Tuesday 26 March 2013
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Randall.)
First, let me express my thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to speak this morning about some of the forgotten heroes of the two world wars.
When people look back at some of the most memorable images of the first and second world wars, perhaps thoughts come to mind of the Royal Air Force repelling the Luftwaffe in the battle of Britain, or the Royal Navy hunting for U-boats in the Atlantic; or, going further back, people might think of the slog of trench warfare in the quagmire of the Somme. The bravery of those members of our armed forces is rightly remembered and their sacrifice should—must—never be forgotten.
When Winston Churchill made his first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons, he spoke of his own
“blood, toil, tears and sweat”.—[Official Report, 13 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1502.]
He also spoke for the millions of people who would become embroiled in the second world war. Nearly 600,000 people from the British Commonwealth were killed, and between 60 million and 80 million people lost their lives worldwide. We rightly remember the scale of the catastrophe, and never more so than in the forthcoming remembrance of the start of the first world war.
However, there was a group of people, no less heroic, who worked on the home front. Historically, the contribution made by those millions of people has received a great deal less attention, despite the huge sacrifices that they made, and despite their blood, toil, tears and sweat. I am delighted that in recent years long overdue steps have been taken to remedy that injustice. Groups such as the Bevin boys and the land-girls have been formally recognised, but today I would like to bring another group to the attention of not only the House but the country. They are still to receive the full recognition that they are entitled to and have deserved for many years. I refer, of course, to the workers in the nation’s munitions factories, the majority of whom were women.
In 1914 and 1915, it became clear that the country was under-prepared to provide munitions for a major war, so the Government increased their control of munitions manufacture and made sweeping changes. Perhaps the most significant of those, with millions of the male work force on military duty, was to force the employment of more women. By the end of that war, nearly a million “munitionettes” were employed in the factories and were estimated to have been responsible for 80% of all weapons and shells used by the British Army during the first world war.
As the threat of war heightened again in the late 1930s, the Ministry of Supply constructed dozens of new Royal Ordnance factories to ensure the uninterrupted supply of munitions to our armed forces. The women of Britain were urged once again to come into the factories, and yet again, they responded in their droves. It is estimated that anywhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people—mainly women—were employed in that highly dangerous industry. Many of the women were virtually conscripted; they were asked to come into the factories, but perhaps not given too much choice in the matter.
The work was incredibly dangerous, with workers at constant threat of either an accident or enemy attack. My attention was drawn to the issue when, at one of my advice surgeries back in 2008, I had a visit from a constituent whose mother needed my help. Her son explained that his mother had been injured in an explosion during her war work at the Royal Ordnance factory in Swynnerton, just a few miles from my constituency. She had one hand blown off, and the other was severely damaged. She had spent the majority of her adult life, and brought up her children, living with the most debilitating of disabilities, sustained during her service to her country. I have also been contacted by a lady who told me about an accident suffered by her mother: a box of ammunition had fallen on her leg and crushed it. By the time her mother died at the age of 91—a good age, happily, but sadly, without any formal recognition—she was unable to walk, but she had made that sacrifice and had literally put her life on the line, as had not only thousands but millions of others.
In an excellent piece of research entitled “Women of Britain come into the factories”, Samantha Webb provided many further such stories, and I commend her on the work that she has done over many years for the Roses of Swynnerton, as the women of ROF Swynnerton have become known. Those accounts of people’s lives range from the heart-warming to the harrowing, and include tales of heroism and great tragedy.
Samantha tells, for example, the story of May Barker, who started work at Swynnerton at the age of just 16. May was severely injured by an exploding shell, which left her in hospital, swathed from head to waist in bandages. She was blinded for five weeks and remained in hospital for four months, requiring the insertion of a steel kneecap. She lost a finger, and her leg injuries forced her to walk in irons for eight years. However, despite all that, May said that the
“atmosphere of companionship overrode the danger”,
and that she was motivated by the importance of her work. Right up until her death, May campaigned for a memorial to the Roses of Swynnerton, to whom, even in those later years, she felt such a close emotional bond.
Those brave women are typical of the thousands of people who lived with severe injuries from explosions, or with illness from the exposure to chemicals that they worked with. It was said that a munitions worker could often be indentified by the colour of their skin. Many of them became known as “canaries”, because the exposure to sulphur and TNT had the effect of turning their skin yellow. Some 106 workers died as a result of such exposure during the first world war alone.
The consequences of explosions in the factories were, of course, catastrophic. Two of the worst accidents were in 1916 in Faversham, leading to 106 fatalities, and in 1918, at the national shell filling factory in Chilwell, where 134 people lost their lives. It is estimated that about 600 workers were killed during world war one, with many thousands more injured. The safety record in world war two was better, but enemy action killed many people; at the Vickers factory at Brooklands, 86 people were killed in 1940, and the largest explosion ever on UK soil killed 81 people at RAF Fauld in 1944. It is thought that about 150 workers were killed during the second world war, but once again, the impact was felt most by the thousands who lived with injury or illness for decades to come.
That it has taken so long for recognition—any recognition, and even this debate—can no doubt be attributed partly to the fact that the location of the factories and the identity of the people working in them had to be kept secret, particularly during the second world war, as factories had to be moved away from the heavily bombed south to northern England, Scotland and Wales. We can still see the social impact of that in some of those places, where populations increased hugely by the influx of workers to munitions factories. I have mentioned ROF Swynnerton a number of times this morning, and huge numbers of people came down from Scotland to work in the factories there. Many of those people stayed behind after the war, rather than returning to their homes.
The manufacture of munitions was a truly nationwide effort. As the campaign of the all-party group on recognition of munitions workers has gained pace, people from all over the world have contacted us to express their disappointment that munitions workers have not yet been recognised formally. It was the sense of companionship and camaraderie that struck me most when I had the privilege, in recent years, of attending a Remembrance day service for the Roses of Swynnerton. I heard stories of the dreadful conditions in which the women had to work, the ever-present taste of the powder they worked with, their fear of accident or attack, and the extremely long shifts.
I remember a story of a group of workers on a train travelling to a railway station near Swynnerton that did not exist—it did not appear on any map or timetable. The train sat in darkness and quiet, obviously in huge danger, because if any light had shown, enemy planes would have spotted the train, which could have led not only to the death and injury of the people on it, but to the factory being traced. I talked to the women who were on the train, who said such situations were commonplace—they just got on with it. They sat for hours in comradeship, having hushed conversations among themselves. I spoke to an elderly lady who remembered, almost as if it were yesterday, how her youth had been spent helping the war effort. I heard from women who had lost close, dear friends, and had lived with the trauma of it ever since. They ask for no great show of thanks for their work, but simply that those of us who today benefit from the freedom that they played such a large role in defending and were so crucial in securing remember and understand their contribution.
I pay tribute to all the munitions workers I have had the privilege of coming into contact with over the past few years: Olive Astley, Avis Hendley, Alice Porter, Maisie Jagger and Iris Aplin, to name but a few. I am sure that colleagues present this morning will want to mention and remember workers from their constituencies—and I am sure that those hon. Members who could not make it here today would have wanted to do so. I thank the organisations that have helped us with our campaign: ADS has been with us since the start, and First Great Western and Virgin Trains provided travel for the group of munitions workers who attended the Cenotaph ceremony in November. It is worth mentioning that November was the first time that munitions workers marched past the Cenotaph and took part in the Remembrance parade. Having been approached by the all-party group, the Royal British Legion agreed to allow munitions workers to march past. There was a very good turnout from munitions workers and their families, showing the part they played in the war.
I also thank the Imperial War museum, which is undertaking a research project into munitions workers and the role they played in the first and second world wars, and to the national memorial arboretum, which has been so positive about our plans for a permanent memorial—the campaign for which we will launch on 15 April in Parliament. Most of all, I want to give thanks to BAE Systems, and particularly to Scott Dodsworth, without whom there is no way that we could have achieved what the all-party group has achieved so far. Their commitment to the campaign has been invaluable, and I want to put on record my gratitude for their support.
I am pleased that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who is responsible for the subject but could not be here today, has agreed to meet us to discuss munitions workers. His predecessor was supportive and helpful. I hope that that is an indication that the Government might be open to considering ways of recognising the munitions workers. When the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) responds, I hope that he will also welcome the work of the all-party group and, although I recognise that this is not within his normal field of responsibility, that he will take the message back to his colleagues in the Treasury, to see whether there is a way forward.
Ideally, we would like an arrangement similar to the Bevin boys’ receipt of their badges in 2007—a badge for surviving workers, perhaps. Identifying who worked in munitions and defining munitions have always been problems. Does that include somebody who worked with small arms and shells, or with airframes, tanks and similar? In the all-party group, we are clear about what we mean by munitions workers: those who worked on royal ordnance. A problem is that over many years, the records of who worked at some of the factories that were turned over to produce munitions during the war have been lost. If a person in their 80s came forward and said that they had worked at a munitions factory, but it turned out that they had not—it is questionable whether anybody in their 80s or 90s would misrepresent themselves, but it might perhaps happen—giving away a badge or two to them would probably be a small price to pay for recognising those hundreds of thousands of workers. I do not think it would be hundreds of thousands now; sadly, only tens of thousands are still alive.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He spoke about the numbers. Does he agree that given that about 70 years have passed, we have a small window of opportunity? The number of people diminishes year on year, so we need urgent action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that owing to the passage of time, relatives like me—my mother, who would have been 90 this year, was a munitions worker in the midlands—should be able to apply for whatever recognition is awarded following the campaign?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. Where we draw the line has been a concern. Should the children, grandchildren or more distant relatives of a munitions worker who is no longer with us be able to get the badge? In an ideal world, I would agree with her that the children, and possibly the grandchildren, of munitions workers should be entitled to receive the badge on behalf of their loved one, who sacrificed themselves and put themselves on the line for this country. As a compromise, given the difficulties identifying people, the first step would be to recognise those who are still alive.
As far as the families are concerned, the second part of what the all-party group is asking for at the moment is being launched on 15 April: the fundraising launch for a lasting memorial at the national memorial arboretum. The memorial would form a permanent reminder, to which families—children, grandchildren and more distant relatives—could go. The Roses of Swynnerton—groups around the country referred to their munitionettes in different ways—could perhaps take a rose along to it. A memorial at the arboretum would be a good permanent reminder for families more widely, but as a first step we need the recognition for surviving munitions workers.
I assure the Minister that the issue is not party political. The campaign is an all-party one, and has support from Members across the House. We are absolutely committed to working collaboratively and, like the munitions workers, in a comradely way, with the Government. We just ask that, rather than seeking justification for why living munitions workers should be excluded from the recognition that other groups have had, the Government consider again how such recognition can be given. We also ask the Minister to agree that the danger and cost of giving a badge to someone who perhaps was not there is far outweighed by the need to recognise the ever-decreasing group of people who risked their lives day in, day out. That risk is a price worth paying.
All I really ask of the Minister is that he consider the matter with colleagues. My Front-Bench colleagues will probably hate me for trying to push for a spending commitment, but we are talking about a few thousand pounds. The fundraising push for the permanent memorial seeks to raise £100,000, and the cost of providing a medal or a badge to the surviving munitions workers is probably half that amount. The Chancellor will probably not lose too many nights’ sleep over £50,000, and any help and support, not least in publicising the fundraising drive, would be much appreciated.
In closing, I repeat my concern that if we do not make rapid progress it will be too late for the brave individuals who worked and risked—often giving up—their lives at factories such as the Royal Ordnance in Swynnerton. Those people are all now in at least their mid-80s, and with every day that passes more of them pass away without recognition. I therefore again urge the Minister and his colleagues to review their position. It is only just and proper that the Government give the Roses of Swynnerton, and everyone who was employed in the manufacture of munitions, the formal recognition they deserve. They went about ensuring, in a quiet and determined way—almost without raising an eyebrow—that this country could fight the first and second world wars. They ensured that there were bullets in the guns that our brave soldiers were firing, shells in the artillery pieces, and munitions in the aeroplanes that went up to defend us. If there had not been, all the work and effort, and the fact that the lives of our fantastic military personnel were put on the line, would have come to nothing.
These people need recognition, and they need it soon. I therefore urge the Government to put aside concerns they may have. I hope that in responding to the debate, the Minister can at least say that he will talk again to colleagues. To go away and think again would be a good first level of commitment. Let us give recognition to these people—predominantly women—who have sacrificed so much.
As wartime munitions were manufactured also in my Kettering constituency, it is my good fortune to have the privilege of chairing this debate. In a moment, I will call Mr Reckless, and then it will be Nia Griffith, Phil Wilson, Huw Irranca-Davies and Russell Brown. I will ask Mr Perkins to start his speech at no later than 10.40 am, so if you pace yourselves you will all get in.
I am particularly interested to hear of your constituency interest, Mr Hollobone, through Kettering munitions manufacture.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). With the work he has already done through the all-party group and in securing this debate, he can take pride in putting the subject on the agenda, at least in this Parliament, and in so doing giving recognition to the munitions workers. I am pleased to bring a cross-party element to the debate by adding my voice in support of his request. As he states, any financial sum involved is de minimis compared with the scale of the contribution that the workers made to our country.
It was of course David Lloyd George who, as Minister of Munitions, so strongly put this issue on the agenda in the years around 1915. The workers had an important profile at that time, and it would be a great shame were that not to be recognised. Given what they did to win the first world war and then, in different conditions, their contribution to the winning of the second world war, it would clearly be a good thing, if it were possible, for them to get the recognition that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South seeks. Although the Minister here is not the Minister we would expect to respond to such a debate, I welcome him in terms of his ability to push discussions within Government, and to put the issue on the agenda and have it looked at with a fresh pair of eyes.
Regarding medals for groups that perhaps have not received rightful recognition, two things in particular have struck me. The response a few weeks back to the announcement of a medal for those involved in the Arctic convoys was important, and I have just had a constituency case involving a gentleman in Cliffe Woods village who served at Suez but did not get the medal of recognition he should have received. When my office pressed the issue, it appeared that there had been some confusion and his service had fallen through the cracks, so to speak, within the Ministry of Defence. We were able to provide the firm evidence that he had served in Suez, and the medal was then awarded. To the gentleman, the recognition was a source of great pride. That was one of the most rewarding pieces of constituency casework with which I have been involved.
I represent Rochester and Strood, and the Medway towns more broadly, and I am not sure whether constituents of mine would fall under the definition put forward by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. He mentioned Faversham, however, and of course at Woolwich there was the large Royal Ordnance munitions manufacturing base, and from Rochester or Strood—Chatham station is also in my constituency—Faversham and Woolwich are both within half an hour’s travel. I have no doubt that significant numbers of constituents in my area served in munitions manufacture, and a number of them are perhaps still alive and resident there. The hon. Gentleman kindly said that there were problems with the definition. Understandably, he and his group have settled on a clear definition and I wish them well in seeking recognition for the people who fall within it, but I hope he does not mind my saying that there are other groups of people—he himself drew attention to the people who worked on airframes.
My constituency had Short Brothers, based on the Esplanade in Rochester. That is now all modern housing, with great river views, but there is great pride in the area’s industrial heritage of Short Brothers and the flying boats developed and manufactured at that site. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the movement of factories during the war, and the vulnerability of Rochester to German bombing may have led to Short Brothers’ greater focus on its manufacturing in Northern Ireland. However, I believe that the skills base developed by those who worked on airframes in Rochester deserves recognition. Similarly, the royal dockyard in Chatham had many thousands of military workers, to whom we owe a great deal for both the first and second world wars, and indeed for many other wars going back several centuries.
To conclude, I associate myself and my constituents with the hon. Gentleman’s call that, just as those who worked and particularly served in military campaigns have been recognised with different medals and clasps, people who worked and contributed in such roles are also deserving of recognition. If, even at this late stage, the Government gave them the measure of recognition sought by the hon. Gentleman, I would very much welcome it.
I speak as a member of the all-party group on recognition of munitions workers, which aims to obtain recognition for the many thousands of such workers, mostly women, who did dirty, smelly and dangerous work in munitions factories. I endorse all the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who described the bravery of the women and men of the munitions factories.
