial commitments to the qualification by running the cadet unit as though it were a full curriculum department. The school also looks to offer ex-service personnel the opportunity of full-time employment, helping to staff that area.
The crucial point is that Walker technology college relies on the BTEC qualifications associated with the cadet unit being counted in the school’s performance indicators to justify its level of commitment and investment. That arrangement is different to many schools, including Heaton Manor, where the cadet unit and associated qualifications are extra-curricular. The Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education have publicly pledged their commitment to school cadet forces. In a previous exchange in the House, admittedly with a different Minister, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)said:
“It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman”—
a reference to myself—
“and some of his colleagues used their links with the trade union movement to ensure the fullest possible participation among trade unions in helping to support cadet units.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 3.]
Always willing to help out in a good cause, I asked the regional secretary of the northern TUC, Mr Kevin Rowan, to check the position of the TUC-affiliated trade unions, and he very kindly did so. He contacted every schools’ trade union representative in the north-east of England, under the heading “Unusual Query of the Day”, asking for trade union representative’s views.
The quote from Walker technology college’s National Union of Teachers representative, Mr Shaun Dunlop, is typical of the rest of the responses:
“To my knowledge, there have been absolutely no objections raised by unions to the BTEC in public uniformed services that has been followed by many students at Walker over the last few years, nor to the combined cadet forces attachment we have at college. The vast majority of staff see the combined cadet forces and the BTEC course and the effect it has on the confidence of the students who are following it as a great asset to the college. Certainly nothing negative has come my way. I have personally volunteered to help out in probably more than a dozen weekends away with cadets over the last four years or so to help them gain their BTEC qualifications.”
I wrote to the Minister on 29 November last year, asking if he was aware of any specific issues relating to trade unions. I hope that the response I have read out will serve as a reassurance that, when it comes to supporting local cadet units, we are on his side in east Newcastle.
There is, however, a problem for Walker technology college, which I highlighted to the Minister in our exchange in the House, and today’s debate gives me the opportunity to highlight it again. Following the recommendations of the Wolf report and subsequent actions by the Department for Education, the uniformed public services BTEC has been removed from counting towards school performance indicators. Schools must now focus on a narrower range of courses. That puts into jeopardy the excellent provision at Walker technology college. State schools must consequently focus their funding towards courses that count towards pupil and school performance indicators. It is more difficult to justify spending funds on an activity when it would take place on a purely extra-curricular basis, as would be the case for the cadet unit at Walker technology college from 2014. That is of real concern to everyone involved and it is counter-productive, given the Government’s stated commitment in that area.
If we believe in the value of the course, which I do, it must be recognised for evaluation. If the Prime Minister and the Government generally want to realise the course’s objectives, they need to ensure its inclusion in performance indicators. The Wolf report acknowledged the growing importance of BTECs and states that many who take BTEC level 3 national qualifications continue on to higher education. I do not seek to disagree with the recommendations of the Wolf report or with the efforts of the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that significant rigour is present in the education of our children. I am, however, eager to ensure that courses that provide beneficial skills to young people are recognised and included. It seems to me that the uniformed public services BTEC and associated cadet force training is of notable merit and should be one of those recognised qualifications.
The Department for Education has made some changes to the approved list of courses that will be included in school performance indicators from 2014. I am arguing that the BTEC in uniformed public services should be on the approved list. To that end, I have already been in contact with Pearson International, the company that owns Edexcel, which runs the BTEC. Representatives have told me that they are happy to sit down with the MOD and the Department for Education to explore how that could be achieved through looking at the BTEC and how it may comply under new guidelines.
In praising what the Ministry of Defence has done in this area so far—I have nothing but praise for that—I hope to enlist the Minister’s support in progressing discussions about the uniformed public services BTEC within the Government. I know that the Secretary of State for Education is sympathetic, because he has told me so. I have the impression that the institutional view of the civil service in the Department for Education is less sympathetic. Our cause is just and therefore I hope that I can enlist the Minister’s help in championing it.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown)on initiating the debate. I am very pleased to have his heartfelt endorsement of our cadet units, particularly in view of his extraordinarily long service with Walker technology college. Serving as a governor since 1980 is extraordinary. It is very good to hear how well the BTEC to which he refers and cadet forces in general—the cadet experience—have helped improve the lives of young people. I am very grateful also for his iteration of Mr Dunlop’s testimony. It is my experience, too, that the opinion of teachers who may be a little sceptical about involvement in the cadets is often turned around once they have experience of the work that cadet volunteers do to help young people. It is always good to hear such stories.
