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Westminster Hall

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 March 2013

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Home Care Workers

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

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am pleased to have the chance to discuss home care and home care workers, because it is an incredibly and increasingly important area of service and policy touching nearly every family in the land. As the number of elderly and frail people increases, many of them with some degree of dementia, and as more people stay in their own homes, it is vital that we as a Parliament and the Government take action to ensure that standards of care are what they should be and meet the needs of older people with the dignity and quality of service that they have a right to expect, and that I am sure we all want for ourselves when the time comes.

I appreciate that there are big funding questions. I certainly want social care to be a priority for resources. Under the present austerity regime, social services departments and care providers are struggling to meet the pressures that we discussing. I also favour the full implementation of the Dilnot proposals. However, it is my intention to focus not on finance but on care and care workers and what we can do to address the present shortcomings, which must be evident to Members from all parties.

Let me make it clear at the outset that we should praise the good job that so many care workers and care providers do, often—I shall say more about this—in difficult circumstances. However, there are far too many shortcomings, as described in the recent Care Quality Commission report and the Unison report “Time to care”. We need an across-the-board drive to raise the standards, training, working conditions, terms of employment and professional standing of this most vital group of workers. It is especially important because they are on the front line. They are the first point of care and contact for hundreds of thousands of elderly people and are responsible for helping with their intimate personal needs and medication as well as day-to-day living.

On standards, the Care Quality Commission found a quarter of services to be substandard. Both the Unison report and the survey last autumn by the consumers association Which? found too many instances of rushed and poor care, as well as evidence of good and excellent care. I have been surveying constituents on the issue and have seen the same mixed picture. One daughter in the Which? survey found her mother having her face washed with a flannel with faeces on it and being dressed in the previous day’s soiled clothes. Others spoke of relatives going all day without food or drink, untrained staff using lifting equipment, muddled medication and forgotten alarm pendants. It is clear that standards must be raised to a consistent and higher level.

Training must be an important part of that. We need to listen to people like the worker in the Unison report who said:

“Three half-days’ irrelevant training was given. Then I was on my own. I had never bathed, dressed or cared for anyone before. I had to empty urine bags, colostomy bags etc. with no training. I felt very scared and was left to struggle as best I could.”

The consequences of mistakes involving such vulnerable people do not bear thinking about. We can well understand how workers in that position are being let down by those in charge of home care provision across the country.

I argue, as Unison does, for standardised levels of training and detailed minimum standards on employers to provide practical training to that level, without making the requirements excessively academic, so that we do not exclude people who are good at caring but bad at passing exams. Requirements should include communication, though, especially given the number of people whose first language is not English working as carers. Someone in Oxford told me that her mother was in a care home where just three out of 60 staff had English as their first language.

I also argue for a professional register of accredited carers, just as we have for nurses. People would qualify to get on it and gain the status that it involves, but they could also be struck off if incompetence or negligence warranted it.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. How long did it take him this morning, from the moment he got out of bed, to wash, clothe himself, have breakfast and get out the door? Although I appreciate that standards for care workers must be concentrated on, does he not agree that many of them are asked not just to undertake their work on the minimum wage but to complete their tasks in an unfeasibly short time?

Absolutely, and I am coming to that point. I could not get myself completely ready in the limited time that some care workers have; some are allocated 15-minute slots for visits.

When things go wrong, it is vital that staff speak out, yet too often care workers feel vulnerable and not in a position to do so. I note that last month, the Secretary of State for Health said that he was “very sympathetic” to extending to home care workers the duty to whistleblow that the Government are thinking of applying to nurses. I urge the Minister to do so.

It is crucial that inspection is extensive, robust and effective. It is all the more so given the importance of care and the fact that it takes place in people’s homes, away from immediate supervision. There are concerns about that in Oxfordshire right now. Our local paper, the Oxford Mail—I am sure you will remember it well, Mr Turner, from your time in Oxford—has highlighted concerns raised by our local patient voice and county councillors about the adequacy of local CQC inspection arrangements. In November, there were just two inspectors for Oxfordshire, and even now there are only five, who between them are responsible for inspecting 447 health and social care institutions and thousands of home care visits.

There is all-party concern. Conservative councillor Jim Couchman, who chairs the county’s adult services scrutiny committee as well as being a member of the health overview and scrutiny committee, said after meeting the CQC:

“We did get pretty worried by what we saw as an extremely ill-equipped organisation to deal with the responsibility accrued to it…The CQC is not a proper inspection team in any way, shape or form.”

Councillor Couchman has also told me since that apart from the enormity of the task required of such a small staff, the most surprising fact was that recruits did not need any experience or knowledge of the NHS, health care or social services. The CQC seemed more concerned about whether new staff had a background in regulation.

I was also concerned that when asked to talk to the Oxford Mail, the Care Quality Commission declined. When such worries are being voiced, it is all the more important for a body such as the CQC to come forward and answer questions as a basic responsibility of public accountability, as well as to take the chance to build public confidence rather than undermining it, as the CQC ended up doing. Will the Minister look into the position on care quality inspection in Oxfordshire? More generally, will he ensure that the commission has sufficient inspectors across the country with the right experience to do the job?

Feedback from users and their families is another important yardstick by which to lever up care standards. Our county council uses individual visits and client satisfaction surveys to inform contract monitoring. However, a wider public satisfaction rating is needed for the plethora of care agencies. One of the paradoxes of modern life is that, if advice is wanted on the standards of service providers such as restaurants, hotels and garages, or of products such as cars and electrical goods, there is no end of reviews out there to guide people, but for something as important as helping someone to find a good care provider, there seems to be nowhere to look for advice. In theory there is competition for provision, but in reality all the customers are groping around in the dark. That is a good reason not to emulate in mainstream NHS provision the privatisation that has already happened in care services.

Underpinning all that, action is desperately needed on the terms and conditions of care workers. They are doing a demanding job, often on the lowest wages and with minimal security. According to the Unison “Time to care” survey, more than half of home care workers overall and more than 80% in the private sector are not paid for travel time or costs; it has been estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 home care workers are in effect paid less than the national minimum wage as a result. To make matters worse, more than half of private sector home care workers have a zero-hours contract with no guaranteed pay, and more than half of all home care workers reported that in the past year things have got worse for them on pay, working time and the duties expected of them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out clearly some of the home care issues. Does he agree that zero-hours contracts in particular make it difficult to ensure continuity of care for clients and difficult for a provider to invest in its staff, because they are constantly having to look for alternative work to make up the hours to obtain a decent income to support themselves and their families?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and must be reading my mind, because my next sentence was that zero-hours contracts present real problems for continuity of care, which was the point she made. It is important that vulnerable clients in particular have carers whom they know, trust and have built up a relationship with.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate and to Unison, with which I have met, for its initiative. I strongly reinforce the collection of points that he has just made. I have had not only users but care workers troubled by their ability to do their job come to see me. In my experience, such workers are troubled by a combination of not having enough time to look after the person they are caring for and no adequate account being taken of travel time, which means that they are in effect paid below the minimum wage to do a job that they cannot carry out sufficiently and that often there is no continuity of care from a particular individual for a vulnerable, normally elderly person. Those are big issues and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to all parties saying such things to the Government. All parties together can change what is a fundamentally flawed system.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. All those comments are vital, and he is right that throughout Parliament and society at large we can insist on raising standards for workers who are doing a demanding, important and professional job on poverty wages, often in pretty exploitative conditions. That has to be changed.

An example to do with continuity was mentioned in the Care Quality Commission report: a client had 13 different home care workers for 35 calls. In such circumstances, clients have to explain time and time again to different care workers what needs to be done, how they like things and so on. Given that the people receiving home care increasingly have substantial health needs, the whole business of zero-hours contracts is a poor and inappropriate employment model. I do not like it anywhere, but it is especially damaging in this sector.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my borough of Bexley, a particular model now in use involves a care company that is acting as an umbrella agency? The care workers whom the company sends to vulnerable people are actually self-employed, which means that it is pushing an employment liability on to a vulnerable person and abdicating responsibility. What happens in Bexley is meant to give people greater choice, but it is bogus self-employment. Is the Minister aware of that model? Will he consider looking at it in detail, to see whether it is true self-employment or merely tax planning?

Or, indeed, merely a way of circumventing the national minimum wage. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come on to some requests to the Minister for action in that very area.

We touched earlier on the 15-minute slots for care workers, and there are serious concerns about the care that workers are able and allowed to provide when they arrive at someone’s home. The financial pressures on social services providers and on paying clients are leading to increasing use of 15-minute slots. Those may give time for a brief check, but not for caring in any meaningful sense of the word.

We need a thoroughgoing overhaul of the terms and conditions of home care workers. The non-payment of travel time breaks the minimum wage laws, which I understand has been confirmed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to Unison. Will the Minister meet HMRC so that a priority drive can be put in place to ensure that every home care worker in the country is contacted and helped to secure their entitlements? That would help not only the workers’ basic rights but recruitment and retention in a job that is far too often seen as low-status because it is low paid and has such poor conditions, and that people get out of because they simply cannot afford to carry on working.

Last year, I was approached by a constituent who was working as a home care provider for a company under contract to Oxfordshire county council. The provider was paying him little more than the minimum wage for the exact, restricted time that he spent in each person’s home, with no allowance for travel. After paying travel and other employment costs, he was simply not earning enough to get by, and he found out that he would be better off back on jobseeker’s allowance, which was where he went. I took up the case with social services and the then Secretary of State for Health; both said that it was a matter for the provider. For the providers, however, it is a matter of profit, competition and, for far too many of them, what they can get away with. That is the nub of the problem: in a contracted-out, decentralised system operating to market competition, the buck does not stop with anyone.

I am sure that the public want better safeguards and decent treatment for the vulnerable people being cared for and for the workers who do that vital caring work. That means putting in place a framework of standards and entitlements for clients and their carers, along the lines of the ethical charter for which Unison has argued. That is what I am asking the Government to do. Will the Minister reply to my points on the issues of training to consistent and accredited standards, a professional register, properly enforced standards, the adequacy of inspection, comprehensive enforcement of the minimum wage and promotion of the living wage?

It is thanks to the dedication of many care workers and the good service providers that there are out there that home care is not worse than it is. Far too much of it, however, is not nearly good enough, and some of it is very bad. The people needing care and their families are worried about such matters, and a test of this Government, or of any Government, must be what they do to raise the standards of home care and the working conditions of those who provide it.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) not only on securing the debate but on covering such fundamentally important ground on matters that clearly need to be addressed. From the litany of issues that need to be dealt with seriously by not only the two parties in government but all parties, it is clear that if we were to construct the circumstances for a catastrophe to happen on our watch, all the ingredients are being prepared in the services being provided to people in their homes.

The right hon. Gentleman described many symptoms, and at present the health system is under extreme pressure. The last Labour Government established the £20 billion efficiency gain, now colloquially known as the Nicholson challenge. All parties know that the pressure for efficiency gain inevitably resulted in an attempt throughout the system to push costs down to the least expensive care models, which means out of hospital, into the home and care by the lowest paid people. In addition, a whole heap of management babble obscures the way in which the trend is being catapulted. The health system depends on a group of workers in people’s private homes, but we should not ignore the fact that many people work in similar conditions in residential homes for people who cannot be catered for in their own home. There is a parallel situation in nursing homes.

With pressure on the system, there will be increasing attempts to ensure that patients are discharged from hospital much earlier than in the past. Part of the management mantra is that the worst place for an elderly person is an acute hospital and that unnecessary admissions should be avoided. That is self-evidently unarguable, but is often asserted. However, at the margin an assessment must be made before making that decision. There is a feeling that older people are being denied admission to hospital because of age discrimination in the system, and that because they are older they should be kept at home when, if they were 20, 30 or 40 years younger with the same condition, they would be admitted to hospital. Many of us know that that pattern exists.

MPs have many examples in their casework, and I am sure I am not unique in this: inadequate care is provided in the home for older people who must endure unacceptably poor standards of care and circumstances. The response is often pontification from the political classes, but the care workers are voiceless. Whenever the “Today” programme runs a story about poor care, which it often does when a shocking story of poor care is revealed or a report by the Care Quality Commission is published, some of our own classes are wheeled on to morning media slots and often denigrate the character of the people who provide care, as though a failing in the carers caused the problem. They say that we must address problems with carers’ characters rather than the unfeasible circumstances in which so many of them must operate.

I intervened on the right hon. Member for Oxford East to ask how long it takes him to get out of bed in the morning and to get ready to go out of the door. All of us in the Chamber are able-bodied and do not need a hoist to get out of bed or to use the toilet. We do not need to be assisted in every way, and we are not on a cocktail of medicines—perhaps some of us are. An hour is probably a reasonable time for most able-bodied people, yet we often hear that care workers must undertake those functions for other people in less than half an hour. That is simply not feasible. People may say that carers cut corners, take risks and do not complete the job, but they are asked to undertake an impossible task.

Many carers are on the minimum wage, and in areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly the travel time between visits is often significant. If the agency employing care workers is not prepared to cover properly travel times or costs, it may take the worker below the minimum wage, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said.

We must address the issues that the right hon. Member for Oxford East has properly listed. All the ingredients are there. As we go forward, the pressure will continue. Bed reviews will be undertaken as the new clinical commissioning groups swing into action in the next month. They will look at how many community beds there are in their area, assess whether they are affordable, and look for new ways of working and new pathways. They will use the usual language to argue that there are better ways of providing the care that is currently provided in community hospitals, that local communities should not be obsessed with bricks and mortar, that they can provide better care in the home, and that people should relax and understand that the number of beds can be reduced even when the population is ageing and the number of people needing care is increasing. Reducing the number of beds will increase the pressure on remaining beds. People will be discharged much earlier to their homes with assurances that adequate care packages are in place when we all know that those care packages are marginal and that the people providing the care will be asked to undertake work that is often unfeasible.

I often resist calls for diminution in the number of community hospital beds in my constituency, and I am sure that other hon. Members do the same. We used to know the number of beds in our local hospitals, but the service that used to be provided is becoming increasingly invisible. The problem is that the service can then be cut, denuded and reduced over time in ways that are very difficult for us all to properly assess, because people will not able to see or understand how it operates. Parts of the service will be shaved off in the same way that local authorities have redefined access to support from moderate to critical, and so on—as I know that many local authorities have done.

I have visited a number of agencies in my constituency. I am really pleased that we have some excellent agencies working in west Cornwall. Many of them are impressive agencies, but of course they are all competing, and there is a risk of a race to the bottom. Local authorities are commissioning on the basis of price, and the fear is that they are not necessarily looking at quality as much as they should be when they make assessments.

I made the point about competition in my remarks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a very important dimension is that a lot of clients are paying for care themselves, and they have very inadequate information on which to judge one agency or provider against another?

Absolutely. Minimum standards and agreements across agencies—or if the Government will not establish minimum standards, baseline standards—would give people reassurance. What we understand is happening, as part of achieving the efficiency gain that all parties want, is that not only is there an attempt at constructing a clinical and patient interest argument that patients are better off being discharged to their home, which is better for them, because it is where they want to be—the mantra that is often used; but there is cost-shunting as well. Obviously, if a patient is in hospital, the state is paying for them. There is an increasingly harsh attempt at identifying what continuing care is and is not—in other words, the state continues to pay for that patient in their home—but what ultimately happens is that the sooner the hospitals can get patients out to their home, it is the individual, if they have any assets at all, who meets the bill.

In terms of standards, in my view, we should be encouraging agencies that are providing care to offer at least a living wage for workers—£7.20 per hour and, I think, £8.30 in the London area. Travel time between visits should be part of salaried time. A mileage rate should be set and understood, and everyone should share a mileage rate; in my area, the rate paid to travelling care workers varies between 35p and 40p a mile. There should be a minimum visit time of 45 minutes in very exceptional cases, and at least an hour for most visits, especially if it involves at least two of the following procedures for non-ambulant or semi-ambulant clients: getting out of bed; dressing or undressing; toileting; feeding; washing and mobility support.

An efficient and effective arrival and departure reporting and recording system should be introduced, because there is some dispute between agencies and local authorities on that issue. Registration of care workers is very important, and I hope there will be cross-party support for it. The Select Committee on Health, of which I am a member, has been pushing for it for some time. It would ensure that there is adequate training, proper registration and recognition of the significant job that home care workers do. With that kind of support, I believe that we can give home care workers the proper status and support that they richly deserve.

I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing the debate. There could not be a more important subject on which to have a Westminster Hall debate. I also thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who made a very important contribution. To add more thanks, the recent CQC and Unison reports have been incredibly helpful; for those of us who have been thinking about care for some time, the two reports have crystallised and explained, in a well researched way, the substantial challenge that we face.

If I may make a slightly parochial Merseyside remark, this is an extremely important issue for us, especially in Wirral, where we have an ageing population, which, I must say, we are very glad about. We are glad and proud that our grandparents and parents are living longer, but with that pride comes responsibility. That is why the challenge that we face is very important. I would like to thank my constituents, who have been very good in coming to several public meetings with me on the subject of care. I have asked them to help me think about that issue, because I know that many of them face this challenge. They have willingly given up their time to inform me about their concerns, and I am incredibly grateful.

I have also been lucky in the Wirral because home care staff have met me and given me the benefit of their experience, along with council officers and councillors. I recognise that the problem is shared across all those groups. We are going to fix the problem together, and we are here today to ask the Minister whether he will join us in helping to do that.

On the point she just mentioned, does the hon. Lady agree that one of the pleasing aspects of this issue is the number of active senior citizens in all our constituencies who want, in a voluntary capacity, to involve themselves in the debate to try and lift the standards and ensure that we give the proper care to people in their own homes?

I could not agree more. Only last Friday, I was with Heswall Soroptimists, a very committed group of women who volunteer in our community, and who raised various issues about care. That is only one example of committed groups of citizens who are keen to be involved in finding a solution.

It is important that we make the moral case for change. Too often, people in need of care in their homes are hidden from our society, and people who need support, by their nature, can find significant barriers to their participation in democracy. Therefore, it is extremely important that politicians take the time to speak up for them. I have been meeting regularly with Wirral officers to try and work through some of those issues, and specifically, to discuss whether there is a way that we can improve the quality of care in our borough.

On that note, I flag to the Minister that such conversations are made much more difficult by the funding settlement that local government has received. The fact that local government has taken the biggest cuts from Whitehall has certainly impeded my ability, locally in the Wirral, to get change. I ask the Minister to note that point, and next time that he has conversations with Cabinet Ministers and the Treasury, to remind them of local government’s role in care and of the important challenge that we are trying to meet.

In discussions with Wirral council officers, we have also been trying to consider how to tackle the problem of information that has already been flagged. For people who are trying to procure care, it is difficult to know what quality standards they can expect and what the market looks like. I sympathise greatly with the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East about the role of markets in what is, I would argue, a bit of the economy that does not necessarily lend itself well to markets. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I sound like a bit of an economics geek when I say that, in any case, markets do not work well when participants have insufficient information. I believe that if we cannot solve that problem, the current system will never work.

