Tuesday 23 April 2013
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
A and E Waiting Times
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Anna Soubry.)
It is a huge privilege to chair the debate. Had I not been in the Chair, I would have asked to speak, because there is an issue with accident and emergency waiting times at Kettering general hospital, but as it is, we go straight to our main speaker, Ann Clwyd.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship. I am sorry that you are unable to be on the Floor making your own points, but I am sure you will find other ways to do so.
I shall start by going through some press headlines from the past few weeks: The Mail on Sunday, “Shock 250% rise in patients waiting more than 4 hours in A and E: Six-month total soars by 146,000”; Mail Online, “Major hospitals have missed A and E targets every week for 6 months”; The Daily Telegraph, “Crisis hospital sets up tent for A and E patients…A hospital set up a makeshift tent to treat casualty patients amid a deepening crisis in emergency services across the country”; The Guardian, “NHS failed to hit A and E target for two months”; Mail Online, “Mother barely conscious with pneumonia was treated in a cupboard because hospital was ‘too full’ to give her a bed”; The Guardian, “The latest casualty of health reform: casualty itself …A and E departments are the pressure valve of the health system, yet the Government is moving rapidly to turn it off”; The Daily Telegraph, “Inquiry into failings in NHS emergency care...MPs are to launch an inquiry into NHS emergency care amid fears that patients are being put at risk by catastrophic failings in the operation of a new 111 helpline”; and Mail Online, “A and E patients ‘still waiting too long’”.
As you know Mr Hollobone, official figures this month show that many A and E departments are failing to meet their target of dealing with 95% of patients within four hours. The NHS in England has missed targets for major A and Es for 29 weeks and missed the target for all A and Es for the past 12 weeks. The failure to meet targets on so-called “trolley waits” happened despite the Government’s reducing the target figure from the previous target of 98%. In the past six months, more than 530,000 patients have waited more than four hours at A and E departments—a rise of almost 30% since last year. England’s A and Es are struggling. One in three patients now waits four hours or more for emergency treatment in the worst affected areas.
About 14 million patients a year are seen in major A and E units. A Department of Health spokesman has said that the NHS is experiencing an extra 1 million patients in A and E compared with two years ago. Research by the King’s Fund shows that A and E attendance was up by 353,457 patients in the first three quarters of 2012-13 compared with the same period in 2009-10. Unfortunately, the Government also propose to close or downgrade 34 more A and E departments across the country in the coming months. Most trusts are reducing the number of beds as part of their quality, innovation, productivity and prevention plans. Pressure on A and E is felt at both ends of the system. A lack of free beds on wards means that staff cannot admit patients and, with A and E full, paramedics cannot hand over patients.
The resulting strain in A and E departments was nowhere more obvious than outside Norfolk and Norwich university hospital. Over the Easter weekend, the east of England ambulance service was forced to erect a major incident tent outside the hospital to treat patients and relieve pressure on the A and E department. Reports say that there were queues of up to 15 ambulances waiting with patients. One patient was made to wait more than five hours under the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust. Given the pressure they are under, we must all applaud and commend the work of Britain’s ambulance men and women—they are doing an extraordinary job.
Hospitals continue to make severe cuts to front-line staff, with many operating below recommended staffing levels. The Care Quality Commission has warned that one in 10 hospitals is failing to meet the standard on adequate staffing levels. Worryingly, a recent CQC report found that patients report not only longer waiting times, but a reduction in the quality of care in A and E. Thirty-three per cent. of respondents said that they waited more than half an hour before they were first seen by a doctor or nurse—up from 24% in 2004 and 29% in 2008. One in 10 respondents said that they could not attract the attention of staff, nearly a fifth felt that staff were not doing “everything they could” to control their pain, and 59% were not told how long they would have to wait for an examination. Compared with previous years, fewer patients had conversations with staff about their condition and fewer felt appropriately informed. Senior doctors now say that lives are being put at risk, because people are unable to get through to the new 111 number, which replaced NHS Direct. Many argue that it is difficult to access and mistrusted by patients, which has led to an increase in emergency call-outs and trips to A and E. Desperately ill patients are left waiting for hours while ambulances are dispatched to less critical cases.
I have had something like 2,000 e-mails and letters over the past few months since I first raised compassion in nursing, and they are still coming in. They are obviously not all about A and E, but some are. One man told me that he took his wife, who had injured her lower left leg, to A and E at 7.20 pm on a Thursday evening. On arrival at the hospital, he registered at reception at 8.10 pm and about one hour later his wife was seen by a male nurse, who said that the injury needed to be seen by a doctor because the damage was extensive—about 1.5 square inches of skin was only partially attached. The husband sent me a diary of his time in A and E. The male nurse cleaned and dressed the wound and said that it would be less than one hour before the doctor could see her:
“Apparently there had been a longer wait but he assured us that several more doctors were now attending the minor injuries section. With about 6 other patients we were told to wait in an ante room closer to the surgery rooms. At 11.15 pm after we had waited for over 3…hours an announcement over the loudspeaker system said ‘It would be a further 6 hours before a doctor would be available to treat anyone’. This was a general message, and indicated that no one would be seen for 6 hours. The voice then said ‘anyone feeling that they were fit enough to leave without seeing a hospital doctor should visit their own doctor in the morning’. It must be stressed here that these people were previously told by the nurse that they must see a hospital doctor. If the injury was so minor that they could go to see their doctor in the morning then why not tell them then?
One young lady had already spent 6 hours the previous day waiting to see a doctor because she was vomiting blood. She was there again with her friend and had already waited another six hours to be told that she was required to wait another six hours. Intolerable! She should have been admitted straight away the previous day. Another…young man was waiting almost as long as us because he had been in a three car pile up on the M4 and had damaged both knees and his back. He left after the announcement. He could have had internal injuries as well but was untreated.
How could my wife, and most of the people who were instructed to wait for a hospital doctor have the medical knowledge to leave hospital and wait another day? I went to reception to state that my wife needed to take her medication housed at home and could not wait another 6 hours on the off-chance that she may see a doctor. That was greeted by a shrug of the shoulders. I asked if any doctors were at all present and was told that one was on duty. There were 20 to 30 people waiting there at that time and most were casualties.”
On the way home, at about midnight, the man took his wife to a local hospital—no A and E there—to see if she could be treated the following day. His letter continues to tell how the next day he
“took her to this hospital and she was registered and treated within one hour not by a doctor but by a sister and a nurse. The skin flap had shrunk by that time and attempts were made to re-stretch it back over the wound. We were informed by these nurses that injuries such as this must be treated straight away to avoid shrinkage of the skin flap. This was an extremely painful process for my wife, but very necessary. Butterfly stitches were put in place that were intended to pull the skin flap back to its original size and cover the open wound.”
That is just one of many letters I have had. I have the consent of the people concerned to quote from their letters, and I will briefly read from two others. The first says,
“my wife miscarried at 10 weeks and I had to race her down…at 4am. She was left to sit in A&E for ages and I feared she was beginning to go into shock. I was pleading with the people behind the screen to help but kept being told with increasing irritation by them to sit with her and wait. Eventually they found a bed for her but there were no sheets, no drip. I had to cover her with my coat to keep her warm while nursing our sleeping 2-year-old in my arms. It took both of us a long time to get over that. To be honest we have never got over it. The sheer lack of sympathy and comfort, and being made to feel that you were an irritant. I should have made a formal complaint at the time but just didn’t have the energy.”
The second letter is from someone whose elderly mother needed an urgent blood transfusion:
“an ambulance collected mum and myself around 7pm and we arrived shortly after. Mum was placed on a trolley in A and E where we waited and waited. After an hour or so I could tell mum was deteriorating, she was in pain and distressed, I asked for help from various different nurses, I wanted a doctor to look at her. I can’t tell you how upset and frightened I was, I knew something was seriously wrong, I broke down and cried in front of everyone I was so desperate, at this point it was about 2 o’clock in the morning”—
that was after five hours—
“I begged a nurse for some pain relief for her and she gave mum a paracetamol that had zero effect. Mum was transferred to an observation ward at the side of the A and E, she was put in a bed with a tiny blanket over her, I tried to keep her warm and calm myself, no nurse came to see how she was, a lady in another bed was crying that she needed the toilet, I tried to find a nurse with no luck. We waited there until around 6am coping as best we could, it was a nightmare. Finally around 6am a consultant and 2 doctors came, they examined her and she called out in pain, the consultant advised me that mum would be put on a ward and a blood transfusion would be carried out, and she would be returned home later that day.”
The upshot was that the lady died at 11 o’clock that night.
I could go on and on with the letters. They illustrate that behind the stark figures and the problems in A and E, there are many human stories of people in distress, and left in distress, and sometimes the outcome of their very long waits is a tragedy for them and their families. The King’s Fund has recently published a report on the increasing demands on accident and emergency departments. The fund says that there are no easy answers—something we all know.
Few health policy issues have received greater attention than that of how best to meet the demands on A and E departments and manage the associated unscheduled admissions to hospital. I think that hon. Members of all parties know that there is a problem and want it to be resolved. The sooner it is resolved, the fewer the people who will suffer the long anxieties of waiting in A and E and the unfortunate outcomes that there are for too many people.
Order. There is a wealth of talent before me. I shall call Martin Horwood next, and then Kate Green, who sent a particularly nice handwritten letter to the Speaker, then Jim Shannon, Heidi Alexander and Grahame Morris. I propose to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at no later than 10.40 am —earlier if we can. We have about an hour, so everyone should be able to get in.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate on such a topical matter. I had not intended to speak, but since the opportunity has arisen I would like to make some points, because the matter is very relevant to my constituency.
Cheltenham is in an unusual situation. We have two district general hospitals within eight miles of each other, one in each of the almost twin cities of Gloucester and Cheltenham. Some years ago, the hospitals came under the management of a single NHS foundation trust, and there is an almost inescapable business rationale for the trust management always to try to centralise services in one hospital or the other. Some services, including oncology and cardiology, have been centralised in Cheltenham, but with emergency services there has been a slight drift towards Gloucester, starting with neonatal intensive care and then trauma. That might make business sense to the trust, but it poses a problem because they are services that people clearly want to get to in a hurry. They are a bit like maternity services, in that people value having them within their town and do not want to have to try to find them in a hurry in an unfamiliar setting.