I am grateful to my constituent Mr Les George, who has undertaken research into the local Royal Ordnance Factory at Pembrey in my constituency. He became interested because his mother had been a munitions worker there and narrowly escaped from explosions, the memories of which remained with her for life. Our parliamentary group has looked at some form of medal or veterans badge for munitions workers, like those for the Bevin boys or land-girls. In April, we will launch our fundraising campaign in Parliament for a permanent memorial to munitions workers in the national memorial arboretum in Staffordshire. Mr George has prepared information for display on the former site of ROF Pembrey, and we hope that the county council will support recognition of the role of local people in the munitions factory.
The research has not been easy because of the secretive nature of such factories. Pembrey has a long history of manufacturing explosives: a powder works was established on the Pembrey Burrows as far back as the 1800s, and was known as the New Explosive Company of Stowmarket. Detonators, fuses and other explosives were produced on the site, which covered an area of some 150 acres, stretching along the Pembrey coastline. The factory employed almost 80 people, including young boys and girls. As the work was highly dangerous, employees were paid by piece work that enabled them to earn between 2 shillings and sixpence and 3 shillings a day. At the time, that was comparatively good pay, so there was a local shortage of people wanting to be domestic servants.
The industry was not without its dangers. A minor explosion occurred at the Pembrey Burrows site on 11 November 1882, but fortunately no one was injured. It prompted Sir John Jenkins, my predecessor as MP for the area, to ask a parliamentary question on Thursday 16 November, because the sheds apparently held well over the legal limit of 150 tons of material authorised under the terms and conditions of the company’s explosives licence. He asked the Secretary of State:
“If he is aware of the fact that about 300 tons of dynamite is stored in one room at Bury Port…within a comparatively short distance of the shipping…and of large works where hundreds of workmen are employed…?”—[Official Report, 16 November 1882; Vol. 274, c. 1533-34.]
Sadly, the following day there was a large explosion, causing the tragic loss of life of seven young workers—three males and four females, ranging in age from just 13 to 24. The noise of the explosion was so great that it was heard as far away as Pembrokeshire.
In 1886, the New Explosive Company of Stowmarket was taken over by the Nobel Explosives Company of Glasgow, which was owned by Alfred Nobel—the same man who, when he died, left most of his wealth in trust to fund several awards, one of which we know today as the Nobel peace prize. In 1914, with war looming in Europe, the then Secretary of State ordered and approved the construction of a new plant at Pembrey, with the Government bearing the full cost. It was agreed that the Nobel Explosives Company would be retained as administrative agents of the plant and that the 750-acre site would remain Government property after the war. The Pembrey plant was one of the first of more than 200 purpose-built TNT and propellant-manufacturing factories in the UK during world war one.
As the second world war approached, work started in July 1938 to build a new factory on the Pembrey site, with the Ministry of Works acting as agents. It opened in December 1939 under the control of the Ministry of Supply, as one of several explosives Royal Ordnance Factories making TNT. Unlike other factories, ROF Pembrey also made tetryl and ammonium nitrate. Production of explosives began in December 1939 and reached its peak in 1942, producing 700 tons of TNT, 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and 40 tons of tetryl each week. There was a complex arrangement of buildings, spread out over the 750-acre site and set among the sand hills. The magazines were carefully housed around the plant and were well camouflaged to avoid detection in case of possible air raid or sabotage. The site was self-contained, having its own water plant and a power station for electricity. In addition, the administrative buildings, canteen, doctors’ surgery, laundry, police barracks, library and other offices were grouped together at the main site. We can see how big it was.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, these factories were under constant threat of attack. Indeed, shortly after midday on Tuesday 10 July 1940, a single German bomber plane made a sneak attack on the factory and dropped about nine bombs just inside the main entrance gates. Tragically, 10 workers were killed outright or died later of their injuries, and others were injured, some severely. Serious though the bombing was, had it been a little later the casualties would have been much greater, as many men and women would have been on their way to the canteen for their lunch break.
Production continued at a much reduced scale after the war, except for a sharp upturn in the early 1950s, during the Korean war. One of the main functions of the site after the war was to break down large quantities of superfluous or obsolete ammunition. The TNT was melted out of the shells by jets of hot water, and taken to solidify on isolated stretches of sand, where it burned off. The bright glowing flames of burning cordite lit up the night sky, and could be seen for miles around; it was quite spectacular.
Workers in the explosive process units were easily recognised in the area because, as has already been pointed out, the skin of their exposed face and hands was tainted yellow. A stream running from the Royal Ordnance Factory and joining the sea on the west side of Pembrey was reddish in colour, as it had been tinted by the TNT from the factory. That was more noticeable at low tide—it was known locally as the “red river”—and, as the water was always warmer than the sea, locals regularly enjoyed swimming there during the summer months.
The Royal Ordnance factory is now closed and there is a country park on the site, which is on a spectacular piece of coastline. Although I am delighted that munitions workers were represented at the Cenotaph last year, we very much hope that, in the national memorial arboretum, in a medal for the individuals who are still alive, and in something in Pembrey, we will have a permanent memorial to the work done by munitions workers.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, to debate a subject that is important for many of our constituents, and to remember the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who worked in dangerous industries during the war to keep our defences going in that period.
I want to talk about the munitions factory at Aycliffe, now Newton Aycliffe. In 1941, when Royal Ordnance factory No. 59 opened in Aycliffe, the town of Newton Aycliffe did not exist; it became a new town in 1947. The former site of the ordnance factory is now the second-largest industrial estate in the north-east. If people go to the industrial estate, they can still see the blast walls and some of the buildings where munitions workers worked during that period. At its peak, in 1943, the factory employed 17,000 people, 90% of whom were women. Around the country, there were some 64,500 munitions workers who filled the shells and the bullets. The importance of their work was recognised, as they received visits from Winston Churchill, King George VI and even Gracie Fields, who gave a beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, which is well remembered by many of the workers.
Filling shells and bullets is obviously dangerous work. I understand from a study by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1940 that the Aycliffe Royal Ordnance factory produced more than 700 million bullets during its period of operation. The work was extremely repetitive, fragmented and boring, but there were high levels of companionship among the women as they daily risked their lives filling bombs and bullets. Many of the women started work at 18, but the average age was 34. Workers were supposed to be under the age of 50 to work at the factory, but apparently a Mrs Dillon, who claimed she was 49, was actually 69. She was the best worker in the factory, losing only two days of work in two-and-a-half years. She received the British Empire medal from the King for her work.
The women who worked in the factory became known as the Aycliffe Angels because, in numerous wartime broadcasts, Lord Haw Haw used to say:
“The little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it.”
Although there was never a raid on the factory, because it was secret, the workers faced terrible situations. I have a personal interest in this story, because my grandma, Isabella Woods, worked in the factory during that period. Dorothy Addison spoke to the Northern Echo about her time at the station. In a description of what she did, she said:
“I was on ‘Group Five’ and our job was to weigh cordite, put it into linen bags and sew gunpowder on top. This was put into ‘25-pounder shells’ and the next block had to put the detonator on top! We were searched and if anyone was found with matches, it was instant dismissal! We wore protective clothing and shoes that didn’t cause any friction and our hair had to be tucked in a turban. I remember one girl in the next block getting her hair in a machine and being scalped—she died!! German bombers often came over and all the lights had to be out. One night they came over—we knew the sound—the siren went and we all had to go into the shelters. The sky was lit up with hundreds of ‘chandeliers’—our name for bombs.”
That is what they had to put up with, day in and day out for the period of the war.
Let me mention also some of the people who died. There was an explosion on 2 May 1945—just days before the end of the second world war—in which Isabella Bailey, Elsie Barrett, James Bunton, William Clark Hobson, William Mitchell, Christopher Seagrave, Edmund Smith and Alice Wilson died. Phoebe Morland died on the night of 20 February 1942, along with Irene Irvin, and Alice Dixon. Phoebe’s husband was in the Navy during the war; although his job was considered the more dangerous, it was his wife at home who was killed, leaving behind two children. That is what our ancestors had to put up with. Many of us have relatives or know of people who worked in those industries.
I pay tribute to Great Aycliffe town council for doing its bit over the years to remember the Aycliffe Angels. It produced a memorial certificate, which it gave to the survivors. My grandma was awarded one posthumously; she died 30 years ago. To this day, it sits on the coffee table in the sitting room of my mum’s house. The council also helped to prepare and build a memorial in the town centre to the men and women who worked in the industry.
Newton Aycliffe is now a thriving town with a massive industrial estate. The town itself did not exist until after the war; there were only fields. The factory was built on that site because the area tended to get misty, so it could be hidden from bombers. That is part of the proud history of the town. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate. He is right that the munitions workers should be recognised. They were not on the front line or fighting in the desert or in the jungle or at Normandy, but they helped to keep the war effort going and some of them lost their lives in that dangerous industry. A permanent national memorial would suit their endeavours.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate. I recognise the cross-party support from Members on the all-party group on recognition of munitions workers. I pay tribute to those who have spoken and given personal testimonies on behalf of themselves, their families and the areas they represent.
Curiously, in researching my speech, I came across a personal link of a different kind, not to someone who worked in a munitions factory, but to the right hon. Jim Griffiths, a cousin on my mother’s side and a predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). On 3 June 1937, he spoke in a debate on the munitions factory in Bridgend. We must not forget that in the selection of sites for munitions factories, a number of factors came into play, including that areas were not easily identifiable by bombers and that, in what were termed depressed areas, there was a ready supply of good labour. Those taking part in that debate in 1937 included not only my relative from Llanelli, who later became Secretary of State for Wales, but my predecessor, Mr E.J. Williams, one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for Ogmore, who asked the Minister about
“the sources of recruitment for the Bridgend munitions factory”—
which was one of the largest munitions employers in the country, employing some 40,000 people—
“and whether any instruction is issued which debars unemployed persons from Maesteg, Aberkenfig, Pontycymmer, and Ogmore Vale Employment Exchanges?”
He went on to ask whether the First Commissioner of Works
“will stipulate in all contracts that, except for technicians, local labour must be engaged at the preparatory or constructional work at the Bridgend munitions factory.”—[Official Report, 3 June 1937; Vol. 324, c. 1149.]
That issue of employing local labour echoes down the years to our current industrial strategy.
The debate in 1937 took place when factory sites were being identified and before the first recruitment of conscripted young women. In Llanelli, Carmarthenshire and in the south Wales valleys, young, unmarried women would receive a letter on their doorstep telling them that they had a choice: go into the forces; be sent away to do X,Y or Z; or work in their local munitions factory. Many of them uprooted, went to work in the factories, lived in barracks and contributed for the whole of that period. As we have heard, while many of them settled or returned to their families, many others lost their lives, not only in explosions but through cordite and chemical poisoning, with many people maimed or dying of their injuries.
Let me fast-track right to the end of the war, when thankfully we had overcome the challenge we had faced from the fascists and others, to a fantastic piece of history—the foremen’s farewell dinner in the regional canteen at the Bridgend factory. It was not an entirely joyous occasion, because many of the people there were returning to places with high unemployment. As part of this dinner for the foremen—and forewomen, as working in the munitions industry was, in many ways, a major step forward in the employment of women—there was a bit of a sing-song. The last chorus of the song that they sang at the dinner goes:
“And now we’re redundant,
But work ain’t abundant,
So that is the end of us Foremen, God help.
But our ghosts, pale and sallow,
Will haunt cleanways so narrow,
Crying, stores for wars, alive, alive O.”
And off they went to seek work.
In the few minutes I have for my speech, I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South in his call for recognition of munitions workers. The all-party group has done great work and will shortly be launching in Parliament a fundraising effort to build a permanent memorial in the national memorial arboretum. The group has already instigated, with the support of outside partners, archive work with the Imperial War museum, bringing together the sources of information on munitions workers.
Last year, for the first time there were 18 positions reserved for munitions workers on the march to the Cenotaph as part of Remembrance Sunday; they came from all around the country. However, that still leaves outstanding some form of individual memorial—a badge, a ribbon or a medal—and I say to the Minister that that is where he and the Government come in, and where we would ask for his support.
The 40,000 people who worked in the Bridgend factory made a significant contribution to the war effort. Today, I am focusing not on the scale of that support but on the fact that we should recognise that, for many of those people, this work was a formative part of their growing years as young men and women. In the Bridgend factory, with 40,000 people working there, essentially a huge town was established, with a rail network, new road infrastructure and so on. On the site, they had dance halls, canteens and a massive social life. They had darts leagues, football leagues, opera societies, a factory band and a rugby club. As a big rugby aficionado myself, I notice that it says of rugby in the Christmas 1943 newsletter:
“The Rugby side, despite many difficulties—the chief being the loss of players to the forces—has done creditably, having played 9, won 6 and lost 3. Points for 42, against 55.”
However, on the front of that same newsletter, there is something that I will quote and leave the Minister to think about. The superintendent of the site says:
“Looking back, we remember that last Christmas gave us the first lifting of the shadows then engulfing us, the first promise of a better day dawning. If you remember, it was in November 1942 that our Glorious Eighth Army started to drive Rommel back on his long desert retreat—and since then what truly great feats we have accomplished! Africa freed—Mussolini banished—the U-boat menace squashed—our feet on the mainland of Europe and the conquest of Italy well in hand. In all these feats, you, the Workers of R.O.F. 53, ‘have had a share’. You have a right to be proud of your contribution to the fight for freedom.”
I say to the Minister that we in the all-party group on recognition of munitions workers will do all we can to gain recognition for those people of Royal Ordnance factory No. 53 and for all the others right across the country—the tens of thousands of people—who played their part in the war effort. We urge the Minister to consider what else can be done by the Government to ensure that we recognise individually the contribution of munitions workers.
As other colleagues have already done this morning, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate. Like one or two others who are here in Westminster Hall today, I am also a member of the all-party group on recognition for munitions workers. I also have to declare a further interest; before I came to this place, I was a munitions worker myself for 18 years. So there was life before this place.
In considering the task that was laid before people during the second world war and the first world war, I recognise only too well just how hard the work of munitions factory staff was. However, that work was being done in completely different circumstances to those that exist today. The “war effort” is something that people glibly talk about, but they never recognise just how difficult it really was back in those days.
I will go back to the first world war. In my local community—I say “my local community”, but it is actually in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) —the two villages of Eastriggs and Gretna were built around the manufacture of munitions. In fact, the village of Eastriggs is called “the Commonwealth village”, and that can be seen in its street names: Halifax road; Sydney road; Melbourne avenue; Winnipeg way; and Auckland way. All around that village, there are streets and avenues with names from the Commonwealth.
I pay tribute to the local people in that area who have developed what could be seen as a tourist attraction. They have developed a project called “The Devil’s Porridge”, where they put on a display of what life was like during the first world war. They have tried to replicate that period as best they can, and I must say that they have made a fantastic effort to replicate what it was like to work in a munitions factory back then.
I also think back to the presentation of awards and badges to the Land Army girls. I must say that some of the hardy souls I met at that time made the comment, “Well, we were very lucky, we escaped the munitions factories”, because they were given a choice: did they want to go to work on the land, or did they want to go to the munitions factories? Quite clearly, they wanted to be out in the open air rather than working in a munitions factory, which they recognised was very dangerous work. Unfortunately, that offer was not made to some people, who were told, “You are going to munitions factories.” We must also keep it in mind that the women at that time were paid only half what the men were being paid, so there was not just a workforce dominated by women; there were men in the factories, who were actually paid twice as much as the women were.
Colleagues have mentioned today the companionship and comradeship found in munitions factories, and I have to say that I have found it absolutely fascinating, during the period that the all-party group has been established, to meet some of the women workers. They related their own stories and I must say that some of them could not be printed in Hansard, because of some of the antics that these people got up to. They were safe in a workplace, but their antics outwith included social events, social evenings, even cycling 10 or 15 miles to a dance. That was not uncommon and when we consider that many of today’s young people will ask “Can I get a lift?” if they are asked to pop down to the shops, we realise that these women in the factories were real hardy souls who saw nothing whatever as a challenge.
They also experienced a lot in the workplace. We have already heard about the “canary girls”, but all of the people in munitions factories were working with chemicals of all kinds, including acids. Sadly, many individuals were left disfigured because of severe acid burns. There were some acids that people worked with that resulted in their teeth falling out. So it was not pretty, but it was the war effort.
I also thank the Royal British Legion for enabling a number of these ex-munitions workers to take part in the Armistice day parade last year. I actually came down to London to be with two ladies from my constituency who took part in that parade, Margaret Proudlock and Margaret Shields. They will be for ever grateful to the all-party group for achieving that initial recognition. However, as hon. Members, including the Minister, have heard we want that little bit extra—something a little bit special—for individuals to be recognised.