It is worth while putting on record that one of the great things about youth in this country is the presence among them of our cadet organisations. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not need to be convinced of that. Broadly speaking, they fall into four parts: the Combined Cadet Force, of which more anon if I have the opportunity, the Army Cadet Force, the Air Training Corps and one that is particularly close to my heart—the Sea Cadet Corps. There are 140,000 cadets in more than 3,000 units. It is worth while putting on record our thanks to the 26,000 cadet force adult volunteers, who make all this possible.
Some 530 units are based in schools across the country, either as an integral part of the school or using them simply as hired venues. Schools that have set up cadet units have seen significant benefits for their young people, their school and the local community. Students learn self-discipline, resilience and leadership, but also develop a sense of community and teamwork. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the research done by the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, which studied cadet forces and found that 92% agreed that their leadership skills had improved through being in the cadets; 91% agreed that being in the cadets had made them want to do well in life; 91% agreed that being in the cadets had taught them to respect other people; 90% said that being in the cadets had given them a sense of community; and, very importantly, 79% agreed that being in the cadets had helped them stay out of trouble.
I think that that is impressive, and that is why we and the Department for Education are working together to deliver 100 new cadet units in state-funded schools in England by 2015 and working hard to break down the apartheid that regrettably has existed as far as the CCF is concerned between the maintained sector and public schools. Building on the Government’s Positive for Youth agenda, the Departments have allocated £10.85 million to provide the equipment and training support needed to ensure that the cadet experience is maintained for all our cadets, with schools or sponsors then paying the running costs of those new units; I shall come back to what I mean by “the cadet experience”. That is about increasing opportunities for more young people: the skills that they learn and the personal qualities that they develop as cadets prepare them for entry into the work force and life in general. We all, as constituency MPs, have seen that in practice.
In some parts of the UK, our cadets are the only presence in military uniform. Most of us who represent constituencies will be well aware of the activities of our cadets locally. We see them, particularly on parade on Remembrance Sunday. I am very pleased to note, in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the commemoration of the great war, that they are already limbering up to take a very active and obvious role in local commemorations of that conflict. They are, for example, taking part in In Memoriam 2014, the War Memorials Trust effort, supported by the SmartWater Foundation, to find, record and protect every war memorial in the country by 2014.
The cadet experience varies depending on the cadet force, as it is founded in the particular environment of the parent service, with, for example, flying being the unique selling point of the Air Cadets—a point I remember well from my own schooldays. Sadly, I did not get much flying, but I got a great deal of marching. Things have, I believe, changed. It is that cadet experience, not external qualifications, that the Ministry of Defence funds. Cadets do, however, have the opportunity to gain all sorts of qualifications, whether it is a first aid certificate, a Duke of Edinburgh’s award or one of a number of BTECs. That is a valuable by-product of the MOD-funded cadet experience.
The majority of BTECs awarded to cadets are in public services, with the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation delivering an Edexcel qualification, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. Other level 2 BTECs available to cadets include music and engineering. Like all BTECs, these focus on practical vocational learning. The partnership between the cadet forces and CVQO is more than 12 years old. CVQO was founded to give cadets the chance of explaining their service in a way that employers could readily understand. However, it should be recognised that the BTEC qualification is an outcome of cadet service, not an output, and the MOD cannot provide funding to pay for an educational qualification. Cadet service alone is not sufficient to receive the BTEC. Some 30% of the work needed to receive the qualification is done outside the cadet unit.
Although almost 1,400 Army Cadets have received a level 2 BTEC in public services from CVQO in the last academic year, that is quite a small number when we consider that almost 11,500 first aid certificates were awarded to Army Cadets in the same year. The BTEC is important but only one of many options open to cadets.