The current situation in Cheltenham reflects exactly the national picture that the right hon. Lady described, and we have heard from the King’s Fund that in the final three months of 2012, 232,000 people nationwide waited more than four hours in A and E, a 38% increase on the previous quarter. Some of that is clearly a seasonal increase, reflecting winter issues, but it has certainly been the case in Gloucestershire, where the situation has been rather unequal, with waiting times significantly and regularly higher in Gloucester than in Cheltenham. People are, therefore, concerned about the further centralisation of services in Gloucester, because they fear that the capacity of the emergency department there to cope with the increase will be even worse.
The situation has been explained in a number of ways. There can be a seasonal explanation—there is always a winter upturn, and we have had a series of bugs and infections, including the winter vomiting virus. Those are known factors, which vary from year to year. There is, however, a new factor in the mix, which is the 111 out-of-hours service. I have anecdotal evidence from local GPs that far more referrals into hospitals and A and E departments are occurring as a result of the introduction of the 111 service. The GPs think that they ran a rather good out-of-hours service before, under a different NHS trust, and the new service is clearly causing problems if their accounts are to be believed.
We must gather reliable data, but the evidence that I have from doctors is that they are getting fewer requests to call patients back, through the 111 service, and that a number of individuals have been referred unnecessarily to A and E, partly because the initial triage is done by people who are not really medically qualified. They have a stock set of questions and the approach is not very sensitive, so it seems that the safest thing for the operators to say is, “The best thing is to go to A and E.” If that is responsible for part of the upsurge in cases, it is adding to our existing problems.
The other problem in Cheltenham and Gloucester is the shortage of, and the difficulty of recruiting, emergency consultants and registrars. The guidelines are that there are supposed to be 10 doctors in each emergency department, which would mean 20 for Cheltenham and Gloucester. Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has told me that it has managed to fill only 11 of those posts. That is true: I have had independent corroboration from people working in the human resources department of the hospital, who have occasionally advertised for emergency posts and had no applicants. There is clearly a significant problem that they say is part of the national picture of a shortage of trained emergency doctors available to be recruited to emergency departments, which is adding to management pressures and the difficulty of managing the flow of patients into A and E departments.
That raises some other questions. Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is, as the name suggests, a foundation trust. It has the freedom to advertise higher salaries, to apply a “hard to recruit” bonus and to try harder to attract more consultants and registrars to its emergency department. As far as I can see, it does not appear to be doing so at the moment. It may be that that does not make such good sense in business terms. Emergency is a relatively expensive function for a trust compared with others, such as orthopaedics, which appears to generate income for the trust. It would be worrying if such business considerations were interfering with a trust’s ability to take management decisions that might attract more consultants and registrars into an emergency department.
I want the Minister to address, first, the national issue of the shortage of emergency doctors, which is forcing difficult decisions on trust managements and, secondly, what she thinks trust managements’ best response might be. For instance, would it be better for them to wait for the outcome of the Keogh review into emergency services, rather than to take pre-emptive decisions now to take such actions as downgrading emergency services at Cheltenham general hospital?
The suggestion is not that that hospital will be closed outright, but simply that it will be downgraded so that bluelight referrals at night are diverted from Cheltenham to Gloucester. That seems like a small and not drastic change, but there have been a whole series of changes—to trauma, neonatal intensive care, children’s services and maternity—and each small change by the trust seems to justify another change. In itself, that is worrying, because who knows what will follow this decision. Will all bluelight referrals be diverted to Gloucester? In a few years’ time, will Cheltenham end up with simply a minor injuries unit for a town of 120,000 people, given that we instinctively know that had the management arrangements been different and two different hospital trusts were in existence, they would be fighting to keep the services open?
The timing of the consultation is very unfortunate, coming at just the moment of the changes to the NHS organisational structure. Perhaps I am a little cynical, but I cannot help thinking that the trust’s timing may not be entirely accidental. The primary care trust, which fought strongly to keep services at both Cheltenham and Gloucester reasonably level—it tried to serve both populations and keep a degree of equity between them—has been wound up and handed over to a clinical commissioning group that has failed to attract a single doctor from Cheltenham to serve on its board, so that a town of 120,000 people has no local voice on the main commissioning body. At the precise moment that it started—new and relatively experienced compared with the old PCT—the trust has chosen to launch changes to one of the services that is most controversial and most valued by local people, which is a very unfortunate coincidence of timing.
I want us to hear, if we can, the Minister’s real plan for the future of emergency services, and to see whether there is any long-term vision about how local MPs and people can put a case to their trusts for the preservation of local emergency departments wherever possible. We need to deliver care to people as close as possible to their homes, and not drift into a situation of its being more and more centralised in particular locations, which may enable trust managements to have a rational case for attracting more sub-specialisms and doctors to their department, but leave a town the size of Cheltenham, with 120,000 people, with a much worse service.
That is causing great alarm, particularly in the context of the waiting times that we see, even as this debate goes on, right now. In Cheltenham, the wait is 38 minutes, according to the trust’s website. At Gloucester Royal hospital, it is 68 minutes—already more than an hour—at a time when demand should actually be very low. Those emergency departments are struggling to cope, and it seems to me that the waiting times are symptoms of a rather deeper and more difficult problem that we have to tackle.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, on an issue about which I know that you are deeply concerned. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for calling for this debate now, because it is of incredibly timely importance to my constituents, given what is about to happen at Trafford general hospital.
As I listened to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I was struck by the many parallels between our situation in Trafford and that experienced by other hon. Members in relation to their local hospitals. I strongly endorse his request to the Minister that we should now start to get a clear strategic picture of the Government’s vision for the future of emergency provision. Many of the difficulties in Trafford that I will mention have arisen because of the complete lack of clarity about that vision.
I want to highlight only a few issues, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I apologise, Mr Hollobone, that I will have to duck out for a quarter of an hour to make a phone call, but I will be back to hear the winding-up speeches. I am grateful to you for calling me to speak in this debate.
I want to explain that, as the Minister will know, Trafford general hospital—it has its own accident and emergency department, but since last year has been part of the larger Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust—is subject to NHS Greater Manchester’s recommendation that the accident and emergency unit should initially be downgraded to an urgent care centre and, in due course, to a minor injuries unit. The Secretary of State requested advice on that and other reconfiguration changes at Trafford from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, which I know he has received and is now considering. I am grateful that the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), has agreed to meet me and my parliamentary neighbours to discuss that situation which, as I am sure she appreciates, is causing great local concern.
The first issue that I want to highlight is that it is important—certainly for elected Members, but also for the wider public—that there is absolute transparency of data and information about what is going on in our A and Es. A couple of weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking about waiting times at all Greater Manchester accident and emergency units, because constituents have been coming to me with anecdotal evidence of delays and problems, such as those described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, and I wanted to assess the evidence before taking the matter further. I asked for information at the level of not only the NHS foundation trust, but every individual unit, because I am obviously particularly concerned about my local A and E, which falls within a larger foundation trust.
I was surprised to receive a written answer last Tuesday that told me that the information was not available at individual unit level. Of course, that is nonsense. I contacted Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which said that it could of course give me the information for Trafford, and it duly did. It absolutely does not build confidence in my mind or that of the public if we do not receive clear written answers from Ministers. I was glad that I could raise that issue in health questions last week.
My first question to the Minister is: what can she do to ensure that there is absolute transparency of data available to elected representatives and the public at large about what is going on in our areas? I am sure that she would agree that it is unhelpful for speculation and anecdote to inform what the public think is going on, when data are available and might present a different picture.
The second matter I want to raise is related to waiting times. Obviously, there is a definition around the four-hour waiting time target, but patients’ experience is about not just when they arrive at accident and emergency and when they are passed on to wherever they are going next, but an end-to-end process, which starts from the minute they pick up the phone. They feel that the whole experience can be very protracted. They have to phone, wait for an ambulance or a paramedic to come, potentially wait in the car park to get into the hospital, wait in A and E to be triaged—they are often triaged quite quickly—and then wait around to see more medical experts. Then there is further waiting around before some clinical disposal ultimately results. There is a sense that the totality of the end-to-end process is becoming very protracted, and that is certainly causing public concern. I invite the Minister to comment on the context in which people are waiting and being seen within A and E units and what thoughts the Government have on addressing the end-to-end patient experience, because that is what matters to my constituents.
Thirdly, the changes that are being proposed at Trafford, and at the hospitals in the constituencies of other hon. Members, are part of a much broader range of changes both in Greater Manchester and in the NHS as a whole. In the context of the proposed changes for Trafford, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) has repeatedly asked what the impact will be on the neighbouring hospital at Wythenshawe, and we are equally concerned about what will be going on at A and E units at Manchester Royal infirmary and Salford Royal. It is clear to us that it is not possible to remove capacity at one unit if there is insufficient capacity at the neighbouring units to mop up the work. My right hon. Friend believes that Wythenshawe is not in a position to take on significant additional numbers of A and E admissions without substantial extra investment. The purpose of my written question to Ministers about NHS trusts around Greater Manchester was to try to get a picture of what is going on across the whole city region. Clearly, capacity on the wider geographic basis is important.
It is equally important that we have provision in the community either to ensure that people can be discharged quickly or to prevent them having to go to A and E in the first place. That is at the heart of the integrated care model to which we are all signed up in Trafford and in which we believe very powerfully. However, the fact of the matter is that services are being taken out before the community provision appears to have been put in, and that cart-before-the-horse approach does nothing to reassure local people.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham mentioned the problems that have arisen following the launch of the 111 number, which had to be withdrawn in Greater Manchester only a few hours after its launch because it simply could not cope. I have no doubt that one consequence of the changes to the out-of-hours service is that more people are likely to go to their A and E. Equally, if that local A and E in due course sees its hours curtailed or is downgraded, there will be a knock-on impact on GPs, because they will have more people presenting at their surgeries with emergency conditions. As things stand, while that might be a good place for people to go in theory, GPs do not have the capacity to see those additional patients. Again, that is a failure of planning about which people are concerned.