The site that I worked at was the Royal Ordnance factory Powfoot, which was managed by Nobel Explosives, a subsidiary of ICI. I remember distinctly being told about the site on my first day, “There’s 365 acres here, boy. One for every day of the year.” That was founded in 1940. Also in my constituency was a site at Edingham in Dalbeattie, built in 1939. There was a further subsidiary site of Nobel’s in Dumfries itself, at Drungans. In checking one or two things, I came across the following in Hansard from 25 February 1946:
“Mr. McKie asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will make a statement regarding future plans for the munitions factory at Drungans, Dumfries.”
At that time, the President of the Board of Trade was Sir Stafford Cripps, who replied:
“This factory has just been declared surplus to Government requirements. It is, in its present form, suitable only to a limited extent for peace-time production, but the Board of Trade will endeavour to make arrangements for it to be used to the best possible advantage.”—[Official Report, 25 February 1946; Vol. 419, c. 548.]
That factory continued to operate from that date into the late 1980s, when it closed. The Powfoot site, which I worked at, ceased production in November 1992, after the privatisation of Royal Ordnance factories.
I want to add a little support to what has been said this morning. The Imperial War museum has been helpful to us. I am confident that we will get something at the national memorial arboretum and that there will be an effort to raise the £100,000 that we want. I also thank Scott Dodsworth of BAE Systems for all the work that he has done.
One challenge that became apparent when I first raised this issue was that we have no records of these individuals. In my home town of Annan, a lady at the Historic Resources Centre, Renée Anderson, has a card index system of some 2,600 members of staff who were employed. It is fascinating. I do not know how old this lady thinks I am, but she produced a significant number of photographs, some of which were black and white and from way back and asked if I recognised any of the people. Of course I did not, but I am sure that people in the community will come forward to try to identify them. Renée wants to put on a display about what that site did.
As we have heard this morning, these places were secret. I met a chap a good number of years ago who used to fly for the RAF. He said, “We were always told to keep away from this area, because we had no idea what was there. We were told, ‘Do not fly within this specific zone.’” People were moving around that site something that could, with the slightest spark, have decimated the area. To give an example, I am sure that colleagues will remember incidents in recent years, in Peru and Holland, where fireworks have gone off in an enclosed area and totally destroyed it, and have taken the paintwork off vehicles in the vicinity. That is the ferocity with which this material—small arms propellant—burns. It is ferocious and, when it goes, people stand no chance at all. That is the sort of environment that women worked in during the war.
My latter days at the Powfoot site were spent as a production supervisor. People in a work force do complain and my answer to complaints from some of the guys that that was dirty, heavy work, was, “This was women’s work during the war”—not demeaning anyone, but just showing the fortitude of those women in ensuring that our guys on the front line were properly armed.
I hope that the Minister will speak to his colleagues. It is little to ask that these women get individual recognition. I know that the records are not as we would like to be able to identify each and every one of them, but the information channelled to my office and in the Historic Resources Centre in my home town is a good starting point. I am sure that other colleagues will work tirelessly to ensure that we get official recognition for these people who made the difference to our troops on the front line, especially during the second world war.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is not the first time, but it is exciting none the less.
This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on his excellent speech and on the work he is doing to promote this issue. He started by reflecting that the debate was recognising some of the forgotten heroes. In as much as they have been forgotten by history, the work that the all-party group is doing and the speeches by hon. Members today are ensuring that they are forgotten no longer. We need to recognise the contribution they made. My hon. Friend reflected on the huge personal risks and sacrifices made by munitions workers, known as “canaries” because of the effects of their work with chemicals. I endorse the work of the all-party group. The Opposition should look to work with the Government and the all-party group on some of the more difficult issues to do with individual recognition.
The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) broadened the description of people who also served. When discussing this issue, we need to reflect on the many people who contributed in different ways to the war effort. Steps forward have been taken in recent years to recognise various groups, and the hon. Gentleman gave us a glimpse of other groups that we might choose to bring under this umbrella in the future. Perhaps inadvertently, he posed a challenge to my hon. Friend, as the description could continue to grow. At what point do we narrow it down? If we are asking for individual recognition, recognising that collective recognition that is long overdue—although there are real signs that it will be given—what work can the all-party group, with Government and the Opposition, do to try to narrow the description so that we can find out how many people we are talking about, how we are going to find them, who will do the work to see who will receive the recognition, and how we ensure that there is public confidence that a self-certification model will not demean the achievement in receiving it? Questions arise from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) reflected on the contributions and sacrifices of her constituents. She brought some colour to the debate, with her description of yellow-faced people swimming in a red river, which nicely brought to mind the massive personal sacrifice and contribution that people made. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) reflected on the fact that 90% of the workers in the factory at Aycliffe were women. More than 1 million women worked in munitions factories during the second world war. He alluded broadly to the way that history had, in various ways, written out women’s contribution to the second world war effort. As a society, we are belatedly recognising that contribution, and this debate helps in that process. My hon. Friend was also proud to talk of his respect for the Aycliffe Angels and the contribution they made to the war effort.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) reflected on the importance of local munitions factories as employers in the pre-war years. He also reflected on the fact that the big immigration concern in the mid-1930s was whether people would come from Maesteg to steal all the jobs. As the world has shrunk, the issue has broadened out slightly, but it was none the less interesting to hear that concerns we still recognise today were alive and well in Bridgend in the 1930s. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) made an interesting pitch for the tourism offer in his area. He made us aware that today we can still see evidence of what munitions factories were like, and many people will be interested in taking up his offer. He also reflected on the sacrifices made by workers at the time.
In discussing this issue and the fact that I would be contributing to the debate, I learned that my mother-in-law had worked in the Bryan Donkin factory in Chesterfield. The more we talk about this issue, the more we hear about people we never even realised had made a contribution. The BBC’s “People’s War” website included a contribution from the Derby action team about the war effort of munitions factory workers in Chesterfield. It mentioned that Chesterfield people kept a relentless black-out to ensure the factories were never bombed, although errant German bombers accidentally bombed the Chesterfield football ground and the Walton golf course. What the Germans had against Chesterfield’s sporting prowess, we will never know, but they did not manage to get to the factories.
The eminent war historian Simon Fowler has written about munitions workers, and one quote brings together very nicely some of the issues we have talked about:
“Britain could not have emerged victorious in 1945 without the help of the many who selflessly worked all the hours they could to provide the materials the British Army and Allied troops used to defeat the Germans… People were injured or killed while making munitions every day. Their recognition is long overdue. They played a key part in the War and it’s a scandal it’s taken until now, when there are not many left to see it.”
Many of us would echo those comments. In recent years, there has been not only renewed appreciation of the role of our heroic armed forces, but wider recognition by society and, I glad to say, the Government of those who served in many other ways. In recent years, we have taken huge strides forward in recognising the contribution of the Bevin boys, the land-girls and the Women’s Timber Corps, and we also have the memorial to women who died during the second world war.
I entirely support the recognition that munitions workers received for the first time at the Armistice day parade at the Cenotaph, and I congratulate the Royal British Legion on that. I also entirely support the campaign for a national memorial at Alrewas. I hope and expect that there will be wide public support for the campaign my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South described.
I acknowledge the difficulty posed by the lack of adequate records, as well as the fear that individuals will, as a result, never get the personal recognition we all think they deserve. I hope that wider recognition will be granted as quickly as possible, given that the clock is against many of those who clearly deserve recognition. Her Majesty’s Opposition are more than happy to be involved in cross-party talks on practical ways to move things forward in a way that enjoys confidence and is effective.
This debate is a time for us to recognise the debt that this generation owes to all those who stood up and were counted in Britain’s finest hour. It fell to them to fight for the essential freedoms that these blessed isles have enjoyed for so long and, God willing, will continue to enjoy. When questions were asked of that generation, they answered—and then some. They saved lives, but they also saved the world from a tyranny so evil that even imagining defeat makes our blood run cold.
In recognising the contribution of all those who served in our munitions factories in this debate, we are also passing on the gratitude, respect and thanks of this generation to all those who heroically served and saved our country all those years ago.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I join the many others who have spoken in congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing a debate on such an important subject. He has a keen interest in this issue, which he has expressed over a number of years on behalf of many of his constituents. I am grateful for the work that he and the chairman of the all-party group have done.
It is worth recognising not only the cross-party nature of the debate—there have been contributions from both sides of the House—but the fact that there have been contributions from almost all parts of the UK. We have heard from those representing the south and the north of England, the midlands, Wales and Scotland, so this really is a matter for the whole United Kingdom.
It is almost unnecessary to say that the production of munitions was essential to winning the war. Hundreds of thousands of women were drafted into armaments works and assembly plants across Britain to keep the armed forces supplied and to free men to fight on the front line. As we have heard from almost everybody who has spoken, many of these workers were killed, maimed or injured in industrial accidents or air raids, as the Luftwaffe tried to halt the production of supplies. That in itself demonstrates how vital the work was to the war effort.
The hon. Gentleman spoke with lyrical eloquence about the blood, toil, tears and sweat of not only those on the front line, but the munitions workers and, indeed, the munitionettes, who ensured an uninterrupted supply of munitions to the front. Nobody can fight or defend themselves and their country without munitions. About 2 million people took part in the production of munitions, and we have heard of the Aycliffe Angels and the Roses of Swynnerton, but there are no doubt many other such groups across the country. People were uprooted, some lost their lives and the lives of others were irreparably altered by injury and by their work. Their contribution should be remembered and understood by this generation.
The Government recognise and appreciate the courage and fortitude of all those who worked in munitions factories in the second world war to supply our armed forces. Photographs in our history books remind us of the endless lines of munitions that were produced. We have heard again of the huge impact of this work on the social fabric, with women going to work in factories often for the first time. That was the case in my family: my grandmother took up work for the first time in that period and never gave up the habit afterwards. The same thing happened across the country, and it resulted in a permanent change in the social fabric. Women made a great advance in the work force; it was a necessary advance, although work is still needed today to complete it.
During the war, factories were the responsibility of the Ministry of Supply, a predecessor of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That is why replying to the debate falls to my Department. In a sense, as the Minister for Skills, I am the Minister for Labour Supply, to use older terminology. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, answers need to be worked out to complicated questions about the potential formal recognition of munitions workers. There is the question of numbers: there could be tens of thousands of people still living who worked in munitions factories in the second world war. That does not include those who worked in factories involved in closely linked activities that were vital to the war effort, such as producing airframes, ships and boats, vehicles—tanks have been mentioned—and uniforms. The war effort could not have proceeded without any of those.
As has been mentioned, the disruption to employment in the war years, the time that has elapsed since and the necessary secrecy of the work make it harder still to identify all those who were involved. Manufacturing of equipment for our armed forces was spread throughout the UK’s extant manufacturing base, and many businesses that would not obviously fall within the definition of munitions factories were integral to the work. For example, small carpentry firms and furniture workshops produced wings for aircraft, and sewing machine manufacturers and repair facilities made essential components for weapons.
The Minister is right to say that it is important to recognise the work of the different allied trades, but I regard our proposal on munitions workers as a first step. When the Bevin boys were recognised, it was appreciated that the land-girls would need to be too, but the issues were dealt with discretely and individually, so there is a precedent.
Yes, I understand that point. Fireworks manufacturers, which were mentioned in the debate, were also critical to munitions work, but there is an important question about where to draw the boundary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) talked about close links to Woolwich and the involvement of a range of people. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about Les George and Pembrey munitions factory and reminded us not only of the dangerous work done during the war, but of the entirely necessary work that continued after 1945 to make unused munitions safe. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) reminded us that the work was often repetitive and, in his word, “boring”, but that it was none the less a proud part of the history of the town and that the work was a source of companionship. That was not least the case in places where it had a huge and obvious impact, such as Bridgend. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) spoke of the massive, 40,000-person Bridgend site and the debate about who should work there—a debate that I entirely recognise in what has been happening this very week. We can imagine the camaraderie in the canteen, among the foremen of Bridgend and in the enjoyment of dance halls, opera, football and rugby, but also in the workers’ fortitude in the face of the danger of the task. Finally, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) talked about his personal experience. He provided a powerful testament to the strength and fortitude of the women who worked in the factories during the war, which he related to his account of the men who work in the same factories now.
The lack of records and the difficulties in verifying entitlement raise practical questions about how to recognise formally the contribution of individual civilian workers, but I will consider the points that have been made in the debate and speak to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is formally responsible. He is to meet the all-party group on 23 April to listen to the arguments in person, and sends apologies for not being able to attend the debate. He has also been invited to the event on 15 April and will attend if he can. He is looking forward to replying to the all-party group about that shortly.
I welcome the way in which the Minister has responded to the debate, and the fact that he is keeping an open mind. In Bridgend there is a memorial to the 27 people who died, which reads:
“Cofiwn yn ddiolchgar
Bawb a weithiodd yn
Ffatri Arfau Penybont
Ac yn enwedig y rhai
A laddwyd yno”,
“Remember with great gratitude
All those who worked at
The Bridgend Arsenal
And especially those
Who were killed there”.
It goes on to list all the names. We are starting to put in place the things that will give recognition, and I welcome the fact that the Minister’s mind is not closed to the possibility of individual recognition for those who served, including those who have passed away. Their families may want them to be recognised and to have something that is personal to them, by which they can remember.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that time is pressing, especially for those who served during the second world war. I pay tribute to the all-party group, which was set up to explore ways to prevent those valiant efforts from being forgotten. The Government appreciate its work. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, thanks to its efforts, last Remembrance day, munitions workers, both male and female, participated for the first time in the march past the Cenotaph. We should thank the Royal British Legion for its support.
The launch event for the fundraising campaign to raise £100,000 for a lasting memorial at the national memorial arboretum in Staffordshire will be on 15 April in the House of Commons, and I wish it well. I hope that campaign that will be well supported by the public—I am sure that it will. I also hope that, subject to other business, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to make it to the launch. I know that he was pleased to receive his invitation. I pay tribute also to the partnership with the Imperial War Museum, supported by BAE Systems—in particular I want to recognise the work of Scott Dodsworth—to record the achievements of munitions workers and ensure that we do not forget.
As encouragement to the Minister and others in the Government to come to the event, perhaps I should I point out that they would be in the inestimable company of our patron, the authoritative and renowned broadcaster Huw Edwards, who lends his gravitas to the work being done by the all-party group. I am sure that Ministers would bask in the glow of the launch.
If Mr Edwards’s eloquence can match that of the hon. Gentleman, it will be a truly memorable event. His reading of words from the front of the Bridgend factory magazine, and, also in translation, from the memorial, had powerful force. I wish the all-party group every success on 15 April and sincerely hope that the event will result in a fitting tribute to those who risked and gave their lives in munitions factories. I will take a clear message back to my colleagues. I am grateful to have had the chance formally to restate our gratitude to the thousands of people who carried out that essential and dangerous work in the name of freedom, and who risked and gave their lives so that we might enjoy that freedom today.
Fetal Anti-convulsant Syndrome
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to have secured this important and topical debate after months of bad luck in the ballot. The House will adjourn for the Easter recess today, and I appreciate the effect of that on the number of participants. As hon. Members have other commitments in their constituencies, the turnout is lower than it would have been had the debate taken place at a more convenient time, so I am grateful to colleagues who have made it here.
Members who watched the recent BBC “Inside Out” programme will recognise the timeliness of this debate, because new expert medical research has highlighted the dangers of anti-convulsant medication to pregnant women and their unborn children. Before we get into the debate, I will provide a bit of background information on fetal anti-convulsant syndrome and the Independent Fetal Anti-Convulsant Trust.
Fetal anti-convulsant syndrome is a medical condition that arises among the children of mothers who suffer from epilepsy and take a type of drug known or used as an anti-convulsant medication to treat their condition during pregnancy. Not all children who are exposed to anti-convulsant drugs are affected. The level of risk is determined by known factors, such as the particular anti-convulsant medication used and the dose taken, as well as other susceptibility factors. Children suffering from fetal anti-convulsant syndrome suffer from a constellation of physical and neuro-developmental deficits, and so have to be diagnosed by a medical specialist.