I will move on to talk about two aspects of home care that have repeatedly been shown to be very important to my constituents. As I mentioned, we have had several public meetings in the Wirral to discuss these issues, and we have tried to bring together both those who work in care and those who receive care so that we can see the problems from either side of the coin. Those two aspects are 15-minute appointments and zero-hours contracts. Those two issues typify the insecurity at work and low investment in skills that home care workers face.

First, on 15-minute appointments, it might have been mentioned that the recent Unison report found that 46% of staff felt that they had to rush visits—that is nearly half the workers going into the homes of people who are very important and need help. The result is the feedback that I receive that due care and attention cannot be given to people. I am talking about basic matters of respect, such as addressing the person concerned as they would wish to be addressed.

Let me give an example from my own constituency. A care worker was in a couple’s home to make some food for them, but said that they were able to do that for only one member of the couple—the husband or wife—because that was all that they had been allocated time for. Most people expect to be able to sit down to a meal with their partner. That is a basic thing that we all expect to be able to do in our lives. Fifteen-minute appointments may or may not have been the cause of the problem in that case, but if 15-minute appointments mean that the normal standards that we would all expect to be upheld have to be disregarded, that is not a system that will work well.

I will read out a quote from one of the care workers to whom Unison spoke:

“When the person you go to needs more care or has incontinence you are only allocated 15 minutes for a meal and have to leave them. I haven’t left a client like that and would go over my time (although not paid for it), but it does mean you are running late for other calls.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to turn up at a person’s home and find, if they are incontinent, that the worst has happened. They are supposed to be there only to make them a sandwich or whatever and they must decide between being late for the next person, which will cause stress, or, frankly, rushing around doing things that they know they will not be paid for, which will cause them stress. At the same time, they are trying to make that individual feel better about what has happened. What skills and talents does someone need to make that situation go well? We should first admire the people who do this job, but also question what in the system is causing such a breakdown.

One aspect of this subject that I have highlighted as a result of listening to my constituents is that too much of the way in which our system works is task-orientated, not person-orientated. Dignity is extremely important. Increasingly, people have recognised that the way in which we treat others in society is ever more important. When we are asking people to do a list of tasks—no more and no less—rather than think about the individual and try to help them with whatever their needs are, we will not fix the problem. Individuals will feel bad about the care that they receive rather than feeling that it is a help to them. Another care worker quoted in the Unison report expressed that very clearly:

“I never seem to have enough time for the human contact and care that these people deserve.”

That is a lesson to us all.

Secondly, on zero-hours contracts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and I have recently commenced a survey that is designed to listen to people across all industries who have experienced being asked to do or have taken on zero-hours contracts. Of course, for people who want a bit of work but do not need it to be regular—students or others—zero-hours contracts may not be such a problem. However, I think we all recognise in this Chamber the problems with that flexibility and insecurity in a world in which people are trying to provide routine, predictability and attention to detail for some quite vulnerable people. I think we would all question the appropriateness of zero-hours contracts.

There are two problems with zero-hours contracts that we need to consider. The first is inconsistent care. My constituents tell me that they would like to know who the person is who will be turning up and they would like visits to be predictable and regular, not least because of respect and dignity issues, such as knowing the little details. Often, people who need care face communication barriers. Understanding in detail how a person communicates is extremely important, so consistency of care could not be more important. How do zero-hours contracts support consistency of care?

The second issue is stress. Insecurity at work causes stress, and in a world in which we are asking people, as I mentioned in my example, to turn up and help vulnerable people, we need them to feel confident and secure and to have enough skills to be able to tackle whatever problems are there. Recent research has shown the impact of stress and insecurity for those working in care on the manner of treatment received by the people for whom they are caring. That is an important message to us all as politicians. What responsibility can we take for creating more security at work for those who care for vulnerable people?

Comments have already been made about the pay levels in the sector. They are clearly low. Low pay plus zero-hours contracts mean that we will have people of relatively low skill. I mean “low skill” in the technical sense; I would argue that people who work in care are extremely skilled and extremely able practically, given what they have to deal with. However, investment in skills will clearly not happen where there is low pay and an insecure labour market.

Having described the problem, I will conclude by describing what I believe might be part of the solution. First, working in home care needs to be seen as an aspirational job. There is no reason why someone should not work in care and aspire to management, to moving up in their career. We need to find pathways through the career chain so that we can make this a genuinely aspirational job. A significant number of our young people are out of work. We need to demonstrate to them that home care work is valued in society and that if they pursue such a career, they will be invested in and respected as members of our society. We need to make that absolutely clear.

I again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East for securing the debate. There could not be a more important subject than this. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and explain what we can do to bring some change to the sector.

I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and congratulate him on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. There will not be one person in the House or outside it who is unaware of the importance of home care workers and what they do. Unfortunately, we can all tell horror stories like those that the right hon. Gentleman told at the start of the debate, but we also have many good stories of care workers who do tremendous work. Where would we be without the good work that they do?

Thanks to medical innovation, people have a longer life expectancy now than they had in the past. As a result, people are trying to live at home just a wee bit longer before they go into a residential or nursing home. A great many people now retire to my constituency of Strangford, because it has the seaside and is also a lovely place to be, and we are very pleased that they are coming to live in our area. However, they are people of a certain generation, and the expectation of people in Northern Ireland is the same as that of people in the rest of the United Kingdom—that they will live that wee bit longer. I believe the Government have been encouraging families to help at home before turning to residential nursing care.

There must be robust regulation of care workers to ensure safety and value for money. In the news, we often hear horror stories of someone taking advantage of the elderly or vulnerable. Hearing such stories concerns and annoys me, but it is not the case in the vast majority of circumstances. There should be regulated training and assessment as well as funding and help, to ensure that we get things right, which is the gist of the debate today.

In the past I have spoken about the difficulties that welfare reform will bring for carers. I shall use the example of my brother, who had a motorbike accident approximately eight and a half years ago that left him with some brain injuries. My parents are well into their 80s—81 and 83, mum and dad—and their ability to cope with my brother and his particular circumstances lessens as every year passes, because the nature of life is that the older we get, the less physically able we are. We are very pleased and blessed to have my brother able to speak and converse with us; the difference is that our Keith will never be able to work again or, as he would love to, ride a motorbike again—that will never happen. He is able to keep his independence due to the carers who come to see him, and they are tremendous. There is perhaps not as much funding as there should be in the NHS for carers; Keith is reliant on his disability living allowance to pay for the help he needs. If that were to change, he would have to be placed in a facility with full-time carers, which would adversely affect his mental health and cost the Government a lot more to provide. That is my honest-to-goodness, personal opinion in the case of someone close to me.

Such situations are replicated across my constituency and in constituencies across the UK; there are many cases. It is essential that home care continues. If people cannot afford to pay for reputable carers, it is more likely that they will look for carers who are less expensive and perhaps less qualified. That is why the Government must regulate more now.

I make a plea for Crossroads Caring for Carers Northern Ireland, which primarily provides domiciliary respite care. It has offered that service for carers in Northern Ireland since 1984, and provides in excess of 200,000 hours of respite care to more than 1,200 families per year. It does tremendous work, as do many others. The service is unique, because it is aimed specifically at the carer. Crossroads is committed to providing a quality, flexible home-care service; its care attendants enable the carer to have a break, by carrying out whatever tasks the carer would normally do. Carers can take a break from caring, in the knowledge that those they care for are receiving quality care from Crossroads. In other words, every bit of quality care will be provided by Crossroads. A break from caring is invaluable in reducing the psychological and emotional stress that many carers face. Crossroads domiciliary respite care helps carers to continue to provide the support they give to a sick, disabled or elderly person.

The care provision is tailored to each caring situation; everyone is unique and the service adjusts to the unique circumstances. Individual care plans are agreed between Crossroads, the carer and the person with care needs. People decide for themselves what help and support they need, and Crossroads responds. Care attendants help with a range of personal care tasks, ranging from bathing and personal hygiene to complex care needs. Through their families, I regularly meet many constituents who have complex care needs. Crossroads adopts a flexible support approach, with care attendants helping with almost any task that is part of everyday living.

Funding for Crossroads is under stress, as I said, so less and less help can be given. That brings us to the thrust of the debate: people are left in situations where they must look to cheaper alternatives, which are not always better. It bears repeating that the Government must address care in the home needs. Too many people are living in dirty homes and not being fed enough. There is only so much that families can do. Although we are trying to save money, care in the community cannot bear the brunt of what the changes will bring. Crossroads Caring has lost the bulk of its funding due to cuts. That will mean more elderly people living in unfit conditions because too much is required of their carers. With respect, the Government do not seem to understand that if they put a little into respite help for carers now, it will mean that carers can continue to care rather than giving up and putting their loved ones into state-sponsored homes, which are more expensive and where issues with carers are more apparent. Saving a penny now will soon mean spending thousands later. I hope when the Minister responds, he will give some indication of the Government’s strategy.

Those advertising care at the moment can do so while providing little training or checks on their staff, as hon. Members have indicated, and that must end. There must be regulation, qualifications and a set standard to which all carers and service providers adhere. When the Government set that in place, we will hear fewer horror stories and more feel-good stories, of which there are thousands and thousands. They are not the stories that make the press; they are about the many carers who go above and beyond their calling to provide care.

As an elected representative—as an MP and a former Assembly Member and councillor—I know of the good work that carers do. They come to me regularly, in their own time, to seek help for those for whom they care. I am always impressed by the fact that carers spend additional time on those for whom they care—above and beyond what is expected. We hear the negative stories, but the good ones always make us feel much better about the good work that carers do in our constituencies.

I am sure that, like me, colleagues feel there must be proper training and monitoring and that it must be put in place in a timely fashion. As each day passes, more people are being cared for at home. We have a duty to ensure first, the regulation of all carers; secondly, the safety of those being cared for; and, thirdly, and most important, peace of mind for the family of the person who needs care. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East on securing the debate. I look forward to a good answer from the Minister and to his support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow all the speakers, who fully and excellently set out the case for care workers.

When I read the “Time to Care” report, I had an enormous feeling of déjà vu. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for Unison as a full-time officer. Back in the 1990s, one of my first jobs as a young officer was supporting the Derbyshire county council home helps joint consultative committee. “Home helps” was the name given to home care workers in Derbyshire, of whom there were thousands. The joint consultative committee used to bring together representatives of home care workers from across the county with senior management of social services, including the director of social services, who so understood the important role of home care that he was always prepared to attend meetings to listen to the views of home care representatives. It was an opportunity for them to raise their concerns and the issues that their members faced.

The 1990s was a period of huge change for such workers. The role of home helps was changing immensely: they moved from providing a service that was basically helping older people with cleaning, shopping, meals and even, back then, laying fires, to providing much more intimate personal care and dealing with people with increasingly complex needs. It was also a period of budget cuts, which accounts for the feeling of déjà vu. There was pressure to change services, to make them efficient, obviously, but also to open them to the private market.

I vividly remember Derbyshire home helps raising concerns about a proposed move to a time-recording system. When they arrived at a service user’s house, the first thing they had to do was telephone to tell social services where they were, so that there was much more detailed information on the amount of time they spent with each service user. A concern they raised at the time was that doing so would change their focus, so that rather than their prime focus being on the needs of the service user, their top priority when they arrived was to record their time so that social services could properly cost the service.

I also remember home helps raising concerns about short calls that did not allow them time to care, to listen to what services users wanted or to respond to their priorities.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about recording arrival and departure times. Often the system simply fails, not only in rural areas, where mobile coverage is poor, but when using the cared for person’s telephone. Carers often cannot get through and calling becomes a greater obsession than providing the care itself.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I remember well the representative from the High Peak area constantly making that exact point, which was that there was poor mobile phone coverage. They talked about how much of their time would be spent dealing with the telephone instead of focusing on the person who required their assistance. There were also worries about travel time.

I particularly remember the concerns of people who worked alongside private sector care providers where, they reported, staff training was often inadequate and there was often a high turnover of staff. They also reported that the care providers frequently did not provide personal protective equipment; they talked about the lack of rubber gloves and the like. We often had discussions about which tasks home helps were given time to carry out. They often pointed out that their service users wanted and needed things that might not be what the carers were commissioned to provide.

Unison’s “Time to Care” report and the Care Quality Commission’s “Not Just a Number” inspection programme made me wonder whether we should have listened more closely to the concerns and issues raised by those Derbyshire home helps 20 years ago, particularly when, in describing the current context, the CQC talked about the

“increasing pressure on social care budgets and the rise in the number of people with complex care needs and dementia.”

In describing its key findings—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, a quarter of services fell below the standards expected—the CQC said:

“What is concerning is that our findings come as no surprise to people, their families and carers, care workers and providers themselves.”

The findings really do not come as a surprise, because they are exactly the issues that have been raised over many years.

The CQC highlighted several problems, including service users

“not being kept informed about late arrivals, different care workers from one visit to another, not having their preferences clearly documented, a lack of support for care staff to carry out their work, and failure to address the ongoing issues around travel time.”

Those are responsibilities of not just this Government but the previous Government, but the pressure on social services that are commissioning care services is even greater now, and we need to look again at what is required.

There is great similarity between the findings of the CQC and Unison’s “Time to Care” report. Although the care and welfare of service users is the most important focus, the CQC found that staff felt

“unsupported by their management teams and not…able to deliver care in the right way because they are too rushed, with no travel time and unscheduled visits added to their day.”

It also reported a lack of planning and supervision for staff. Training needs were not identified, staff were not confident in using their equipment, and inductions were not always completed following recognised standards.

As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said, the voices of care workers are often not heard in debates such as this one. We ought to address that today. I was pleased to see that Unison’s report included many quotes from individual home care workers. It provided an opportunity for them to have a say and to talk about their experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has already quoted one of the home care workers who contributed to the report, saying they did not have time to spend with their service users and they had to rush between calls.

One of the most important issues is about older people. I imagine that many hon. Members have this experience when they are out canvassing in their communities: they knock on the door of an older person, and perhaps the Member is the only person they have spoken to that day. Their priority is to talk to someone who is willing to listen. That was well recognised by one of the care workers who contributed to the report, who said that

“care is not just about duties but communication and many providers do not allow for this…How can half an hour be enough to get someone up, dressed, meds given and have a chat? People are being failed by a system which does not recognise importance of person-centred care.”

There are many quotes in the “Time to Care” report, which I am sure the Minister has read. I hope that he listens to the voices of home care workers and the issues that they raise.

It is vital that, like the director of social services in Derbyshire back in the 1990s, we listen to the voice of home care workers, because they meet service users every day. Most of them are incredibly committed to providing a good-quality service and ensuring that people receive the support that they need. It is also vital that we do not simply listen to them, but act. Will the Minister meet home care workers and their representatives to discuss the findings of Unison’s “Time to Care” and the CQC report? Will he set out today how he intends to respond to the findings of those reports?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and all other hon. Members who have spoken.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing today’s debate. Home care workers often work in isolated environments, and the people who receive care are isolated. Too often, they do not have a voice, and one of our jobs as Members of Parliament is to provide a voice for the voiceless. My right hon. Friend has helped us to do that today.

The issue is extremely important. More than 800,000 people provide home care in the UK. Some 80% of them are women, and their median age is about 40. They provide vital, intimate and personal services to more than 1 million of the most vulnerable people in society. If any other policy area had that scale of figures, this debate would be on the Floor of the House, with many other hon. Members present. It is good to have hon. Members here in this debate, but the issue that requires addressing is a huge one.

The help that home care workers provide is crucial for older and disabled people, because it helps them do what they want, which is to stay living independently in their own homes. It is crucial for families, who often have to go out to work and cannot provide support and care for their elderly relatives. Also, they might not live nearby, as I know well myself. Home care help is crucial also for the public finances and taxpayers, because if we can keep more people living healthily and independently at home and not going into hospital, taxpayers will receive better value for money.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken today, I have been concerned about the issue for a long time. Last May, I held a domiciliary care summit in Parliament with the United Kingdom Homecare Association, with 50 providers coming along. I have work-shadowed home care workers in my constituency, including Amanda White. Going out on an early-morning shift with her was an eye-opening experience. I also speak to many older and disabled people and care workers in my constituency and across the country. Many of the points that I have heard have been repeated by right hon. and hon. Members today.

There are many examples of excellent, decent and respectful care. The home care workers to whom I have spoken, including Amanda, love their job. They feel that they are doing something important for vulnerable people, helping them to live the kinds of lives that they want. However, the overwhelming picture is of a vicious downward spiral, with ever-increasing demand and ever-decreasing budgets, poorly paid, motivated and trained staff, and poor-quality care. Just to summarise, I will go through five issues that many hon. Members have raised today.

The first issue is low pay. Many people do not get even the minimum wage at the end of the week, because they are not paid travel times. Unison’s survey, “Time to care”, which hon. Members have mentioned, found that half of those who responded said that they did not get paid travel time, rising to more than 80% in the private sector. King’s college London has found that between 150,000 and 220,000 people working in the social care sector get paid less than the minimum wage. I will ask the Minister some questions about that towards the end.

The second issue concerns shorter and shorter visits for people with higher and higher levels of need. It is important to remember that as budgets are squeezed, councils raise their eligibility criteria, so people who need care and support at home have greater needs but get shorter and shorter visits. According to the UK Homecare Association, three quarters of visits are for 30 minutes or less, and one in 10 visits are for only 15 minutes. As several hon. Members have said, that is completely inadequate to get someone up, washed, dressed and fed, particularly if they have dementia. Anyone who knows someone or has a family member with dementia will know that they often struggle in the morning, which is a really disorientating time.

One thing that carers provide to those on whom they call is a wee bit of a chat in the morning—someone to speak to—because many people have no one at all to speak to. When they come in, they light the fire and do all the things that the hon. Lady has mentioned, but communication between carers and those they visit is important. Does she think that that should be given more time?

Care and communication is vital for people with all sorts of frailties and conditions, but particularly for those with dementia, as carers try to keep their memories and brains going. Those people often feel lost in a fog, and having some kind of contact is vital to keeping them going, so it is important.

We have heard about the problems of call cramming, with carers being rushed, getting late to one client and leaving early for the next. Older people are worried when they are left waiting on their own, and staff are frustrated that they have to rush in and out.

The third issue that has been raised is zero-hours contracts. As hon. Members have said, such contracts are very bad for workers, because they find it difficult to budget and plan their lives. Zero-hours contracts make it hard to attract people to the sector. They are also terrible for the users—older and disabled people who do not get continuity of care. I cannot imagine someone coming round to get me out of my bed and take me to the shower. I would be naked and they would be washing me, but I would not know who they were, because they would often be different people each time. We would not put up with that for ourselves, and we should not expect it for older people either.

The fourth issue is the lack of training, which is a real problem in dementia care. It is only since having known people with dementia that I have fully understood why they are seen to get aggressive: they do not, but they are frustrated because they cannot remember things. Carers need detailed training for that.

The fifth issue is the vicious downward spiral or vicious circle that leads to poor care for users of services and real problems for staff. The last UK Homecare Association report states that vacancy rates are at 21%, so we are simply repeating the problems.