We are also worried about the ambulance service in the north-west, which has undergone some significant changes of late. There is also the matter of the interface with mental health. Many people who present at our A and E have both a physical and a mental health problem. It might be that the mental health problem is the underlying issue that is more crucial to resolve because it is probably part of the driver of the physical condition.
There is a great deal of contextual challenge that is contributing to people’s concern about the ability of accident and emergency units, including the one at Trafford, to cope. It is clear to me that without that context being properly resolved and without the guarantees that all that other provision is properly in place, it is simply not possible to start to withdraw services that people rely on because they have nowhere else to go. There are also further broader contextual changes that are causing us concern right now. The hon. Member for Cheltenham mentioned the Keogh review. In Greater Manchester we have the Healthier Together review, which, I am afraid to say, is still opaque both to elected Members and to local people in terms of what it might propose. Undoubtedly, it will have a significant impact on the map of hospital, A and E and wider provision across Greater Manchester. Again, people feel that they are being asked to sign up to a decision about Trafford’s accident and emergency unit without understanding what the context and provision across the whole of Greater Manchester might look like in two or three years’ time.
The public are concerned, sceptical and worried. If Trafford general hospital’s A and E is downgraded, they are unsure where they will go with a particular condition in the future. They do not know whether to travel to Trafford or to go to another location, because Trafford might not be open or capable of dealing with their problem. It is not that people are unwilling to travel to other units when they understand that that is the right unit for them to go to. In Greater Manchester, we have done a good job in persuading people of the importance of going to Salford Royal if they have had a stroke, and of the importance of the major trauma centres around the city, but there needs to be clarity about what is on offer, where it is on offer, when it is on offer and why they can feel confident, if the service is not being provided locally, that that is in their best interests. They feel that a local A and E is important to them. There is a long conversation to be had with the public, which, I venture to suggest to Ministers, nobody has tried to embark on as yet.
The Secretary of State is considering the recommendations in relation to Trafford, and I expect that a decision will be taken shortly. I am grateful to the Minister’s colleague, the Under Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, for agreeing to meet me and my parliamentary neighbours. We are canvassing diary dates as we speak. Will the Minister ask her colleague to read very carefully my remarks from the debate this morning because they are a foretaste of some of the issues that I will raise when we have that meeting? May I also invite her to bring home to both the Under Secretary of State and the Secretary of State that we will be deeply concerned if a decision is taken about Trafford before elected Members have had an opportunity to put their concerns directly to them? We have not yet had that opportunity. It is vital that local people’s voices are heard before decisions are taken about services that are available to them. I hope that the Minister will convey those concerns to her colleagues following this morning’s debate.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this important debate and on giving us all an opportunity to speak on accident and emergency provision. The last time we had such a debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister gave a positive response to our concerns, so we look forward to her doing the same again today.
Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has full responsibility for it. None the less, I want to contribute to the debate and outline some of the important issues that we face. I preface my remarks by commending the ambulance staff and the accident and emergency staff on the long, tedious and hard work they do under intense pressure. For many of them, their job is a vocation. That is true of many of the accident and emergency staff in my constituency, especially those in Ulster hospital in Dundonald and in Ards community hospital. They should all be commended on their excellent work and commitment.
Across the UK, waiting times in A and E departments are on the increase, and Northern Ireland is no different. A report in The Daily Telegraph said:
“Data obtained from 60 NHS finance directors as part of the study revealed that 40 per cent of trusts did not meet their productivity targets in 2011-12.”
It went on to say:
“This will be a significant concern as last year was the first in a four-year spending squeeze, during which the NHS needs to find £20 billion in productivity improvements.”
Just four of the finance chiefs questioned said that their organisation was forecasting a deficit this year, backing up national figures that estimate a surplus of £1.5 billion across the NHS. That is worrying, not just for the patients coming in to A and E, but for the doctors and nurses on the front line who are bearing the brunt of the pressure along with the brunt of people’s frustration at being held waiting.
In her speech, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley gave some examples of where A and E units have found it difficult to respond to people’s needs, and we can all reiterate such examples over and over again. However, an important point is that whenever someone is ill and in need of help, sometimes their frustration spills over towards those people who are trying to help them. We must have a system whereby those who are in need can be helped at the time they are in need.
Due to the cuts in the block grant and the need for massive savings, our Health Minister in Northern Ireland has been forced into making very hard decisions such as closing the A and E unit at Belfast city hospital, which then impacted on my constituency. Yet there was no option, because those were hard decisions that had to be made. We had to take the impact upon the surrounding A and E units into full consideration and the extra staff and resources needed to deal with that. By and large, that consideration seems to have taken place, but I want to give a few examples of issues.
The savings had to be made to meet Government cuts in the block grant. That is the position that many of our trusts are in, and the Government must decide which is more important at this time—achieving productivity targets or achieving their efficiency savings. It is abundantly clear that it is becoming harder and harder to do both, and it is grossly unfair for the trusts to have to balance what cannot be balanced. Our Health Minister in Northern Ireland is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. However, my fear is that more and more will be asked, and that it will be impossible to deliver on those extra demands as time goes on and as the savings required become more and more difficult to achieve.
I have had occasion to visit the A and E unit in my constituency, because of complaints that my constituents have made about an inability to be seen, waiting times, unavailability of staff and the cramped conditions. I have passed on those complaints to the trust and I have met the chief executive, Hugh McCaughey. I have explained to him the complaints that were made, and, in fairness, he and his staff responded by putting in place a number of measures: better allocation of staff when it comes to A and E units; access to services centrally, which is sometimes required rather than people having to go across town to another hospital to get the service they need; and a more accountable and fluent monitoring response at A and E units. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned triage; it is so important to get that right at A and E units. As I say, those significant changes have been made at the A and E unit at the Ulster hospital in Dundonald, as a result of complaints by my constituents and the meetings that we have had with staff.
Such improvements are good news. However, as the restriction on moneys continues, we have extra pressures on the A and E units, which are now under pressure because of the changes that have taken place. I am particularly concerned about that issue. It is closely monitored in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, with the Health Minister receiving monthly reports and the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety receiving quarterly reports. The Minister and I came into political life at the same time. We live in different parts of the country, but we are good friends and we communicate regularly on these issues. However, there is too much pressure on the A and E departments for them to be able to handle their case load, and I know that the Royal College of Nursing, among other professional bodies, has expressed concern that there is not enough cover, but once again this comes back to the age-old issue of money and how the resources can be better spent.
It is my opinion—and I believe that of many people—that the trusts are doing as well as possible, but it is clear that the efficiencies that have been required of them are too much to balance with the targets that have been set, and above all to ensure that patients receive a good standard of care, which is the standard they should expect from one of the best health care systems in the world—indeed, the NHS is the envy of many in the world. Our doctors and nurses do a fine job, indeed a great job. I know that they do the best that they can, and we must assume some responsibility in this place for the care that people receive; that care is down to decisions that are made here. For that reason, I again implore the Government to reconsider the efficiency targets that have been set. Instead, they should allow trusts to have the ability to have a good staff, on duty and on call, to handle what is required and to protect the most important thing that we possess, which is our health.
I apologise in advance, Mr Hollobone, for leaving early because there is a Public Bill Committee that I should attend.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate.
What struck me when listening to the contributions from all parties represented in Westminster Hall this morning is the consensus that exists about the fact that we need to hear from the Government their vision for accident and emergency services. I agree entirely with the comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) when they say that we need clarity about how that vision is developing.
There is a fundamental tension between the centralisation of specialisms in accident and emergency services, and the desire of local people to be treated close to home. In London, there are fantastic A and E facilities in some of our central London hospitals, such as Guys and St Thomas’s hospital over the river, and yet—as hon. Members know—we equally find that hospitals in some of the outer parts of London are, frankly, either being sold off or seeing their services hugely downgraded, such as the downgrading that we are experiencing at Lewisham hospital at the moment.
Before I make some specific remarks about the situation in south-east London and some of the things that I have learned and been thinking about since we have been dealing with the issue at Lewisham hospital, I will quickly pick up on one of the other remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston. She talked about the problems she had experienced in extracting clear and concise information from the Department of Health about waiting times in Manchester hospitals. I, too, have asked several questions recently, not about waiting times but about the provision of health services at hospitals in London. I have simply been told that the Department does not hold that sort of information and it has been recommended that I make freedom of information requests. That is all well and good, but the public want to be reassured that Ministers at the heart of Government understand what is happening in hospitals out there and that they have an appreciation of the wider picture so that they can develop their vision of hospital services, whether they are A and E services or maternity services, but I am not sure that we feel reassured when we get such parliamentary answers that that is the case.
I will make two specific points about Lewisham hospital. Hon. Members will know that, in January, the Secretary of State for Health announced that Lewisham hospital would have a smaller A and E department, and that it would lose its maternity services. That was as a result of the trust special administration process that took place in the South London Healthcare NHS Trust, which was in huge financial difficulties. The hospitals in Woolwich, Bromley and Sidcup had a very significant operating deficit, and as a result of that we were told that the hospital down the road in Lewisham would have its services decimated. The full A and E department at Lewisham hospital will close; all blue-light ambulances will go past Lewisham hospital to other hospitals; all medical emergencies will not be able to be treated at Lewisham hospital; and yet the Secretary of State still calls it a “smaller” A and E department.
We might think that, on the basis of taking capacity out of the system at Lewisham hospital and—I should say—having to invest £37 million in other hospitals to deal with the displacement of people from Lewisham’s A and E department, everything is operating smoothly and well in south-east London. That is not the case. One in 10 people is waiting longer than four hours at hospitals that used to be part of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust, and now in Lewisham, one in 10 people is waiting longer than four hours to be treated. That was not the case in Lewisham a year ago; in March 2012, 97% of people were being treated at Lewisham hospital within four hours. So there is huge pressure upon A and E departments in south-east London.