The Independent Fetal Anti-Convulsant Trust was launched in November 2012 to gather information and provide support and assistance to those affected by the condition. It is run by a small, hard-working team of volunteers, a couple of whom are in the Gallery today. I would like to put on record my thanks to the entire team, and especially to Janet Williams, who has done a fantastic job in providing me and many other hon. Members with so much invaluable information. I would urge anyone who suffers from the condition, or who has a relative or friend with it, to contact the trust.
It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the number of people affected by the condition; in response to a parliamentary question to the Department of Health on the number of women receiving anti-epileptic drugs through the NHS, I was unfortunately told that the information was not available centrally. Things are made even more difficult by the fact that many children with the condition will not have been diagnosed with the syndrome because they do not have a major congenital malformation, such as a heart defect or spina bifida. Those children are less likely to be referred to a clinical geneticist.
Sodium valproate is the drug that reportedly carries the largest risk of causing fetal anti-convulsant syndrome. According to prescription records, there were more than 21,500 women taking sodium valproate in 2010 in England and Wales alone. A range of scientific studies conducted over the past couple of decades have demonstrated that some 10% of children exposed to sodium valproate will be born with a major congenital malformation. Their IQ is likely to be lower than it otherwise would have been, with 29% requiring additional educational support and 6% being diagnosed with significant social communication difficulties, such as autism.
More broadly, there have been numerous case reports in medical journals of children born with one or more major birth defects when the mother had been taking anti-convulsant drugs. Those children include not only those born with spina bifida and heart defects, but those born with cleft palates, limb malformations, neuro-developmental delays and learning difficulties. There are therefore likely to be tens of thousands of children affected by the condition.
The hon. Gentleman is making his case very well. Fetal anti-convulsant syndrome is an unknown quantity that affects children. I am aware of a family in my constituency with children who suffer from it. The hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned that children may also suffer from autism as a result of fetal anti-convulsant syndrome. Is he aware of that? Does he feel that more research is needed to find the necessary treatment, and that the Government should respond by encouraging, and making moneys available for, a treatment to be found for those young people and their parents?
I did in fact mention autism, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need direct support from the Government to help families affected by this condition.
The campaign has identified 500 families, but there are likely to be thousands of families across the country who do not know that their child suffers from this condition, and who do not have support from an organisation such as the trust. We therefore need Government action to support those families at this difficult time. The Organisation for Anti-Convulsant Syndromes—of which Janet Williams, who I mentioned earlier, was a founder—has been contacted by more than 500 families, with nearly 700 individuals affected by the condition.
The drug sodium valproate, which is manufactured under the name of Epilim by Sanofi, has been prescribed in the UK since the 1970s. Despite the drug’s efficacy in treating certain types of seizure, research has demonstrated that it carries a higher risk to the exposed foetus than other drugs. The first case reporting the effects of sodium valproate during pregnancy appeared in 1981, and it grew to be a hot topic within the medical profession in the 1980s, with numerous reports appearing in the medical journals. The report, however, was never investigated in the review of medicines from 1971 to 1990. The then Medicines Control Agency, which became the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in 2004, did not pursue the claims made by the medical research community. The MHRA “Current Problems in Pharmacovigilance” reports addressed the effects of sodium valproate in January 1983 and continued to do so intermittently. No action was taken, however, to convince Sanofi to recall the drug, improve it, or provide comprehensive warnings to patients and their doctors.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I add my thanks for the tenaciousness of Janet Williams, who is one of my constituents. In a sense, her work mirrors some of my work with the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) and the all-party group on tranquilliser addiction.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) hits the precise point on the licensing of these drugs and their side effects. General practitioners need to have knowledge of those side effects and transfer that knowledge to the patients to whom they dish out the drugs. Has he any suggestions for how we might tighten that up, or at least tighten up the knowledge among GPs of what they are actually prescribing?
The hon. Gentleman is very lucky to have such a fantastic constituent who has put so much fantastic effort, energy and hard work not only into her own personal circumstances but into getting justice for families across the country. That says a lot about his constituent, and he is a very luck man in that sense. There clearly needs to be better guidance for GPs, and in a second I will make some suggestions and ask direct questions of the Minister on that topic.
From the early 1990s, Sanofi continually insisted that patients consult their doctor when taking Epilim during pregnancy, which is standard for a patient information leaflet. In 2005, it added this to its patient information leaflets:
“Some babies born to mothers who took Epilim during pregnancy may develop less quickly than normal and may require additional educational support.”
In 2011, Sanofi added:
“Some babies born to mothers who took Epilim…during pregnancy may develop less quickly than normal or have autistic disorders.”
Sanofi therefore recognised in 2005 and 2011 that its drug can have a negative impact on a foetus. Why did that take so long?
Research by a group of six academics from the universities of Liverpool and Manchester was published this year, and it concludes that if sodium valproate
“is the treatment of choice, women should be provided with as much information as possible to enable them to make an informed decision. This should take place prior to conception as the evidence suggests that the neuropathology of Autism Spectrum Disorders develops early in gestation. Further, these findings have implications for the care of children with a history of prenatal exposure to Anti-Epileptic Drugs (AED). Children exposed to AEDs in utero, particularly Sodium Valproate (VPA), should be monitored closely during early childhood to allow for early intervention, diagnosis and support, should it be required.”
There are many pieces of similar medical research, but it would be difficult to go through all of them and their findings in the short time available.
The personal story of a young constituent of mine compelled me to initiate this debate. When he was born in 1997, he was immediately taken to a special baby care unit because his body was very floppy. In 1998, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and stayed in hospital for 10 days, at which point he was diagnosed with dextrocardia, which is a congenital defect affecting the heart. In 2001, he started nursery and showed signs of regression. He lacked co-ordination and was unable to handle his emotions, as a result of which he was given a preliminary diagnosis of fetal valproate syndrome, another name for fetal anti-convulsant syndrome. He was then given a firm diagnosis by a geneticist at Glasgow’s Yorkhill children’s hospital.
In 2002, my constituent started primary school and was given a special educational needs teacher. The same year, he was admitted to hospital for surgery on his tonsils and adenoids and had grommets inserted. In 2003, he was admitted to hospital with problems going to the bathroom that required surgery. He was diagnosed with pneumonia again, and with primary ciliary dyskinesia, a genetic disorder affecting the respiratory tract. He was put on a repeat prescription of antibiotics to prevent chest infections and given physiotherapy three times a day.
In 2004, my constituent was seen by occupational, educational and speech therapists owing to his communication problems and inability to mix with peers. In 2006, he was sent back to occupational therapy and sent for a CT scan on his chest that showed fibrosis on the lower left lobe of his left lung, which was found to be smaller than his right. Between 2007 and 2009, he was diagnosed several times with pneumonia and severe chest infections requiring intense physiotherapy and antibiotics. In 2010, he was diagnosed with pneumonia again and, after admission to hospital, with hypoplasia of the left pulmonary artery, which had failed to develop.
As shocking as that story is, it is only one case, and there are many worse. I was informed of a family in which two children have been on disability living allowance since the ages of five and eight. Anyone hearing those stories can only be saddened by the personal circumstances. It is incumbent on Members from all political parties, whether in government or opposition, to ensure that we work together to get justice for those families and provide them with any necessary support.
The anti-convulsant that my constituent’s mother was given during her pregnancy was sodium valproate, otherwise known as Epilim, taken twice daily. It is clear that both the Government and the pharmaceutical companies, particularly Sanofi, could have done more and taken further action to protect the public. It was Sanofi’s duty to keep up to date with known medical knowledge, conduct further research and pass on that information to patients via the patient information leaflet. It was the MHRA’s duty to ensure that Sanofi investigated the medical research claims of birth defects caused by their products. Delays by both have resulted in thousands of women becoming pregnant without being given the necessary information on the levels of risk associated with the treatment.
Is the Minister aware that an estimated 40% of children exposed to sodium valproate during pregnancy are affected by neuro-developmental problems, autistic spectrum disorders and physical malformations, and that approximately 20,000 have been so affected since 1973? Does she think that that is acceptable? I know that her answer will be, “Of course not.” Is she also aware that this year, sodium valproate will have been licensed for 40 years, and that it is now being prescribed for other conditions, such as bipolar disorder and migraine headaches, and as pain relief? Does she think that that is appropriate, given the significant concerns raised by medical research about the drug’s use?
Mr Hollobone, you will be shocked to hear that 80 families claiming damages against Sanofi-Aventis lost their legal aid in 2010 after six years of pre-trial preparation. Their legal aid was withdrawn after assessments ruled that the group’s prospects of winning had fallen and a judicial review failed. It was a devastating blow to families who had been struggling to deal with the condition without knowing what the problem was, and without any proper support. Their lawyer, David Body, summed up the tragedy when he said that
“our case against the manufacturers of Epilim must be discontinued, not because we have lost our fight in court but because continuing without legal aid funding would place our clients at too great a financial risk.”
I know that the Minister cannot reinstate the legal aid funding, but there are other things that she can do. As an aside, we should never allow thousands of families to be affected by the malpractice of a medical company and a failure of the state, and then not give them the support that they need to find justice for their families. We should never allow a situation in which people, through no fault of their own, cannot pursue justice owing to the barriers put in their way by the system. No one who believes in the principle of fairness would think that that was just. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we support those families in bringing their action, so they can get some justice. It will not be the justice that they want, which is to have fit, healthy children, but it will be some kind of justice.
Given that successive Governments and regulators have failed to address the issue, will the Minister consider launching a public inquiry to investigate why sodium valproate and other anti-convulsants have been allowed to cause so much damage over such a long period? At the moment, there are pregnant women taking sodium valproate who are unaware of the dangers, because they did not receive pre-conception counselling. Will she confirm that she will ensure that that is corrected in future? Will she commit to working with the Independent Fetal Anti-Convulsant Trust to raise awareness of the condition? As a minimum, will she assure me that new guidelines will be issued to ensure that children exposed to anti-convulsant drugs in utero, particularly sodium valproate, are monitored closely during early childhood to allow for early intervention, diagnosis and support, should they be required? Lastly, is she or one of her colleagues prepared to meet me, my constituent and representatives of the Independent Fetal Anti-Convulsant Trust to discuss how we can support people affected by the condition, and help protect others from it in the future?
Inaction is not an option. These families have suffered for long enough, and it is incumbent on all of us to work together to find a fair deal for them, so they can get the necessary compensation, and so that we can ensure that not a single family suffers in future.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) for bringing this matter to the House and for his speech, which was clearly based on careful consideration of a number of matters that have, properly, been brought to his attention by his constituents and by the action group to which he has referred.
I concede that it is never attractive for a Minister to begin opening remarks by saying, “This particular issue is not within my brief.” Immediately, it sounds like trying to pass the buck to somebody else. However, notwithstanding that the issue is not within my brief—I am standing in for the Minister with responsibility, who is unfortunately unable to attend this debate—I assure the hon. Gentleman that on my return to the Department of Health, I will speak to the Minister’s officials and ensure that they are fully aware of all the matters that he has raised and the many questions that he has rightly posed, some of which I will be able to answer. I will ensure that all the answers are given, if not by me today then certainly in a letter.
I will speak directly with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). Knowing him as I do, I am sure that he will be keen to meet the hon. Gentleman. It might take a little time—our diaries, as one might imagine, are fiendishly full—but I can see no good reason why my hon. Friend would not want to know more about the issue. Anybody hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the arguments advanced and the stories behind this unfortunate condition would want to know more and to see whether anything can be done.
What we do know is that fetal anti-convulsant syndrome can occur when a mother must take anti-epilepsy drugs, as the hon. Gentleman has explained better than I can. We know that it can result—although, it is important to say, not always—in delays in developing speech and language skills in the babies born, difficulties with social interaction, memory and attention and physical defects such as spina bifida, heart defects, ocular abnormalities and characteristic facial features.
It is important to say that most women with epilepsy will have successful pregnancies and healthy children. However, epilepsy during pregnancy can pose challenges. Epilepsy is associated with the risk of giving birth to a disabled child, and for women on anti-epilepsy drugs, the risk is greater. Pregnancy may also increase the frequency of seizures in about one third of women, and it can alter their metabolism of AEDs. Prolonged fits can be dangerous for the baby as well as the mother, so ideally, pregnant women should be seizure-free.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central rightly made the point that women have been diagnosed and prescribed this treatment but have not had sufficient explanation of the risks involved in continuing to take that form of medication, which many epilepsy sufferers take without any difficulty, for the sake of their health because of its positive effect.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) for the important point he made about the role of general practitioners in ensuring that National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines are followed. I have those guidelines in front of me and what they say is important. It is all well and good that the pros and cons of the medication are set down, but it is also imperative for GPs and everyone else involved in the treatment of a woman with epilepsy who is thinking of becoming pregnant or is of childbearing age to understand the potentially bad consequences of taking AEDs throughout a pregnancy. Such women need proper information and a full and frank discussion so that they can make an informed choice—I emphasise that it should be an informed choice—before and during pregnancy.
The NICE guidelines are clear:
“In women of childbearing age, the risk of the drugs causing harm to an unborn child should be discussed and an assessment made as to the risks and benefits of treatment with individual drugs…In girls of childbearing age, the risk of the drugs causing harm to an unborn child should be discussed between the girl and/or her carer”—
in most cases, a parent—
“and an assessment…made as to the risks and benefits of treatment with individual drugs…Prescribers should be aware of the latest data on the risks to the unborn child associated with AED therapy when prescribing for women and girls of childbearing potential…Specific caution is advised in the use of sodium valproate because of the risk of harm to the unborn child”.
The NICE guidelines could not be more clear, but proper information sharing and full and frank discussion are critical to informed choices.
Indeed. I was about to move on to that very point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and to discuss support for children who have such an affliction, obviously through no fault of their own or of their mother. Before I do so, let me add that data related to the safety and use of AEDs during pregnancy remain under scrutiny; the information and the advice are updated and issued as appropriate. The MHRA regularly reviews both the evidence on AED use in women of childbearing age and the information provided in the product information and in patient information leaflets—although many people think that we are lucky if anyone reads leaflets in boxes, and that they are not the way to convey information to a patient; they are no substitute for sitting people down and telling them face to face, going through everything in the manner I have described. The important fact is that we are continually scrutinising the information and advice so that they are regularly updated.
On the specific point about children with this unfortunate condition, better care and outcomes for disabled children are a priority of the Government. The mandate to the NHS Commissioning Board sets out our ambition to give children the best start in life and to promote their physical and mental health and their resilience as they grow up. At national level, the new Children And Young People’s Health Outcomes Board will bring together what my brief describes as key system leaders in child health to provide a sustained focus on improving outcomes throughout the child health system. The Children and Young People’s Health Outcomes Forum will provide continuing expertise in child health and offer constructive challenge as we take forward plans to improve the system.
Those are fine words, though the brief was not written by me—it is not in the nice, clear, plain English that I would like. When I return to the Department of Health, however, I will make the point that, given the structures and our good, strong ambitions, it is imperative for us to ensure that the case of children who suffer from the syndrome is advanced within such forums, and today’s debate will help with that.
The Minister says that she likes plain language, and I, too, like plain language. With due respect, any family with a child suffering from such a condition will not want to hear strategy documents; they want to hear what specific action is to be taken to help such families, what compensation they might get, what action is to be taken against the medical companies, or what change of structure will take place in the health service to prevent such failures happening again. They do not need strategy documents; they need plain language and action. What will they get?
I am trying to assist the hon. Gentleman by explaining that women with epilepsy should, from the very outset, get proper, sound information and should have a full and frank discussion with their medical practitioner so that they can make an informed choice based on everything put forward and knowing the pros and cons. There are many pros—[Interruption.] I prefer not to be heckled. I am happy to give way, and I will in a moment, because I do not have a difficulty with doing so.
I was absolutely clear in my explanation. I then discussed a series of organisations and structures—call them what you will—that also make it clear that the health and well-being of all children, including those who suffer from this syndrome, must be considered, and they must be looked after and cared for as we all wish them to be. The hon. Gentleman now seeks for the spotlight to be turned on this particular syndrome as it has perhaps not been before, and he is achieving that through the debate and by bringing me to this Chamber so that I can assure him that I will take the matter back to the responsible Minister. The hon. Gentleman has already pushed the syndrome up the list of priorities by casting the spotlight on to it, as should be the case.