In my remaining time, I want to make three comments about why that is all happening and what we need to do. Clearly, demand has increased in recent years. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, when local councils’ budgets are being cut by a third, when adult social care is 40% of their budget on average and their biggest discretionary spend, and when the money that the Government say they have transferred from the NHS has not been ring-fenced, it is inevitable that care budgets are being cut. Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government—the Government’s own figures—show that more than £1.3 billion has been cut from older people’s social care budgets since the coalition came to power.

There are a few deeper things going on. First, the caring profession is mostly delivered by women and is low-skilled. Such professions have always been neglected in the past, so that is a concern. Secondly, the problem is invisible: it concerns isolated staff and isolated, frail older people who do not have a voice. In talking about the care crisis, I always tell people that I have received five letters about the care crisis in my constituency and 99 about saving forests. I am passionate about forests, but getting only five letters on the care crisis shows that this is an issue of isolation and we should stand up about it.

Like the hon. Lady, I have shadowed care workers in my constituency. One point that often comes across is that when I ask those who pontificate from on high—criticising poor care standards and implying that it relates to the character of the people providing the service—whether they would be prepared to do this job, no one wants to do it, even at twice the salary.

I completely agree. That is why Unison’s report, “Time to Care”, which has given people a voice, is important.

The third fundamental issue is that our NHS and care system have not kept pace with changing demographics—people living longer—and changing needs and expectations. Families cannot always cope with caring for elderly relatives, and older people want to stay in their homes for longer. In the past, it was not the business of the NHS and social care to think about the home; its business was always about sending people to institutions.

What should be done? I want to raise four matters with the Minister. First, I know that the Low Pay Commission has looked at the minimum wage. Will he confirm, however, that as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has ruled that it is not legal to pay for travel time? If that is the case, what is being done about that? What action has been taken? In any other area, there would be legal action to enforce the minimum wage, so what is being done?

Secondly, I know that the Minister wants a shift to commissioning for outcomes, rather than by the minute. That is the Government’s policy, but how will he make that work in action? What are his levers over local councils? Thirdly, it is time to have a national strategy for improving training for home care workers. What are the Government’s plans?

Finally, although the announcement on the Dilnot cap is a step forward, Dilnot has always said, as the Minister will know, that proper funding is needed in the current system, which this Government have not produced. I know that he will be in intense conversations with the Treasury over the future budget. If, following the Budget, the Government decide to pull over more money from the NHS to social care, will he ring-fence that money this time?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing this incredibly important debate. As was pointed out by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the subject is too often neglected. It is literally hidden behind closed doors, and it does not get the attention it deserves. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), and the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he drew attention to the brilliant work done by Crossroads in many parts of the country—and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who spoke from direct personal experience.

I totally agree with the shadow Minister that the health and care system has not kept pace with the demands and challenges of an ageing society, and that we need a fundamental re-engineering of how we deliver care. I have a passionate belief in the need to shift towards an integrated care model, in which we shape services around the needs of the individual, rather than those of the institution, which is a shift that must happen.

Before I go into details, let me say that I applaud Unison for having undertaken the report that several hon. Members have mentioned. When its staff wrote to me about the report, I asked officials to meet them, and they will meet soon. I, too, asked to meet them, and I will discuss their concerns with them next month. I recently met some care workers, with another hon. Member, to hear directly from them, and I want to experience myself what goes on—often behind closed doors.

The right hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned whistleblowers, and I have a lot of sympathy with the points he made. Last January, the Government extended the Government-funded whistleblowing helpline to the whole of the care sector, so that any care worker can find out how to pursue their concerns. Of course, as employees, care workers have employment law protection, and we should encourage them all to use their rights.

The Government want to do all we can to ensure that standards of care remain as high as possible, and indeed improve. That is the challenge we all face. People who receive home care and their families should be able to expect the highest quality of care every time. I am aware of the many examples of poor care. The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members drew our attention to some pretty shocking case studies and to the fact that someone can have up to 13 different care workers over a relatively short space of time. As the hon. Member for Leicester West said, it is completely unacceptable that a person has to receive quite intimate care from someone whom they have never met before. Moreover, the idea of a zero-hours contract is, in most circumstances, completely incompatible with a model of high quality care, in which the individual really gets to know their care worker.

The CQC report “Not just a number” highlighted some serious concerns, which we must take action to address. The responsibility for bringing about improvement rests with all the key players, including the providers, the councils and the regulator. The Government too must take their share of the responsibility here. The trick is to erase the bad, keep the good and improve services across the board.

The care and support White Paper sets out our intentions to improve the standard of social care. We will do that primarily by investing in people—by focusing attention on the staff who provide care in the first place. I want to join the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in paying tribute to care workers, the vast majority of whom do really excellent work, often in difficult circumstances. They work under real pressures because of the way in which care is commissioned over very short spaces of time. We are seeing a race to the bottom, and we must move away from that. It puts care workers under impossible pressure and it does not provide good quality care.

Another matter I feel strongly about, and to which I referred in my response to the Winterbourne View scandal, is that there must be much more effective corporate accountability. Some companies are making very good money out of home care, so accountability must go with that profit making. It is unacceptable that home care providers sometimes allow negligent care to take place under their watch, and they must be held to account for it. Poor care, private or public, should be condemned wherever it exists. We must not have the idea that poor care exists only in the private sector. It was intolerable that hundreds of people died in Mid-Staffordshire hospital, an NHS hospital, as a result of poor care, and it is equally unacceptable when it happens under the watch of a private provider.

It is impossible to speak about improving standards without also talking about human capital. Care workers who feel valued and encouraged will perform better; it is as simple as that. The more attention the Government pay to the skills, training and personal development of the work force, the better are our chances of improving standards. After all, it is the care workers, not us in Parliament, who ultimately provide the care. We must increase the capacity and the capability of the social care work force, give people better information about care providers and improve the performance of the regulator, the Care Quality Commission. All those things will make social care a more attractive place for people to work and, most importantly, improve the quality of services.

We will shortly introduce new minimum standards to improve training for care staff to make sure that all employees have the foundations for excellence. My focus must be on training and standards, and ensuring that they apply across the board. I am dubious about the idea of creating a new regulator or of using the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which has not had a great record, to regulate some 1.5 million people. The money that is available should perhaps go to the front-line workers, rather than on creating new bureaucratic structures. I will give way to the hon. Lady, and ask her to be very quick if she does not mind.

I will be speedy. I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said about the causes of the problem. He does not seem to have mentioned funding pressures on local government. Will he respond to that point, because it is a massive constraint on improvements in the sector?

I will directly address that point. The analysis of the independent King’s Fund said that provided councils apply the money that the Government have allocated to care and undertake proper efficiency savings, which the previous Labour Government recognised had to happen across health and care, they should be able to continue to provide the level of service that exists at present. We need to think more fundamentally about a much more integrated approach between health and care. We can save resources and improve care if we bring the systems much more closely together.

It was, I think, the hon. Member for Wirral South who made the point about looking at care as an aspirational role.

I totally agree with her. If a worker can aspire to something better—perhaps a progression in their career—they will commit themselves very fully to the role. The idea of a vocational progression towards nursing, even if, at the end of the day, a degree is involved, should be opened up much more than it is at present. I completely agree with her on the points that she makes.

I share the concerns that hon. Members have raised about pay. There have been reports that some home care workers may be working for less than the minimum wage, which is an absolutely disgraceful situation for a vast number of reasons, not least because an illegally low wage will never produce excellent results and it is an exploitation of the worker that we must not tolerate. It is the responsibility of all employers, including home care providers, to pay staff at least the national minimum wage. The Government are working closely with the Low Pay Commission and local authorities to address that issue. I can assure all hon. Members that we will not accept anything less than 100% compliance with the regulations.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I wanted to change the rules to make it easier to name and shame employers who fail to pay the minimum wage. We must regard that as completely unacceptable practice, and any employer who indulges in it should be exposed; it is utterly intolerable.

I am conscious that time is tight and I want to address the remaining points.

The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who is no longer in her seat, raised concerns about potentially bogus arrangements in her constituency in Bexley. I think that she is writing to me on that matter, and I will be happy to look into it.

Care providers are also responsible for ensuring that their services meet the requirements in regulations and essential standards. The regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has powers that it can use to make sure that that happens. The CQC has our full support to use those powers as it sees fit to drive improvements in services. It is worth taking a moment to talk about the CQC report, which we have been discussing this morning. Between April and July 2012, the CQC inspected 250 registered home care providers as part of a themed programme to highlight respecting and involving people who use services and safeguarding them from abuse and neglect. To ensure that everything was examined thoroughly, it involved the people who use the services as well as the people who provide them. It looked at how staff are supported and how standards are maintained. Overall, the CQC found that 74% of the services that it inspected met the standards, and about a quarter did not. That is unacceptable and we must all focus our attention on those services.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to concerns about CQC’s capabilities in Oxfordshire, and I am aware of local media attention on that. My officials have raised those concerns with CQC and they were assured that it is on track to achieve its goal of inspecting 100% of adult social care locations across Oxfordshire by 31 March, that its Oxfordshire compliance team now consists of 10 full-time inspectors and that, after a period of recruitment, CQC has had no vacancies in the area since last December. If concerns continue, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to contact me and I will be happy to look into them further.

The importance of commissioning must be stressed. Commissioning over short periods of time—that race to the bottom—is unacceptable. We must commission on the basis of quality, as the hon. Member for Leicester West said. Finally, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing such an important subject for debate.

Brechfa West Wind Farm

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Turner. Two minutes ago, I was getting slightly worried that the Minister was going to miss the debate, but I am delighted to see him in his place now. I should have known better, and that he would not let the House down.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. However, if I had my way we would not be having this debate here today, as the matter under consideration, which essentially relates to the exploitation of Welsh natural resources, would be a matter for Welsh democratic institutions.

I have yet to be a Member of Parliament for three years—I am coming up to the three-year anniversary—but I have already lost count of the number of times that I have raised the issue of the need to devolve responsibility for these issues. Indeed, I introduced my own Bill, which was unceremoniously voted down by Tory and Labour MPs before it even got to Second Reading.

To be fair, the Liberal Democrats joined us in the Lobby, and I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who led that rebellion, present in Westminster Hall today.

Many of my constituents are extremely confused why some developments within the two technical advice note 8, or TAN 8, areas that I have in my constituency are a matter for the local planning authority, and why the development at Brechfa West is determined by the Minister. This development by RWE npower renewables is aimed at generating up to 84 MW, and therefore supersedes the ridiculous 50 MW limit that currently determines where responsibility lies.

The Minister will be aware that the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission is currently taking evidence on part two of its report. My party has called for the devolution of power to determine all energy-generating developments. The Labour Government in Wales have limited themselves to calling for full devolution of renewable energy projects. I read in the Western Mail that even the Tory Assembly group wants to increase the limit to 100 MW, although the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has declared on Twitter that that will happen only “over his dead body”. I have not seen a submission by the Lib Dems on the Silk report but I am confident they will be on the side of progress on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the Welsh Lib Dem commitment that the power to determine all those consents regarding projects above 50 MW should be vested in Assembly Ministers. That is of direct relevance not only to the two TAN 8 areas in his constituency but to a significant TAN 8 plan in Nant y Moch, which is in my Ceredigion constituency.

I am glad to see that commitment by the Lib Dems in Wales. However, we have seen the UK Government submission, which I believe was published this morning. I have not read it in great detail, but I am led to believe that it argues for maintaining the status quo. If that is the case, it will be slightly embarrassing for the Tories and the Lib Dems in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I am greatly opposed to devolution of these matters, but that is purely because in my view the Westminster Government are more likely to listen to the opinions of local people than the Welsh Government are at the current time. That is the reason why I am opposed to devolution on this issue and will continue to oppose it; it is in the interests of local democracy and reflecting the opinions of local people. I would have thought that he might support me on that.

I hope that that is indeed the case, and that is why I secured this debate in the House this morning.

Ministers need to be aware that the current situation is frowned upon by people in Wales, who are protective of their natural resources. They do not understand why Scotland and Northern Ireland have full control over this policy field, while Welsh projects over the 50 MW limit are determined in London.

I have been forced to call this debate because my constituents feel that they have had precious little opportunity to express their views. All developments to date within TAN 8 area G have been determined by the local planning authority. Each development has been open to a full public consultation, and the lines of accountability with the planning department and planning committee have been clear. Indeed, based on the experiences of the only functioning development within the TAN 8 area, local planning guidance has been amended to include mitigating measures, such as an enhanced buffer zone.

None of those things applies to the Brechfa West development, as it is being determined under a completely different set of planning criteria. Local people feel that that particular development is being determined in a completely undemocratic manner. Only last week, a group of them travelled all the way down to London to present a dossier to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I am confident that the Minister has read that document in the meantime. They feel that consultation by the planning inspector was lacking, and are as aggrieved as I am that the Minister and his team are making this decision without having even visited the area concerned. The Minister could have taken his dog, Otto, for a walk in the area, as it is a lovely part of west Wales, enjoyed by tourists from around the world.

As much as I would like to, I am not going to spend the time available to me today making the case—once again—for repatriation of energy powers to Wales. Instead, as the Minister will be making his decision on the Brechfa West project within the next week, I want to move on to the substantive issues regarding this development, and in particular the issues that have been raised with me by constituents.

Put simply, neither I nor my constituents are satisfied that either the Minister or the Secretary of State will visit Brechfa before passing judgment on the wind farm application. Even local planning authorities, made up of councillors living within the county, carry out regular site visits to gain a sound understanding of any proposed development. How can my constituents have any confidence in the Minister’s decision when he—sitting in his office down here in London—decides on an application for a project that is more than 200 miles away, in a village he does not know, in a community he does not understand and in a county he will not visit?

Many constituents have written to me regarding the noise levels of existing wind turbines situated in TAN 8 area G, more commonly known as Alltwalis wind farm, which is a stone’s throw away from the proposed Brechfa West development. Target noise limits for the proposed Brechfa West wind farm are based on ETSU-R-97, the same methodology used for the existing Alltwalis turbines. As the Minister should be aware, the 10 turbines at Alltwalis already make the maximum noise permitted under ETSU-R-97. The 28 proposed turbines at Brechfa West would inevitably add to the existing noise, thereby breaching noise limits. My constituents firmly believe there was no proper discussion during the planning process for Brechfa West about the cumulative noise effect, or about the possibility of using alternative noise or turbulence measurements to ETSU-R-97.

Of course, ETSU-R-97 is itself unsatisfactory. Since 2009, the UK Government have asked, first, Hayes McKenzie and, secondly, the Institute of Acoustics to review the application of ETSU-R-97, which is the Government’s recommended methodology for predicting and assessing the noise coming from wind turbines. As I have pointed out in correspondence and on the Floor of the House, the issue is not how consistently ETSU-R-97 is applied but whether it is effective in protecting people who live near turbines. The Minister should ask my constituents about this issue. It is their strong view that ETSU-R-97 is far from effective, and I strongly believe—I make the point again today—that the UK Government should commit to reviewing ETSU-R-97 on that basis.

The National Assembly for Wales agrees with that position. In May 2012, its Petitions Committee carried out a review into the control of noise from wind turbines. The cross-party group of Assembly Members made four key recommendations, one of which was that

“ETSU-R-97 guidelines be revised to take into account the lower ambient noise levels in rural areas and the latest research and World Health Organisation evidence on the effects on sleep disturbance.”

My constituents would be very interested to know the Minister’s views on that recommendation and whether he agrees with colleagues in the National Assembly.

Is the Minister content to allow wind farm applications to be judged in accordance with guidance that is 16 years old and arguably out of date? If so, what assurances will he put on record today to state categorically that the proposed 28 turbines at Brechfa West will not exceed the noise limits set out in the guidance? Why is there no provision, for example, for excess amplitude modulation? In particular, how will any breaches of noise regulations be policed? Which development—Alltwalis or Brechfa West—will face enforcement action? To whom will local people complain? Will it be to the local planning authority or to DECC here in Whitehall? Those are complicated issues and I am not convinced that the architects of TAN 8, which concentrates developments within strategic zones, have thought them through. Admittedly, that is, of course, an issue for the Welsh Government, as TAN 8 is Welsh Government policy.

It cannot be right that some of my constituents consistently lose sleep due to the effects of wind turbines. If the Minister is minded to approve the Brechfa West application, my constituents would expect his personal reassurance that no resident will suffer loss of sleep due to the turbines and that there will be clear enforcement procedures to protect them.

I have also received many complaints from constituents about the access route for the Brechfa West development, which will be built only 150 metres away from the access route to the Alltwalis site. I have written to the Minister about that issue. Surely it is ridiculous that the developments will not be forced to use the same access route, should Brechfa West be approved, because they adjoin the same location. The operator of the Alltwalis development, Statkraft, has a continuing dispute with the landowner of its access route, and the situation has turned extremely unpleasant. Surely the Department should use the new adjacent development at Brechfa West to address some of the outstanding issues with the Alltwalis development, if the Minister consents to the Brechfa West development in the next week.

In answer to my recent parliamentary question, the Minister confirmed that the Planning Act 2008

“allows for applications for development consent for new generating stations above 50 megawatts (MW) and associated electricity connections to be contained in a single application, or in separate applications submitted in tandem”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 956W.]

Given that the Minister will be determining the Brechfa West application on its own, my constituents in Brechfa, and in the surrounding communities of the majestic Towy and Teifi valleys, can reasonably expect him to give a cast-iron guarantee this morning that no additional infrastructure, such as pylons or electricity cabling, will be required to connect the Brechfa West turbines to the national grid.

The infrastructure has been more contentious in mid-Wales than the energy-generating projects themselves. The understanding of local people is that, should the Minister approve Brechfa West, National Grid will make an infrastructure planning application linking TAN 8 area G in the north of my constituency and TAN 8 area E in the south before joining the main south Wales electricity network at Swansea.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me a second intervention. Does he agree that, for any other form of application, seeking approval without the associated infrastructure just would not happen? Someone could not seek permission for a house if there was no road to it, yet in mid-Wales we have a public inquiry into six wind farms without any idea of how the power is going out. The idea is that the approval of the wind farms would force the infrastructure to follow. That is absolutely outrageous. The Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff are forcing something on local people and are coming up with every stunt in the book to try to undermine local opinion.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, the Department’s planning guidance is that projects and infrastructure should be agreed in tandem.

The Merched Beca uprising of the 19th century was spawned in the communities of north Carmarthenshire, and if the worst fears about pylons are realised, there will be huge protests throughout Carmarthenshire, as we have seen in mid-Wales.

If the Minister is not prepared to give a guarantee, my constituents would expect a moratorium on the Brechfa West application until additional planning applications for electricity infrastructure are submitted. As UK Government energy planning policy dictates, the applications should be considered together, otherwise the people of Carmarthenshire would rightly feel they have been misled by his Department, the Labour Government in Cardiff and the multinational companies involved in the development.