I know the Walker school very well as a former councillor for the area. Does the Minister agree that what the cadet force does there is keep certain pupils in education and give them life chances that they would not get if it were not for the cadet experience?
Yes, I agree absolutely with that. The research done by the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, which I have cited, is germane to that. Certainly, expanding the range of options, particularly vocational options, that kids are able to take up at school when they might be alienated from straightforward academic subjects is very important. However, I will go on to talk about some of the characteristics that the Department for Education believes are necessary in order to qualify a BTEC for inclusion in league tables. It is important to emphasise that the MOD does not fund the BTEC qualification. It is funded from either Education or charitable sources.
For the sake of complete clarity, I point out that that is not what I am asking the Minister. I am asking that the BTEC in uniformed public services be counted in the evaluation of the school. The school to which I am referring serves a predominantly working-class community. Resources are restricted. The school has to prioritise and it has to prioritise those courses that count towards its evaluation, yet the uniformed public services qualification work is doing so well for the school. If it can retain it, it really wants to.
I am sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that what I am able to say will give him some comfort and be helpful. I should point out, however, that education is of course a devolved matter. We are all still picking our way through the devolution settlement, and it adds a level of complexity to discussions of this sort. Although the MOD has the luxury of dealing with matters that are not devolved, the Department for Education simply does not. In England, as the CVQO-led BTEC in public services has been approved by the Secretary of State for Education under section 96 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, schools can choose to fund it from within their budgets. Alternatively, I can confirm that CVQO is funded by the Education Funding Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Education, to deliver qualifications for 5,000 English cadets a year aged over 16 and under 19. I am aware that, as a charity, CVQO is raising funds to meet an ever-growing demand from within the cadet forces and other youth organisations.
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the issues that he raises regarding changes to the recognition of the BTEC in public services are a matter for the Department for Education, not the Ministry of Defence. However, I am informed that in reforming the school performance tables, the Secretary of State for Education is incentivising schools to offer qualifications that have the greatest value for the majority of pupils at key stage 4—qualifications that will best enable them to progress to further study and into employment. Due to its specialist nature, the BTEC in public services does not feature on the list of qualifications that will count in performance tables from 2014. If it assists the right hon. Gentleman, I can provide the existing characteristics needed for performance tables and a list of BTECs that currently count.
I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s conversation with Edexcel and Pearson. It would clearly be desirable to reconcile the list of characteristics with the BTEC in public services. I would be more than happy to discuss with my colleagues at the Department for Education whether a dialogue would be helpful, so that we can reach the conclusion the right hon. Gentleman seeks. I understand the experience he and his local schools have had with the imperatives the Department for Education has established.
Notwithstanding that, in recognition of the fact that there are pupils who will benefit from taking other qualifications, schools remain free to offer any qualification approved for use pre-16, including the BTEC in public services. I know that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that. Ultimately, it is for schools to decide which qualifications are most appropriate to meet the needs of their individual pupils. His testimony about his two schools will no doubt encourage the head teachers of those schools to do what they can to support the qualification.
I am grateful to the Minister for the general approach he is taking. I do not think there is a quarrel between us. As he clearly understands, my objective is to get, not the cadet force itself, but the BTEC qualification to count towards the assessment of Walker college. I ask for that because a well resourced, fee-paying school has enough money to offer the cadet experience or even the BTEC experience as an optional extra, but a state school serving an inner-city community at a time of public expenditure constraint has limited ability to do the same.
The cadet force experience offered to young people relies heavily on the altruism of the school’s teaching staff and the voluntary commitment of Ministry of Defence personnel, willingly giving up their free time because they believe in what they are doing and want to help the youngsters on the course.
The benefits of not only the cadet force, but the BTEC are such that the course should be included. I would be more than willing to engage with either Department or with the BTEC providers to make progress towards that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think he and I are more or less on the same page. It is clearly a matter of reconciling the characteristics, which the Department for Education has laid down to assess BTECs and their inclusion in performance tables, with the needs of schools, such as those he described in his constituency, and our need to ensure that young people have something that will be of value to them. We heard from the right hon. Gentleman, and we hear from people in our constituencies, testimonies about the transformational experience that such work can engender in youngsters. We are in agreement.