Furthermore, services for children with special educational needs—some of the children we are discussing will need such services—will be enhanced by the provisions in the Children and Families Bill. From 2014, local authorities and clinical commissioning groups—this is an important provision to understand—will commission services jointly to meet the educational, health and care needs of young people with SEN through a single, integrated assessment process. In other words, we are now beginning for the first time ever to integrate all the specific needs of a particular child, right across all the various departments and people involved, in a way that has not been done before. If we do that, we will undoubtedly see an improvement in the lives of those children.
I assure the Minister that I was not heckling her; I am too much of a gentlemen to do that. I was trying to say yes to action on proper advice for potential mothers with epilepsy and to future guidance to stop the condition happening, but my direct question was about the support to be given to the families for whom that is too late. They already have the condition and the difficult circumstances. What specific support will they get?
Those families are already receiving support; no one is saying that the children have been completely abandoned and are not getting any support at all. Perhaps much more can be done but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in a debate of this length and given the constraints placed on me or any Minister, he will not get an instant answer, especially without notice of such questions. If I cannot answer all his questions in the short time that we have, and the clock is against me, he will get a letter with all his questions answered. Furthermore, when I go back to the responsible Minister, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt get a meeting to follow.
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for securing the debate. He has cast the spotlight as it needed to be done, and I am sure that there will be positive outcomes as a result.
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
I thank the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury for being present to respond to my debate.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recently changed its services: it is trying to become “leaner and more efficient”. Two weeks ago, we learned that HMRC has hatched a plan to close all 281 inquiry centres throughout the country. Last year, those offices gave advice to more than 2.5 million people, but HMRC is closing them because the number of visits has halved since 2006 and, it claims, closing them will save £13 million a year. Other Members would no doubt have their own tales to tell, were they here to speak, but I invite the Minister to consider the claims about usage and cost savings as they apply to the Isle of Wight, because he will find them completely spurious.
Let us look first at the number of people visiting the office. The old HMRC office was open from 9 o’clock to 5 o’clock, five days a week; now it is open only from 10 o’clock to 3.30 pm, three days a week. HMRC shares a building on the island, Broadlands house, with Jobcentre Plus, so people with tax problems can often see HMRC staff through the glass but are unable to speak to them, which is ludicrous. Furthermore, staff are discouraged from dealing with clients personally, face to face; instead, they must floor walk them to a free phone in the next office and get them to speak to someone in the contact centre on the mainland. People are not supposed simply to walk in and get advice: if a taxpayer turns up and insists on talking to a real live person, staff are supposed to make an appointment for another time, a rule which applies even if the office is open and staff are available. I am pleased that the staff on the Isle of Wight do their best to be helpful and tend to ignore that particular edict from on high. None the less, it is little wonder that figures show fewer personal calls being made to inquiry centres, because HMRC has done everything it can to make visiting in person difficult and inconvenient. I have estimates for the island for the past two years. In 2011-12, there were 4,925 visits to HMRC’s Newport office and the two outreach offices; in 2012-13, that figure dropped, but by fewer than 300, so that the total was 4,630. That is more than 4% of the island’s adult population visiting HMRC, which is hardly insignificant.
We should also consider the major changes to the tax and benefits system being introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Planned changes to child benefit are likely to lead to 1 million extra people filling in self-assessment forms. In addition, real-time information, as it is called, starts in two weeks. HMRC itself describes the changes as
“the biggest shakeup of the Pay As You Earn…system in nearly 70 years”.
It cannot be safely assumed that the number of people needing face-to-face help on the island or elsewhere will fall.
Let us look at the claimed savings on the Isle of Wight. The original HMRC office in Upper St James street was closed and 36 staff moved into the newly built Apex centre, although taxpayers needed to walk for 10 minutes from the bus stop or had to drive to reach it. The move was always planned to be temporary, and in May 2011 the HMRC office moved again, to Broadlands house. It was anticipated that some staff would relocate to other HMRC offices within what was described as reasonable daily travel distances, but that turned out to be a journey of an hour and a half each way. The majority of staff lost their jobs, and only nine people now work in the HMRC office on the island. Broadlands house is also home to the main Jobcentre Plus office, as I said, and to the valuation office. HMRC’s nine remaining staff moved into empty offices in the building, which seems an eminently sensible solution. The Government already pay for the upkeep of the entire building, so the costs are minimal, and it is hard to see what savings could be made on rent, rates or utility charges from closing the office. The only other opportunity for substantial savings, therefore, would be on staff.
In addition to being open to the public three days a week, the staff carry out what are called personal taxes operations, which is computerised work generated centrally. The work can be obtained by HMRC officers anywhere in the country and includes activities such as changes to tax codes, addresses and so on. The staff on the Isle of Wight are justifiably proud to be achieving 100% of their target. They should be proud: they are an efficient and experienced team—in fact, the nine staff have a combined total of 186 years’ experience, which may well be a record, but certainly represents a large investment by HMRC in training and development over the years. HMRC claims that it intends to deploy the staff affected by the proposed changes elsewhere, and such experienced officers must be a valuable asset, but there are no opportunities within reasonable daily travelling distance from the Isle of Wight. HMRC would therefore be willing to pay the costs for staff to relocate, not only paying the costs of removals, legal fees, stamp duty and so on for a new house, but perhaps even extending to cover the difference in house prices if staff move to a more expensive part of the country. HMRC could therefore incur significant costs for Isle of Wight staff to move elsewhere to undertake exactly the same work that they are doing now. The alleged £13 million savings appear to take into account neither that nor the costs of redundancy packages for staff who cannot be redeployed to another job or do not wish to move.
As part of the plans, HMRC is going to invest in a shiny new telephone system costing £34 million—to save £13 million a year. Looking at HMRC’s record, I would not put my trust in that working out too well. HMRC spends money, but that does not necessarily bring success. Despite HMRC spending £900 million on customer service, the Public Accounts Committee found it had “an abysmal record”. Last year, HMRC allowed 20 million telephone calls to go unanswered—a quarter of all the people who tried to call it. Even its new targets for call answering are described by our colleagues on the PAC as “woefully inadequate and unambitious”. For callers who do get through, there can be other problems.
I want to raise an issue brought to my attention by Jonathan Isaby, of that excellent organisation the Taxpayers Alliance. He received an e-mail from a customer adviser working in an HMRC call service. Apparently, advisers do not have targets based on how long a telephone call takes; instead, the focus is on what they call “wrap-up time”, which is the time after a call in which necessary administration is carried out, such as tax coding, sending e-mails, making referrals and updating customer records. Customer advisers are targeted to keep their wrap-up time to an absolute minimum. They do that by putting people on hold and keeping them on the phone unnecessarily, which increases the cost to the taxpayer and generates income from the telephone call for HMRC. That cannot be right and I urge the Minister to look carefully into that allegation. I know that Mr Isaby will do all he can to assist in getting to the bottom of it.
For those who still need face-to-face advice after the closures, the plan is to replace the current system with a mobile team. They will talk to taxpayers using community centres or local libraries, or, if called for, by making a home visit; but home visits by experts are expensive and inefficient. We do not usually call a lawyer or an accountant to visit us at home.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. He makes an important point about efficiency savings and HMRC’s proposals. Rurality is a huge issue in itself. Mobile units going round to support small business people and farmers in my community across mid-west Wales would be a huge cost. One wonders how much that has been factored into the equation.
I am not able to say how much it has been factored in, but I can say that doing this over two weeks once a year, which is what I do in the summer when I visit people locally, takes a lot of time. I can only judge that the same business will be included.
It is clear that HMRC does not intend home visits to be the norm. That is a most important point. I feel certain that only a very few people who currently use the face-to-face system will be offered a home visit. It is hard to see the financial sense of somebody coming across from the mainland to visit a small business man or an elderly pensioner on the island, but island staff have been told categorically that the mobile team covering the island will be based on the mainland and that they cannot be part of that team.
What is the poor taxpayer to do if he cannot work out the answer to his question online, cannot get through on the telephone and cannot persuade the chap from the mainland to visit him at home? He could go along to meet an adviser in a community centre or library, which is exactly what happens now on the Isle of Wight. Local staff have introduced an outreach service in Ryde and Freshwater on the days that the Newport office is closed. So what this decision means is that islanders will not be able to visit a tax office to talk to local advisers, but HMRC staff from the mainland will travel over at huge expense to provide a service that is already being provided by qualified, experienced people, and those people will have been paid to move away or made redundant. I understand the mobile teams may even hold sessions in tax offices. They could use the empty office in Broadlands house, which would no longer be open to the pesky public. You could not make it up, Mr Benton. It is the Isle of Wight version of “Yes Minister”. I can picture Sir Humphrey’s self-satisfied smile now—he will be in his element.
The Minister must be aware that a face-to-face session can achieve things that cannot be achieved over the phone. An experienced adviser can quickly spot that a figure has been put in the wrong box, and a taxpayer who does not understand what information should go where can show the relevant paperwork to somebody who understands it. That simply does not happen online or over the phone, and vulnerable groups may find it particularly difficult to engage by those means. Most people deal with HMRC not because they want to, but because they have to. Those 2.5 million people did not go to their tax office because they wanted a jolly day out. If they felt that they could have dealt with the issue online or by telephone, presumably the vast majority would have done so.
HMRC is running a pilot in the north to see how the new telephone advice service will work. It follows a previous trial undertaken last year when taxpayers were telephoned to try to sort out queries. I understand that of 1,354 calls made, only 259—less than 20%—resulted in the query being sorted out over the phone; the other 80% of cases still needed a face-to-face appointment. Yet HMRC still intends to close all 281 inquiry centres next year, come what may, and issue telephone advice from Bradford and Peterlee. I wonder why considerations of job shortages never seem to apply to places such as the Isle of Wight.
All of us in this House and the other place understand the need to make savings, but our tax system is fiendishly complicated. I know that the Government are trying to sort that out, but in the meantime we must make sure that those who need advice can get it. We must make sure that the claimed savings are not based on flawed research or shoddy decision making. Only yesterday, the Home Affairs Select Committee highlighted the “catastrophic leadership failure” of Lin Homer, the current chief executive of HMRC, when she ran the UK Border Agency. Previously, as chief executive of Birmingham city council, she was criticised by an election judge for having
“thrown the rule book out of the window”
during the 2004 postal vote fraud. Such a record hardly fills us with confidence. As for the Isle of Wight, it is obvious that closing the only accessible tax office will not benefit my constituents, or achieve the cost savings that HMRC is claiming for the closure.
I suspect that we are not unique. If the issues facing the Isle of Wight are not exceptional, I hope that the Minister, who is an eminently sensible gentleman, will intervene. He needs to make sure that HMRC looks again at this decision. On the other hand, HMRC could argue that the circumstances I have outlined this afternoon are unique: the island’s physical separation from the mainland makes us different. If so, HMRC must look again at the decision to close the office on the Isle of Wight and come up with a unique plan. An appropriate decision must be made, and it must be made soon, before HMRC pays to get rid of further staff or pays for them to move to the mainland, and, even more significant, before islanders lose access to the expert advice they need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I commend the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing this afternoon’s extremely timely and important debate. His record of assiduously standing up for his constituents and their interests is well known to the House. The issue of HMRC closures is clearly of particular importance to the people living on the Isle of Wight, given its geographical isolation from the mainland. He set out clearly and carefully the potential impact of HMRC’s proposals on his constituents. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and how he intends to ensure that such problems and issues are mitigated and addressed.
The debate is timely: we heard only two weeks ago about HMRC’s proposals to change the way in which it supports customers who need extra help. I use the word “customers”, because that is the language deployed by HMRC and, no doubt, the Minister will use it in his reply, but as the Public Accounts Committee has frequently articulated, those who come into contact with HMRC have little choice about whether they do so. Many of those people—an estimated 1.5 million—find dealing with HMRC difficult because they have a disability or a mental health condition; they have low literacy or numeracy skills; they do not speak or read English; they do not have the confidence or capacity to deal with what can be a very complex situation; or because of a combination of any or all of the above. Ensuring that such people have access to the best possible support and advice in their dealings with HMRC is, of course, something that we all wish for, and we on the Opposition side of the House have regularly advocated that.
I want to add something to the mix of problems that the hon. Lady identified. In my constituency, we have a problem with broadband: 20% of my constituency is not broadband-enabled. The assertion is made that a lot more of the transactions and discussions can take place over the internet, but that simply is not available for many of my constituents. The Government are doing some sterling work to change that, but a solution for my constituents is some way off.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, which is very important, not only for areas without access to good broadband that allowed online dealings with HMRC not to end in utter frustration —even when people have broadband, it may not be sufficiently fast—but for constituents who do not even have computers or have access to them. I will mention later a concern in my constituency, which is that many public services, such as libraries and community centres, are struggling, and some are set to close, but many provide the only access that some people have to a computer. Although we would love to live in a digital age, we are not there yet.
We heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, in his excellent contribution, about the 10-week consultation that was launched on 14 March, and the proposal to close every one of the 281 inquiry centres that provide face-to-face advice for customers. The centres are apparently to be replaced by “more accessible”, “targeted” and “tailored” services for people who need extra help in engaging with HMRC, either all the time, or in response to a particular life event, such as a bereavement. It is proposed that the new service will include specialist expert help over the telephone by a new team, and face-to-face support delivered by a mobile team of advisers, who can meet customers at suitably convenient locations in the community, or in their home.
That issue is particularly pertinent to me, not only in my capacity as shadow Exchequer Secretary, responding to the debate, but because I represent the esteemed people of Newcastle upon Tyne North, and HMRC proposes to trial or pilot the new idea on them. From 3 June to 31 October, the pilot will run throughout my region of the north-east, and 13 inquiry centres will be closed in the process. For the record, those centres comprise Alnwick, Bishop Auckland, Hexham, Darlington, Durham, Middlesbrough, Morpeth, Newcastle, Stockton, Sunderland and—although I, and many proud Yorkshiremen and women, might quibble over the Minister’s geographical knowledge of the north-east—Bridlington, Scarborough and York. Apparently, depending on the outcome of the consultation and the pilot, HMRC states that it will look to introduce the new service across the UK in February 2014, resulting in the closure of the remaining inquiry centres between March and May next year—including the one in the Jobcentre Plus in Newport, on the Isle of Wight.
The proposal will clearly also have a direct impact on the 1,300 HMRC staff employed in inquiry centres across the country, although I understand the intention is that many of them will be redeployed either within HMRC or to other parts of the civil service, and that is to be welcomed. As I stated earlier, I fully support the notion of providing a better service to the most vulnerable people with whom HMRC comes into contact. I welcome the fact that HMRC has said that it is working with TaxAid, Tax Help for Older People, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, Citizens Advice, Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group and Age UK as part of the consultation on what additional support may be required and how it might be delivered. However, I want to probe the Minister on exactly how he thinks that HMRC will be able to improve its performance in that area, given the context in which the Department is operating.
I have previously told the Minister—indeed, only last month in this Chamber—that serious concerns remain about the customer service provided by HMRC. The National Audit Office report on HMRC’s customer service performance, published in December, revealed genuinely troubling findings about the way in which HMRC treats some of its customers. To remind hon. Members, 20 million telephone calls went unanswered by HMRC last year, costing customers £33 million in call charges; that is in addition to the estimated £103 million cost of customers’ wasted time. As I have stated previously, that is particularly worrying for people on low incomes who cannot afford to sit waiting on the telephone, and for small businesses that could be making much better and more profitable use of their time, which is particularly important in the current economic climate.
The Public Accounts Committee report on HMRC customer service published earlier this month was equally scathing, describing the Department as having an “abysmal record” in this area. Those concerns have been echoed by eminent professional bodies, such as the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, whose members’ surveys have found significant concerns regarding the customer service performance of HMRC, which often fails to meet its basic responsibilities.
I acknowledge that there appears to have been some recent improvement in HMRC’s handling of post, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the current position on its call-handling performance. According to the answer to a parliamentary question I received from the Minister only last month, the percentage of calls not handled—in other words, unanswered—by HMRC had gone up from 25.6% last year to 28.6% in this financial year to date. Given that we are now only days away from the end of the financial year, will the Minister confirm whether that fall in performance has continued, and if it has, what specific measures he has put in place to ensure that it does not fall further?
That point is, of course, pertinent to this debate, not only because of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, but given the recent words of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge):
“Just how the department is going to improve standards of customer service, given the prospect of its having fewer staff and receiving a higher volume of calls, is open to question. HMRC plans to cut the number of customer-facing staff by a third by 2015. At the same time, the stresses associated with introducing the Real Time Information System, Universal Credit and changes to child benefit are likely to drive up the number of phone calls to the department…Since our hearing it has also been announced that HMRC is to close all of its 281 enquiry centres which give face-to-face advice to customers. This will undoubtedly put even more pressure on phone lines.”