Given that there are 10 turbines in Alltwalis, that 15 turbines are currently being erected on Betws mountain in TAN 8 area E and that a proposal for 21 further turbines was recently refused for Llanllwni mountain in the TAN 8 area of north Carmarthenshire, it seems logical for electricity infrastructure proposals to be submitted in tandem. Only then will those passing judgment on the applications have a true and accurate picture of the impact the developments would have on the communities I represent.

I find myself in the somewhat strange position of defending the interests of the defence industry and its testing of unmanned aerial vehicles to justify my constituents’ concerns on Brechfa West. My opposition to UAVs is a matter of public record, and I stand by my comments. Nevertheless, my constituents have significant concerns about the safety of operations in what is now regrettably a highly militarised area.

Since the planning process ended, the Ministry of Defence has warned that the proposed Brechfa West turbines would cause unacceptable interference to range-control radar at Aberporth. The interference would desensitise radar in the vicinity of the turbines, leading to aircraft not being detected and not being identifiable to air traffic control. There would also be false aircraft returns, thereby increasing the workload of controllers and air crews, which would have a significant operational impact.

The MOD also states that radar is used to separate and sequence both military and civilian aircraft, and that

“radar is the only way to do this safely.”

The Minister should be aware that the whole of north Carmarthenshire was recently designated an air corridor for the testing of military drones between the air base at Aberporth on the Ceredigion coast and the military training area on Epynt mountain in south Powys.

Despite identifying risks to public safety, and initially demanding that those risks be mitigated by developers before any construction begins, the MOD withdrew its objections before the start of the planning process. It has been suggested that the MOD was subjected to considerable pressure from the developer, and the MOD apparently made the decision only for legal reasons—for fear of facing a legal challenge— and not because of a change in policy or position.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the pressure that may have been brought to bear on the MOD goes to the heart of the issue about conflicting policy agendas? The Welsh Assembly Government and the MOD are investing a lot of money in the development of drones at ParcAberporth, but TAN 8 wind turbine sites are being designated comparatively nearby. That is a big clash of policy, is it not?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. North Carmarthenshire now has the only air corridor over the British mainland, yet the area has been heavily mapped for the development of renewable projects, which affect defence projects. There seems to be a lack of coherence, whether that is the responsibility of the Welsh Government or the UK Government—the air corridor is a UK Government policy, of course.

Additionally, the MOD is blocking the Met Office’s objection to the proposed wind farm, which, again, was formulated on public safety grounds due to interference to the only weather radar station in Wales. As we are talking about flying objects, with rumours of weaponised drones being tested in the near future, those responsible for approving the wind farm must be satisfied that the development poses no public risk. Will the Minister outline his understanding of why those objections from the MOD and the Met Office were withheld?

My constituents have endeavoured to engage with each and every step of the application process. Many have been unable to take part due to different authorities being responsible for developments of different sizes, which leads to confusion. I find myself getting confused, and I am a Member of Parliament. Some of my constituents have requested that, at the very least, turbines 17, 18 and 23 be removed to minimise the noise and visual impact on their homes. If the Minister decides to approve the development in the next week, I would ask that he particularly considers those three turbines.

It is regrettable that I have had to secure this debate to air my constituents’ concerns. My constituents feel that, compared with the planning processes of the local planning authority, they have been unable to express their view on the procedures employed by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the Department. There is no doubt in my mind that decisions on such developments should be made in Wales. I hope the Minister, before he makes his decision within the next week, will consider the points I have raised today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. I know he has taken a strong and long-standing interest in the topic, which is important for his constituents. Over the past three years—his anniversary is coming up—he has been diligent in asking written and oral questions in the House.

I am sorry to start my response to this interesting debate by making what might seem to be an unhelpful statement, but the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the Department is currently considering the application for development consent from RWE npower renewables on the proposed Brechfa Forest West wind farm. Given my quasi-judicial role in approving the application, I regret that I am unable to comment on the merits of the arguments for and against the proposal made both this morning and during the Planning Inspectorate’s lengthy examination of the application.

I am also unable to respond to the pithy interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but I acknowledge their points. I assure them that I have listened carefully to the discussions this morning. I cannot prejudge the outcome, but I will consider whether any of the points raised are material to the deliberations on the consent. There will be a revised submission in light of this debate, and my officials and I will read it carefully before coming to our considered decision.

My deliberations will also have to include the other relevant matters that have been drawn to my attention, including the representations delivered to the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and several of his constituents last week, and the report from the Planning Inspectorate dated 12 December 2012, which drew together the various issues that were considered during the examination of the Brechfa application.

The hon. Gentleman expressed his frustration that I had not been able to visit the site. I can assure him that that is nothing peculiar to his constituency, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it is in Wales. It is not usual for a Planning Minister to visit individual sites, because that might jeopardise, counteract or duplicate the professional site visits that the Planning Inspectorate undertakes. It is my job to bring together all those detailed observations and the representations made locally, and to consider them. I could carry out that consideration in Whitehall or Kathmandu, but I have to look at the evidence impartially and reach a decision. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no reluctance on my part to visit such a beautiful part of the country, and I am sure that were Otto given a say in the matter, he would be all in favour of a site visit.

For the sake of clarity, it might be worth setting out briefly the process by which the Brechfa application and other infrastructure projects classified as nationally significant—in the case of onshore wind farms, those with a generating capacity of more than 50 MW—are considered and determined. One of the key planks of the Planning Act 2008 process for such projects is the role of the Planning Inspectorate. Until its report and recommendation are submitted to the Secretary of State, the inspectorate leads on various aspects of the process. It is, therefore, the inspectorate that engages in discussions with applicants before an application for development consent is submitted; it is the inspectorate that considers whether an application should be accepted for examination; and it is the inspectorate that will conduct the examination of that application. As part of the examination, the inspectorate’s examining authority—either an individual or a panel of three of five members that is hearing the case—visits the sites of proposed developments. That is as it should be. The inspectorate’s officers have the expertise to assess the issues on the ground and weigh up the benefits, or otherwise, of the proposed development package. It is not Ministers’ place to engage in that aspect of the process.

I accept the points that the Minister makes, but that means that we must essentially accept on blind faith the advice of the inspectorate. My constituents have expressed to me their concern that such work was not carried out properly.

In considering all the evidence, I will have the opportunity to weigh against the professional submissions that I receive additional submissions from local people, not least the information that the hon. Gentleman has so assiduously brought to my attention. He brought it to my Department last week, and I can assure him that it will be weighed in the balance as a decision is reached.

As indicated earlier, it is only at the end of the process that the Secretary of State can consider the information that has been provided by the applicant and any interested parties, and the way in which the Planning Inspectorate’s examiner has considered those matters. Finally, the Planning Act process is precise about the timetable for decision making. Decisions must be made within three months of the submission of the Planning Inspectorate’s report and recommendation. I am sure we all agree that it is in nobody’s interest for such decisions to be spun out, leaving local communities and businesses hanging, waiting for Government decisions. If that timetable cannot be met, the responsible Minister must make a statement to Parliament and to interested parties indicating why not. In the case of the Brechfa application, a decision must be reached by 12 March 2013, so we are close now.

I know that the Minister wants to make progress, and I am listening intently to what he is saying. One of the arguments against the development is that it will not be possible to use the existing electricity connection grids to transmit the energy to the main line in south Wales, which runs from Alltwalis to Carmarthen. New infrastructure will be required, and the UK Government’s planning guidance clearly states that such projects should be considered in tandem.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises the question of grid connection for the Brechfa project. Although I cannot go into detail and comment on the specifics of that case, for obvious reasons, it might be worth outlining the process that is set out in the overarching national policy statement for energy, which is known as EN-1, for considering grid connection issues. EN-1 sets out that, wherever possible, applications for new generating stations and related infrastructure should be contained in a single application to the Planning Inspectorate or in separate applications submitted in tandem that have been prepared in an integrated way.

Does the Minister know that the inspector in the conjoined public inquiry into the six applications I mentioned has specifically refused to do that? Protesters, including me, have wanted that to happen, but the inspector has refused to look at the infrastructure side at the same time, even though that would satisfy local people’s concerns.

I hear my hon. Friend’s point, and clearly it would be best for the applications to be made in tandem. However, that is not always possible, and it may not always be the most practicable way of dealing with such issues. In some cases, therefore, applicants may decide to submit an application that seeks consent for one element but contains some information on the second strand of the project, including an assessment of impacts. Where that is the case, the decision maker will need to be satisfied that there are no obvious reasons why the necessary approvals for the other element—the grid infrastructure—are likely to be refused.

I would like to touch on the other big issue that was raised, namely the devolution of consenting powers for energy infrastructure to Welsh Ministers. I understand that that raises a degree of emotion. The Government support the principle that decisions for particular matters should be taken at the most appropriate level, and as locally as possible, wherever that is feasible. For nationally significant energy infrastructure projects in England and Wales, as defined in the Planning Act, we consider that the right decision maker is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. For offshore renewable energy projects of up to and including 100 MW, that responsibility is vested in the Marine Management Organisation, under the relevant provisions in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We believe that the present arrangements for decision making are fit for purpose in that they minimise delays and unpredictability and ensure investor confidence in the decision-making process.

The major infrastructure planning regimes are different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for historical reasons, and they reflect each nation’s devolution settlement. The Planning Act and the Localism Act 2011, which broadly cover England and Wales, introduced the current major infrastructure planning regime. Those changes were devolution-neutral and did not make any significant changes to the division of responsibility between the local and national consenting authorities. The Government are clear that any requests for further devolution of powers in this area to Welsh Ministers or the Welsh Assembly should be considered in the light of any recommendations made by the Silk commission, which is currently reviewing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and is due to publish its recommendations in spring 2014.

The hon. Gentleman asked about noise and reliance on regulations that date back to 1996. We have procured updated analysis from acoustic experts Hayes McKenzie, which carried out a research project. Its report was published in June 2011, and it found that although ETSU-R-97 guidance remained fit for purpose, good practice guidance was needed to confirm, and where necessary clarify, how it is being implemented in practice. We are producing new guidance, which will be published in the first half of 2013. We are updating the guidance, but we believe that it is fit for purpose. I am afraid I cannot go into more detail, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Sitting suspended.

British Retail

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

I chose to call a debate on retail for two purposes. From a parochial point of view, retail is a significant employer in Watford and a significant contributor to the economy. Also, the press that retail receives nationally, with glamorous Sky reporters standing in front of shops such as Blockbuster and HMV that are shutting down, gives a false impression of the sector’s overall prosperity and contribution to the economy.

Members of Parliament and the public at large should realise that retail is a big sector of the economy, and contributes in excess of 5% of GDP. Although the Government are trying to encourage growth in the manufacturing sector, the retail sector contributes more added value to the economy.

Retail is able to offer increasingly sophisticated employment. The old impression that people work in shops because they cannot do anything else is no longer relevant. Retail jobs are highly trained, and there are many apprentices. Many people, including me, started their business career in the retail sector. Following my law degree, I was a graduate trainee at John Lewis, which gave me ideas for developing my life both in business and more generally. It all went well until I became interested in politics.

Retail contributes employment and taxation not only through pay-as-you-earn and corporation tax but through business rates. The sector is a big contributor to urban regeneration. People do not think of retail as a factor in urban regeneration, but they only have to look at places such as Westfield on the Olympic site. When I went to work in Watford’s Harlequin centre, which is now known as Intu, in 1980, it was the poorest part of town, notwithstanding the efforts of John Lewis and other old retailers that had been there for 50 years, 100 years or more. The Harlequin centre was certainly not the sort of place people would want to go unless they had to go shopping.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the vibrancy of high streets that are under pressure from some of the multiples is also down to niche independents? Allowing niche independents to thrive and grow is vital.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I would expect nothing less. Independents are very much part of the story, and they are necessary, but large companies developing real estate and operating shops create massive employment, massive taxation and a massive contribution to urban regeneration, although that takes nothing from the validity of my hon. Friend’s point.

Things have changed. Everyone knows that in the past, apart from the high street, most towns had parades of shops. The developers of the masses of residential areas across London and the home counties from the time trains opened up those places would, for every few hundred houses, build a parade of shops that included a fruiterer, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, a general grocer and so on. Various things in the cycle, certainly in my lifetime, have kept those parades going.

I remember when the supermarkets started to take hold and some of those shops became empty and were replaced by banks, which were opening chains of local branches. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a big fight for which bank could get there first. Then there were estate agents. Again, if there was a spare unit, people would open an estate agency. There always seemed to be something, but that is not the case now.

With the internet there is less demand for individual units. There is plenty of supply, because, in many cases, the units were built before the second world war, if not before the first world war.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.

One of the changes is that massive supermarkets are also becoming dominant players in the convenience sector and are appearing in every community, rather than simply in out of town or city centre locations. Has the hon. Gentleman reflected on the health, or otherwise, of that for British retail and market diversity in those communities?

Yes, I have reflected on that fundamental point. Many hon. Members want to contribute, so I cannot address all aspects of retail. Suffice it to say that although in the past shops appeared, on the surface, to give people much greater choice, if we add the internet and other channels, people have great choice now. I do not completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but his point is valid.

Many people of my father’s generation came out of the Army with a small amount of money and could never dream of opening a big factory or going into a big form of business, but they were able to use their money to open a market stall, as my father did in Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the Marks and Spencer dream of going from a penny bazaar to a major multinational did not happen in my family, but we ended up with two market stalls. My father’s business doubled in size over 30 years from one market stall to two.

The serious point is that in those days the barriers to entry were low and could be met by people with small savings and an idea. For almost any item of clothing, household goods, luggage or anything that people could think of, there was a place for a niche shop. It is easy to say, “All that has changed. It is now in the hands of Tesco and the other big companies.” I do not quite buy that, although, yes, in the start-up system it is generally true that not many people, for a number of reasons, are opening shops; they are not saying, “I want to sell shoes, so I am going to take a store in Watford high street.”

Even if someone is acceptable as a tenant, they probably cannot afford to pay the rent or the rates. Compared with my father’s generation, there probably is not the same demand for the high street, but that does not include internet start-ups. There are many such examples in my constituency, including the sister of Jenny Reed, who works in my office. Hayley Reed had no business experience, but she set up a shop in her spare room. If I might ruthlessly plug the shop, it is called, and is similar to what previous generations would have created in bricks and mortar. The retail sector, albeit differently, still allows for start-ups and for choices that fit people’s modern lifestyle.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this hugely important debate, and I support his point. The coming changes in technology represent enormous challenges and opportunities for retail. Does he agree, therefore, that it is important that the Government take a long, hard look at the changes taking place in the sector and the policies that we need to implement to maximise employment opportunities? Does he welcome the news that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills has recently agreed to launch an inquiry into the changes that are taking place in the retail sector?

I more than welcome the inquiry. It shows that retailing is being treated seriously as an industry in its own right, rather than as just a mechanical part of the distribution chain. It contributes as much as manufacturing and other sectors. I warmly endorse what my hon. Friend says.

The ultimate answer to the question of choice in retail is whether the public are given a better service today. I argue that they certainly are. When I worked at Trewins, which was John Lewis in 1980, we shut on Saturday at lunch time, on Sunday and on Monday. Now the equivalent—the Intu shopping centre, formerly known as the Harlequin, in Watford—is, for better or for worse, open every day. People have the choice to shop all the hours they want. Similarly, from the small independent point of view, although I agree that the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker are not there, the internet gives the public a huge amount of choice and very good service. Although the developments in the retail trade are muted in people’s minds by the shops, chains and household names that have closed down, the public are given a much better service.

We need only look at the effect on the economy. Again, to be parochial, the main shopping centre in Watford replaced a sprawling mix of businesses, including the smallest abattoir left in England, an old Sainsbury’s branch and lots of different warehouses. For the past 20 years, the main shopping centre has had 147 stores, but the important thing is that it directly employs more than 4,000 people, plus the distribution chain and all the businesses in it. The shopping centre contributes about £14.5 million in business rates, which is a tremendous amount. It has about 750,000 square feet of infrastructure, and has upgraded that whole part of town.

I am not saying that there have not been consequences. It would be wrong of me to say that things are all one-way and all about prosperity; I am aware of the effect that shopping centres have on other things, but they are economic powerhouses in their own right. By any standards, the shopping centre is a big business, employs a lot of people and contributes a lot to the economy.

Similarly, nationally, companies such as Westfield have come from abroad to invest significant amounts of money in what it sounds trendier to call “urban regeneration” than “retail”. The east end, White City and other places throughout the country are major, long-term investment projects. Westfield has invested about £3.5 billion since it came to the UK in 2000, and created 25,000 jobs. If it were another kind of business and that sort of growth were announced over 10 years, there would be headlines all over the place.

Although I accept that retail is not the total answer to our economic problems, we must accept what it does for employment, infrastructure and areas where the rest of the private sector and the public sector have failed completely. It is a significant and serious business, and its problems must be considered by Government. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) in the Chamber; I know that he is experienced in this subject. Government must turn their mind to retail, because it is such a significant employer and a significant contributor to the national economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. The issue of employment has been raised, but does he agree that apprenticeships are another of retail’s valuable contributions? Sectors such as retail and catering offer important apprenticeships. They certainly do in Erewash. I recently visited Anderson’s on the High street, an independent coffee shop and caterers offering apprenticeships. Next week is national apprenticeship week. It is another important aspect of this debate that we must not miss.

I very much endorse what my hon. Friend says. As I said, it is easy to think of retail as “Open All Hours” with Ronnie Barker or Young Mr Grace appearing and saying “You’ve all done very well”, but shops invest a lot of money in training staff, and they know that a lot of their capital assets lie in the skills of those staff. Retail used to be minimum-wage drudge work, but it is fair to say, despite my lack of success in the John Lewis hierarchy, that now the management teams in some retail firms are comparable with almost anything else in this country, and the work starts from apprenticeship level. I totally agree.

However, there are some industry issues that we need to consider, and I will speak of them as I perceive them; I am not in any way a spokesperson for the industry, but I have tried to observe it and take all things into consideration. Business rates are a significant issue. In many cases, they are a more important overhead than rent. I believe that the industry contributes just short of £24 billion a year in business rates. That is a direct contribution to the local and national economy, and it is a serious amount.

The way that rates are linked to the retail prices index means that average shop rates have more or less doubled in the past 20 years. As most other valuations in the Government system these days are being linked to the consumer prices index rather than the RPI, that seems a little unfair. The industry’s greatest disappointment, which seems to have merit, is that there was talk of a fundamental revaluation that would remove many of the anomalies in the system, but it has now been postponed. It seems to me that there is a legitimate argument that in the interim, until the system is properly reviewed, rises should be limited by linking rates to CPI instead of RPI.

I agree that business rates are crucial. I also think that we cannot divorce this debate from the general economic climate. Towards the end of last year, Ashfield lost its two Jonathan James shops. One of them, in Eastwood, has now been replaced by the Money Shop, a payday lender. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is crucial to this debate and to what our high streets look like is growth in the economy, not in payday loan companies?