The Government believe that teachers should use their professional judgment to balance the subjects that are directly linked to a pupil’s future success, and are reported in the school performance tables, with those that match the pupil’s abilities and interests. Where schools judge that their pupils have benefited from the uniformed public services course, we encourage them to maintain that provision, but I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point about resources.
In the Ministry of Defence, we recognise that a BTEC in public services can be life-changing for some young people, with its either being the only qualification they receive or the additional qualification that allows them to fulfil their ambitions. That however is not why Defence funds and supports the cadet forces; we do it to improve the awareness and understanding of the armed forces and their role in British society.
Finally, I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute, once again, to the 26,000 cadet force adult volunteers. Most give up at least two nights a week and one weekend a month to provide a challenging and safe environment for young people. Without them, the cadet forces would cease to exist. I hope that everyone here agrees that we owe them a massive vote of thanks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister, who could have been, but was not, slightly late, which is ironic in a way because the debate is about babies who turn up very early. He was due to be in the Chamber as we speak, but kindly rearranged a whole host of things to be here this afternoon to answer the debate. I thank him very much indeed. He and I have often spoken about neonatal care, and indeed stillbirth, so I know that he will do all he can to answer the debate with deeds as well as words.
Neonatal care is an absolutely vital service that no parent or prospective parent ever wants to have to rely on, but lots do. One in every nine babies in the UK is born either premature or sick—more than 80,000 every year. We therefore need a service that is fit for purpose and provides the best possible care to all premature or sick babies and their families in facilities that can give the best care—sometimes very specialised care—at a harrowing time for the parents concerned.
One of my constituents, a fantastic mum called Catherine Allcott, alas, had to rely on neonatal care a few years ago. Catherine’s twins, Luke and Grace, were born unexpectedly at 26-weeks gestation. At six weeks old, they were separated and sent to neonatal units 40 miles apart due to Luke’s critical condition. Catherine and her husband, Nigel, spent the next three months visiting two hospitals every day until Luke sadly died and Grace was discharged. Grace is now a delightful, happy, healthy six-year-old and Catherine’s experiences during that time have shaped her fundraising and campaigning work for Bliss—a fantastic charity that campaigns for continual improvements to neonatal care and is a strong advocate of care for babies.
When the results of the 2010 general election were announced, Catherine was one of the first people to find my advice centre. Before I knew it, I was being whisked around the Gosset neonatal ward of Northampton general hospital, looking at their facilities and talking to staff and parents. Since then, I have had the pleasure of visiting many other maternity and neonatal wards across the midlands and the south-east.
Catherine is concerned, as Bliss is, about the national shortage of neonatal nurses, particularly those qualified in that specialty. Half of all units do not have enough nurses to meet national standards and one in 10 units is so busy or understaffed that they cannot release nurses for specialist training. According to Bliss’s report on saving our specialist nurses—by specialist, I mean nurses who have a recognised qualification in specialist neonatal care—that figure is pretty solid.
As was shown by a Bliss report in 2010, that boils down to the need for 1,150 extra qualified specialist neonatal nurses—the figure has changed since that date, but that is the latest I have—if we are adequately to provide the service that this country so desperately needs and that babies and their families deserve. Not all nurses working in neonatal care have the specialist qualification, but the “Toolkit for high quality neonatal services” states that 70% of a unit’s nursing work force should hold one.
According to an Oxford university study, an increase in the ratio of qualified and specialist nurses to babies in intensive and high-dependency care might reduce infant mortality rates by 48%, something that is surely worth every penny and for which it is definitely worth fighting. I am told that that works out at about £1,400 of additional investment per baby, which, as the Government have themselves highlighted, would benefit society in the longer term to the tune of approximately £1.4 billion.