Yesterday, I asked Lewisham hospital for information about the number of times that ambulances had been diverted to it from other hospitals. Lewisham hospital told me that, since December 2012—in the last four months—there have been 25 separate occasions when ambulances have been diverted to Lewisham. On 10 of those occasions, ambulances were diverted from the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich, and on 11 other occasions ambulances were diverted from the Princess Royal university hospital in Bromley. Those are the very hospitals that are meant to be picking up the people who will no longer be able to go to Lewisham hospital when our full A and E department goes. I seek a guarantee from the Minister that no changes will be made at Lewisham hospital until these diverts from other hospitals have stopped, and that no changes will be made until we see that, at the other hospitals I have mentioned, they are dealing with patients within a four-hour window.
I should like to make two general points about some issues that have already been touched on. There is a fundamental problem with people’s understanding of where they should go for the best possible treatment. The Government have asked Sir Bruce Keogh to conduct a review of emergency care, which is much needed and timely. I would rather the Government waited for the outcome of that review before they took decisions about hospitals such as Lewisham.
At the moment, when people are ill, they have no idea where they should go. They are faced with a plethora of places. Should they go to their general practitioner, a walk-in centre, a minor injuries unit or an urgent care centre, or A and E? It is confusing for people. If there was better information about where people can get the most appropriate treatment, potentially people who do not need to be in A and E would not go there. I do not criticise people for going to A and E, because they know that they will get treatment there and will be dealt with—hopefully—quickly. We cannot expect them to understand all the intricacies of what is available elsewhere. That fundamental problem needs to be addressed.
The Government are making the situation worse in Lewisham, when they say that Lewisham will retain a smaller A and E. On the day that the Secretary of State made that announcement, I said to myself, “What is a smaller A and E? What will happen there?” I am not the only one who is concerned about this. On 21 February, the president of the College of Emergency Medicine, Mike Clancy, tweeted:
“We have raised questions about the lack of clarity”—
with regard to Lewisham hospital—
“and that what’s proposed doesn’t meet our definition of an”
emergency department. Even the CEM is saying that the Government are making this more confusing for people. The way that the whole process has been dealt with has been quite deceitful and potentially dangerous. Telling people that there is a smaller A and E when it will be nothing more than an urgent care centre has potentially serious implications.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is not suggesting the Secretary of State was in any way deceitful.
I said that the whole process was deceitful and potentially dangerous. A legal challenge about Lewisham is under way. We have to await the outcome of that to see what the future holds for Lewisham. I stand by my remarks. The process was not really open from the outset.
My final point has already been mentioned. We need to work out exactly how we stop people going into A and E who do not need to be there. Yesterday, I was at my grandmother’s funeral. For a number of years, she had been very poorly and was a frequent attendee at her local hospital. Several times when she turned up there, she did not really need to be there. She was a poorly, lonely old lady. If we are to address the number of people who present at A and E when they do not need to be there, we must find proper ways of caring for people well and with dignity, especially towards the end of their lives, in the community. The problem at the moment is that we are trying to reduce the availability of A and Es in local areas when we do not have alternative care in place to stop people having to rely on A and E as the last resort.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley on securing the debate. The availability of high-quality local health services matters to everyone. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister says about how she is going to address those important issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate and compliment hon. Members who have spoken so far, highlighting concerns about the increase in A and E waiting times that are affecting their constituents.
I shall make specific references to my area and to the increase in A and E waiting times. I shall also spend a few moments reflecting on why we are in this situation and will mention the Health questions debate, during which I was bitterly disappointed by responses from the Health Secretary and Ministers to questions from hon. Members regarding increases in A and E waiting times.
An impartial observer might think the coalition Government had inherited a health service on the brink of collapse. The truth is that the Government inherited an NHS that had been transformed from what the previous Labour Government inherited after 18 years of Conservative Government and under-investment. My area was one of many, perhaps including Kettering, that were beneficiaries of considerable investment. There were 100 new hospitals; actual spend on the NHS increased from £30 billion to more than £100 billion; and much of the aged NHS infrastructure was replaced. My area and many others saw the construction of new walk-in centres, primary care centres and a new generation of modern community hospitals. GP opening hours were also extended. We have had the benefit of more doctors and nurses than ever before. We also had NHS Direct.
My contention is that Labour not only fixed the roof when the sun was shining, but laid the foundations and built the new hospitals, ensuring that patients received faster and better treatment closer to their communities. That was reflected in public satisfaction with the NHS, which went from the lowest ever recorded levels in the 1990s under the previous Conservative Administration, to the highest ever recorded levels by the time Labour left office. However, since the coalition Government took office, we have seen the biggest fall in public satisfaction with the NHS, as spending cuts have started to bite. [Interruption.] The Minister is saying no and shaking her head.
The Government have given back to the Treasury some £3 billion over two years. The Government have expended unnecessarily in excess of £2 billion or £3 billion on a top-down reorganisation. Factor in the £20 billion in cuts or efficiencies—however people choose to describe them—and this is a difficult time for the NHS.
Will the hon. Gentleman not accept that the efficiencies that he speaks about were agreed between the then Opposition and the then Government—his Government—as savings within the NHS of some £20 billion? Does he also accept that his party, in its last manifesto and in comments by Ministers, stated that it would cut the amount of money going into the NHS? That is something this Government have not done.
I think that the Government are cutting the money that is spent on the NHS, not least with the costs of the reorganisation, which I have already mentioned. That money need not have been spent. We are giving back several billion pounds—some £2.5 billion to £3 billion to the Treasury—which could be spent addressing issues such as this. There are a couple of practical points that I want to raise with the Minister later, but I give way to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood).
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the reorganisation of the NHS. That time and effort would have been better spent trying to work out how to deliver health care more cost-effectively. But does not he rather undermine his case when pretending that there has been a cut to the NHS budget, when an objective analysis of the actual billions spent on the NHS clearly shows that it has gone up? The difference between a cut and an efficiency saving is that an efficiency saving is returned to the NHS budget.
I did not vote for the NHS reorganisation; I spent 40 sittings in Committee trying to resist what is now the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and the damaging changes it introduces. That includes those that are about to be implemented under section 75, on the introduction of competition, which will fragment the service and add to costs and complexities. I do not, therefore, accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism, but I will press on because I want shortly to raise a couple of issues specifically about County Durham.
Part of our responsibility is to hold Ministers and, indeed, the Prime Minister to account. On waiting times—this was one of his five guarantees—he said:
“We will not lose control of waiting times—we will ensure they are kept low.”
Other Members have quoted the King’s Fund and patient surveys, and the figures clearly show that 32 foundation trust hospitals, out of 88 acute trusts in England with an A and E unit, missed the target in the last three months of 2012. I am not sure whether Kettering was one of them, but those figures should be cause for concern for everybody, including Ministers and the Prime Minister. That is double the number of trusts that missed the target in the same period last year, and four times the number that missed it in the previous quarter.
It is therefore clear that A and E waiting times are spiralling out of control. There have been various surveys, including one conducted by the Care Quality Commission, which found that one in three people spent more than four hours waiting for treatment. It also noted a large rise in the number of patients waiting for 30 minutes or more before seeing a doctor or a nurse.
In my area, The Northern Echo is campaigning on this issue, highlighting the alarming rise in the number of patients in the north-east waiting more than four hours for treatment. That number has almost trebled in the past 12 months. The paper has disaggregated figures from the Department of Health and found that more than 1,000 patients have waited longer than the target time, including 536 in County Durham and Darlington. Compared with 12 months ago, the number of patients waiting more than four hours has increased by 200% in County Durham and Darlington. South Tees and York have also seen increases in excess of 200%, compared with the previous year. However, at the Newcastle foundation trusts, the percentage increase is a staggering 630%. Alarm bells should be ringing for Ministers, because those figures are quite dreadful.
I was concerned by the Secretary of State’s responses at Question Time. One disturbing characteristic of this Government is that they are not taking responsibility or coming forward with proposals to address these issues. Specifically, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), the Health Secretary said:
“We are looking at the root causes of the fact that admissions to A and E are going up so fast”
—I think he quoted a figure of an additional million. The factors he blamed were that
“there is such poor primary care provision…changes to the GP contract led to a big decline in the availability of out-of-hour services…and…health and social care services are so badly joined up.”
“That is how we are going to tackle this issue”.—[Official Report, 16 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 168.]
That really is not good enough. Indeed, Dr Laurence Buckman, who is chair of the British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee, has been quite dismissive and scathing about the Health Secretary’s decision to blame the increase in A and E numbers on the changes to GP contracts. He said it was “impressively superficial”—[Interruption.] Well, that is what the man said, Minister. He said that the decision was not based on any evidence. He went on to say:
“Most GPs were not providing personal access out of hours anyway; it was provided through a variety of out-of-hours routes and that has been the case for the past 30 years, so it would be nonsense to suggest that because GPs haven’t been personally responsible since 2004, therefore casualty is full of people. That is just such fatuous nonsense. I question the wisdom of the people briefing the Secretary of State.”
I tend to agree with him.
There is no magic bullet. With a complex organisation such as the NHS, we need a broad-spectrum antibiotic; we need to apply a number of measures. The fragmentation of the service is certainly contributing to the problem. There is also the issue of people not having access to their GP within 48 hours. Like many Members, I have, unfortunately, had experience of close family members and constituents being left with little alternative but to go to A and E, when the GP could have addressed the issue, had they been available in a reasonable period. This issue therefore requires a team effort.
I am also concerned about what the RCN is saying about the reduction in the number of community and district-based nurses, and I hope the Minister will refer to that. Information provided through freedom of information requests shows that the number of nurses in communities who are part of the rapid emergency assessment and co-ordination teams and the rapid response teams that help to keep elderly people, in particular, out of hospital, has been dramatically reduced.
Does my hon. Friend agree not only that there are fewer community nurses, but that those who still remain have much enhanced work loads, which means the time spent with each individual patient is reduced? That, too, causes problems with the quality of care provided in the community.