That is also relevant because HMRC’s consultation document appears to suggest that anyone who requires a face-to-face appointment with HMRC staff under the new system can obtain one only once they have spoken to at least two helpline advisers— and then a face-to-face appointment will be offered at the discretion of HMRC staff.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I would welcome a guarantee from the Minister today that HMRC will significantly increase its call handling and customer service performance —perhaps beyond the relatively low targets it sets for itself—before the new service is introduced.
Of course, the proposals that we are discussing today are simply out for consultation. Indeed, HMRC itself has stated:
“No final decision will be made until we have consulted on and piloted the new service, and fully assessed the findings of the consultation and the pilot.”
It has also said:
“We plan to close our Enquiry Centres as the new service is introduced in 2014. This is subject to our making a formal assessment of how the closures affect our customers, the local communities they serve and our staff—as well as to the outcome of a pilot of the new service in the North East of England.”
However, I question the extremely tight time scales and the nature of the process. HMRC’s consultation ends on 24 May, yet it proposes to introduce the pilot in my region, thereby closing the existing inquiry centres, on 3 June—five working days later. It would be a genuinely impressive improvement in HMRC’s response times if it were able to process and adequately respond to all the consultation submissions it receives in such a short period. What will happen to the inquiry centres in the north-east if the pilot does not turn out to be a success? Will they re-open? Indeed, what measures will HMRC use to determine whether the north-east trial delivers what is intended? We often hear that Government pilots are “doomed to succeed” and I very much suspect that that is the case in the present instance. Does the Minister share my concern that HMRC staff have apparently already been told that it is “highly likely” that all 281 centres will close before the outcomes of either the consultation or the pilot are even known?
I understand the rationale behind HMRC’s proposals, based as they are on the decline in the number of people using inquiry centres over recent years from more than 5 million in 2005-06 to around 2.5 million in 2011-12. HMRC also states that it has conducted detailed research, which
“confirms that inquiry centres no longer meet the needs of our customers”.
Will the Minister address the concerns of the PCS union that that research was flawed? Did those conducting research on behalf of HMRC really not give people the option of selecting “speaking to someone in person”, when asking whether customers would prefer to deal with the department “by phone, post or online”?
It is not only PCS that is raising concerns about the proposals. The director of tax at Berg Kaprow Lewis, David Whiscombe, has said:
“No doubt many taxpayers would be happy to deal with HMRC online or via call centres if either were reliably available. But there is a swathe of taxpayers who are uncomfortable with these methods including numbers of the elderly, less literate or less articulate sections of the population for whom face-to-face contact delivers the only sensible option.
For HMRC to disregard them is arrogant, insensitive and, dare I say it just plain stupid”.
Jane Moore, tax faculty technical manager at ICAEW, commented:
“I'm disappointed because I think a lot of people could still make use of the Enquiry Centres. For the last few years I don't think the Revenue has done enough to publicise them or provide a comprehensive service.”
Those are worrying concerns being expressed by experts in the field.
Finally, I would like to mention an important concern in addition to those that I have raised already, and those raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. It was briefly addressed when the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) raised it. HMRC states that it will be able to provide its new tailored service to those customers who need most support in a number of venues, including local libraries and community centres. However, as I have said, hundreds of libraries, community centres and other local facilities are either closed or facing closure as a result of the cuts that the Government have dished out to local government funding.
Those cuts are being targeted at areas such as northern cities, and many of the London boroughs with the highest needs. In such places there are likely to be more of the type of people for whom HMRC states it wants to provide a better service. What discussions is the Minister having with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the impact of their funding decisions on the venues from which HMRC hopes to be able to provide its new service? I am sure we would all agree that there is little point in HMRC offering face-to-face advice in community facilities if those facilities no longer exist.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing the debate, which has provided an opportunity to discuss why HMRC is introducing a new service to support customers who need extra help, and to clarify what that means for customers and staff. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her remarks and her balanced comments about the proposal. I hope to address the questions raised by both Members in my remarks.
Several concerns have been raised in the debate about the new service, and particularly HMRC’s plans to close its network of inquiry centres. I would like to address the three main concerns that have been raised today: the impact on HMRC staff; whether a face-to-face service will continue; and what the changes really mean for people who currently use inquiry centres.
First, in relation to the impact of these proposals on HMRC staff, as Members will be aware, HMRC has recently written to all Members of Parliament about the proposal. That included a confirmation of something that I want to stress again today: that the proposals are no reflection on the dedication and commitment of the 1,300 HMRC staff working in the inquiry centres, including the nine staff based in Newport on the Isle of Wight. HMRC will be looking to redeploy staff affected by the proposals, including those in the north-east pilot area—I hesitate to call it that, since, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pointed out, it extends beyond the north-east region—to other roles within HMRC or in other Departments.
For the majority of affected staff—about 1,000 of them in fact—we expect redeployment to be relatively straightforward. Many inquiry centres are based in buildings alongside other HMRC staff, or near other HMRC offices, where inquiry centre staff can be moved into new roles, either in HMRC or in other Departments. There will also be a need for staff in the new mobile face-to-face advisory service that will be introduced, and that could include staff based on the Isle of Wight.
My hon. Friend asked about the situation on the Isle of Wight. I think that he has been informed that a post in the mobile advisory service will not be available for those who are based there, but let me reassure him that that has not been decided. The pilot will test the new service and the skills and needs necessary for the mobile service. HMRC will work closely with all stakeholders to ensure that customers get the service they need. No decisions have been taken on where the people serving the Isle of Wight will be based. I shall take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and his representation that some of those providing the mobile service on the Isle of Wight should be permanently based there. I can provide no guarantees, but equally I can provide some reassurance that no decisions have been made on that front.
Where there is no HMRC office nearby, staff might be offered roles that will involve slightly longer travel times. If there is no redeployment possibility in HMRC, remaining staff will be helped to find another role in the civil service. HMRC has tried-and-tested methods in place to manage the impact on staff and will endeavour to avoid compulsory redundancies where possible.
I am not in a position to answer that specific question. I am sure that my hon. Friend is closely informed of the job opportunities available on the Isle of Wight. I made a general point that HMRC will show considerable willingness to deal with staff in the best way possible. If one looks at the scale of the reduction in the number of people working for HMRC over a long period—since its formation in 2005—compulsory redundancy has been necessary on a very limited number of occasions. HMRC has a good record of ensuring that its staff are well looked after.
Concerns were raised that the closure of the inquiry centres marks the end of HMRC’s dedicated face-to-face advisory service. I can reassure hon. Members that that is simply not the case. A face-to-face service is about people, not bricks and mortar. What is important is that HMRC provides an accessible and flexible, face-to-face service that meets the needs of customers and can be tailored to the specific needs of particular locations, including the Isle of Wight. That is what HMRC proposes to do, only it will do it where it is most convenient for customers, whether that is in their local community, place of work or even, if they so wish, in their own homes. A modern face-to-face service is not about maintaining a patchwork network of buildings set up in the 1950s, when the needs and expectations of customers have changed. Inquiry centres are not universal; large parts of the UK are not even served by them.
The use of the centres has fallen sharply in recent years: visitor numbers have halved, from more than 5 million in 2005-06 to 2.5 million in 2011-12, and some inquiry centres are now open just one day a week, because local demand is so low. I shall address the Isle of Wight specifically. My hon. Friend quoted some numbers on the usage on the Isle of Wight. HMRC’s management information system shows that the Isle of Wight inquiry centre had 7,032 visitors in 2005-06, but since then the number has fallen: in the 2011 calendar year, it was 4,763; in the 2011-12 financial year, it was 3,622; in the 2012 calendar year, it was 3,298; and the projected number of visitors for the 2012-13 financial year is 2,886. There is a clear trend. The number is going down.
What does HMRC analyse as being the reason for the decline? Is it entirely because people contact it in a different way—over the internet, telephone and so on? Does the projected number take into consideration the significant changes pending for universal credit, the real-time information system, child care and so on?
As far as we can see, the driver for the fall in the number of people using inquiry centres is that people prefer to use other means of communication. There are always particular challenges within the tax system that might cause an increase in demand and phone calls. Steps are taken to reduce some of that demand from time to time.
In that context, it is worth turning to the research, which the hon. Lady touched on, that helped guide HMRC in its decision. It was undertaken by an independent agency, adhering to strict industry guidelines, and its findings confirm that face-to-face support works best for some HMRC customers who need extra help. It also says that any service for customers who need extra help must be as flexible and as accessible as possible, which is why HMRC is introducing specialist, expert over-the-phone help and working closely with the voluntary and community sector. A face-to-face service is an important part of the proposal, but it is worth underlining that the inquiries of the 2.5 million or so who visit HMRC centres are satisfied over the telephone. They use the inquiry centres to phone contact centres, which leads us to the important issue of ensuring that contact centres provide an adequate service.
I shall take this opportunity to respond to the hon. Lady’s questions. The number of call attempts handled for February this year was 91.8%, which is considerably higher than it has been at any time since HMRC’s formation. I remember that the number was 45% for 2010-11, and I think it was about 75% for the previous years, as it has been subsequently. HMRC’s ability to handle calls has therefore increased, which is welcome progress, and that, to be honest, is what we should expect from HMRC—progress on the standards.
To elaborate on the point I made a moment or so ago, HMRC’s analysis of inquiry centre use shows that 84% of the centres’ customers did not need a face-to-face meeting and were able to get the help they needed over the phone or online. The 400,000 customers who did need face-to-face advice had to travel to their nearest inquiry centre to make an appointment, and if there was no appointment free at that time, go back on another day to take up their appointment. The service is not particularly convenient even for those who do have a centre nearby.
HMRC’s research, which I referred to a moment ago, shows that up to 1.5 million customers need extra help with their tax and benefits affairs. Many just need help for a specific event in their lives—for example, when they approach retirement, deal with the death of a family member or declare new income for the first time—and others may have low literacy or numeracy skills, or difficulties coping with their affairs as a result of a mental health condition. Most of the 1.5 million people who need extra help do not currently use an inquiry centre. HMRC has researched the needs of those customers and that research has helped in the design of the new service.
The new service will provide specialist expert help over the phone for those who need it, and its advisers will take the time to sort out issues if they can. Customers will be able to phone from home and arrange a call-back if they cannot afford the call themselves, or they may use a free phone at a local Jobcentre Plus. Customers needing extra help will be quickly identified and put straight through to a trained adviser who has more time, as well as the skills, knowledge and empathy needed to handle the inquiry at a pace that suits the customer.
If the adviser cannot sort out issues over the phone, face-to-face support, delivered by a mobile adviser, will be arranged at a place and time convenient to the customer. It might be at a library or a local authority location close to the customer’s home, but I must reassure my hon. Friend that it will not involve the Isle of Wight ferry service. If someone needs a home visit, HMRC will arrange for a local home visitor to contact them and arrange a convenient appointment time between 8 am and 8 pm every working day. That is much more convenient than being constrained to a fixed location that is potentially difficult to access and often open for only one day a week. Extra help will also be delivered through voluntary and community sector organisations, such as Citizens Advice and TaxAid, with additional funding from HMRC.
The new service will be not only better but more cost- effective. Customers will save an estimated £12 million a year, through such things as reduced travel costs, and from April HMRC will convert its 0845 numbers to 03 numbers, making calling HMRC cheaper for all customers.
The current network of 281 inquiry centres is unsustainably expensive. The average cost of an appointment across the network has risen from £106 in 2009-10 to £152, and in some inquiry centres it is up to £500. By comparison, it costs an average of £3 per phone call and just 9p per online transaction. Members will appreciate that that expense is just not sustainable in the current economic climate. The new service will save HMRC up to £13 million a year.
HMRC will reinvest some of the savings from the closure of the inquiry centre network into the new face- to-face service and the voluntary and community sector support. To ensure that the phones are answered when people call, HMRC is investing £34 million in its contact centres. HMRC has also worked extremely hard to make big improvements to its customer service following the Public Accounts Committee report, which was touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North. As a result, it currently answers more than 90% of the call attempts it receives each week.
In designing the new service, HMRC has worked closely with a number of voluntary sector partners, including Citizens Advice, as well as tax charities such as TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People. On 14 March, HMRC launched a public consultation on how the new service would be implemented. The consultation focuses on the following: how a new service would be delivered in practice and whether refinements are needed for particular customer groups; the impact that closing inquiry centres would have on local communities, customers and diversity groups; the impact of the new service on the voluntary and community sector; and the support needed for customers to make the transition to other channels. The public consultation will enable staff also to feed in their views, and a summary of the responses will be published by the end of summer 2013.
A pilot of the new service in what I should perhaps describe as the greater north-east of England, will involve closing 13 inquiry centres and testing the new service between 3 June and 31 October 2013. That will help in gathering more information to ensure that the service is absolutely right for the customer, and a decision on whether to roll out the service nationwide will be made in December 2013. If the roll-out proceeds, the new service is expected to be launched between February and May 2014.
In conclusion, HMRC is making the changes in order better to meet the needs of the 1.5 million customers who need more help with their tax and benefits. HMRC is modernising its approach to break free from the outdated network of bricks and mortar and to provide a more flexible and accessible face-to-face service for people who really need it, including on the Isle of Wight. The proposals will target help at those who need it most, in a way that is better for them and more cost-effective for both them and the taxpayer. As a responsible employer, HMRC is taking all the right steps to minimise the impacts that the changes will have on its staff.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. This year’s Budget quite rightly supports those people who are working hard and contributing to our economy. Life is tough for many hard-working people, and we are doing all we can to support them. Particular focus has been directed at people investing in British businesses and employing more people. The national growth strategy has identified sectors of our economy that are strong, that are growing and that have the opportunity to generate increased wealth for our nation by making more things and exporting them overseas. In the next 10 minutes or so, I would like the Minister to think about another army of workers that needs our support right now—Britain’s bees.
Agribusinesses, farmers, and food and drinks manufacturers are quite rightly identified as significant contributors to our economy and to our future prosperity. In my constituency, this sector is helping to lead the way towards sustainable, export-driven growth. Food, drink and farming businesses employ nearly a third of working people across Cornwall. Local products include the iconic pasty, the native oyster, wine, cider, beer, soft fruit and vegetables, and even tea, which is grown at Tregothnan and exported to China.
Nationally, the agri-food and drink sector contributes £85 billion a year to the UK economy and provides employment for 3.5 million people. Without a strong work force of bees, we will not be able to realise the potential of this sector in the coming years. Nearly all the drinks and food that I have mentioned need bees as pollinators. Bees deliver that service better than anything else in our ecosystem. It is estimated that manual pollination, which is the only option if a catastrophic decline in bee numbers takes place, would cost British farmers up to £1.8 billion every year. Don’t get me wrong—like all wildlife, the bee population is important in its own right, and as part of a balanced ecosystem, which is vital for our health and well-being. However, as we are so rightly focused at the moment in Parliament on the economy, the focus of my speech is on the economic benefits of bee health.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done much to try to understand why the bee population in Britain, the EU and the USA is declining. In the UK alone, the number of managed honey bee colonies fell by 53% between 1985 and 2005. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs understands that pollinators, including bees, are essential to the health of our natural environment and to the prosperity of our farming industry. DEFRA has estimated that pollination is worth several hundred million pounds every year. Also, bees are among our greatest allies in delivering DEFRA’s twin priorities of animal health and plant health. The Department is implementing the healthy bees plan, working with beekeepers to provide training and respond to pest and disease threats. Within that plan, DEFRA’s national bee unit provides inspection, diagnostic and training services to beekeepers. Before I entered Parliament, I was a trainee beekeeper, and I very much appreciated the helpful advice of those helping me to learn the craft, particularly inspectors.
Work under the “Biodiversity 2020” banner is delivering more and improved habitats for bees and other pollinators. A further bee-supporting project is the entry-level stewardship scheme for farmers, which promotes the growth of beneficial plants for bees and pollinators. Natural England is working hard with farmers to help them to identify areas of land to provide these habitats, and £10 million has been allocated to a range of research projects that will help bees and pollinators.