As I have said, I have seen my local neonatal care unit in action and know the pressures that Gosset ward is under. The staff at Northampton general hospital do an excellent job, but they face significant pressures, even after an increase in staff equivalent to 4.3 full-time nurses. Despite that increase, the unit has had to close its doors to new admissions more than 20 times in the past year for non-medical reasons, a statistic that is surely not good enough. We should not and cannot restrict access to health care to some of the most vulnerable and innocent in our society—the next generation—on the basis of those lax numbers. Frankly, we must do better and we must do more.
The shortfall nationally shows the extent of the issues that we face. More than half of all units do not have enough specialist nurses to meet the national standard—that 70% of the nursing work force should hold a specialist neonatal care qualification—and the importance of such specialist care is so clearly shown in an area where such tiny and fragile babies can have such complex and often multiple conditions. It is not a hole that can just be plugged in the short term to meet a budget, but something that needs long-term planning and investment in a skilled work force.
If we are to achieve such a national standard and address the recruitment of specialist nurses that neonatal units require, continued investment in education is of paramount importance. I therefore welcome the national changes to the commissioning of specialised services. They promise to ensure that we do not face a postcode lottery, thus improving the consistency of services across the country and spreading best practice.
Locally, my constituents in Daventry and I have other concerns and opportunities. The Minister will know of the “Healthier Together” programme in the south-east midlands, which is looking at the services provided at the five main hospitals in Bedford, Kettering, Luton and Dunstable, Milton Keynes and Northampton. There are options or plans to reduce the number of maternity units that are consultant-led from five to three, an action that would have a clear impact on neonatal services, because it is most likely to result in the closure of neonatal units at the hospitals that have midwife-led units.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have a very successful midwife-led maternity unit at Hexham general hospital. Does he agree that such units can provide a fantastic ongoing service, but that it is very important that parent and larger hospitals in the region provide them with neonatal transfers and ongoing support?
I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend, and I will speak about that in more detail later.
I am not particularly against the mooted changes in the south-east midlands if they provide a higher quality of specialist care at nearby centres of excellence. However, the changes raise several important questions that I hope the Minister will answer either now or later by letter. Will he ensure that the “Healthier Together” proposals and similar ones up and down the country are driven by a genuine programme to improve outcomes and quality, and not just to save costs or money?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said, it is absolutely vital that the needs of families of premature and sick babies are factored into any changes and are not inadvertently overlooked when mainstream maternity and children’s services are redesigned. Will the Minister say something about transport to neonatal centres, both now and in the future? Many parents find themselves quickly transported from knowing what is happening and where they expect a birth to take place, to not knowing what is going on and intense worry.
When parents have to travel further afield to centres of excellence, they have plenty of increased costs in the travel, parking charges and time considerations that come from such changes. Those responsible for planning services must take that into account. I hope that the Minister will respond on that point, and assure me that those planning services take costs into account so that not only do babies receive the highest quality care, but services and support are in place to meet families’ needs.
The parent is intrinsic to the care of the child, which I believe sets neonatal care apart from almost every other branch of medicine. We must therefore consider the needs of the parent alongside those of the child. It makes good economic sense: babies whose parents are included in their care grow faster, have less illness, go home sooner and do not come back; and their parents have less stress and fewer mental problems later. There is a huge benefit from getting neonatal care right, and if we can get it right at an early stage of planning service changes, that is all to the good.
Has the Minister heard of the children’s air ambulance service that is currently being set up by the East Midlands air ambulance, which will help to cut transfer times? It will go operational on 13 March, but has already done the odd transfer here and there. On Monday 10 December, a baby who was a few days old was flown from Glenfield hospital to Sheffield children’s hospital for potentially life-saving treatment. The total transfer time was only 34 minutes, but it would have taken one hour and 23 minutes for the team to have gone by road, which is a huge time saving for a baby suffering from a serious illness. Obviously, being operated by the air ambulance service, such transfers are at little, if any, cost to the taxpayer.
As I said, when I visited neonatal wards—especially at my local hospital, Northampton general, and the John Radcliffe in Oxford—I was really taken by the kind and understanding manner with which the staff dealt with parents. From stories related to me from across the country, I am absolutely sure that best practice can be better spread. I hope that the Minister might comment on how he will continue to ensure that the needs of such families are taken into account and that best practice is spread.