I do not think that point is relevant in this particular case. As far as retailing is concerned, a payday loan company, provided that it is legal and proper in all that it carries out—I accept that there is a different issue—employs people in much the same way as a shop with the same number of staff. That is not to take away from the hon. Lady’s point, but from a retail perspective, it is important to realise that like traditional retailers, all those companies employ a lot of people and in that respect contribute a lot to the local economy, which is the subject of the debate.

Rates are an important issue to which the Government must turn their thoughts. The planning side of things is also important. The national planning framework, which I thought was absolutely excellent, gives a lot of emphasis to town centres and their development, but there seems to be no compliance mechanism. It must be remembered that more than 80% of planning applications for retail currently being considered are for out of town rather than in town centres. Given that it is generally agreed that the regeneration of town centres is a good thing, it would be good to have some form of compliance for ensuring that local authorities emphasise it.

We must accept that because there are now fewer functions for retail premises, local parades do not have the “get out of jail free” card that they used to have when new industries and uses would by and large appear. However one looks at high street retailing, there is less demand because of the internet, which has also brought many benefits. The Government’s current policies on relaxing planning rules to allow some units to return to residential use are a good thing and an acceptance of reality. Although one would hope that it was not the case and that some units could be live/work—for residential use at the same time as retail—the fact is that there are a lot of places where, if there is a convenience store, it is very good. I commend the convenience store sector for how it has adapted, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) about the big supermarkets in all their guises, from hypermarkets to convenience stores, doing their best to dominate the market.

There is still a strong and good independent sector in this country, and long may it continue, but that sector will not fill up all the parades of shops and tertiary units, which were built with very good reason. In the case of many of our parents or grandparents—for some hon. Members, their great-grandparents—the husband would be at work and the wife would walk to the shops every day with the baby in the pram and the shopping trolley. The shops had to be nearby, because there was often no public transport and people certainly did not have a car. Most of us accept that has changed, and that planning laws have to change in respect of empty properties; we need both private and social accommodation and some of it could come from surplus retail space.

I declare an interest. Like my hon. Friend, I worked in the sector for about 20 years, either as a landlord or a tenant, and I echo his sentiments. The vital issue with retail space, in particular in city centres, is utilising the upper parts: residential conversion is crucial. For far too long, we have been obsessed with the ground-floor unit, almost dismissing the upper part. In continental Europe or other areas, people utilise the upstairs, which provides an alternative use.

I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend said.

I finish with two suggestions that might be unpopular with the large commercial sector, the shopping centre providers and commercial landlords. I mentioned many good points about companies such as Westfield and the strong regeneration sector; retail happens to be their product, but they are really redeveloping important parts of our landscape. However, it is almost impossible for independent retailers to get into such units. I am not talking about community efforts, an area for a market with local craftsmen and that type of thing; I am talking about people who are running proper businesses, be they start-ups or just one unit. They cannot get into the shopping centres because of the commercial value of a rent paid by an individual operator to the shareholders, many of which, ultimately, are the pension funds that look after all our pensions; those capital values are very much dependent on having big names in the units. As part of planning, the Government should look at the possibility of allocating to independent retailers a small number of units paying market rent; I am not arguing for any form of subsidy, except the sort that people get to move in, such as fitting out or a rent holiday. A number of shops should be allocated to companies with only one or two stores. That is the only way. It could be part of a general planning permission. I am not specifying half the units, or a quarter, but somehow it has to be realised in the retail sector that small companies and start-ups with capital—properly capitalised, I am not talking about ones that cannot compete from a capital point of view—should be allowed into those main retail centres.

My second suggestion will probably make me extremely unpopular, in particular with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal). Although the Government cannot do much about the role of small commercial landlords, those landlords are absolutely deluded about their ability to get the rents they ask. Their mentality is to ask for yesterday’s rent; because a shop was rented out 10 years ago at £40,000, they will keep it empty for three, four or five years under the delusion that they will get the same rent, and notwithstanding the fact that they are paying empty property rates, which I point out to the Minister it is right for them to be doing. If the vast array of small commercial landlords are listening to the debate or reading Hansard tomorrow, which I accept is completely unlikely, I have a suggestion that might help, although it is not the panacea for everything. As MPs, local councillors and people involved in the community, we could persuade small operators to come into some of those empty shops, but landlords asking for a rent that they once got 10 years ago makes it almost impossible.

In summary, retail should be recognised as a modern, vibrant sector, something that this country is good at and which contributes a lot to our national economy. It has to be accepted by Government that retail is up there with manufacturing and all the other businesses that the Government are promoting to help the country, and not, as used to be thought, something that just sucks in imports and is part of the distribution sector.

Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman for being short with his time and generous to his colleagues who have made a number of interventions; I think we have had six. Six Members have written to me and I hope they will be called, but there are the two Front-Benchers and seven other people are indicating that they wish to speak, so I need your help to call everyone during the debate. Bearing in mind that most of those who have written in are sitting on the Government side of the Chamber, as are most of the Members attending, I hope that they will help their colleagues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing this important debate. I agree absolutely with many of his excellent points, which are based on huge experience of the sector.

The retail sector provides jobs for 3 million people nationally and is the UK’s largest private sector employer, accounting for about 10% of all jobs. More than half the people in the retail sector work part time, compared with about a third in other sectors, making it an important source of jobs for people seeking non-standard hours, such as pensioners or those combining work with study, child care or caring responsibilities. Retail is a diverse sector, ranging from market traders to high street giants, or from self-employed start-ups to global companies; they are the face of our high streets. Those high streets, however, are changing, not least because of the impact of the enormous growth in internet sales which, according to figures released this week, have seen a 10.9% increase since February 2012.

The UK is now the global leader for online shopping, and there has also been a dramatic growth in m-commerce —sales over mobile phones—of more than 500% in the past two years. Verdict, the retail analyst, has forecast that almost £1 in every £4 spent online will be through a mobile in 2017. A staggering 73% of smartphone users now use their phones when out shopping. Successful town centres in the future will be those that understand that, and where traditional retailing and leisure converge seamlessly with new technology.

Recent figures show that retail sales are up but that footfall is down, perhaps reflecting changing shopping habits that have led to many empty retail units nationally. It is not entirely helpful to produce a league table of empty shops as a reflection of what may be happening in a particular town, because high streets are going through transition and many councils are looking to use some of the surplus units for other uses, such as residential use. A couple of hon. Members have made that point. That is why a key principle of the Portas pilots was understanding that high streets are not simply collections of shops but public spaces where people can socialise, eat out, access other services and enjoy leisure, arts and cultural activities. I am pleased that Stockport is one of the Portas pilot areas. Our pilot is being led by the creative industries bringing together local people to think up new and innovative ideas.

Stockport is facing the challenge of revitalising a traditional shopping arcade squeezed by competition from nearby centres in Manchester and Trafford Park, and the historic Market place and Underbanks with their empty retail units. We have attracted new retailers, in particular young entrepreneurs, into historic parts of our town. We have a “Vintage Village” market, which takes place every month in the market hall, attracting traders and visitors from throughout the UK. It recently won a prestigious magazine award and has been so successful that the organisers now have a permanent shop in which they rent space to other traders. The fair contributes to the efforts to regenerate the beautifully restored and redeveloped market hall and Market place into the thriving trade hub it has been for 750 years.

We also have the innovative teenage market, which Mary Portas has described as “unique and inspiring”. It was created in 2012 by teenage brothers Joe and Tom Barratt as an event where young people could have a free stall in Stockport market to sell their creative products. It is not only an event but an online television show and an initiative dedicated to supporting young creative talent. It provides a free platform for young painters, fashion designers, jewellery makers, graffiti artists, photographers, graphic designers, bakers, poets, comedians, musicians, singers, dancers and other performers.

Stockport’s famous Plaza, which is a splendid vintage cinema and theatre, has been awarded £20,000 from the Portas pilot initiative towards the cost of installing digital projection equipment. That has enabled the Plaza to start satellite screenings of the National Theatre, the Bolshoi ballet and, later this season, the Glyndebourne opera, alongside community usage for events and film screenings, including old and much-loved classics.

One of Stockport’s difficulties is that it shuts at 5 pm. It needs to develop a night-time economy to compete with nearby towns. Stockport market has a major role to play in enabling the change to a night-time economy. Traditional street markets like that in Stockport must provide better food offers, with specialist stalls, and offer cultural events. It must be seen as not so much a shopping experience but an entertainment experience—a sort of retail theatre.

On market day 750 years ago, families would come with goods to sell and see and experience the sights, smells and sounds of the market, which offered not only fresh produce but entertainment, food and drink and the chance to catch up with fellow townspeople. I believe that such an environment is still hugely attractive, particularly to families, and can provide early-evening entertainment that could kick-start a night-time economy in Stockport.

As chair of the all-party markets group and co-chair of the all-party retail group, I am looking forward to “love your markets week” in April, which will celebrate our historic markets and showcase new and vibrant markets. At the same time, it will offer training opportunities for new traders through the “First Pitch” initiative by the National Federation of Market Traders.

Like other parts of the country, Stockport has many empty shops, and the reality is that many will never again be retail units, but might start a new life as artist’s studios, outlets for council services or residential accommodation. Despite the closure of some retail chains, the issue is clearly not as simple as shoppers deserting the high street for their computer or mobile devices. Recent research has shown that frustration with online shopping is driving some customers back to shops. The market is complex and it is changing fast.

In Stockport, 5,700 people are employed in retail. The jobs are popular and sought-after. During a visit to a local Stockport store last week, I met many long-term staff, including people who had worked there for up to 35 years. They had a lot of commitment, local contacts and knowledge about their products, which all contributed to a friendly and successful store. The company had invested in them and they in turn had an investment in the company.

I was interested that one of the main themes at the British Retail Consortium’s annual reception recently was how to help people to build a career in retail. In a 24/7 environment, there is obviously tremendous pressure to have maximum flexibility from the work force, and many companies are introducing zero or eight-hour contracts to keep costs competitive. I acknowledge that some people may find that attractive, but others will have little alternative.

The problem with short-term contracts is that they are unpredictable, and people have no pension, sick pay or tax credit entitlement. That is clearly difficult for the work force, and I believe that in the long term it will be a problem for employers who will not get in return the sort of commitment they need from staff. In future, because of changes in how people shop, customers will want more service from staff in the information that they provide about goods, as the hon. Member for Watford said. That means that increased investment in skills and training for retail staff will be required, and that is not totally compatible with zero or eight-hour contracts.

Retail is a vibrant and exciting industry with much scope for future success. From market stalls to superstores, whether a trolley-shop in a supermarket or using the latest technology to buy online, the nature of shopping is changing. People no longer want just a shopping experience, and towns such as Stockport will have to be a mix of traditional retail, independent and specialist shops, special markets and cultural events. The challenge is to create a high street that is attractive to 21st-century mobile phone shoppers and also meets the social needs of the community. Combining retail with a place to meet has always been the challenge of the high street through changing times, but I am confident that with proper support the high street will survive, albeit in a new and exciting form.

Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak in this extremely important and pertinent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing it. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who has immense knowledge of the subject, and has made a good pitch for what she thinks should be the future of our town centres.

There is no doubt that our retail sector is undergoing a fundamental and lasting structural change, and that the full force of the internet is being felt. In the past few months, HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster, to name a few companies that once had a successful business model, have succumbed quickly as their business model, overtaken by the pace of change in technology, has become obsolete. Traditional retailing is being eroded and is likely to give way to e-retailing.

Destination retailing is joining e-retailing as the focus for many of our multiple chains. It is said in retail that the customer is king, and it is impossible to stem the tide of what is happening. I am chairman of the all-party town centres group, and I think it is important to manage that fundamental change in our town centres and high streets. That is what I want to speak about today. We must look carefully in many areas at how we manage the change because many things need to be done. I want to focus on three issues.

The first issue is business taxation. Rents are falling in many small and medium town centres, but business rates, which are one of the greatest costs for retail businesses, are not following that pattern. I understand why the Government may not want a business rate revaluation at the moment, but the Minister and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury should consider freezing business rates in the forthcoming Budget, to give a fighting chance to small businesses in our town centres that might not benefit from small business rate relief.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his comments about business rates. There is no question but that the issue is significant. He seems to be calling for the Government to forgo expected income to invest in the future, which is the Labour party’s economic strategy, so is the hon. Gentleman coming on board?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. If my right hon. Friend the Chancellor sought to freeze business rates, I would expect him to do so in a way that balances the books. It is certainly not the Conservative-led Government’s policy to do things that impact further on the deficit. The hon. Gentleman and the Labour party are advocating an increase in the deficit instead of reducing it as the Government are doing.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Before he moves on from business rates, does he agree that we inherited with the terrible deficit from the last Government a huge backlog of appeals against business rate decisions in the Valuation Office Agency? That continues to be a problem. Will he join me in urging the Treasury to do everything it can to clear that backlog, and to recognise that that shows that there is a real issue with the valuation and revaluation process?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I would certainly join him in calling for that. Many businesses in my constituency have contacted me on that very point.

Let me move quickly on, because other Members want to speak. The second issue that is vital to managing the transition in our town centres is car parking and particularly short-stay car parking charges. Car parking charges are a tax on our town centres; they very much detract from them and lead people to look for alternative shopping destinations. There are a number of things we could do about that. First, the Government could work more with local authorities and even incentivise them to reduce car parking charges. Secondly, I would like them, perhaps through the Department for Communities and Local Government or town teams, to work with local businesses, local authorities and private car parking firms to see how we can develop systems to incentivise shoppers. For example, we could, in partnership with retailers, put in place systems that took a certain amount off the customer’s car parking charge for every purchase they made. Utilising such a system could help some of our small and medium-sized town centres.

The third issue is regulation. I would like the Minister to advocate to every Department the idea that any unnecessary regulation that has an impact on our town centres and high streets should be completely resisted. A classic example is the proposed EU harmonisation of permitted vitamin and mineral levels in food supplements. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is alive to this issue, and he is trying to resist the EU’s directive, which could impact on our town centres and high streets. The industry thinks that 4,000 jobs could be lost if the directive is implemented, and many of them would be in small health food shops and in health food chains across the country.

To sum up, we cannot ignore structural change, and the Government are hard-pressed in terms of what they can do, but they can make a difference in the three areas I have identified. There are ways in which they can help to manage structural change, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to tell us about how the Government can help at this difficult time for our retailers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I want to focus on high street retail. I beg Members’ forgiveness because I want to be fairly parochial and to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing my home town.

Croydon used to be one of the top 10 retail centres in the country, but it has been in relative decline for 20 to 30 years. It might help colleagues if I examine the things that led to that decline. The first is the mismanagement of parking policy. I do not wish to make a particularly strong party political point, but the previous Labour-controlled council sold the multi-storey car parks to NCP. I am not arguing about whether there is a problem with their being in private ownership, but the council took no control over subsequent parking prices. Prices have gone through the roof, so many people no longer come to Croydon to shop.

In the 1980s, the previous Conservative Government made a mistake on out-of-town planning policy. In Croydon, there have been major developments along the Purley Way, which drew people away from the town centre.

There are also issues about how the council has managed the public space in our town centre over a number of years. We have two covered shopping centres, and the main pedestrianised road—North End—goes between them. There are issues about people feeling safe when they come into the centre. There are issues about aggressive charity collections. The area is meant to be pedestrianised, but there is fairly regular vehicle access so that things can be delivered to shops. There are lots of people playing music, but that is poorly controlled, not well structured or organised. There are therefore issues about the quality of the public realm. There is also the general problem Croydon faces with its overall reputation and brand.

However, Croydon has just had the most incredible news. Westfield and Hammerson—two of the top retail developers in the country—have formed a joint venture, with a plan to invest £1 billion in our town over the next three years. That is game changing for my home town; it is the best news we have had in my adult life. The aim is to make Croydon one of five retail destinations in London. We have the west end, Westfield London to the west, Westfield Stratford to the east and Brent Cross to the north, and Croydon will become the destination for south London. That will, I hope, bring some of the big brands, such as John Lewis and Apple, which we are missing at the moment. That is the key to then having the independent shops that everybody wants. Those independents will exist only if we get sufficient footfall to support them, and that comes from the big brands.

The scheme will create thousands of jobs. One thing I hope the council will do as part of the planning permission is try to ensure that as many construction and subsequent retail jobs as possible go to local people. I hope that Westfield and Hammerson take control of parking provision so that we can have sensible parking prices. I am a great believer in public transport, and I want improved public transport access so that those who can come by public transport do. However, the reality is that when some people go shopping—particularly if they buy a lot—they want to take their car. If our parking policy penalises them for doing that, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.

I also want to make a point about mixed use. The development scheme is not just a retail transformation; it will provide hundreds of new homes and leisure opportunities. We want Croydon’s major town centre to be an active destination not just during shopping hours but pretty much around the clock.

The scheme will not just be good on its own terms, but catalyse other development around the town centre. A number of schemes have been consented, but they are not being developed, because of the current economic climate. The new scheme will clearly bring them closer to fruition.

The scheme will be an important first step in transforming Croydon’s reputation, along with the Mayor’s policing plan, which will address the long-term under-resourcing of policing in Croydon, giving us 117 extra officers by 2015. There is also the money the Government and the Mayor generously gave us in response to the riots, which will be used to transform the public realm in the town centre. That really is great news.

I am conscious that others want to speak, and I do not want to talk for too long about my own parochial concerns, so I will mention just three other things. First, I would like the Minister to pass on to his colleagues the idea that, if we are to realise the full potential of the extra jobs that are created, we will require some transport infrastructure improvements. We need to ensure that we have better connectivity between Croydon town centre and the motorway network through the A23. We also need to improve capacity on the trams at East Croydon station. The Mayor will have to foot the bill for a significant chunk of that, and so will the developers as part of the planning process. We may well want to talk to the Chancellor about the jobs that could be created with a relatively small additional investment.

I also want to talk about the Portas pilots. The centre of Croydon is too big for the Portas pilots, but we have one connected with our historic market in Surrey street. One real issue is how we connect the new retail destination with that market so that it reinvigorates that great destination.

Let me emphasise that the residents of Croydon want this scheme to be an urban regeneration scheme, not a box full of all the big brand names that is plonked down on them. They want a scheme that better connects our town centre and that ensures that Surrey street and London road, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), which took such a hammering in the riots, benefit from being adjacent to the area that is redeveloped. They want much better connectivity with our key gateways at East Croydon and West Croydon.

Finally, I want to plug the idea of business improvement districts. We had a vote in Croydon a few years ago. There was strong support from all the major business rate payers for paying a bit more in business rates, as long as they had control over how the money was spent. They have invested in additional policing, improved cleaning and some really great events, which have drawn people back into the town centre.

My constituents are passionate about their home town. They have been put off going there by its image, concerns about safety and parking prices that are too high. On the horizon, we now have a potentially transformative scheme, and I wanted to put on record my strong support for it. There are some real lessons to be learned from what has happened to Croydon and what will be done to put that right, and those lessons are relevant to many other town centres around the country.