That is certainly a factor, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Part of the solution is a more visionary approach and a care model that integrates NHS services with social care in a seamless service. We need to end the fragmentation and to have full co-operation. We do not want people—particularly elderly patients—to be discharged from hospital, only for their cases not to be followed up by social care or primary health care services. That is a key challenge facing the Government. I will leave it at that.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, for what is, I think, the first time, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing the debate. She has an exceptionally powerful voice in these matters, and all of us, on both sides of the House, have a common interest in ensuring it is heard not only today, but throughout this Parliament. I pay tribute to the work she is doing not only in her own right, but in tandem with the Government.
I also pay tribute to the work other Members who have spoken undertake on behalf of their constituents in fighting for A and E services in their constituencies. It would be remiss of me not to thank my local A and E unit at the West Cumberland hospital for saving my life probably twice in the past two years, although I appreciate that that makes me sound careless.
Before I begin, I wonder whether the Minister can answer this fairly simple question. What have Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Milton Keynes Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, North West London Hospitals NHS Trust, Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust all got in common? I am more than happy to give way to the Minister if she would like to hazard a guess.
These are serious matters and should be above such cheap party politics. The hon. Gentleman clearly knows the answer to his question, and is asking me to speculate. Given that the debate is about accident and emergency, no doubt the answer is that their waiting times are longer. The Government accept that, and also agree that it is not acceptable; and we are doing something about it. If the hon. Gentleman wants to play party politics, that is against him, not against anything else.
That was a regrettable answer, and did not become the Minister. She clearly does not know the answer. I wonder, as do, I think, many hon. Members, whether the Government know the answer to the question. It is that those trusts have missed the A and E target for major type 1 units—
I do not think it is sexist at all.
Does the Minister know how many times her local trust has missed its A and E target, since the end of September? [Interruption.] I will tell her. Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust has missed its target for 17 weeks since September.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to refresh his memory? If we refer to the most recent statistics produced by Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust for the A and E department at the Queen’s medical centre, we can compare those for the week commencing 14 April this year with those for the week commencing 15 April last year. Last year 440 patients failed to be treated or seen within the four-hour target, whereas this year the figure had fallen to 259.
I note that the Minister prepared an answer, and I am grateful for that.
Major accident and emergency units—type 1 facilities, nationally—have missed the target for at least the last six months, and all A and E units, including minor incident units, have not hit the target for 12 weeks in a row. If anyone needs help analysing the figures, I would be happy to oblige. They are easy to find and they reveal some interesting points. For example, I wonder whether hon. Members know that only one trust with a major accident and emergency unit in England has hit its target every week since the Secretary of State took his position. That is relegation form, and if this were a football match the cry from the crowd would be “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Before the Minister attempts yet again to dismiss those statistics, I hope she will take a moment to attend to what has been said by the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, by Dr Clifford Mann of the College of Emergency Medicine, and by David Behan of the Care Quality Commission. Earlier this month, Dr Peter Carter, of the Royal College of Nursing said:
“These figures are yet more proof of a system running at capacity, and patients are suffering as a result. Our members are regularly telling us that pressure on the system is rising while staffing levels fall, and as a result any increase in demand results in unacceptable waits for patients who are already going through a difficult time.”
Dr Clifford Mann, of the College of Emergency Medicine said:
“We are seeing...ambulances queuing outside departments, and patients waiting too long on trolleys before they can be admitted to hospital.”
The Care Quality Commission said:
“It is disappointing that people have said they have to wait longer to be treated than four years ago. People should be seen, diagnosed, treated and admitted or discharged as quickly as possible”.
Like me, the Royal College of Nursing, the College of Emergency Medicine and the Care Quality Commission will be appalled that the key performance indicators for the NHS, such as A and E waiting times, are getting steadily worse. In the past six months, 582,811 people waited more than four hours in major A and E units, compared with 420,921 for the same period in the previous year. That is an increase of 161,890 people. That is not silly: it is a question of people’s lives. Those figures relate to people in need who did not get treatment in the time when they needed it. They represent more than 500,000 extra waiting hours in one year. People will find it hard to stomach the fact that there are now about 5,000 fewer nurses than there were in 2010, at a time when, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, demand in our A and E units is increasing.
One way to get the figure down—it has been touched on already in the debate—would be to offer services for people with non-emergency ailments, so that they do not feel the need to travel to an A and E department. However, instead of NHS Direct being used as a tool for easing pressure on A and E departments, the roll-out of NHS 111 has turned into a trade marked Government shambles. Patients calling the new 111 service wait hours for advice. One patient waited 11 hours and 29 minutes for a call back. No wonder they feel that they have to go to A and E, when they cannot trust a telephone service with such an inadequate response rate.
Accident and emergency departments are a litmus test, or a barometer, for the performance of the NHS as a whole. If people are waiting in A and E, it means that there are too few beds or too few staff to cope with demand. That is just a fact of health service planning. If there are too few beds, it is because community services are being cut and patients who should be at home are kept in hospital. That reverberates back through the entire system. If patients who could be at home are in hospital, beds are occupied. If beds are occupied, A and E staff cannot admit patients. If A and Es are full, paramedics cannot hand over patients. If patients are queuing in the back of ambulances, those ambulances cannot respond to a potentially serious call-out. One failure leads to another. Each compounds the other. That is what is so serious about the debate. It is not just about the patient sitting in A and E for hours on end; the statistics I have highlighted show much more than that—the experiences of patients throughout the entire system.
In my remarks I suggested another possible factor in the current problems of emergency departments: the difficulty in recruiting emergency doctors. That may have something to do with the attractiveness of emergency medicine as a specialty—the long hours, and so on. However, it also obviously dates back to the training numbers that I am afraid prevailed under the Labour Government. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there may be some such responsibility, dating back several years, in relation to attracting sufficient numbers into training for emergency medicine?
I expect the Minister to talk about new doctors in the NHS when she replies to the debate; and, of course, we trained those doctors. We commissioned, paid for and put in place the training of those doctors, so I take what the hon. Gentleman says seriously. I also commend him for being the only Member of Parliament from either of the coalition parties to attend the debate to defend the Government’s record.
The statistics highlight more than the simple numbers: they show the experience of patients throughout the system. One person waiting in A and E can reflect one person in a bed on a ward and another waiting at home for an ambulance. I hope the Minister will acknowledge and accept that, and explain what the Government plan to do. It is essential that they explicitly acknowledge the problems faced by accident and emergency in England. Constant denials do them no credit. They must acknowledge the scale of the problem before any solutions can be introduced.
The NHS in England is completely different from the NHS in Wales. I expect the Government will be tempted to compare the two, but I want to address the issue head on. The reality is that Welsh Ministers are dealing with a £2.1 billion real-terms cut to their budgets. Yet, despite that, they have still managed to protect NHS services. There are now more GPs working in Wales than in 2010, and the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors has remained consistent. That is in stark contrast to England, where nurse numbers are falling. I am sure that hon. Members who have heard such tired comparisons over and over would be interested to know that there are differences in the way A and E waiting times are measured in the two countries, and in how frequently performance is measured.
Before any comparison is made—and I hope that none will be—I want to point out that it is misleading to try to make a direct comparison. However, it is fair to say that all parts of the UK are experiencing increased pressures on A and E. The key difference is that in Wales, Labour are doing something about it, whereas in England the coalition is sitting on its hands. In Wales, 270 additional beds were opened this winter to cope with demand, easing pressure throughout the system. The Welsh Government have also agreed an all-Wales action plan for unscheduled care, which means that health boards must ensure that they have sufficient capacity to meet demand.
Will the Minister inform us today what the Government plan to do to help A and E services in England? When and where will they start to provide such help, and how much will it cost?
That aside, will the Minister also answer a few important questions on A and E waiting times? First, will she explain why, when demand is clearly so high and the current services are at breaking point, the Government have handed P45s to almost 5,000 nurses? Will she also explain why the Secretary of State chose a period of intense demand and structural reorganisation to roll out the 111 service when it was clearly not ready to be rolled out?
May I tempt the Minister to speculate on the causes of that rise in A and E waiting times? Does she agree that a combination of inadequate staffing levels, a distracting reorganisation of the NHS and deep cuts to council care budgets is the principal reason for the sharp increase in A and E waiting times? If she does not agree that they are having a major impact on the NHS, can she explain why the Government think that fewer nurses and a distracting reorganisation have improved services?
The problems that others and I have outlined today are well known to many, but they are still sadly neglected by the Government. Despite its imperfections and its many real challenges, the NHS remains one of the best models of national health care in the world. It is filled with dedicated professionals who believe passionately in the aims and values of the service, but it is clear that an expensive, unwanted and unloved reorganisation, combined with Government-induced staff shortages, are causing and have caused deterioration in performance. That is unfair on health care professionals, and, far more importantly, it is unfair on patients. I look forward to the Minister explaining in detail how her Government intend to get a grip and bring all A and E services in England back up to national standards.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I have just about eight minutes to respond to all the valuable contributions made in this debate. I will not be able to answer all the questions, but I will write to anyone who has asked a question that I cannot answer.
Obviously, I begin by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate and for the way she is championing the cause of the patient. She will not hesitate to leave no stone unturned. As many others know, she is doing great work in leading our independent review of NHS complaints. She mentioned just some of the many cases that have come her way. She did not give dates, but I suspect the cases were not all fresh by any means, because, as she, I and many others recognise, this is by no means a new phenomenon; it is a serious problem that requires serious action, which the Government are taking. Would it not be refreshing and brilliant if we could have a debate on a serious issue without falling into the trap of cheap party politics, which, unfortunately, has been a little evident in some, but mercifully not all, the speeches? As the right hon. Lady said in her speech, there are no easy answers.
Some important points have been raised. We know that there is a problem, and we recognise that. It is not uncommon for the four-hour waiting time standards not to be met, especially during the winter period. That happened under the previous Government as well as under this Government. Indeed, in 2008-09 there were 23 weeks in which the waiting time target was breached, and it was breached during a further 14 weeks in 2009-10 up to May 2010. We know that those problems continue. We want to know and understand why, and we want to take quick action.