In any Westminster Hall debate on health, we get to talk about money. Although cost should not act as a disincentive to provide quality and specialised care, it is obviously a factor that cannot be overlooked. Payment by results, which has been introduced in this area, works for many other areas of policy where there is a national currency but a local tariff. However, payment by results takes into account only the current levels of service provision, rather than the services required to meet national standards; currently, those standards are not quite being met. Thus, the current shortfalls that I have outlined will only be reinforced, rather than addressed, by the payment system. A set national price would ensure that commissioners can focus on quality and outcomes of service. However, neonatal care faces a local tariff, where price invariably is a larger factor, and that equates to variable outcomes across the country.
In other types of care, significant service levels remain available under the system, but the statistics show that the disparity between one unit and another is growing in neonatal care, which suggests that the system is not working in this particular case. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the current shortfalls are addressed and how can we ensure that this Government’s legacy sets a precedent for future neonatal care?
On a day when a disaster in Staffordshire will dominate the news on the national health service, I want to acknowledge that, all across the country, there are some amazingly wonderful NHS staff delivering the best care that they can and helping mums, such as my constituent, Catherine, and their premature babies get through some of the toughest times any of us can possibly imagine. However, with the help and advice of charities such as Bliss, the spreading of best practice and the sensible allocation of resources, I believe that neonatal care—this fantastic service that we already offer—could, and should, be delivered in a better and more consistent way.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Streeter, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) for letting me speak for literally 90 seconds at the end of his impressive speech.
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend says, and I want to add my endorsement of the amazing work done by the NHS staff in my area of Northumberland, specifically at Hexham general hospital. It is an outstanding hospital that the Minister will, with a bit of luck, visit when he comes to Northumberland in April. It fits well between the trusts developing in Northumberland and Cumbria and is effectively the heart of the wheel with the spokes being the various other health services around it. It is a general hospital, but it has an outstanding midwife-led maternity unit. I have visited it and met staff and patients, and it is fantastically popular and successful.
I want the Minister, who has great expertise in this field—let us not say that we do not have specialists in this Government—to endorse the fact that midwife-led units have a role to play in the ongoing provision of health services, particularly in rural areas such as mine. I hope that he agrees that the standard and quality of the care provided and the outcomes are just as good in midwife-led units as in consultant-led specialist hospitals. They are different, but they are just as good. It is to this Government’s great credit that we continue to support midwife-led units and provide such services.
Specifically on neonatal care and transfer, I am interested in the importance of neonatal transfer in the isolated cases where things do not pan out in the right way. Changes are afoot, and my hope is that the Minister agrees that it is incumbent upon the lead hospitals in the region to ensure that the quality of training throughout the region is high, so that where there is neonatal transfer, it goes off without a hitch.
I have taken up enough time. I thank you for your indulgence, Mr Streeter.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing this important debate on neonatal services. He strongly advocates the needs of his constituents, but also raises an important issue that we are already focusing on and improving, to give every child the very best start in life.
It is also a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and I am looking forward to visiting his constituency in the near future. An April visit is in the diary at the moment, and I look forward to visiting and seeing for myself some of the excellent care delivered locally. He is right to highlight that midwifery-led units play an absolutely vital part in delivering high-quality care for women and their families. The Birthplace study absolutely supports his points and suggests that midwifery-led units may well play an even more vital role in the future provision of maternity services. I am sure that we will discuss such matters in future debates.
Before we get on to the specifics of neonatal care, I want to discuss some of the more general points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry. He mentioned air ambulance services, and he is quite right to say that if we want a co-ordinated and integrated emergency response, particularly in more rural and sparsely populated areas, air ambulances must play an important part. The land and air-based responses need to be co-ordinated effectively, particularly for road traffic accidents. He makes a good point and I am sure that the local commissioners in Daventry and elsewhere will take note of our discussions today.