Taken as a whole, these measures represent a lot of different activities that are focused on trying to understand why bees are declining, and on taking action to reverse that trend. Most recently, DEFRA has been involved at the EU level in considering the restriction of some chemicals that are used mostly by our cereal crop farmers as pesticides. Just last week, the chief scientific adviser told the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I am a member, that he did not feel that there was sufficient evidence to ban the chemicals that are under consideration, but that we should keep the decision under review while awaiting more scientific evidence. He also said that we need to bear in mind the impact of withdrawing the chemicals in the pesticides, including the impact that would have on food prices, especially the prices of winter wheat and rape.
I will be brief. My constituent Hugh Sykes, who is the chairman of the Winchester and District Beekeepers Association, and whom I have met many times, has been in touch with me—along with hundreds of other constituents—on this subject, and he contacted me specifically about the recent vote on the issue in Europe. Does my hon. Friend know why our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs abstained on that vote? Also, although I appreciate what she is saying, does she not agree that until the science is proven on this particular pesticide—the Secretary of State said that he was a sceptic on the subject of this particular pesticide, as are many people—we should perhaps hold back from using it, given that there is clearly something greatly affecting the bee populations in our constituencies?
Like my hon. Friend, I have been contacted by many hundreds of constituents on this issue—I am sure that all MPs have—because many of our constituents take such a close interest in our environment and care for it, which is to be welcomed as it is a really good thing. There has been some excellent campaigning work done by, for example, Friends of the Earth.
As far as I understand from my correspondence with the Secretary of State, the reason for the abstention, which was backed up by the chief scientific adviser, is that the evidence is not clear as to how harmful some of these chemicals are. DEFRA operates on the precautionary principle when making decisions. It has agreed to ensure that the research in this area is kept open and continues, and it has also agreed that if any harmful impact is detected, it will, of course, act. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he has listened to more of what I have to say, will understand that I think we need a more holistic approach to how we are handling this problem. Much as I would love to think that there is one silver bullet, there probably is not, and we need to consider all the different contributing factors that have been leading, undeniably, to bee decline.
I return to the impact of reducing the use of these pesticides. Reducing their use would also reduce the quantity of crops, and that could have a detrimental effect on the bee population because it would reduce some of the bees’ foraging habitat, as well as reducing biodiversity.
Bees have been in decline for some time, as I am sure the beekeepers with whom my hon. Friend is in regular contact have been telling him. We have been hoping to discover a single reason, such as a disease that was causing the collapse of colonies and that could be cured, or one particular chemical that could be identified and banned. However, I think we have come to realise that there will not be a single solution, and that this is a complex problem.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I can well remember those halcyon days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a young boy down in Clady outside Strabane. In those days, the sun shone regularly; it does not seem to shine as much now. Does she feel that the change in weather conditions is one of the factors contributing to the decline of bee numbers across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland? The reason I well recall that time in Clady as a young boy is that bees’ honeycombs were something that we prized zealously and refused to share with anyone. I am hoping that those days will return and that the bees can come back, because they are important for the countryside. There were bog meadows and open land, and there was not the same agricultural intensification that there is now. Does she feel that those things are also important factors, and that perhaps we need to see more land set aside?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I know, for example, that last year beekeepers in Cornwall, like beekeepers all over the country, had to feed their bees in the hives because of the appalling weather. Where we have bees in managed colonies, that is fine, but the wild bees and solitary bees are not receiving that sort of care and attention, and they will be even worse affected by the weather. Without those beekeepers feeding the bees in their hives, we would have seen an even greater loss of bee numbers. Look at the weather outside today. Lots of flowers are blossoming, which the bees would naturally be pollinating, but what with the freezing temperatures and the winds, the bees will, rightly, be huddled up in their hives, relying on beekeepers to feed them until the wind drops and temperatures rise, so that they can venture outside. Undoubtedly, climate change will be having an impact on bees. When I talk about research, I shall mention that as one factor contributing to what is happening to all the bee colonies.
The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that these are complex problems and only a range of activities can resolve them. We need a holistic approach, looking at the many contributing factors in a joined-up strategy, led by DEFRA and involving other Departments. I am asking the Minister to ask the Secretary of State to consider implementing a British bee strategy that would work across Departments and with stakeholders to develop a holistic action plan, with identifiable outcomes and budget allocations.
Parliament rightly demands evidence-based policy making, so let us start with the science. The Government have committed large sums to the science budget. An annual research spend of £4.6 billion has been ring-fenced in the 2010 comprehensive spending review, with additional investment of £1.3 billion in research budgets over the next three years. The UK has world-class universities of which we are rightly proud, and the science and innovation that they generate are a potential source of prosperity, as scientific discoveries are commercialised by businesses working with universities, creating beneficial products and services.
In addition to the DEFRA budget allocated for bee and pollinator research, I should like to see the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills working with the major research councils to identify a pot of money from the existing, and recently increased, funding for science. This could be used to commission university-based scientists, working in partnership with industry, to create a new generation of pesticides and fungicides that have less harmful effects to pollinators; to develop disease-resistant seeds to prevent the need for chemical treatment; and to explore different methods of crop husbandry to prevent the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals in the environment. All these have the potential to improve bee health, and are areas of science in which we already have a great deal of expertise.
It is important to recognise that the UK’s crop-protection sector has a vital role to play, but as with any market, it can work well to deliver innovation and quality. It is worth remembering that in the UK a pesticide is released on to the market only after an average of nine years’ extensive research. However, as recent news about antibiotics has shown, sometimes Government intervention is needed. The chief medical officer has recently warned that, because antibiotics are relatively cheap and not very profitable to pharmaceutical companies, they have made little investment in innovation. As a result, we face humans becoming immune to current antibiotics within the next 20 years—a risk to our well-being greater than climate change. The chief medical officer has called on the Government to use some of the money earmarked for investment in science to discover the next generation of antibiotics. She has also highlighted the need for international collaboration on the management of antibiotics. We need to think in the same way to tackle declining bee health.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion about creating a British bee strategy; that is vital. She makes the case powerfully for a strong, healthy bee population to ensure pollination in agriculture and biodiversity in our environment. Does she agree that it is important for a focus to be maintained across Government, and to bring together all the different resources from Departments to try to tackle and reverse this decline in bee numbers?
That is important. As I said, DEFRA has done a huge amount, and this Government should be proud of their track record in tackling the issue, but we need to step it up with more urgency and draw on all the resources of Government, not just on DEFRA. DEFRA is quite a low-spending Department, and it needs the extra sums that are available, particularly in BIS, for science and innovation, so that it can bring those extra resources to bear. DEFRA has done well to be still investing in bee research, having had to make cuts in expenditure—it is to be commended for that—but the scale of the challenge is so great that we should be reaching out to BIS and other pots of science money and commissioning research. Not only would that be beneficial for our bee population, agriculture, farming and the environment, but once these products are developed they could be exported and could generate a great deal of wealth in our country.
All this takes time. Root-cause research would take years—pesticides can take nine years to come to market—so there are things we need to do in the interim. We should listen closely to the calls of Friends of the Earth, which put together a national bee action plan, with some sensible steps that could be taken. I should like the Government to consider that.
We could create bee worlds by encouraging local authorities and the farming sector to work together to increase the availability of good feeding and nesting sites for bees. The mayor of Truro, Lindsay Southcombe, is using her year as mayor to highlight what we can do locally. We can do lots of things at a local level. We need to protect existing sites, conserving the lowland and upland meadows where bees thrive. We should ensure that science-based advice and guidance is provided to farmers and other bodies, setting out how those habitats can be better protected. This advice can be provided only if adequate expertise on bees is retained within Government agencies. For successful delivery of habitat creation and restoration for bees locally, we must ensure that that expertise is available at all levels in local authorities. We do have the bee inspectorate, and that must be preserved, but it must also be built on.
Finally, we need to consider commissioning research on new pest-control technologies and drawing on global best practice, with the aim of developing pest-control methods that maintain farming yields while minimising the impact on pollinator populations. That is the clear call of Friends of the Earth, which believes that stakeholders can be brought together and can help develop best practice, working alongside the Government, that can then be rolled out across the UK.
The evidence that bee populations are declining is clear. We have talked about that in respect of honey bees, but it also applies to wild bees and solitary bees. If we stand by and allow this decline to carry on, it would hit key sectors of our economy hard. The Government’s investment in a range of activities and research aimed at slowing this decline, and better understanding it, is to be welcomed. Now is the time to move to the next stage: to put together a holistic cross-departmental strategy aimed at developing new biodiversity-friendly approaches to crop protection that the rest of the world will welcome. Now is the time to show British bees, British farmers and the British food and drink producers that we are on their side, and will work with them to tackle this significant problem for our health, our well-being and our environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) not only on securing a debate on an important subject, but on the balanced way that she presented her arguments.
A healthy bee population is crucial not only to agriculture, but to the environment and the economy, so we have to get this right. I have a record of raising these issues when in opposition: some five or six years ago, I was one of those who was pressing strongly for a proper approach to bee health and for the then Government to invest in it. It is therefore a particular pleasure for me to respond to this debate on behalf of my noble friend Lord De Mauley, whose responsibility it is, and to highlight what we have been doing to improve bee health, and our future plans.
Over the past five years there has been a welcome resurgence in interest in keeping bees. Many new beekeepers have turned to local and national beekeeping associations for information and support on how best to look after the pollinator species. The British Beekeepers Association, for example, reports that its membership has increased from some 16,500 in 2009 to 25,000 in 2013. The Government are playing their part in supporting and maintaining that growth in interest. The main focus of our efforts to protect bee health is through the work of the national bee unit, which is acknowledged as having one of the best bee health surveillance programmes in Europe.
It might be helpful if I quickly set out what the national bee unit does. First, it has an inspection and enforcement role: the unit has a team of some 60 professional bee inspectors out in the field controlling notifiable diseases and surveying for exotic pests. Thanks to their work and the results of the random apiary survey, which is internationally probably one of the biggest bee health surveys of its kind ever undertaken, we now have a detailed understanding of the health status of the nation’s bees and can use that information to target our inspection programmes to best effect. I am pleased to report that the incidence of the two notifiable diseases—European and American foul brood—remains nationally low, with infection rates around half those observed during the 1990s. Also, most importantly, no evidence has been found of exotic pests, such as the small hive beetle, and the pests remain absent from the UK.
Secondly, the national bee unit and its inspectors provide advice and support to beekeepers on pests and diseases, with emphasis on varroa management, during their inspection visits, or through training and education programmes jointly run with beekeeping associations. Last year, the unit took part in nearly 500 training events attended by more than 22,000 beekeepers. Guidance is also provided online: the unit’s website, BeeBase, provides a wide range of information for beekeepers to help keep their honey bees healthy and productive. I am pleased to report that the number of beekeepers registered on BeeBase has increased from some 12,000 in 2006 to more than 29,000 today. All those services are provided by the inspectors without charge.
Protecting bee health is not something the Government can achieve by themselves, nor should it be. The various challenges and threats can be properly addressed only through effective partnership working. The Government are co-funding a range of beekeeping association-led initiatives that are already beginning to deliver improvements with, for example, 400 new beekeeper trainers being trained and a suite of new training materials and courses already available. One of those programmes is the development of an apprenticeship scheme to encourage young people to become bee farmers, and we are working with the Bee Farmers’ Association to develop the programme further.
That is the context of what we are doing, but I know my hon. Friend and many of our constituents are worried about the perceived threat from the neonicotinoids. I take that threat extremely seriously. We must take any threat to bees and pollinators seriously, and we have kept the evidence on neonicotinoids under open-minded scrutiny. We have consistently made it clear that we will restrict the use of such products if the evidence shows the need. That is the crucial point for us at the moment as a Department that works on the basis of evidence. Although the potential for toxic effects has been shown, Government scientists and the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides last year advised that the evidence then available did not indicate harmful exposure in the field. The field evidence is limited, however, and focused on honey bees, so we commissioned research on the field effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bees. That work has just been completed and the results are positive, although not conclusive. In particular, the researchers found no relationship between colony growth and neonicotinoid residues in pollen or nectar in the colonies.
Following completion of the study, DEFRA has drawn up a short assessment of all the key current evidence, which I have arranged to be placed in the Library— hon. Members might like to look at it. The assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field, but suggests that those effects do not occur in normal circumstances. We are also analysing the implications for the environment and for agriculture of possible restrictions on neonicotinoids. If neonicotinoids were not available, farmers would switch to alternative insecticides that remain legally available, and it is important to understand the implications of that.
The European Commission proposed significant restrictions on neonicotinoids, which, as my hon. Friend mentioned, was put to a vote on 15 March. The United Kingdom abstained. I underline that we did not take that step because we have closed our mind to taking action; we abstained because the Commission’s proposal was not well thought through. We have urged the Commission to complete the scientific assessment, taking account of our new research. We have also emphasised the need to assess the impacts of action, so that the measures taken are proportionate to the risks. We will continue to make that case in Europe.
The difference between the laboratory tests on which much of the information is based and the field trials that we have now undertaken is that the dosage levels are not comparable. The dosage in the field is much lower than that used in the laboratory experiments, so the toxicity might not be demonstrable or replicable in field conditions. We need to investigate that important aspect further.
A number of European countries certainly believe that the evidence justifies a moratorium—we know that from the vote. The Minister’s Department also believes that there are risks, although it is not convinced that the risks are high enough to justify a moratorium. Would he, as a secondary step, or perhaps as a compromise, consider doing what many have recommended, which is introducing a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids for non-farm applications, such as golf courses, private gardens, urban areas and so on? That might help the scientific process and the journey that DEFRA is currently on.
We will consider the effectiveness of all propositions that are on the table. My concern about agricultural use is that we need to assess carefully the environmental consequences, including the consequences for bee health, of using other substances, such as pyrethroids and organophosphates, as an alternative. I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend has to say.
We have joined some of the UK’s major research funders to fund projects aimed at researching the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators, including honey bees. Understanding the threats will help us to identify the best possible action to support those species for the future. That is the key, given the role of pollinators in agricultural production, estimated to be worth more than £500 million, and in our overall food security. The initiative’s total spend is up to £10 million over five years, to which DEFRA has contributed £2.5 million. We look forward to seeing the results of those studies over the next two years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned that there are other stress factors, and she is absolutely right. The other stress factors include weather—the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—pest infestations or infections, nutrition and hive management. We need to consider all those factors in the round. She also mentioned the key importance of having a bee strategy, and emphasised that pollination is more than just about the role of honey bees. Lord de Mauley has announced that he is considering exactly what she suggests—the development of a more holistic health strategy to cover all pollinators—and he has been meeting interested parties, such as Friends of the Earth, to explore what added value that approach might bring.
I end by stressing to hon. Members that the Government are committed to continue playing their part, working in partnership with beekeepers and other interested parties, to sustain the health of honey bees and other key pollinators. This is an extraordinarily important subject, and I and my noble Friend Lord de Mauley are determined to get it right. We must do so by considering all the consequences and taking action as seems appropriate on the basis of the evidence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate.
Under-Occupancy Penalty (Birkenhead)
Mr Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, on not only a personal but a regional level, as I will explain. I am grateful to the Speaker for giving me the opportunity to debate this issue, which unfairly affects my constituency, yours and others in the north-west.
I have been in the House for more than three decades, and I have witnessed many so-called welfare reform measures, but I have never witnessed a measure as grossly unfair as this one. As the Minister well knows, under-occupancy is a supply-side issue, yet we are trying to control the demand side to make people on low incomes fit into the regimented holes into which the Government would like them to fit.
I know the Government have a fig leaf to parade around to cover their nakedness, and no doubt we will hear about it. They will say that there is a huge number of people in social housing properties who have too many bedrooms and a shortage of social housing. If only those damn people would move from their under-occupied properties to ones that fit, a major problem would be solved. We all know that it will not be, for reasons that I hope to explain.
I feel so strongly about what the Government are doing to my constituents and similarly placed constituents around the country that I call on both social housing and housing association landlords to defy the measures, not by not operating them, but by doing what landlords did after the nine years’ war, when a Government similarly stretched for money imposed a window tax. In many instances—we see it in older properties in our constituencies—landlords bricked up windows. I hope that landlords will brick up the doors to spare bedrooms and, where appropriate, knock down the walls, so that the properties can safely fit the tenants. I have never before asked for direct action. I do so now because I feel that the measures are grossly unfair. In more than three decades, I have never debated such a vicious cut. Even if most people wished to do what the Government want them to do, they would be unable to do it.