No. I am not going to go into all that in the short time that is available to me. We accept that waiting times are a problem—we are not trying to hide from that, and we are up for transparency—and I will address the data in a minute.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly identifies the seasonal nature of waiting times. He speaks with passion about changes in his constituency, and rightly so. It is right and proper that people who have such concerns, as other hon. Members have said, come to this place to champion the cause of the health service within their own communities, especially when it faces reconfiguration. He spoke about 111, which is an important thing to talk about when considering some of the causes that may contribute to the unacceptable failure to hit targets. I know that the data are being monitored on a daily basis by NHS England, and the deputy chief executive of NHS England is meeting twice a week to consider what is happening and to make sure that action is taken to ensure that any problems are addressed.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point on the difficulty of filling posts, and I will write to him on that because I know it is a problem. I also know that action is being taken by some of the royal colleges, and it is probably best if I give a fuller answer, because he makes a very important point. Of course, I can say that the Keogh review is considering exactly the other problems that he mentioned. As the Secretary of State announced, the Keogh review, which has been alluded to, will report next month. All those matters will be reviewed by Sir Bruce, and it is much to be hoped that some positive forward-thinking will come out of that.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) raised various issues. I am particularly concerned that she says she is not getting the answers to the questions she has quite properly asked. I think there is sometimes a problem with hon. Members not going in the first instance to the actual hospital, trust or whoever it might be. Her point, and it is a good point well made, is that when she asked my Department, she did not get those figures, and I will make further inquiries.
Only today I saw a question from the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) asking precisely what the figures are for her hospital in Sherwood and, as it happens, the hospital she and I effectively share, the Queen’s medical centre A and E department. I have given those figures, and I want to set the record straight because, in fact, for the same week last year in Sherwood, 75 people waited more than four hours; this year the figure is 266.
I have two points to make very quickly. First, I asked for data on all Manchester hospitals. I cannot be expected to go to each one, but, obviously, what is going on in every hospital in the city matters because patients will have to move from one to another if capacity is short. Secondly, I specifically asked for data on Trafford general hospital, which falls within the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The Minister told me in a written answer that data were not available, but when I approached the trust itself, it told me.
I know, and I do not understand why that is. I will absolutely make further inquiries, because it is nonsense that the hon. Lady did not get the data.
I will come on to address the points made by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), but, on the data, it is important that we monitor such things. That is precisely why the Department of Health and Health Ministers are very much alert to what is happening in A and E. We share the concerns of hon. Members, which is why we have the Keogh review, why we are considering how to solve the problem and why we are looking at the underlying causes, which, in the short time available, I hope to address. I will ensure not only that the Ministers to whom the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston has spoken read Hansard, but that a copy of this debate goes to NHS England, which I know also shares those concerns. NHS England also wants to hear about the experiences of hon. Members, and it is taking action to ensure that we are on top of this and, most importantly, that we do what we should do.
I took that intervention in good faith, hoping that I might be able to assist. The hon. Lady is more than experienced and knows that I cannot give her any such assurance. She, too, talked about the provision of data in her speech. All I know is that 75% of the people who would ordinarily have gone to A and E in Lewisham will continue to go there, but she makes important points, all of which will be put in the right place.
I conclude by addressing the cause. Well, we do not know. There are various factors, but, as has been said, there is no easy answer and no silver bullet. We know that a seasonal downturn in performance in not unusual, but the dip in performance this year is deeper and longer than in previous years. One million more people—perhaps this is not understood by some hon. Members—are using A and E departments every year, and it is important that we understand why that is. We know that there are nearly 4 million more A and E attendances compared with 2004, when the previous Government carried out what I and others believe was a disastrous renegotiation of the GP contract, which has had a clear knock-on effect on access to out-of-hours services.
Under-Occupancy Penalty (Wigan)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the under-occupancy penalty and its effects in my borough of Wigan. The importance of the policy has been demonstrated not just by the number of constituents who have raised the issue but by the unprecedented comments by the very non-political chief executive of Wigan and Leigh housing trust, who in a recent article for the Wigan Evening Post slated the policy and its effect on the trust and its tenants, calling it “a wicked policy” that will not save any money on the housing benefit bill but will bring misery and hardship, forcing thousands of people in Wigan to pay up from already overstretched incomes or move to smaller properties, which are already in short supply in the area.
The stock of one and two-bedroom properties in Wigan stands at 12,266, of which 1,496 became vacant in 2011-12. Demand for those properties before the implementation of the bedroom tax was 3,177. There are 10,110 three-bedroom properties, of which 553 became vacant, but only 353 applications were made for those vacancies. As can be seen, families are not tightly packed into overcrowded dwellings waiting for selfish people with acres of vacant space to move and release a home. In fact, contrary to Government rhetoric, the reverse is true.
We have heard many times from the Minister and others that this is about fairness, and that people in the private rented sector claiming local housing allowance are not allowed a spare room. I challenge that. I have worked on an LHA pilot and I am familiar with the rules. I recently tabled a parliamentary question asking how many people were under-occupying while claiming local housing allowance. The answer was, as I knew, that local housing allowance is based on the characteristics of the household and is not affected by the number of bedrooms in the property occupied. Two-bedroom properties in Wigan are readily available at the local housing allowance rate of £80.77 per couple. One-bedroom properties are much scarcer, so people in the private rented sector can have a spare bedroom without paying for the privilege.
The potential for social housing tenants to move to the private sector discredits another purported reason for introducing the policy: saving money. According to Government figures, £2.9 million could be saved annually in Wigan if nobody moved and everybody paid the penalty or if everyone downsized within the social rented sector. However, the harsh reality of the housing market in Wigan is that the shortfall of one and two-bedroom properties in the social rented sector is causing people to shift to the private sector, which could result in an additional housing benefit cost of £229,000 in 2014-15.
As of 15 April, 38 of the 4,200 households affected have terminated their tenancies. Each household that moves to the private rented sector increases the housing benefit bill by £700 to £1,200 a year. The move from one sector to the other is likely to go only one way. Of the 1,100 people on the waiting list from the private rented sector, 80% require one or two bedrooms, which, we already know and I have demonstrated, are over-subscribed and in short supply.
It is worth reminding the Minister that we are dealing with people who have families, communities, roots and memories bound up in their homes, not with chess pieces that can be moved across the country at will. Many of them have disabilities, live in adapted properties and have a medical need for a spare room. They are people like my constituents Mr and Mrs Pimblett and their 12-year-old son, who live in a three-bedroom Wigan and Leigh housing trust property.
Mr Pimblett is severely disabled and suffers from gigantism and osteoporosis. He has recently been assessed by his occupational therapist as requiring a further bedroom for his medical needs. If he follows that medical advice, he will pay a penalty of £25 a week. Mr Pimblett, who is virtually housebound, enjoys fishing with a friend who takes him. It is his only hobby, but the current penalty of £14.60 a week for his “spare” bedroom means that he now cannot afford the £120-a-year membership fee at the local angling club. It has caused him to become severely depressed, exacerbating the pressure on him, his family and the NHS, which is now treating him.
Another constituent arrived at my surgery in tears. She and her partner, who is also her live-in carer, had received a letter saying they were subject to the under-occupation penalty. She was injured at work but, due to financial pressure, carried on working until the pain became too intense, leading to severe arthritis of the spine, a degenerative condition. She must now use a walking frame, when she can walk at all. Their home is a two-bedroom adapted flat, and she and her partner cannot share a bedroom because she has a specially adapted bed and medical equipment, and must often get up during the night due to severe pain. Were my constituent to move, the adaptations budget would have to be used to adapt her new dwelling.
In Wigan and Leigh housing trust, 550 households include a disabled person and live in an adapted property. Some, like my constituent, feel forced to move. The additional expenditure on the already committed adaptations budget could be as high as an extra £1.9 million over the next 18 months. The only other funds available are from reductions in the capital programme, of which new house building is the most vulnerable area, so we cannot even build our way out of the problem. The policy is affecting people who might want to move to the social rented sector in future.
The stability of the social rented sector’s financial model is threatened. Rent arrears in Wigan and Leigh housing trust alone are predicted to increase by at least £1.4 million for 2013-14, solely due to the bedroom tax. The first two weeks’ collection report shows a large non-payment, and collection staff have been diverted from their normal recovery duties to deal with large numbers of angry tenants who are affected by the policy, do not understand why they are being hit and cannot afford to pay.
I repeat the question that I asked the Minister during an earlier debate on this topic. If a person subject to the charge cannot pay and is registered for a smaller property that is not available—I have figures showing that, given current vacancy rates, it will take several years in the Wigan borough if just a quarter of those affected wish to downsize—will they be considered intentionally homeless? If not, who will fund them? Will it be the already overstretched Wigan and Leigh housing trust? Are all those people and many others—the grandparents who look after their grandchildren two nights a week so their daughter can work, or Mr Smith, who shares the care of his son—expected to apply for discretionary housing payments, and how far will that budget stretch?
As I have time, I will mention another case. Mrs B is 55 and lives alone in a three-bedroom house. As it is her family home, she believed that she could live there for the rest of her life, but the cost implications of the under-occupancy charge have brought her a lot of stress and worry. She feels that it is designed to evict her from her home. She cannot afford the £20.75 that she must pay weekly. Before April, her rent was covered in full by housing benefit. She is a full-time carer for an elderly relative and her parents, and her income is minimal. She is just about getting by on what she has at the moment. She does not have any personal transport—she cannot drive—so her elderly aunt has moved close by, and Mrs B can help care for her as well. All the family members live close by to provide support, they all look after each other and they are all within easy walking distance.
Through no fault of her own, Mrs B lives in the property alone. She has lived there for decades: her son was born and died at this property, and her memories and life are bound up with it. Time and money have been invested to make it safe and secure; the family have created a memorial garden in the back to the memory of her son, because thieves stole the memorials from his grave. As a result of his death, she suffers constantly from anxiety, stress and depression but, despite that, manages to fulfil her caring responsibilities. The under-occupation charge has exacerbated her problems with the worry of losing her home and of wondering where she will be forced to live or whether she can look after her auntie and parents. Her children have grown up and left the property, and she is left there alone.