My hon. Friend was quite right to say that the payment- by-results system has been problematic in many areas of medicine. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he was Secretary of State for Health, made strides towards changing the tariff system in many areas of care, particularly the year-of-care tariff for people with longer-term and more chronic conditions. We also have changes being implemented to the maternity tariff to encourage a normalisation of birth. We want to view birth as a normal, everyday, natural process and to move away from births that need hospitalisation, by supporting people better in the round through antenatal care and more holistically throughout pregnancy, childbirth and the post-natal period.
My hon. Friend mentioned the unacceptable variations in care that exist across the country, which was highlighted poignantly today in the debate on the NHS in mid-Staffordshire. He has also previously advocated the reduction of stillbirths and supports the excellent work that Bliss does to raise the importance of high-quality neonatal care. More work is necessary, but I want to describe some of our achievements and the progress that the Government have made over the past couple of years, which shows that we are taking such issues seriously. As my hon. Friend quite rightly outlines, there is more that we can do and we intend to do more over the months and years ahead.
As has been said throughout the debate, we cannot divorce childbirth and midwifery care from neonatal care; the two are linked in terms of service provision and the care that is provided for premature babies. We want to provide more care and support for women during pregnancy, and the latest work force figures show that midwife numbers increased by 1,117 between May 2010 and October 2012. Training places in midwifery are at a record high, and we are ensuring that commissions for future training places will remain at a record high, so that we can continue to provide personalised, one-to-one midwifery care for women. The birth rate is increasing, and that is why we are employing more midwives and keeping training commissions high.
On neonatal care, 1,376 neonatal intensive care cots were available in December 2012, of which 951 were occupied. In December 2011, only 1,295 such cots were available. So in a period of 12 months—between 2011 and 2012—we have seen an increase in the number of neonatal intensive care cots available nationally, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a good thing.
The number of paediatric consultants has also increased, from 1,507 in 2001 to 2,646 in 2011, and the number of paediatric registrars—or middle-grade junior doctors—has also increased by almost fourfold in the same period, with some of those registrars specialising in neonatal medicine. Consequently, I believe that we must give some credit to the previous Government for some of the work that they did in this area, but this Government have taken their work forward with renewed vigour to make this a priority.
The number of full-time paediatric nurses has also risen, from 13,300 at the beginning of the century to 15,629 in 2011. So, in general, we are seeing good progress being made in putting more resources into children’s health care, giving every child the very best start in life.
Specifically on neonatal services, my hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that we need to do more to ensure that there is no variability in the system. We made a commitment very clearly as a Government to high-quality, safe neonatal services, founded on evidence-based good practice and good outcomes for women and their babies. Improving outcomes, rather than focusing on process measures, is what we are all interested in. We want to ensure that babies who need neonatal care are given the very best care and have the very best outcomes in terms of their future life and, indeed, the care that they receive on neonatal wards.
In our mandate to the new NHS Commissioning Board, we will be holding it accountable for all health outcomes. We want to see the NHS in England leading the way in Europe on health care outcomes. The Secretary of State for Health has made it clear that mid-table mediocrity must be a thing of the past in all areas of medicine, and I will make sure that I work closely with Bliss and other organisations and, indeed, with my hon. Friend to make sure that we hold the NHS Commissioning Board to account for delivering high-quality health outcomes everywhere, particularly in this important area of neonatal care.
It is worth highlighting, and I think that I have time to do so, the different types of neonatal facilities that are available; the different types of special care baby units, or the level 1, level 2 and level 3 units. Special care units, traditionally known as level 1 units, provide care effectively just for the local population in the local area. They provide neonatal services, in general, for singleton babies born after 31 weeks and six days gestation, provided the birth weight is above 1,000 grams. For slightly more complicated births or slightly more premature births, there are level 2 units, which provide neonatal care for their own local population and for some sicker, or more premature, babies from elsewhere. They provide neonatal services, in general, for singleton babies born after 26 weeks and six days gestation, and for multiple-birth babies born after 27 weeks and six days gestation, provided the birth weight is above 800 grams. Then we have level 3 units as they are traditionally known, which are neonatal intensive care units, and they are sited alongside highly specialist obstetric and fetomaternal medical services. For example, there is a level 3 unit across the river from here, at St Thomas’ hospital. Such units take very premature babies.