Order. Thank you very much, Mr Barwell. I am going to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.40 pm. That leaves about 20 minutes, and four people have indicated that they wish to speak, three of whom wrote in. I also need to leave a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Watford, who introduced the debate, to summarise what he thinks of it. It is down to Members on the Government side of the Chamber whether they help each other out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on obtaining the debate, which is important.

I must declare an interest. My first job, when I was at school, was at the local greengrocer’s. I can make a fantastic stack of oranges and apples if given the opportunity, but time is probably too pressing. I also spent many years as a senior executive for major retailers—Safeway and Asda. While I was at Asda I was fortunate enough to move the business on, in its involvement with financial services, and to run its e-commerce and home shopping business.

It was incredible to see the degree of trust that people put into big retail brands, which was such that when the tsunami struck in December 2004 our website was almost crashed by the number of people who wanted to come to the retailer to work out how to respond to the challenge on the other side of the world. The retailers need to support that trust fully, and each needs to build a relationship with its customers. To do that, retailers must be better at adapting and more flexible in how they tackle the challenges and conditions around them. Let us not forget that Tesco started as a market stall, and is now taking on great media companies and trying to deliver movies and a cinema experience for people in their front room, at a click of a button, on their smart TV.

Retailers must be more responsible and more responsive to conditions in the marketplace. That means that they must embrace all the channels that are available to them. Too many have been too focused on bricks and mortar and have not thought about the opportunity that comes through the click of a mouse or, perhaps more importantly, about the integration of channels and how to appeal to changing customer needs across those channels. For example, the British Museum has a small physical retail presence, but a multi-million pound website with appeal across the world. In Macclesfield there is a fantastic business called musicMagpie, which some hon. Members will be familiar with. It engages not only in e-commerce, but in re-commerce. It recycles DVDs, CDs and computer games, selling them on through multiple channels including the high street. That recycling fits the need for greater sustainability and suits our times of challenging economics. We need to help retailers to realise that they must be more responsive.

Several hon. Members have highlighted the need for more flexible use of physical space by traditional retailers. That means that planning authorities need to think more creatively. A space that has had a certain use in the past need not in the future be linked to retail, but could be linked to residential or other uses, as my near neighbour the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said. That process—making the use of space more flexible—is vital, and it is something for landlords, not just councils and planning authorities, to engage in. Too often their expectations are far too high, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford said.

It is easy to try to get rates lowered, but it is also vital for retailers to think more effectively about how they engage the community. We were not able to become a Portas pilot—we wish Stockport well—but despite that we moved on to work out what else we could do. We created a forum called “Make it Macclesfield”, which is the town’s new brand identity, and there is a town team. We have brought life back to the historic Barnaby festival, celebrating the fact that we used to be the world’s leading producer of finished silk. Each month there is the Treacle market, which brings more people to the marketplace on a Sunday afternoon than we normally see on a Saturday morning. Winterfest and other events and community programmes bring countless more people in. We have created a plan for the whole town: we must consider the whole town, and not just retail. There is a plan for the silk quarter, to celebrate our silk heritage, for the heritage quarter, to celebrate our independent retailers, and for the marketplace, to bring everything together and enable the town to thrive and flourish flexibly.

There are challenges on the horizon, but the future may be brighter than the cynics believe if we can help retailers to be more responsive, use space more flexibly and get communities to engage better in the task of bringing town centres to life.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Like other hon. Members I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for securing the debate, which comes at an opportune time, two weeks before the Chancellor is to deliver the Budget.

The retail sector, as we have heard, is a vital component of the UK economy. At present, the sector faces challenges, which it is important for us to address. I shall concentrate my remarks on the high street, which some pundits have written off, but which I passionately believe still has an important role, not just as an engine of economic growth but as a focus for communities and leisure activities. I shall comment particularly on business rates and the unfair burden that retailers must carry, paying 28% of all business rates despite accounting for only 5% of the economy.

Lowestoft, in my constituency, is a Portas pilot town. The town team is putting in place a range of initiatives to create the sense of place that we need to get back to. They include mentoring small businesses, the introduction of town rangers, the hosting of musical and cultural events and the creation of a voucher discount scheme for those who shop in the town centre. Such initiatives provide high streets and towns with an opportunity, but it is important for traders and retailers to be able to compete on a level playing field with out-of-town stores and internet operators. Sadly, at present, the business rates burden means that they cannot do that. In the past two years business rates have increased in line with the retail prices index, by 4.6% and 5.6%. The increase in 2012 meant that retailers had to find a further £350 million in taxes when trading conditions were particularly challenging. At a time of falling disposable income and low levels of bank lending to small businesses, business rates are unsustainable.

I urge the Government to consider various measures, and I will be interested in the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister. First, the Government should review the mechanism for increasing business rates annually. Instead of making increases in line with RPI based on a particular month, in which there may be a spike in inflation, they should use an annual average consumer prices index rate, subject to a 2% cap, in line with the Government’s inflation target.

Secondly, the Government have decided, as we know, to defer the revaluation that was due in April, with the new list that was due to come into operation in 2015. I question the merit of keeping a rating list based on rental values from April 2008, when the property market was at an artificially unsustainable level. The Government have said that the reason for the delay is that the result of a revaluation would be more losers than winners, and that the centre of London would benefit to the tune of £440 million, which might not be palatable to the rest of the country. However, the evidence that I have seen shows that retailers in many provincial towns will be penalised by the delaying of the review. I urge the Government to introduce measures to reduce that burden.

My third point is that there is a need to address the inherent unfairness of the current system, which favours out of town development at the expense of town centre shops. Out of town car parks are not subject to business rates, as long as they are free for customers’ use. As those locations compete with the town centre, where shoppers must invariably pay for their parking, the financial incentives are effectively the wrong way round. Consideration should be given to raising business rates on out-of-town developments and investing the money in town centre regeneration schemes.

Fourthly, the Localism Act 2011 introduced welcome new powers for local authorities to provide discretionary rate relief, which can be used to incentivise new investment in the high street and in shopping parades. However, to ensure widespread take-up of the relief, more funding is needed for councils to deliver it. It is important that the Government develop a mechanism for local authorities to fund discretionary rate relief through those new powers.

Finally, I urge the Government to conduct a full review of the means by which business rates are set. The rise of the internet means that retailers who trade from high street and mall shops are unfairly penalised when competing against rivals that sell exclusively online. Let me provide the example of a book retailer. A national bookshop company may have a chain of shops for which it is paying rents in excess of £100 to £150 per square foot, on which its rates are based. In contrast, their internet competitor will have one—albeit very large—warehouse in the middle of the country, where the rent may be to the order of £4 to £5 per square foot. It is important that business taxation properly reflects the underlying profitability of a business.

I know that the Treasury—whatever parties may be in power—rather likes business rates. They are easy to collect, difficult to avoid and highly productive, generating 5% of the UK’s tax bill. However, I submit that the system is no longer fit for purpose. If we carry on as we are, the future of British retailers is at best uncertain, and I urge the Minister and the Government to carry out a full root-and-branch reform.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I will try and curtail my remarks to allow other speakers in.

Prior to arriving in the House, I spent 15 years as a Conservative party agent but before that, I spent 15 years in the retail trade. I worked, as it happens, for a small, family-run business that is still trading—successfully trading, I would add—so it is important to note that small, independent, family businesses can survive the onslaught of the big multiples. The retailer that I worked for was in the electrical retail trade, so it could say, in relation to Comet, for example, that it has seen off its competitor.

I do not want to dwell too much on statistics, but in preparing for the debate, I came across research by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Local Data Company, indicating that retailers with more than six stores are closing shops at a rate of 28 a day, and that there are 35,500 empty shop units in the UK—a national vacancy rate of just over 14%. Clearly, the financial situation is not favourable at the moment and retailers are finding it exceptionally difficult. The Government have done a great deal over the past couple of years on changing planning procedures. In that respect, they have helped by making change of use easier, and I am sure that some provisions in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will also be beneficial.

However, the high street does not only require planning laws and deregulation. As has been mentioned by previous speakers—in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—we must have a level playing field for high streets, out-of-town stores and online retailers, if the high street is to survive in anything like its current state. I would be reluctant to add additional burdens to existing businesses. I would rather look at reducing them, but we must look at evening up the difficulties. Business rates, as has been mentioned, are a particular burden on small shops. We have to acknowledge that, and I sincerely hope that the Government are looking at possible changes to taxation, business rates, and so on, which will level the playing field.

In my constituency, there are three major towns. Barton-upon-Humber, which is a relatively small market town, has a very good retail mix, with thriving local shops that seem to be able to co-exist with the local Tesco. In Immingham, they are desperate for Tesco to arrive, because that will switch the engine on for local regeneration schemes. Planning permission has been given, and that highlights the fact that out-of-town stores or incoming supermarkets can regenerate existing towns. Immingham is particularly unfortunate in that it has a very run-down shopping centre, and people are desperate for the arrival of the supermarket. In Cleethorpes, St Peter’s avenue and Sea View street are littered, as it were, with independent retailers. People can get everything from a cup of coffee and a sandwich to furniture, jewellery, and so on, and there are all the usual stores that used to make up every high street, such as the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger. There are models across the country of thriving high streets where, occasionally, some of the larger chains are mixed in.

The Portas pilots have been mentioned, and although I welcome the aims and objectives of the Portas review, I have reservations about some proposals. Obviously, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken on board the celebrity status of Mary Portas and used her to promote schemes that will help to regenerate high streets. Going back to the time when I was a Conservative party agent, our office was in Market Rasen on the high street, which is now a Portas pilot, but the fact that that office has closed and become a tattoo parlour may not help the Mary Portas scheme.

Some of the proposals are a little too simplistic. As a local councillor in north-east Lincolnshire, I was a member of the town team, which was mainly concerned with the Grimsby town centre, which serves Cleethorpes, Immingham and Grimsby, and we worked tremendously hard. We had a local businessman who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we must recognise that the local council is a key element of any successful high street. It deals with traffic regulations, parking pricing regimes, and so on. North East Lincolnshire council, when I was the portfolio holder, had an income of £1.25 million from its parking charges. We cannot cast that out of the council’s budget and assume that it will provide the same services. Last week my hon. Friend the Minister was in Scunthorpe, which is part of North Lincolnshire council and has a very successful parking scheme that benefits local shopkeepers. It can be done, but I urge Members not to think that it is as easy as can be.

Finally, as has been mentioned, every town in the country has far too many empty retail shop units. We need urgent Government help to regenerate those and bring them into residential use.

I have one Back-Bench speaker left to fit in. I hope you will be able to confine your remarks to three or four minutes—I call Caroline Dinenage.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I will speak really fast, and I apologise to anybody who cannot keep up with me. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I also have a background in retail; my first job was at Marks and Spencer when I was 16, and I am still very good at packing groceries.

The debate takes place against a backdrop of record profits for some retailers such as John Lewis and Primark, while we have seen others disappearing over the past few years. On one hand, the growth of internet shopping does not help high-street retailers, because it results in redundancies, and it does not even always result in the same levels of corporation or income tax being paid, as we have seen with some high-profile online retailers. In the modern world, however, we have to realise that online shopping is here to stay, because people will not want to give up the luxury of shopping from their armchairs. It is important that we look at the pros and cons of the move online, including the fact that Britain is at the forefront of e-retailing and provides unique opportunities for kitchen-table entrepreneurs. There is no doubt, however, that it is changing the face of our high streets and threatening jobs in an industry that employs 4 million people.

However, we see success where things have come full circle and people are getting on our high streets things that the internet did not provide for them. I am talking about opportunities to see and touch things and to try on clothes and accessories that they might previously have bought on eBay, and without the hassle of waiting for delivery. That is what a shop in my constituency is providing, and as a result it has smashed its first-year growth targets.

There is also an increasing trend of retailers who started on the internet and now want to dip their toes in the waters of shop trading. Markets offer a great opportunity for them to do that, as do pop-up shops— small spaces that people can use for a couple of weeks and with low overheads—which the Department for Communities and Local Government has been trying and testing.

Given that retail represents about 11 % of the economy but accounts for 32% of business rates, the burden of taxation on the sector is a major issue. The overheads of retail outlets are a huge disincentive, so reform of business rates is desperately needed, and I hope that there will be good news on that in the Budget.

The importance of regenerating the retail sector cannot be overstated. The industry is responsible for nearly 15% of total employment and is crucial to the resurgence of our local economies. It is just as vital to our national economy, generating almost 11% of GDP if we include wholesale. Business, like life, is not plain sailing, but the fact that retailers are continuing to do well is testament to the hard work and support of communities and shopkeepers. I hope that they will be supported by the Government as well.

As colleagues have said, it is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. This is one of those rare occasions when Chesterfield is under Mansfield. That has not happened in the football leagues for many years. None the less, it is a tremendous pleasure.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) not only on securing the debate, but on the contribution that he made to it. It was very important that we got this debate, as the contributions that we have heard and the interest that we have seen from so many colleagues have shown.

I would like to reflect particularly on the point that the hon. Member for Watford made about the importance of the retail sector as an employer of apprentices. He reflected on his own background as a graduate trainee at John Lewis and how that may have given him skills that he subsequently took forward in order to set up his own business. That is one of the things that can happen and it is vital for the UK economy. He also argued that consumer choice is wide, albeit different from how it looked previously. That is a question to which I shall return.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) reflected on the significance of retail’s contribution to UK GDP and employment, and on the measures taken in Stockport to make alternative use of retail units. That was a very important point.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) tantalised us by suggesting that he might be able to come up with a freeze on business rates, which he and many other hon. Members were calling for in different ways, on a cost-neutral basis. I am sure that if there is a way in which that can be done, he will have huge support on both sides of the House. He also reflected on the potential for Government to incentivise councils, which we all know are incredibly hard-pressed at the moment, to reduce the level of parking costs. We all recognise that parking is a barrier in town centres. Again, it sounded slightly like a spending commitment, but perhaps it was not. If something could be done in that respect, that would be very important.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) reflected on great news for Croydon—the big development that is happening there—and on the success of business improvement districts. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) was critical of the disproportionate level of business rates and called for reform of the whole system.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) reflected on how, after 15 years on the straight and narrow in retail, he wasted the next 15 years of his life in the service of the Conservative party, but he did hold out a glimmer of hope that Conservative offices are now being closed down and turned into tattoo parlours. As a growth policy, that is not the worst I have heard.

I must intervene just to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative office moved to make way for the tattoo parlour.

Like so much that we have heard from those on the Government Benches, it was not quite as good as it originally sounded. None the less, it is an idea to consider. More seriously, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes also revealed statistics that graphically exposed the challenges facing our retail sector.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) reflected, at amazing speed, on her own background in retail and the importance of the retail sector in her constituency and more broadly.

We are all conscious of the pressure on the retail sector at this time. We have seen some very high-profile failures on the high street in the past few months. The lesson from those failures is that businesses that do not modernise—that do not harness the power of the internet and take the opportunities that are available out there—simply will not continue to succeed.

We all want to see a diverse offering on the high street. We need to consider how the power of Government can be used to support small businesses to strengthen their internet presence. With regard to the reduction in business support that is out there, anything that we can do to support small businesses to harness that power would be tremendously important. With that principle in mind, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has launched Small Business Saturday, copying an idea that is already successful in America. Many Labour local authorities are involved, and I hope that local authorities of all political persuasions will sign up to have a Small Business Saturday identified every year on which local authorities and the local small business sector can work together to encourage people to shop locally. Local authorities are coming up with very innovative ideas to promote their local small businesses.

In Chesterfield, where I am the Member of Parliament, we have a tremendous retail offer. We have a huge market. We have a market festival, which has brought a lot of publicity. It supports not only our retail offer, but our tourism offer. However, an issue that we have had in Chesterfield and that I touched on earlier is the massive emergence of the big supermarkets and particularly Tesco in the convenience store sector. We already have a huge Tesco Extra store. We have a Tesco petrol station and convenience store on Newbold road. We have a supermarket in the town centre. We have a Tesco that has moved into the former Angel pub on Derby road. There is a Tesco moving into the White Horse at Old Whittington, and there are now plans for a Tesco at the site of the Crispin Inn on Ashgate road. That will be six in one town. People in Chesterfield have been calling it Tesco Town and are very concerned that the offer available is far too limited.

I recently met with Tesco. When I asked whether it felt that six stores was going to be enough, I was told, “No, not nearly. We think there’s going to be loads more growth in Chesterfield and we see a lot more opportunities right across the country for many more of these Tesco stores in the convenience sector.”

I am not anti-Tesco, but I do think that something radical is happening that has the power to change dramatically our communities and the diversity of food on offer. I do not think that we have really stopped to think about whether we want that to happen. It is important that we have a debate about what we want the convenience sector to look like. Are we happy for all food shopping to be in the hands of three or four major retailers, or do we want to say something about that? Are there things that we can do through the planning system to ensure that local authorities have the opportunity to say, “No, this is not what we want in our area”? This is not just about Tesco. Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda are also moving into the convenience store sector. Those stores provide very good value and are popular among consumers, and we do not want to stop people having the right to shop where they want, but it is a debate that we need to have and an area that we need to think about.

This debate is incredibly important. The Portas review was a tremendously useful piece of work. What Mary Portas identified in her work was that planning and regulation, if they are done correctly, can boost and support the diversity of the retail offer, rather than necessarily always being a barrier. We need to get the right balance between planning controls that give local authorities and communities the opportunity to say what they want, and giving businesses the freedom to operate in the way they want. There is a fine balance. It is not always true that less regulation is good and more regulation is bad, but good regulation is important and ill-thought-out regulation is problematic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford on securing the debate and I congratulate everyone who has spoken on contributing so well to it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.

Thank you, Sir Alan, for enabling at least nine other Members to contribute to this important debate. All the points made today will be digested, and I will ensure that I reply to particular points later if I cannot do so directly in the remaining minutes of the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. He almost apologised for being parochial, but there is nothing parochial about the retail sector. It is our largest private sector employer, employing one in nine of the workforce. It is a £300 billion industry and the end point of many supply chains. As we have heard, retail plays a vital role in the national economy, local economies and communities, and the Government fully recognise that.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done to ensure a healthy future for the heart of Watford. I hope the senior management at John Lewis fully appreciate that their loss is Watford’s, and indeed Westminster’s, gain. I know how important retail is to his constituency. Watford was one of 100 towns sharing the £10 million high street innovation fund, which is contributing to the widespread regeneration and revitalisation projects that are under way.

As we have heard, retail is a diverse sector in the size and structure of businesses, what retailers sell and to whom, and where and how retailers operate. From micro-businesses to international players and from high-end luxury to providing for our daily needs, it is a lively, competitive and innovative industry. There are some outstanding success stories of competitive retailers operating here and in international markets. Conversely, many smaller retailers are battling to survive—we have all seen the reports.