Wigan and Leigh housing trust has completed a discretionary housing payment application on Mrs B’s behalf, but how far will that budget stretch? Some analysis has been done by the housing trust. The additional money in Wigan can assist fewer than 100 households of the 4,162 affected, which is less than one fifth of the number of households that contain a disabled person in an adapted property affected by the bedroom tax, let alone the households of people such as Mrs B. Wigan has worked hard over the years to build stability and community spirit. Forcing people to pay for staying in their home or to move away from their network of support—friends, family—from their jobs in many cases, because we should not forget that the majority of housing benefit claimants are working for a low wage, from their schools, from the area they grew up in and from all their memories is, in many cases, completely heartless.
For Wigan and most of the north of England, this policy will not deliver the predicted savings or decrease overcrowding, but it will have a detrimental impact on other areas covered by the public purse. It will aggravate the housing supply problems and the demand mismatch in the north, increase financial hardship in our most deprived communities, leading to increased rent arrears, evictions and homelessness, and bring increased stress and misery to thousands of people. We have all heard horrendous and heart-wrenching tales from our constituents, and all for no good reason. I have to agree with the chief executive of the Wigan and Leigh housing trust: “wicked” is the only way to describe the policy and its effect in Wigan.
It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate on behalf of her constituents.
I am under no illusion about the strength of feeling of many about the removal of the spare room subsidy, but we are not introducing the change lightly. A number of important principles lie behind the reform, and it is only right to describe the main ones, because they provide the context for the changes, which of course have a financial imperative and other compelling reasons. Furthermore, no one has offered a serious alternative to achieve the savings of £500 million a year, especially since housing benefit doubled in cash terms to £23 billion under the previous Government, so we have had to look at the financial implications.
That example is taken completely out of context; one measure is about a business and ensuring that it remains, as well as about how people spend their money, but the measure we are discussing is about one set of finances that doubled in cash terms under the hon. Lady’s Government to £23 billion and about what we should do about it. We cannot pick and mix and move the finances around; we have to get housing benefit under control, and I will say how we are doing that, although I do not underestimate in any way the complexity and difficulty of doing so. She said clearly that this is about people, and I fully understand that it is about people, which is why we have to get things right, not only for now but for future generations—their children and their children’s children—so it is always about people and getting the system right. Another reason for the reform is that it will result in the effective use of housing stock over time, because we also have to look at the people in overcrowded accommodation, and in Wigan alone more than 3,500 families are on the housing waiting list.
I will proceed a little further, so that I can answer the hon. Lady’s questions.
We need to improve use of the housing stock, and doing nothing is not an option, because we have 1 million spare rooms but 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. The situation will not be easy to change overnight, but we have to start on the process of getting things right. It is about fairness. The hon. Lady said that I would talk about fairness, and of course it is about fairness, but from different angles and not only for those renting from private landlords or those in the social rented sector. It is about fairness between all those different people who are living under different systems. In Wigan, 27,000 people receive housing benefit, 18,500 of them in the social rented sector and 8,500 in the private rented sector, so 31% of people are already under the rules that we are introducing. May I clarify with the hon. Lady that today she is asking not only to oppose the measures that are progressing but to repeal the previous Government’s measures, brought in gradually from 2008? People are already living under the same rules and criteria. Is that what she would like to see—the reversal of her own Government’s 2008 rules?
The Minister fundamentally misunderstands local housing allowance, which, as stated in the answer to my parliamentary question, is based on the characteristics of the family and not of the property. In Wigan, therefore, a couple can quite easily rent a two-bedroom private property—with a spare bedroom—for £80.77 a week. Fairness does not come into it.
I can correct the hon. Lady. The size criteria applied to the social rented sector are exactly the same. If a private landlord is charging below the median market 30th percentile, a couple can do that. Equally, should local housing associations want to regroup or make a change from a three-bedroom to a two-bedroom property, they are entitled to do so. People can do such things, and that is what is happening.
I did not, however, get an answer to my question: would a Labour Government reverse what they introduced in 2008? We are drawing a parity between two unfair systems—one for private, one for social—within the housing benefit market. I see the hon. Lady shaking her head, so Labour would not reverse that and we seem to be having a fake argument today; the Opposition are opposing for the sake of opposing, with hypothetical arguments about something that they clearly introduced without the catastrophes and calamities that she is talking about. The number of people involved is not small, but 31% of those in rented accommodation in Wigan.
Wigan and Leigh housing trust manages Wigan’s council homes, provides tenants with comprehensive advice, and has dedicated financial support teams that focus on “claim, manage, pay”: managing and maximising income, and paying rent. In conjunction with Citizens Advice, Wigan council has set up Wigan Housing Solutions, a not-for-profit organisation that acts as a social letting agency and as a bridge between the private and rented sectors, helping to relieve pressure on the waiting list.
We welcome all such initiatives for managing welfare reform. It is only too easy to speculate about the potential impact of the change, and to come up with alarmist examples of people suffering and losing their homes. We have not seen that yet, but we are alert to such situations. We want people to work in partnership, which is why we have trebled the discretionary payment fund. We are offering different opportunities and outlets of what can be done. There is no one-fits-all solution. We understand that people live in different houses with different set-ups, and that we must think about how the change will work for them. That is why we welcome partnership initiatives.
I have talked about how changes were implemented in 2008. Some of the things that the hon. Lady is talking about and that she fears will happen in 2013 did not happen. Before implementation of the current changes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made announcements concerning foster carers and parents of armed forces personnel when they are away from home on operational duty, and on what the discretionary fund could be used for. We have talked about disabled children who cannot share a room with a sibling and who are exempt, as are pensioners. Various people will be exempt and there will be significant discretionary payments, which will be constantly monitored to see whether the amount of money is right and whether the right people are being supported.
We have seen best practice with people pooling resources and coming together because at the end of the day—I am convinced that there will be agreement on this—we want the best result for people in social housing. We want the best result for those on waiting lists for social housing. We want the best result for those who may be overcrowded. We want that not just for 2013. We looked at what has happened over the last 10 years when payment costs doubled, and we want what is right now and what will be right in the future. It invariably takes a Conservative Government—in this case a coalition Government—to get the accounting right and to build and convert the right number of properties. A Conservative party always has to pick up the pieces of a failed Labour Government.
The Minister has twice referred to the number of people on the waiting list for properties. In Wigan, 80% of those in private rented accommodation and on the waiting list are waiting for one and two-bedroom properties, but there is an over-supply of three-bedroom properties. She also talked about people moving to the private rented sector, where rents are higher. For every person who is displaced there will be a cost, and the policy is likely to lose money for Wigan because of the over-supply of three-bedroom properties and the under-supply of one and two-bedroom properties. Families are not getting larger; they are getting smaller. One and two-bedroom properties are in most demand.
The hon. Lady is right to talk about housing stock and how so many councils got their housing stock wrong for so many years. Why was it not reallocated? Why were conversions not carried out? Why did they not use the money? If they realised that so many people were in three-bedroom properties when they should have been in two-bedroom properties, why did they not do something about that work? They are beginning to do it now, which is why there are so many spare rooms. That work should have been done, but it was not. No attention was paid to needs, what should have been built, and changing family demographics. It is right that housing associations could have reallocated housing by changing three-bedroom houses to two-bedroom houses. All those offers were on the table and are still on the table. We are trying to work through that, and the hon. Lady was right to mention it. We have provided a list of solutions to solve those problems.
I return to the number of people on Wigan’s housing list, which is 3,591families. Some people are overcrowded and still on the waiting list, and even if they are not overcrowded they may still be on a waiting list. That problem also needs to be solved. There also needs to be re-allocation of rooms. I understand the business pretty well because it is my family business and I know about conversion of stock and having the right people in houses. I understand what the Government are doing.
I resent people, even chief executives, talking about a wicked initiative. It is not wicked. It is solving a tremendous problem. We have been given a terrible problem and we take no pleasure in having to solve it, but we must do that. We must look at costs, people, the use of stock and how we support those people. Instead of people lobbying and scaremongering, I would prefer that we work together to solve the problem. Trading words is an ineffectual use of time and energy, but I believe that we can solve the problem, which is why we are monitoring it to ensure that the trebling of the discretionary payment goes to the right people.
The chief executive of Wigan and Leigh housing trust said that the effects on people in Wigan are wicked, and that in the north of England and Wigan the effect of the policy on the people he sees daily—tenants—on the housing stock he manages and on his business planning for the future is completely the opposite of what the Government intend. No one is saying that the Government’s intentions are wicked, but their policy is not working and the effect on people in my borough and those I represent is absolutely wicked.
We must get it right, and we are getting it right. I do not believe the hon. Lady’s description to be the case. We are working together to ensure that we support people now and in future. We never get a reply from Labour on spending commitments, but will the party—it introduced its policy in 2008—in addition to opposing what we are doing today, put on the record the fact that they will oppose, revoke or withdraw everything they put in place in 2008? There is silence from Labour Members because they will not go backwards on that commitment.
In our final few moments, I will say what we are doing. Our imperative is to sort out our housing stock, to put people who need houses into the bedrooms that exist. For the first time ever, we are ensuring that Britain is building. Under the previous Labour Government, where most of the problem comes from, there was a near collapse in the building of social housing, which fell to an all-time record low. In every which way of the argument, there was a pinch effect from lack of building, wrong allocation of resources, massive overspending, and not caring about those on waiting lists and those in overcrowded housing. We must deal with that in its entirety, but there are differences in different regions. I understand that, and the Government understand that, and that is why we will constantly monitor what we are doing. There has been a trebling of the discretionary fund, and Wigan is entitled to its fair share of that. We need to work in partnership with best practices in Wigan for pooling resources and helping everyone—not one section, but everyone who needs social housing.
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I start by saying happy St George’s Day to all, and in particular, to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—it is their day, too.
Reservists combine a military role with their civilian job. They are not normally kept under arms, and their traditional military task has been to fight when the country mobilises for war, or to defend against invasion. Reserve troops are not normally considered part of the nation’s standing body of military forces, although now it appears that that might change.