That description highlights the fact that neonatal care must be considered alongside the provision of high-quality maternal care; the two go very much hand in hand. The point that my hon. Friend made—my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made it as well—is that when services are being redesigned or reconfigured the most important thing is to provide high-quality patient care. Reconfiguration is about delivering those high-quality patient outcomes and that high-quality care.
The best example of where service reconfiguration has really benefited patients that I can think of was in Manchester, which I visited towards the end of last year. A redesign of the maternity and neonatal provision in Manchester in a very planned, systemic way resulted in about 30 babies’ lives being saved every year. When the case for reconfiguration is made in terms of patient care and not in terms of cost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry outlined, that is the right reason to reconfigure and redesign services. What we cannot have, and what has been expressly ruled out under the criteria for reconfiguration, is redesigning services purely on the basis of cost. If we are going to redesign the way that we deliver care, it must be done in the way that it was done in Manchester, where—as Mike Farrar, who is now the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said—it is about saving babies’ lives. That service reconfiguration in Manchester was right, because it is saving 30 babies’ lives every year. That is the right reason for reconfiguration.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right to highlight that in some cases, when we look at these issues in areas where there are long distances to travel and considerable rurality, all these factors need to be taken into account when redesigning services. However, the end result must always be for the benefit of patients. It may be the case that sometimes people have to travel a little bit further to get that high-quality care, but these decisions must be considered in the round and on the basis of achieving high-quality outcomes and doing the best things for mothers and their babies.
In conclusion, it might be worth highlighting a few other specific things about neonatal care that the Government are committed to doing. We now have a toolkit for neonatal care, and we are looking to ensure that it is properly implemented across the NHS. Some parts of the country are doing very well in ensuring that the majority of their staff working as nurses in neonatal units have specialist training, but that is not the case everywhere. We have established that toolkit; that was a direct challenge that the Government have picked up and taken forward, to ensure that we drive up the standard of neonatal care everywhere.
Does the Minister accept that, as the health care reforms kick in, it is incumbent upon GPs to make the point when they first advise expectant mothers that they can give birth at various places and that midwife-led units provide the full spectrum of care from well before the birth to well after it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that whenever there is a discussion with any patient—in this case, it is a discussion with an expectant woman about where she should give birth—that an informed choice is made. That should not just happen initially, but that choice should be reviewed consistently, according to what the risk factors might be throughout the pregnancy, and women should be helped and supported into choosing the most appropriate birth setting for them. And all factors, such as the woman’s safety or what care might be required immediately after the birth, are vital ingredients in that decision-making process.
What we want to promote, and what we all believe in, is patient choice in the NHS. One thing that is facilitating patient choice in maternity care is having a national set of maternity notes now, so that all women effectively have a transferrable set of notes that they can take from one unit to another. That is something that is being driven across maternity care, and I think that it will make a real difference if the location of care needs to change in the future.
I will also say something specifically about how we will ensure that we better implement the toolkit, which we agree is a good thing in driving up the quality of training available to neonatal nurses. Very shortly, I will be devising and helping to set up the Health Education England mandate, which will be responsible for training health care professionals in England; not just doctors but all health care professionals. A mandate will be established for how that body will operate and what it will prioritise as areas of training. I am very happy to give a commitment, just as we did on the mandate for the NHS Commissioning Board, to ensure that giving every mum the right support in pregnancy and every baby the very best start in life is something that we will look to incorporate in that mandate, to make sure that high-quality training is available for health care professionals involved in all aspects of pregnancy, birth and beyond, and of course neonatal care is an important part of that.
That is something that I will take away from this debate, to ensure that it is clearly an important part of the Health Education England mandate that we look very seriously at neonatal services, to help to iron out the unacceptable variability in training that we have identified. I hope that that is reassuring to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry. I thank him for securing this debate, and I thank you, Mr Streeter, for chairing it.
Question put and agreed to.