A high street or town centre needs a thriving and diverse retail sector, and retail needs thriving town centres, but as we have heard today, the town centre is no longer just about shopping—it is about eating and drinking, entertainment, services and culture. Successful towns know that and nurture it. Because retail is so important, it was chosen as one of the first sectors to be the subject of a growth review and was the first theme chosen for the red tape challenge. The initiatives identified several barriers to retail performance and growth, which we are addressing. We are delivering measures to support retail, including doubling small business rate relief for three and a half years to help small shops and making it easier for small firms to claim. More than 500,000 businesses in England are expected to benefit, with about 300,000 paying no rates at all.

We are focusing retail development in town centres through the “town centre first” planning policy; changing planning rules to allow councils to provide more parking spaces in town centres; and issuing guidance encouraging councils to set competitive parking charges. We are also working with the retail sector to develop the retail strategy, published last September, which focuses on what we can do at national, local and European level while avoiding market distortions. That includes reducing the burdens of regulatory compliance through better inspection and performance and helping to understand and analyse town centre performance.

As we have heard today, we cannot discuss retail without talking about help for high streets and town centres, especially where there are empty shops. Many hon. Members have spoken about empty shops in their high streets and town centres and will know the impact that closures have had on retail employees and their families. To alleviate some of the problems that causes, new planning measures introduced in January will ensure that empty shops and offices can be swiftly converted into much-needed housing. That will help town centres by increasing footfall and providing badly needed homes for local people.

The Government have always recognised that high streets are important for communities and growth, which is why we commissioned Mary Portas to carry out her review of the high street. We published our response to the review last year, accepting nearly all the recommendations, and we are going further with the Portas-plus package, designed to revive ailing high streets. We have doubled the number of Portas pilots—there are now 27—and announced a £10 million high street innovation fund, which is benefiting Watford. We received 55 nominations for the £1 million future high street X-fund, which will make awards to locations delivering the most creative and effective schemes for revitalising their high streets. Winners will be announced in March.

In October, we announced support for over 300 towns that had come forward to be town team partners. They are receiving funding, plus a package of support through the Association of Town and City Management. We will publish a further response to the Portas review later this year, building on what has been learned across the country and the progress we have made on the other recommendations.

The debate is not about high street versus out of town or the internet. A feature of today’s debate has been that every speaker has accepted that high streets must change and evolve to compete, and in some cases to survive. The Government are committed to supporting high streets, but we cannot dictate what should and should not be done; the vision and innovation has to come from places and communities, with the public and private sectors playing their part.

I turn briefly to two particular questions that my hon. Friend asked about business rates. The estimate from the valuation office was that the revaluation would have increased bills for about 800,000 properties and decreased them for only about 300,000. We would have seen significant tax increases for food, retail and convenience stores. We think it better to give businesses more certainty, which is why we postponed the revaluation. He also asked why we could not index the annual rise to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. He will know that RPI is much lower for the year beginning in April than it was for the year beginning the previous April, but we are continuing to review the situation.

I turn to the main feature of the debate: the future of retail. Analysts at Verdict research have predicted that UK retail will grow by about £4.9 billion in 2013—the highest increase since 2008. Online sales are increasingly important. They accounted for 5% of all retail sales back in 2008 and more than 9% in 2012. Verdict predicts that they will account for 12% of all retail spending this year and 17% of all non-food spending.

Those numbers do not really tell us what is happening and why. What are the drivers of change? UK retail faces challenging trading conditions, but it is simultaneously having to adapt to massive structural challenges driven by changes in consumer lifestyles and preferences, the impact of new and emerging technologies and the constant evolution of how technology is used. Technology is driving change. Tablets and smartphones are making it easier for consumers to buy online in any location, and new delivery options such as click and collect are reducing the problems customers face with home deliveries.

I shall conclude, because I want to allow my hon. Friend a few minutes to sum up at the end. Retail is an important barometer of our economic and cultural well-being. It is going through a period of rapid change, but Britain has the companies, the brands and the entrepreneurial spirit to ensure that we will always have successful retailers. It is part of the Government’s job to ensure that we have the right environment for them to thrive, prosper locally and compete globally. There are no easy answers or quick fixes for either the retail sector or the high street. We all have to play our part—central and local government, businesses, communities and local partnerships—in helping the adaptation of the future of retail and helping to shape that future.

Youth Participation: First World War Commemorations

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank the Minister for his time.

It probably does not take me to alert the House and the nation to the fact that we are rapidly approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of world war one, which will unfurl four years of solemn remembrances of different events. None of us would disagree that it is important that we remember and commemorate, but equally important is how we commemorate and what we do as part of the commemoration. That matters as part of our sense of national identity.

For our close allies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sites such as Vimy ridge and Gallipoli are not just sites of memory or commemoration, but part of a national story, not of constitutional development so much as the birth of real nationhood—of real people losing their lives on the battlefield. That is why nations truly came into being; it is not just that they received a constitutional charter.

I pay tribute to what the Government have already announced as part of the commemorations of world war one, to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has chaired a group, and to the Minister’s work. I pay particular tribute to the notion of spending of £5.3 million on sending children to visit the battlefields, not least because my own constituency is a hotbed of school travel—bizarrely, it is our one growth industry. I know that it is a particular pleasure to the WST school travel trust and the school travel forum.

I went on such a journey for the first time last autumn. I studied history at university and I have studied the period, so I have always wanted to go and see what I had been studying. I had never been; I have driven past quickly on the motorway, if ever at all.

What the visit brought home to me was that the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission is the one of the greatest publicly funded pieces of civil art ever undertaken in the history of humanity. We do not fully appreciate that in this country. The work of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield is testament to the ability of architecture to inspire emotion and encapsulate complex feelings. Even to this day, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one of the best run and best presented of our public bodies.

It is hard not to feel a sense of hopelessness when standing at a memorial such as the one at Thiepval—those grand Indo-Saracenic arches. All the schoolchildren were running around and making noise. Then the rain started to fall and they all scattered to the shelter of the visitors centre. I was left in the silence of a Somme morning—misty and cloudy—and I had a real sense of the tragedy of the loss of 20,000 people in one day. It is hard to imagine just how many people that is, but that is what occurred. At a time when we are once again debating what should be in our history curriculum, 1 July 1916 rarely seems to feature as a focal point for our national story, yet I believe it should be at the heart of what we think about when we study history.

I was fascinated and inspired by Thiepval, but I also visited some of the Canadian sites at Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy ridge, to which I referred earlier. The reason why I secured today’s debate is to promote a Canadian idea that we could learn from. Visitors to those two Canadian sites are greeted by a young Canadian student, who is there for four months, and explains what is available to people of all ages, what they could do on their visit, why the location is there and what it means to Canadians.

There is an interesting contrast with Thiepval. We have put great effort into an excellent visitors centre there, which I cannot praise highly enough, but on arrival, people are not greeted by a young person or someone who can explain to them why the place matters. For visiting schoolchildren, being welcomed by someone of their own age group would connect them more to what they are about to see; it is not just a theme park, but something that someone of their own age thinks is sufficiently important that they are spending a long time there welcoming people.

The scheme might also benefit more elderly visitors, who often visit battlefield sites. Perhaps it is unfair to cite reported speech, but we often hear criticisms such as, “Oh, the children run around. They don’t show respect. They don’t understand what they are coming to see.” I do not think that that is true, but such a scheme would encourage older generations to think that what they had done in world war two and indeed in world war one was not in vain, because younger generations were still explaining it to their children and their children’s children.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on an important educational and historical issue. The first world war is important in Northern Ireland. The 36th (Ulster) Division suffered and gave greatly at the battle of the Somme. In Northern Ireland, we have tried to bring both communities together on the back of the story about the battle of the Somme. There were Ulster divisions, but there were also Irish divisions that died and fought together in the first world war. It is a good historical issue.

The Bowtown community group in Newtownards try to educate young people on the estate about the importance of the first world war and to bring together other communities, so that nationalists and Unionists can look at what happened in the first world war together.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s observation is replicated in all our constituencies, up and down the country. Everywhere we look, we can find examples where we utilise world war one as a means of communicating across generations.

It would be naive of me to pretend that the Canadian model is cost-free. As we approach the Budget, cost considerations become all the more important. The cost of the Canadian scheme is roughly £400,000 per annum, of which about three fifths are salaries for the guides. University students are subsidised for four-month stays at the two sites. The Canadian Government own accommodation in Arras where students can lodge, and air fares are refunded on the successful completion of the course. The Veterans Minister, Steven Blaney, wrote to me:

“Without a doubt, the student guides’ enthusiasm serves as an inspiration to the many school and other tour groups that visit Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel each year, as well as to their peers when they return to Canada.”

That is an angle that I have not yet touched on. Once someone has served the four-month internship, they can return home and spread the message of what they have done. That is doubly welcome.

We have an eminently sensible opportunity to build on what the Government are already doing with the National Citizen Service—a chance to recruit young people who are between A-level and university or other employment to spend a set period of time at one of the major memorials to the missing, to welcome visitors, explain the facilities and the opportunities available and to try to connect each visitor with their own experience of what they are about to see. What connects them to the location?

One of the key things that young people notice when they go to such cemeteries is the age of the people slumbering beneath the earth. That has a dramatic impact on them, especially when they consider that often they are older than the poor fellow beneath the ground.

It is fair to say that before people visit one of the sites, they never quite know what their response will be. Many young people are often surprised by what they discover there and even by what they discover in themselves. They are emotional visits, and they should be.

It is essential that we do all we can to maintain the golden thread of remembrance. We have now reached the point when the last living veteran of world war one is no longer with us. He passed away last year.

Indeed. In not so many years’ time, that will also be true of the second world war. We do not want to reach the stage when we have forgotten our past. I want places such as Thiepval to have as important a part in our national story as Gallipoli and Vimy do in other countries’ national stories.

I am hugely impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech and the points he is making. Does he agree that as well as encouraging people to see those sites overseas, we should celebrate the heritage connected with the first world war in our towns and cities? For instance, Gheluvelt park in Worcester commemorates the battle in which the Worcestershire Regiment stopped the German advance and achieved great success. We should ensure that we engage young people in understanding the relevance today of the monuments that exist in towns and cities throughout the country.

I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend, who has pre-empted my final comments. Every time I return to my constituency, I get off at Preston station, and I tend to get out of the carriage in front of the waiting room, above which is a plaque to the Pals, because that is where the feeding station was during world war one. Every time I get off the train, I am confronted by that memorial.

The biggest issue in the first few weeks after I was elected was the desecration of the cenotaph in Blackpool. That got me interested in the protection of war memorials, and in ensuring that they have better statutory protection. A common theme in all our constituencies is that how we commemorate and how we remember matters.

I hope that the Minister will take away my ideas. I believe that he already has a hard copy of my letter from Canada, which I hope he will consider. It may be too soon to do it in time for 2014, but I hope that in years to come we can make progress towards better involving our young people in meeting and greeting at those important sites.

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for the chance to participate under your chairmanship, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this important debate. It gives me an opportunity not only to debate his ideas but to set out some of the Government’s plans for the commemoration of the anniversary of world war one—the great war.

I commend the contributions made during this short debate by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Worcester (Mr Walker). For the record, I also note the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to oversee the commemoration of world war one, a role that he continues to hold despite being elevated to being a Defence Minister. I shall set out that role in detail later.

It goes without saying that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history, and the Government are therefore committed to commemorating its centenary appropriately. The scale of the figures that we have to contend with is overwhelming. I do not think that I can match the poetry of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Certainly, 16.5 million deaths, both military and civilian, are directly attributable to the conflict, including those of 1.25 million people from the British empire, colonies and dominions alone.

It is appropriate that remembrance—both of those who died and, of course, those who returned with physical and mental scars—should lie at the heart of our plans. However, to pick up on my hon. Friend’s theme, it is also important to secure an enduring legacy from the centenary commemorations, so youth and education must be absolutely at the heart of everything that we do.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to congratulate the Prime Minister on his work to ensure that we have the resources to create an appropriate commemoration. As he will know, last October, the Prime Minister announced a £53 million programme of funded activity, including not only national commemorations to mark the key events of the war but measures specifically designed to engage young people.

In particular, the Government are providing £5.3 million to offer every maintained secondary school in England the opportunity to send a teacher and two pupils to a first world war battlefield. A key objective of the project is to improve teachers’ understanding of the war and to deliver more effective lessons and future battlefield tours. Pupils will develop a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of world war one and its impact on people’s lives.

I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about the local impact of the great war on individual areas. It is vital that our students can learn the stories of people from their local area who were involved in the war and establish related projects and events in their schools and communities.

It is important to say that the £5.3 million will effectively establish a bridgehead. We want to engage teachers in an understanding of the battlefields, and to have two pupils who might become ambassadors in their secondary school community. We certainly hope that schools will use that as a jumping-off point for sending more of their pupils on battlefield tours, which are important. I hope that the message goes out that Government assistance is available, but we certainly do not expect schools necessarily to limit their engagement with battlefield tours only to the teacher and two pupils who will benefit from the direct assistance.

The second important element of the £53 million is the £35 million project to refurbish the Imperial War museum’s first world war galleries. They will obviously provide a huge and highly visible centrepiece to the Government’s programme of commemoration, benefiting adults and students alike. The new galleries are set to open next year; getting them ready has involved closing the museum for some six months.

The Imperial War museum will lie at the heart of a range of activities across the UK. It has put together a centenary partnership that involves 900 members across 25 countries and will bring together a programme of cultural events and activities. It will use technology and digital platforms to enable millions of people across the world to benefit from the museum’s information and vast expertise, and to discover more about life in the first world war.

I thank the Minister and you, Sir Alan, for letting me intervene again. Is it possible for the Imperial War museum to put together a pack for schools—the Minister mentioned maintained schools—so that they could pre-brief or post-brief their classes about such visits?

I understand that digital tools will certainly be available to all secondary schools. They will be able to visit a website to understand what the opportunities are for battlefield tours. When invitations for the battlefield tours programme go out to schools, they will obviously be accompanied by appropriate material showing schools how to take advantage of it. It is important to have a digital portal to support schools in engaging not only with battlefield tours, but with a whole range of potential activities commemorating the first world war.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. As a Northern Ireland representative, I am keen to see everyone in the United Kingdom involved in the scheme. The Minister mentioned partnerships. Through the scheme, will it be possible to have a partnership arrangement between a school in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland, so that we can take advantage of building on relationships that clearly exist through service in the Ulster and Irish Divisions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It gives me the chance to mention the fact that the Government recognise the enormous contribution to the allied cause of more than 200,000 service people from all parts of Ireland during the first world war. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Administrations in Belfast and Dublin are working together to commemorate a decade of anniversaries, which will run from 2012 to 2022, to cover not only the first world war but events subsequent to that including the partition of Ireland. It goes without saying that there are political sensitivities involved, so I hope that all Members will welcome the positive approach.

While we are on the subject of Northern Ireland, I should also say that the Northern Ireland Executive has welcomed the National Heritage Memorial Fund’s award of almost £1 million to restore HMS Caroline, which is the last surviving warship of the battle of Jutland and was decommissioned at the headquarters of the Ulster division of the Royal Naval Reserve on 31 March 2012. It has been berthed in Belfast since 1924.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and the important point about the tone of the debate is that although our plans for the commemoration of the first world war are well advanced, it goes without saying that we welcome contributions and proposals from all Members who are well versed in the ways and wishes of their community. For the record, I note his proposal of potentially twinning schools across the border in Northern Ireland and Ireland to take advantage of the opportunity to commemorate world war one.

I should of course say, in relation to the partnership put together by the Imperial War museum, that universities, colleges and schools are members of the partnership. The Imperial War museum already has excellent education resources aimed at supporting the national curriculum. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is also a key programme partner, and provides a range of impressive educational resources to support the learning of young people. There is also the Heritage Lottery Fund’s £6 million grants programme, which will encourage young people to learn more about their local first world war heritage. That goes to one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is that the Heritage Lottery Fund will encourage applications that show that young people will benefit from a grant in order to learn about the history of their local community and its involvement in the great war.

The HLF has also been supporting for some time an open grants programme for first world war themed projects, and more than £10 million has been allocated to it. It goes without saying that many of those programmes involve children or young people. The Government, therefore, are leading the nation in appropriate commemoration. They are supporting the participation of local communities and interests, with a particular focus on young people.

It is entirely appropriate that the theme of youth is central to our plans given that people as young as 18 could enlist in Britain’s military for service in the great war. There is plenty of evidence that people even younger than that served, including Jack “Boy” Cornwell, whose actions at Jutland at the tender age of 16 and a half years were recognised with a posthumous Victoria Cross. Again, it is important to stress that the first world war involved many more than those just fighting at the front. There was of course the home front—the young women and children who contributed to the war effort in factories and on the land.

Civilians were also in the firing line, whether from bombardments from the sea or from air raids. One of the less known but most poignant stories of the first world war concerns the bombing of North street school in London’s east end, resulting in the deaths of 18 children, nearly all of whom were under the age of seven.

Our key objective in the commemorations will be to provide younger people with a better understanding of the enormity of what happened between 1914 and 1918 to secure a legacy of remembrance for generations to come. We must not forget that this was a conflict that involved more than 30 countries across the world, and we are in contact at ministerial or official level with 22 Governments from countries that were on either side of the war, acknowledging that the loss and suffering recognised no national boundaries. I hope that there might be opportunities for closer international understanding, particularly among younger people.

The Government are working hard to deliver and support a commemoration that is wide in its focus, inclusive in its nature and appropriate for an event of almost unparalleled importance. We will shortly be announcing our plans for the opening day of the centenary on 4 August 2014, and it will reflect our themes of remembrance and youth and education. There will be a number of announcements thereafter as our plans unfold. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire sit on a Committee that meets regularly to take forward the proposals. A range of stakeholders take part, including organisations involved in commemorating the first world war and some of our most distinguished historians. We are committed to ensuring that we keep the House fully informed as our plans develop.

It is telling that the Imperial War museum’s conception was during, not after, the first world war. At the museum’s opening in 1920, Sir Alfred Mond described it as

“not a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice.”

I can think of no better words to guide our work today in both staging a fitting commemoration and creating a legacy for the future.

In conclusion, I welcome the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. In looking at the Canadian scheme, he recognised that there was an opportunity to involve young people in commemorating the first world war. Whether we take the Canadian scheme lock, stock and barrel or just take the sentiments that he expressed in his support for the Canadian scheme remains to be seen. Although our plans are well advanced and we have certain fixed proposals that we are ready to take forward to ensure an appropriate commemoration and support the education and involvement of young people, the door is always open. We are committed not only to informing the House but to hearing from hon. Members about their thoughts and proposals for commemorating the great war and to seeing whether we have an opportunity to take them forward.

Thank you, Minister. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on his contribution, particularly his reference to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We are all very grateful in that respect.

Managed Motorway Scheme (South Yorkshire)

I am pleased to have secured today’s debate on the managed motorway scheme consultation for the M1, between junctions 32 and 35a. The consultation that could have such fundamental consequences for the safety of motorists on this section of the M1 was just eight weeks long over the Christmas period.

The Highways Agency’s proposals recommend the implementation of variable mandatory speed limits between junctions 32 to 35a, which is a section of motorway around the city of Sheffield. The section carries around 110,000 vehicles per day, and is congested during the weekday morning and evening peak hours and, like all roads, at other times.