The background to the case is that the Government claim that there are 1 million spare bedrooms throughout the country, and that the subsidy for those spare bedrooms costs £500 million. If only they could get people to move around to fit into the accommodation that the Government would like them to have, £500 million in public expenditure would be saved. The means of doing so are as follows. From April this year, those who have one so-called spare bedroom will lose 14% of their housing benefit, and those who have two spare rooms will lose 25% of their housing benefit.
This is the last opportunity for the House to debate this wretched measure before it comes into effect in our constituencies. We know that about one third of social tenants will be affected, and that their average loss of benefit will be £14 a week. We know that 40,000 will lose their entitlement entirely, and, as I said, a higher percentage of tenants in the north-west will be affected than in London and the south-east.
In this debate, I will rely on figures supplied by Riverside, one of the larger housing associations offering accommodation to my constituents. Some 25% of its tenants will be affected by this vicious little measure, and 20% of tenants of Wirral Partnership Homes will be affected. Let us look at the facts that Riverside dug out. In the three years between 2008 and 2011, in one part of my constituency, Tranmere and Rock Ferry, 500 new tenancy allocations were made. Of those households, 302 needed one bedroom, yet only 126 one- bedroom flats were available. Even if those tenants wanted accommodation that fitted their needs as defined by the Government, they would not be able to meet the policy. Riverside sensibly asked those who would be affected by this vicious little measure what they intended to do to try to balance the books. Some 32% said that they would try to move to smaller properties, 11% said that they would ask people in their household to help them pay the rent, 16% said that they would ask people outside their household, 17% said that they would try to earn extra money, 9% said that they would take a lodger, and 42% said that they would probably fail to pay the rent.
I want to dwell on two aspects. One is the 17% who said that they would try to earn more money. One of the Merseyside police’s worries about the measure is that there has been a significant increase in the number of people being encouraged to use spare bedrooms to grow pot. One consequence of this Government action will be to enable those gangs who try to enrol vulnerable constituents to make extra money in that way. That will be a real first for the Government. They should be proud, shouldn’t they?
Let us then look at the 42% who will fail to pay their rent. They will face eviction due to significant reductions in their income. Of course, they will try for a time to cut down on other necessities, such as fuel. I can switch on the heating, but unlike me, many of my constituents do not switch it on during the day. They will now spend even less time with their heating on. Others will eat a far less healthy diet.
When push comes to shove, what will those with children do? They might let their rent fall into arrears, which the Government do not seem to realise is a far better option than not paying other bills, because other bills attract penal rates of interest if they are not paid, and as yet—although no doubt there will be a measure to help them—local authorities and housing associations cannot enforce this wretched little measure by charging interest on debts that accrue.
My plea to housing associations is not to evict. As a result, their revenue will be affected. All the housing associations in Birkenhead have gone down the route of going to the banks to pledge their future revenue against loans. Once the revenue is not forthcoming, what will the banks do? I would prefer the housing associations to go bankrupt rather than bankrupt my constituents. One of the not-so-hidden consequences of this vicious little measure is that housing associations will risk going bankrupt. What will the Government do then? They will not be able to allow them to remain bankrupt. I hope that a plan B that is slightly more effective than the plan B for the economy is on the stocks.
Let us suppose that the tenants could move. The housing stock is not available, but suppose they could. We know from those who have managed to find alternative accommodation that it actually costs more. For example, one-bedroom places in Birkenhead average £71 a week, but in the private sector they are £88 a week. If every wonderful tenant in Birkenhead affected by this vicious little measure did what the Government wanted, the savings would not be made and the housing bill would go up, defeating the measure; the Department for Work and Pensions, which wants people to move around to free up accommodation, would have to have a serious conversation with the Treasury about why the idea has failed to deliver the £500 million cut.
Housing associations should follow the example of the landlords who took action after the nine years’ war to ensure that they and their tenants did not pay an unfair tax. If tenants request such action, the doors to spare bedrooms should be blocked up, as the windows were, and their walls should be knocked through to make one larger room, where it is possible and safe to do so; that would apply only where no downsizing options were available. It would not solve the problem of a grossly unfair tax, but it would mitigate some of the worst results by freeing tenants from this poll tax.
The Government are of course unlikely to achieve the £500 million cut in housing benefit demanded by the Treasury, but their cover is blown anyway: for the reasons I set out, even if all the tenants could move to smaller accommodation, the Government would make no savings in public expenditure at all. Indeed, as suitable accommodation in the private sector is more expensive, the housing benefit bill will rise.
Why am I for the first time advocating direct action? I do so because this tax is so grossly unfair, and it is being levied on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Wicked actions require a different response from us parliamentarians.
Good afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on securing a debate that is of considerable importance to his constituents. I entirely accept that the effect of this nationwide policy is different in different areas, and that a higher proportion of working-age households are affected in the north-west than in some other parts of the country.
I am representing the Government rather than discussing my constituents, but clearly far fewer of mine are affected than the right hon. Gentleman’s, which is no great surprise to anyone.
The right hon. Gentleman’s speech was made in a vacuum, without mention of the fiscal context or how we treat other tenants. He used various lurid adjectives to describe the policy, as though it was some uniquely unfair concept that where benefits are paying someone’s rent, the level of benefits should have regard to the size of the household. He suggested that this is some unprecedented, evil thing, the like of which he has never come across in 30 years in Parliament—except that he was a Minister in my Department and, intermittently, a supporter of the previous Government, who introduced the local housing alliance. As I am sure he knows, with that allowance we say to private sector tenants on housing benefit that, broadly speaking, the rents we pay will reflect household size: generally, if not universally, someone can have private rent up to, now, the 30th percentile of rents for a household of the size it is. For some years, therefore, we have said to 1 million LHA private sector tenants, “We won’t pay benefit for an extra bedroom. If you want one, that’s fine, but you pay for it.”
If that policy is fair and appropriate for private sector tenants, why is it squalid, evil and unprecedented for social tenants? Surely consistency and fairness—a word the right hon. Gentleman used—mean that we should treat people the same way, whether they are private sector or social tenants. One might argue, indeed, that social tenants generally have the advantage of a subsidised rent, which private sector tenants do not have, and we treat private sector tenants unfairly in the sense that we do not give them an extra bedroom.
The Minister knows perfectly well that the local housing allowance level we set was above the average amount for those in social housing, so there is still a real difference in the rent levels for what someone can command in the private sector compared with the public sector.
People in the social rented sector still benefit from subsidised rents and, potentially, spare bedrooms. The figure used by the right hon. Gentleman was of more than 800,000 spare bedrooms in households where the rent is paid for by housing benefits.
To give a sense of scale, we are asking a household with one spare bedroom to contribute £2 a day on average for having the spare bedroom. I do not belittle the financial pressures that many households are under, because it would be entirely wrong of me to do so, but we know from experience of the private rented sector that some households will decide that, notwithstanding the financial pressures on them, £2 a day for the advantage of that extra bedroom is a price that they will pay. There will also be many other responses. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned taking in lodgers, and some housing associations and local authorities have given their tenants advice on how to do that. It is good use of a spare room, because it provides accommodation to someone, such as a young single person perhaps, as well as extra income to the household, and deals with the problem.
There will be some movement in the social rented sector. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area, 20 housing associations and local authorities have come together to form Propertypool Plus, doing exactly what they should be doing, which is pooling their stock and giving a much greater chance of having something to suit a particular family than an individual housing association would have. If we facilitate someone moving from under-occupied accommodation into a house that fits, someone else who is living in overcrowded accommodation can also move to a house that fits, which seems to be an entirely good thing, although the latter person’s voice was silent in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman.
I looked at the Wirral housing strategy for 2011 to 2026, and the council has realised that under-occupation is an issue. Before we invented our policy, the local authority stated:
“Research has identified that there are a number of people who are under occupying their home, regardless of tenure,”
going on to say that
“the Council will seek to help people by offering a range of services”
to help them live in more appropriate accommodation. There is therefore recognition in Wirral of a mismatch between the homes people are living in and the homes that they might need, perhaps particularly in the case of older people, although I stress that pensioners are exempt from our policy.
Creative things are being done in the right hon. Gentleman’s part of the world. For example, Wirral metropolitan borough council has obtained £2 million of Homes and Communities Agency funding to work on empty properties and plans to bring 765 empty properties back into use over a three-year period. He is right to say that supply is a crucial part of the story. We want to ensure that the supply is there for people, but that will not happen overnight. We also know that initiatives to deal with under-occupation have not really worked. Simply saying, “Would you like to move to somewhere smaller?” when there is no reason for anyone to do so, has not worked, and we have to regard the spare bedrooms in social housing in this country as a precious resource, because there is not enough housing.
The right hon. Gentleman colourfully described bricking up spare bedrooms, but I can save the landlords he is seeking to send down that track the trouble. If, for example, they want to designate a property with one bedroom occupied and a spare bedroom as a one-bedroom property, they can do so. They do not need to brick anything up or knock any walls down; they can simply designate it as a one-bedroom property. They will take the lower rent, but the tenant is not under-occupying. The reduction in the spare-room subsidy would not apply because there is not a spare room; it is the landlord who takes the financial hit in that situation. Knowsley local authority has, on occasion, followed such a policy. If landlords decide that that is the best solution, we have no problem with that. Obviously, we get the saving, because we are only paying the rent for a one-bedroom property and not a two-bedroom property, so if local authorities and other landlords can bear the financial impact, that might be a part of the mix. I do not think that many will be able to do so, but questions of bricking up rooms do not arise.
I have come across cases in which housing associations have designated a box room as a second bedroom and they have been gaily claiming the rent on a two-bedroom property. Then this measure comes in and it is quickly apparent that it is not really a bedroom; it is just a box room. Part of the answer is for landlords to be honest about the nature of their properties and say whether there really is a spare bedroom that someone could sleep in. They should then designate the property accordingly.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned fairness. I have referred to fairness between social and private tenants, but what about fairness between overcrowded households, households on the waiting list and those who are in under-occupation? In Wirral, there are 21,280 households on the waiting list for a home. Where is their voice in this debate? I may be wrong, but I do not think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the people on the waiting list or the people who are overcrowded. Fairness is surely about them as well as the people already in occupation.
We recognise that there are some people who should not be affected by this measure. That is why, for example, we have exempted pensioners. People living in their lifetime home, who have retired and have no prospect of working again, are exempt. We have also taken the view that local authorities need money to deal with what one might loosely call hard cases. In Wirral, in the year that is coming to an end—2012-13—roughly £500,000 of discretionary housing payments were available; next year it will be not far short of £1 million. For individuals whom it would be wrong or inhumane to expect to move, money is there to make up the shortfall. Nearly £1 million in that local authority and about £150 million nationwide is a huge sum of money, provided to make sure that where the room is not really spare and where it would be inappropriate to expect someone to move out or put someone else in the room, local authorities have got the resource to respond appropriately.
It is vital that local authorities spend the money, yet we have come across cases of local authorities underspending their discretionary housing payments. Hon. Members berate the Government and say how terrible the policy is, but their local authority is sitting on cash that it has not spent to help people who have a shortfall in their housing benefit.
My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman’s own local authority had a discretionary housing payment contribution of £464,000 for the current year, but has a carryover that takes it up to £522,000. I am happy to write to him with figures for the country. That is not a one-off example. It is surprisingly common. I have spoken to local authority leaders in the past few weeks who have said, “We are not spending the money we have got.” We and they need to make sure that the money that is specifically there for hardship is actually spent.
We expect local authorities to budget, but of course this measure comes into effect on a single day, and good landlords and good local authorities have already been looking at the existing stock of people. It is by definition a stock of people that does not turn over very much, so it is pretty predictable. My plea to local authorities is to use the money that we have given them.
We have given local authorities discretionary money, initially with two groups in mind. The first is people whose houses have been substantially adapted for disability. We accept that if there is a spare bedroom in a house that has been completely redone to reflect wheelchair access or whatever, it is not cost-effective, sensible or humane to say, “You’ve got to move,” and then either the public purse has to pay for another property to be done up or the people have to live somewhere inappropriate. We estimate that, nationwide, roughly £25 million of the potential saving from the measure would be related to properties of that sort. Our initial plan was to try to define that centrally in regulations: what is a substantially adapted property? We then took the view that it is better left to local discretion, so we made the money available locally.
We did the same for foster families who have a spare room because they are between foster children. Most people would accept that foster parents need to have a spare room. Initially, we thought that we would support that through £5 million of discretionary payments, but the message we got back was that foster families wanted to have a right to a room and not to be reliant on a discretionary payment from the council. We have now passed regulations, which will come into force next month, that give foster families the right to a spare bedroom, subject to certain constraints. We have also recently made it clear that where, for example, a child with a disability or health condition cannot sleep in the same bedroom as a sibling, the family can go to the local authority, which, having satisfied itself that it is a valid claim, can allocate an extra bedroom.
I stress that the measure is not a crude one-size-fits-all cut. We have to save money. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have to save money and that housing benefit is one of the biggest working age benefits that we have. He knows that two thirds of the housing benefit bill is for social tenants and that we have already cut back on the housing benefit bill for private tenants. In the context of needing to save money on social tenants’ housing benefit bill, not paying for spare bedrooms seems to be a place where we can find savings, subject to the crucial proviso that we protect the most vulnerable.
We have protected the most vulnerable through discretionary housing payments. Of course, although local authorities can use such payments for substantially adapted properties, the clue is in the title: they are “discretionary” payments. Local authorities have the payments for this purpose and for other changes. They have core discretionary housing payments that they had anyway, before any of the measures came in. Local authorities have that pot of money, which is of course not limitless and does not cover everybody, but at least it gives them the flexibility to respond to people as they come to them. The crucial thing for anybody listening to our proceedings who is concerned about the impact of the measure is that if people genuinely need the additional room, and if the options that some would take up, such as swapping, taking in a lodger or working extra hours, are not options for them, they should approach the local authority.
The right hon. Gentleman said that if people move into the private sector, it will cost money, but that is a very static way of looking at things. When somebody moves out of the social sector and into the private sector, a social sector property will be freed up that someone perhaps paying a high rent in the private sector will move into. It is not self-evident that in cases where someone moves from the social sector to the private sector, it costs money overall. Yes, we are trying to save money, and half a billion pounds will be saved by the measure, but let me set that in context: in the final year of the previous Labour Government, we were trying to fill a hole not of half a billion pounds, but of £150 billion a year. The right hon. Gentleman objects to the measure, but it illustrates the scale of the task we have been faced with. Even a measure such as this, which has been controversial and difficult, saves only half a billion pounds, and we have had to take many more such decisions to deal with the fiscal deficit.
Good things are going on in local authority areas such as that of the right hon. Gentleman. I welcome the fact that housing associations and councils are pooling their stock to enable people to exchange. My local housing association and others have had what they call “speed-dating” events—I am not being flippant; that is what they call them. They try to bring together people from among their tenants, some of whom have a spare room and some of whom are desperate for a family home. I think of a constituent of mine who contacted me after receiving a letter about this. She said, “I am living on my own in a three-bedroom house. What are my options? Actually, could my brother and sister-in-law move in?” I said, “Absolutely. Talk to the landlord.” That was an ideal outcome: it meant that the housing stock was better used and someone else had suitable housing.
To summarise, the way in which people respond to the measure will be individual and varied. Some will be able to exchange with someone else. Some will stay where they are, regarding £2 a day, on average, as worth paying for that spare bedroom. Some will fill the spare bedroom with a lodger. As the right hon. Gentleman colourfully suggests, some landlords will redesignate properties, so that in effect there is not a spare bedroom, and the landlord will take the cost. Some people will go to the local authority, and we have put money into the pockets of local authorities such as his—nearly £1 million in the Wirral—so that the most vulnerable people can go to their local authority and make their case and be heard.
Again, I urge the local authorities to spend the money that they have been given to help people, because we have sought to protect the most vulnerable. We have sought to protect families with disabled children, fosterers, and people with service personnel living at home. We have given local authorities the ability to respond on a case-by-case basis. None of these decisions is easy, but they are necessary decisions that we have sought to mitigate where possible. We are trying to bring about a beneficial effect: to make better use of scarce social housing stock and to create fairness between private and social tenants, which, I have to say, in the past, we have not had.
Question put and agreed to.