The consultation document recommends that variable speed limits should be set in response to traffic conditions, automatically calculated from sensors buried in the road. Speed limits would be displayed on the motorway indicator signs above lanes, mounted on existing overhead gantries, and on additional verge-mounted signs. Where no speed limit is displayed, the national speed limit would be in force. However, the proposals, unlike other managed motorway schemes, include the use of the hard shoulder 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency refuge areas would be created at intervals of a maximum of 2,500 metres, and would include emergency telephones. All other telephones would be removed from the hard shoulder, as it would in effect become a permanent fourth lane.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I wanted to have the opportunity to intervene on the issue of refuge areas. I note that the Highways Agency website refers to the emergency refuge areas that will be in operation, saying that they will provide

“an area of relative safety”.

Is she satisfied with the concept of “relative safety”, and does she hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will define what that means?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about “relative safety”. There are lots of concerns about “relative safety”. Having driven down the M1 on Sunday and having looked at refuge areas in other managed motorway areas, it concerns me that “relative safety” is not equivalent to the kind of safety that we expect for people on the edge of motorways.

The consultation document suggests that the benefits would lead to an increase in motorway capacity and reduced congestion; smoother traffic flows; more reliable journey times; an increase and improvement to the quality of information for the driver; and lower costs and less environmental impact than conventional widening programmes. In effect, the Highways Agency is suggesting that this proposal is the best solution to add capacity to the existing strategic road network. It claims that these benefits can only be achieved by the use of variable mandatory speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I do not agree with all the recommendations, and I challenge some of the argumentation set out in the proposals. Worryingly, there is no objective to increase road safety on this section of the motorway, which I would have thought should have been a priority.

Managed motorway schemes have been introduced elsewhere, notably on the M6 and M42. As I said earlier, schemes on those motorways differ from the proposals for the section of the M1 that I am discussing. Other schemes have only been introduced at peak flow times—weekday morning and evening rush hours—and with the overhead gantries spaced at 500 metres. The hard shoulder then reverts to just that—a hard shoulder—when congestion is not an issue. Evidence suggests that the introduction of a managed motorway scheme on those motorways has indeed led to a reduction in congestion and an improvement in traffic flows, resulting in fewer accidents and more reliable journey times.

In response to a parliamentary question that I asked, the Minister said:

“The safety risk analysis of all lanes…of the M42… showed that the average number of personal injury accidents reduced from 5.08 per month…to 2.25 per month following the introduction of hard shoulder running.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 846W.]

That is a statistic for which the Highways Agency should be applauded, but my concern is about the very different proposals for the M1. The two schemes are not directly comparable and it is misleading to suggest, both in the consultation documents and in the reply to my parliamentary question, that they are. What is different, and what has not been taken fully into account, is the issue of hard shoulder running for 24 hours, seven days a week. I am particularly concerned that this part of the proposal, if it is adopted, would have a detrimental impact on safety and the ability of the emergency services to respond to major incidents.

It is in non-peak times that accidents are most likely to occur, a situation that could potentially be aggravated by poor visibility. The detection of a stranded vehicle would be very difficult unless CCTV cameras are constantly monitored, and as I understand it the electronic detection system will only activate when traffic slows and therefore it would do little to warn approaching drivers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I think that she is aware that I have written to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police, David Crompton, about these matters. In his reply, he says:

“Of main concern to the partnership”—

the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership—

“is the anticipated 200% increase in risk of having stationary vehicles in live lanes, which by its very nature may result in collisions.”

That is a very different situation from the one on the M42 that she has just referred to.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a vehicle broke down where a refuge could not be reached, its occupants would have to exit the vehicle in a live lane, which would be an increased risk to them—as the chief constable said, an increased risk of “200%”—as well as endangering other drivers, who might hit the stationary vehicle. Information provided to the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership indicates that, while the Highways Agency predicts an overall decrease in risk, certain risks will increase significantly, as my hon. Friend has outlined, including the risk of a collision with a vehicle that has stopped in a running lane outside of peak periods. That risk would be further increased by the volume of lorries, which are often driven by foreign drivers, that use this stretch of the M1 particularly at night, when the traffic is fast-moving and the lighting is turned off, as it now will be.

The proposals make much of verge-mounted speed enforcement equipment and traditional enforcement by the police to ensure that speed limits are not being exceeded. However, the roadside speed enforcement equipment that has been cited has not been approved by the Home Office. Also the traditional enforcement action by police of pulling over drivers on to the hard shoulder when they are in contravention of the law will be taken away, because there will not be any hard shoulder. This is already reflected in the enforcement strategy within the existing schemes in the west midlands, where different and more challenging methods of policing have had to be adopted, but only at peak times; at other times, which of course is the majority of the day and night, the police can revert to traditional enforcement methods.

Let me give the Minister some examples. The police chase a 16-year-old in a stolen car late at night. They manage that situation by forcing the car on to the hard shoulder. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Similarly, in the case of an accident leaving debris on the road, the police use the hard shoulder to drive ahead and create a sterile area to protect other road users. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Also, police chase suspects at high speed and the cars enter the motorway system. The police use the hard shoulder to intercept and contain the perpetrators, and to minimise danger to other road users. Once again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

I was interested to hear the first example that the hon. Lady gave. Of course, South Yorkshire police is quite different from other police forces around the country. I am not sure whether she was saying that that was an incident that had happened on the motorway, or that South Yorkshire police—using a practice that is quite contrary to that of a lot of other police forces—actually sees the motorway as a device that it drives offenders on to, which is quite a different way of operating.

I said that I was not sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that the offenders in the speeding car start on the motorway or that the police force them on to the motorway, which I understand is a practice prevalent in south Yorkshire.

No, I am not talking about a situation in which the police are forcing a driver on to the motorway. I am saying that they can manage the situation of a stolen vehicle on the motorway, which is a dangerous situation, by using the hard shoulder. If the hard shoulder is being used for permanent running, that possibility is no longer available.

A major incident in south Yorkshire would require a response by fire and rescue services from all bordering areas. Emergency services use the hard shoulder to speed up response times. Again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Even normal operations to reinforce good driving would no longer be an option. I recently spent time with police officers who were specifically looking at the behaviour of lorry drivers, which included identifying one who was watching a DVD. With no hard shoulders, such routine operations could no longer take place and drivers’ bad habits would not be identified and prosecuted. Such operations have been normal practice, in order to improve driving on this motorway.

The Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate later, so I will continue.

South Yorkshire police said publicly that if the proposals are adopted, they would cause fundamental operational difficulties, and it has gone on to say that the proposals could also cost lives. In addition, I am sure that the proposals will undoubtedly place a greater burden on hard-pressed police officers and other members of the emergency services.

South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership is a multi-agency partnership consisting of representatives of the south Yorkshire local authorities and the accident and emergency services, and it is chaired by the South Yorkshire police chief inspector responsible for roads policing. The partnership has welcomed the proposal to introduce hard shoulder running in peak flow time—the morning and evening rush hours. However, like me, the partnership is opposed to the suggestion of hard shoulder running 24 hours, seven days a week. This opposition is based primarily on safety grounds. The partnership contends that variable messaging for speed management purposes should use signs on the well understood and widely established gantry system, rather than using verge-mounted signs. Verge-mounted signs are not as visible; they are often obscured by high-sided vehicles in the slower lanes; and drivers have to take their eyes off the road ahead to view them. Gantries that are properly spaced are visible by drivers when they are looking straight ahead; therefore, they are easier to see at a glance, and importantly a glance ahead where any traffic or debris would still be visible. It agrees that the reinstatement of the hard shoulder outside peak flow times would also ensure that emergency services could use the motorway system more effectively to attend major incidents, and that safety would not be compromised by having no hard shoulder when traffic is light and fast moving, and when visibility is poor.

The proposals suggest that, where danger exists, red X signs would flash and a lane divert signal would be shown over a lane, but accidents can only be avoided if sufficient gantries are provided. Safety cannot be enhanced by the use of roadside signs, which are not as clearly, safely or instantly visible. Therefore the proposals will not be as effective or safe as having the hard shoulder available outside rush hours and using overhead gantries for messages.

The safer roads partnership also disputes the passing reference to safety in the consultation documents, where it is claimed that this section of the M1 has a trend of increasing accidents and casualties. Its data suggest the opposite: in the past six years there has been a 25% reduction in collisions on this section of the Ml.

In this short debate I have not had time to go into other concerns in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who wants to make a brief contribution, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who cannot attend, are particularly concerned about the impact on their constituents of increased noise and pollution, with nothing being offered by the Highways Agency to mitigate the effects.

I welcome the proposals to introduce a managed motorway scheme on the M1 in south Yorkshire during peak times, but only peak times, with proper regard to safety and signage delivered via overhead gantries. I cannot support proposals to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week use of the hard shoulder. The adoption of the proposals will be the thin end of the wedge, and further schemes to use the hard shoulder permanently as a fourth lane will be forthcoming for all stretches of our motorway system. That will reduce road safety and have a detrimental impact on the police’s ability to uphold the law and on emergency services’ response times.

I suspect that the Minister’s reply will repeat much of the misleading and inaccurate information. I understand that he will not be able to respond immediately to all the issues I have raised today. I know he cares about road safety—he has recently been involved in campaigns about it—and will want to consider what I have said. I am asking him to go back to his officials and the Highways Agency and consider all this information carefully. I am asking him to recognise that it is highly unusual for the police to say, without good reason, that something will cost lives.

We need a proper managed motorway scheme built on facts, not one built on cutting corners, to be done on the cheap without regard to road safety.

For the record, Mr Betts, I realise that you have the permission of the hon. Member who secured the debate, but do you have the permission of the Minister to make a speech, however brief?

I asked the Minister for permission beforehand, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for reminding me of that and for allowing me the opportunity to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn).

First, I quoted the chief constable’s letter, which indicates that he is concerned that the Highways Agency’s proposals are constrained by budgetary matters. It would be a matter of concern if the safety of people on the M1 around Sheffield was put at risk because of budgetary constraints. We are looking for absolute assurances from the Minister that the scheme will not go ahead until the chief constable in particular and the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership in general are satisfied that there is no risk of a reduction in safety under the scheme.

Secondly, I think that the Minister is aware that I wrote to him about noise levels on the M1 in this area, particularly near Tinsley junior school, where on a hot summer’s day the windows cannot be opened because the noise from the motorway means that teachers cannot be heard by their pupils. That is unacceptable. The Minister said that he does not expect hard shoulder running to increase this problem. All I would say to him is that the problem is there anyway. I am looking for assurances that noise on the motorway, right next to Tinsley junior school, will be dealt with by the Government, irrespective of the hard shoulder running and particularly if the proposals go ahead.

Thirdly, and finally, the Minister is probably aware of a report by the Highways Agency and Sheffield city council about pollution levels around the M1 in the Tinsley area. Surveys of nitrogen dioxide levels, arrived at as a result of EU directives and translated appropriately into UK law, which were carried out in that area showed that in virtually every instance levels were 25% to 50% higher than the maximum allowed in 2010. Anything that worsens those levels should not happen. I say again to the Minister that we are looking not merely for assurances that the scheme he is proposing will not worsen those levels, but for assurances that action will be taken to deal with the unacceptable pollution that already exists in this area.

Before you proceed, Minister, it is not practice or acceptable for officials to pass notes to you. You have a Parliamentary Private Secretary and they should be present; that is their role. That is just a reminder for the future.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I will remember that for the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for initiating the debate. I hope to address a lot of what she said. If there is anything that she thinks I have not dealt with, I am happy to write to her.

I was quite disappointed by the hon. Lady’s remarks at the end of her speech and by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). This is not about cutting corners; it has never been about that or about downturn in money. It has always been about ensuring that we get the most efficient and safest motorways. I hope that they see, from my remarks, including my responses to points that they made, that that is exactly where we started from.

I made my comments in light of a response that I received from the chief constable, in which he raised the possibility that budget constraints were causing the scheme to be produced in such a way that safety could be put at risk. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that, enclosing the chief constable’s letter, so perhaps the Minister will have an opportunity to respond to that point in due course.

It might have been helpful if the chief constable had spoken to the Highways Agency before making that remark, because substantial work has been done with the agency and the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership subsequent to some of the information that was mentioned. It would have helped if that had happened, rather than that remark being bandied around.

The managed motorway design and operation is well established and is already successful on the M42 in Birmingham, which we spoke about, on the M6 between junctions 4 and 5, and in other places on the M6. The latest refinement to the design is called managed motorways, with all-lane running, and it builds on our experience of operating similar schemes over the past seven years.

The infrastructure growth review in November 2011 supported the move to the revised design, recognising that the congestion and safety benefits from previous experience could be brought into other schemes. The latest design is being applied to all future managed motorway schemes, not just the project on the M1. It is the first scheme subject to some things that I will mention. Construction will start this year and the first section is scheduled for operation in 2014.

Managed motorways are about supporting safer motorways and the economy, providing much-needed capacity on our busiest motorways. They bring benefits to road users in terms of reduced congestion and improved reliability on journey time; they support the local economy and, by improving the key link, they help move people and goods around, and give people better access not only to the things they want to do in their lives, but to jobs. By providing that additional capacity, we reduce congestion and smooth the flow of traffic, which can reduce the cost of delays.

A cost saving of between 40% and 60% is associated with managed motorway schemes, which goes towards some of the motorway widening schemes. We can build more of those and benefit far more people, right across the country. The scheme makes best use of the existing infrastructure, providing maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

We know that managed motorways work. They reduce congestion and improve journey times by using variable speed limits, by giving more road space to road users and by making the hard shoulder available as a traffic lane. There is evidence that the hard shoulder can be used as a traffic lane without worsening the safety experience. Although the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is right to say that the hard shoulder is not used exclusively on the M42, there is plenty of experience of the safety aspects of using the hard shoulder as a traffic lane and very few vehicles have experienced the issues she outlined. Moreover, there is an improvement because a number of drivers found it difficult to switch from hard shoulder running to non-hard shoulder running.

That goes to the heart of my point. It is easy to see why using the hard shoulder would reduce accidents when there is a lot of traffic, when people can see the car in front and when people are running at managed speeds. I entirely understand that, but only this afternoon, following all the publicity, I was contacted by someone—not one of my constituents—who was hit by a lorry on the hard shoulder. The problem is that vehicles will be going at faster speeds on all lanes, with nowhere to go, unless they happen to be by one of the refuges, which are very small.

We all know that we are advised not to get out of the car on to a live motorway lane, which is what is proposed—and at faster speeds. It is simply not good enough to replicate the peak-time experience, when there are a lot of vehicles, at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning or at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, when people are going much faster and cannot see far enough ahead to know whether there is a problem in one of the lanes.

There is no evidence that that experience is often seen on the M42. I will look at that point again and consult officials on the experience of others, and I will write to the hon. Lady.

Variable speed limits do not only allow faster traffic flows; they allow the smoothing of traffic flows, thereby making journeys more reliable. Variable speed limits also allow the eradication of the stop-start effect, and smoothing means that traffic sometimes moves more regularly without the speed that the hon. Lady describes.

When the M42 pilot scheme was designed, the target was to ensure that there was no worsening of safety as a result of implementing the active traffic management pilot. There was a three-year safety report and trial on the M42, although I accept that the hon. Lady will want to point out that there are differences. The pilot showed considerable improvement in safety—accidents involving personal injury were reduced by some 55%—and that was with hard shoulder running. Overall, there was a reduction in the severity of accidents, with no fatalities and fewer serious injuries, so to suggest that a move to managed motorways, or indeed to hard shoulder running, necessarily represents a decline in safety is not shown by the evidence.

Will the Minister respond to the point I made in my intervention? The Highways Agency’s website states that refuge areas provide “relative safety.” Relative to what? Are we not seeking maximum safety on our motorways, rather than making the sort of compromise implied even by the agency’s website?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. There are two ways of answering it. There can never be total safety. As to whether or not we describe refuge areas as being as safe as possible, let us not play with semantics. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that anywhere on a working motorway is totally safe; even motorway service areas can never be totally safe. I am not sure that it would be right for the agency to say, “This is a totally safe area.” We can play around with that. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the words, we can look at the description, but if I were to suggest that the proposed refuge areas are totally safe, I am sure he would attack me because I cannot possibly give that guarantee. I understand his point, but I hope he agrees that it is sensible to indicate that even in the refuge areas there is an element of risk.

I framed my comments in the context of remarks by Chief Inspector Stuart Walne, head of roads policing in South Yorkshire. He talked about fundamental operational difficulties and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said, about lives being at risk. The problem is that the scheme, as proposed, will be relatively less safe than the current arrangements.

I am happy to be corrected, but my understanding is that the Highways Agency met South Yorkshire police in several workshops, the most recent being on 5 February. My understanding is that the police at senior level and the Safer Roads Partnership are no longer opposed to the proposal in principle, and they are now working with the agency to find ways of operation.

I assure the Minister that my speech was prepared in discussions and it is up to date. The South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership and the police do not think the proposal is safe. The police are very professional; they say that if things come in, they will have to manage them, but they do not accept that the proposal is safe.

The Highways Agency met both the police and the Safer Roads Partnership. The agency has demonstrated its safety rigour and experience, and it is now working on the operating principles. I will check again, but there is plenty of evidence from pilot schemes, safety records and the safety trial to suggest that the proposal will be as safe, if not safer, than the current system.

There are three managed motorway projects on the northern section of the M1 in south Yorkshire: between junctions 28 and 31; between junctions 32 and 35a; and between junctions 39 and 42. The managed motorway scheme between junctions 32 and 35a aims to do exactly what we have done with other managed motorway schemes —to reduce the frequently experienced congestion, to provide more reliable journey times and to ensure that the road remains as safe as it is now.

The work between junctions 32 and 35a will support and enhance the role of the M1 as a national and inter-urban transport artery. The estimated cost of works for the scheme is some £150 million. The scheme requires no additional land and is built entirely within the highway’s existing boundary. As a result, the scheme can be built more quickly than would be the case with conventional motorway widening. That means we can start to reap the benefits sooner. The scheme’s environmental impact is also minimised.

The hard shoulder between the junctions will be converted to a permanent traffic lane. We are currently undertaking a thorough assessment of the environmental impact of the proposals for the M1 in south Yorkshire. The assessment is nearing completion, and I am happy to share it with the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley, for Sheffield South East and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) when it is completed. The assessment will confirm whether the scheme will result in any perceptible change in noise or air quality levels. If additional mitigation is needed, it will be provided as part of the scheme. The environmental assessment is being undertaken in accordance with best practice guidelines, and it will be used to judge whether the scheme is detrimental in any way.

We know managed motorways work well and improve journey times. The evidence from a number of trials is that managed motorways are as safe, if not safer, than current motorways. I am convinced that the scheme will enable us to reduce congestion, thereby benefiting the people of south Yorkshire, earlier than had we carried out conventional motorway widening.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.