Reservists can be used in many ways. Most urgently, they can be BCRs—battle casualty replacements—for combat losses in front-line units during a conflict, as they were in both world wars and in more recent conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In both world wars, they were also used to form complete units. They can be used for more static activities, such as guarding, security patrols or for manning prisoner of war camps. Most certainly, their expertise enhances military intelligence, communications and medical facilities. Reservists give the nation an immediate increase in soldiers, without the months of training that it would take to build up such combat power. They are usually less expensive than maintaining a standing force, as they are used only when required.
The quality of reservists is often very high. Many have expert civilian skills that are transferable to and improve the professional efficiency of the military. For instance, some reservists involved in cyber-security are second to none, and without the Territorial Army and reservists serving in our military medical services, we would definitely have fewer survivors from the current firefights in Afghanistan. Many in the TA see military service as an integral part of their life. It may be a hobby, but it is a very serious one, about which they are normally extremely enthusiastic. That enthusiasm can often be turned to military advantage. Calling out reserves can also be a visible and deliberate signal of determined escalation during a mounting crisis.
Yet too often in the past, the TA has become the repository for weapons and equipment no longer used by the Regular Army. Selection may be neither as rigorous nor as well funded as that of regular soldiers. Members of the TA obviously do not have the same amount of time to sharpen or maintain their military skills, as they normally hold down full-time jobs as well. TA or reserve service is an add-on to their lives and it is one that sometimes has to be squeezed. Employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, are always concerned that a key member of their team might, just might, be mobilised, leaving them with a gaping and difficult gap in their companies for up to a year.
I accept that the Ministry of Defence fully recognises those problems and is trying to take steps to mitigate them. I agree, too, that a fix is perfectly possible for some of the points I have outlined, but I find it difficult to see how the worries of SMEs, which may lose a vital worker, can be overcome.
Reservists serving on the front line is a subject that has interested me for some time. In 2007, I wrote and presented a television programme on the TA’s involvement in Iraq. In doing so, I interviewed a number of TA and reservist soldiers on the job at the coalition air base near Basra. I was surprised to find that about 14% of the personnel in the British forces there were TA or reservists. In truth, I was very impressed by the TA soldiers and reservists I found there. They were clearly professional and up to the job. In my time in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, I, too, had excellent TA soldiers under my command. They did very well. Today, I gather that routinely about 10% of any force that the UK deploys will be made up of TA and reservists. Since 2003, more than 28,000 TA soldiers and reservists have been deployed on operations. That is a tremendous record of service, which is a great credit to the TA and reservists.
The “Future Reserves 2020” public consultation exercise ended on Friday 18 January. Comments on it have been sought from reservists, their families and employers, as well as members of the regular forces. That feedback is being used by the Ministry of Defence to help shape the White Paper, which is due to be published at any moment. Once that happens, we will have a much better idea about what the future reserves will look like. However, one thing is clear already: the Ministry of Defence wants reserve forces to be an integral and integrated element of the UK’s armed forces, and I support that fully.
A major proposal is to increase the number of trained soldiers in the TA, or what seems likely to be called the “Army Reserve”, to 30,000 by 2018. Apparently, future reservists will be better resourced, better equipped, and better trained than the current TA. They are also expected to take on a broader range of roles to meet the changing security challenges that the UK will face in future. However, all that has to be managed with very little change in man training days—envisaged to be 35 days a year per soldier, I think. Many in the Regular Army, as well as the TA, think that that is too little and, based on my experience, I agree with them.
I understand that the Ministry of Defence is designing Army Reserve units to deploy and operate intact. That has happened in the recent past: for example, the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion the Cheshire Regiment took on United Nations duties in Cyprus for six months, although at reduced strength. However, to do an operation at full strength when we are not in a total war would be very difficult.
I accept that the Government will maintain that we are in a totally new ball game, but over recent years, the TA has consistently shrunk. In 1997, the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment went on its annual two-week camp with more than 400 soldiers. Last year, its successor battalion, the 4th Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, which is, in fact, an amalgamation of three 1997 volunteer battalions—from the King’s Regiment and the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, as well as the Kings Own Royal Border Regiment—went on its annual camp with just 250 soldiers. That is worrying.
The trained strength of the TA this month apparently stands at 19,000 and its total strength is 26,640. I presume that the figure of 19,000 must be based on TA soldiers who have passed stage two of their training and have picked up their bounty for doing their full annual commitment. However, to be honest, I do not believe that 19,000 TA soldiers are readily available for operational deployment if required.
In 2007, when I researched the programme about TA soldiers deployed in Iraq, my investigations suggested that, from a total TA strength of in excess of 30,000 then, only about 7,000 to 8,000 were prepared to deploy, could be released from their jobs, or indeed, were medically fit enough to fight. A considerable number of TA officers and soldiers seemed to be classified sick or, at least, lacked the required FE medical category—FE meaning “fit for everywhere”. Therefore, I am cagey about believing that the current TA really has 19,000 soldiers ready to fight. I bet that the figure is much lower, and if that is the case, the idea that we will have 30,000 deployable Army Reservists by 2018 stretches belief.
According to Defence Analytical Services and Advice, in the nine months between 1 April 2012 and 1 January this year, the TA actually reduced by 600 trained soldiers. That is hardly a good omen as we start the drive to recruit 30,000 deployable and trained soldiers. I suspect that considerably less than 50% of the current 19,000 trained TA personnel could actually do the business. Even the Defence Secretary, when questioned by the Defence Committee, suggested that that figure was considerably lower—as I recall, about 14,000. I know that disquiet about the exact number of fully trained TA soldiers is also widely shared by current Army officers, both regular and TA.
Two days ago, I spoke to Nicholas Watkis, who has recently retired from the TA after 40 years and, during that time, very often completed specialist operational service in support of deployments overseas. He told me that, to get 30,000 deployable soldiers, our Army Reserve would need to fish for them in a pool in excess of 80,000. He says that he repeatedly made this point when serving and had sent a letter stressing this requirement to the Chief of the General Staff last July. If I am right, getting 30,000 trained and deployable soldiers by 2018 may be something of a pipe dream, and, if so, this will have a dramatic impact on the post-2020 assumption that our Army could reach a total strength of 112,000 trained personnel quickly with mobilisation.
An old military maxim—and a great one—is that soldiers who train together should fight together. Indeed, this was what gave the famous pals battalions of the first world war such strength in battle. They all knew each other well and were determined not to let down their mates. I know that the Ministry of Defence is devising cunning plans to try to ensure that Army Reserve units deploy complete, but getting a large number of people released from their normal jobs simultaneously and with agreement from the individuals, families and employers would be very difficult. Undoubtedly, it would require an incredible amount of staff work and effort, unless, of course, the nation is fighting for its life, as it was from 1939 to 1945. So I am intrigued to see how the forthcoming White Paper will address this difficult problem.
There really is not much recruiting and training time until 2018, and yet we still have no idea about where Reserve Army units will be based, especially as it is suggested that many TA centres will be sold off. If local TA centres go, I think there is far less chance that Army Reserve soldiers will travel long distances from home for training, presumably in Regular Army bases. Not having their parent unit close to their families is hardly an Army Reserve recruiting incentive. On that point, local TA centres will often be the only evidence available to local people that we actually have an Army, as the regulars all seem to be being grouped in regional super-garrisons.
As the Army Reserve expands, the Government plan to cut the number of regulars in the British Army by about 20,000 to 82,000. If that happens, one in three of our soldiers will be civilians in uniform. To me that seems a high percentage and a gamble with our nation’s defences. Ministers have told me that they are confident we will reach that target of 30,000 available Army Reservists by 2018. I truly hope they are right, but I remain to be convinced. I am also a little worried that identifying, training, deploying and retaining such individuals will really be a saving on the costs of maintaining regular soldiers when all other factors are considered, including the difficulties of getting people mobilised, up to speed militarily and then looking after them and their families when their specific operation ends.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. There is a further danger that he has not yet described. If this grand plan works, all will be fine and dandy, but there is a huge problem of timing. The redundancies in the Regular Army are happening now, but we will not know until 2020 whether recruiting the TA to replace them has been successful. If it is not successful, we as a nation are scuppered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for giving way. I can agree with much of what he has said because when I worked in industry many years ago, it bothered me that people always had difficulty getting time off for the TA, or civic duties, as we used to call them then. We are reducing the numbers of regular soldiers at the expense of some famous regiments. The matter has not been resolved yet. That bothers me, particularly in the case of regiments such as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. What we will get is a substitute for a Regular Army if we are not careful. History tells us that we cannot have that substitute.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will expand on that subject in a few minutes.
There is a serious need to address reservists’ and their families’ support requirements, which are different from those of regulars. Findings by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research indicate that, after operations, reservists are at greater risk of suffering mental health-related problems than regular soldiers. A 10-year study on the health and well-being of UK Gulf war veterans concluded that reservists were twice as likely to have mental health problems as their regular counterparts. The reasons behind this increased risk are not fully known, but the issue may in part be because of the differences between support networks for regulars and reservists. Unlike their colleagues in the regular forces, reservists do not have an extended period of time surrounded by their peers when they return home from duty. They often swiftly revert to their civilian job, without the opportunity to share experiences with others who have served alongside them. Support networks are hugely important for the soldiers themselves, and indeed their families, who often feel isolated when their loved one is away.
Perhaps my greatest worry about providing more than 30% of the British Army’s order of battle from reservists is my simple belief that the British Army is too small. We now have fewer infantry battalions than the small county of Cheshire had in the first world war. We have already cut the infantry too far. Four fine battalions: 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment (the Staffords); and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh Regiment are due to be disbanded over the next 18 months, a point made by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). That is well before the MOD will have anything like its forecast 30,000 trained and deployable reservists.
There will be at least a four-year gap between the battalions going and the surge of reservists ready and able to take their place. Obviously, I am a little sceptical about what will happen. Sense suggests that we should not cut our regular infantry until we have the Army Reserve in place. I would like to see these premature disbandments stopped until the MOD proves its case.
I am truly concerned that the future reserves will not be able to deliver what is expected of them. It will be through no fault of their own. The first duty of Government, above all else, is the defence of the realm. History must surely show us that cutting our defences to the bone—and, in my view, beyond that—is folly. Nobody knows what will happen in future. I believe we have a duty to maintain what we think to be sufficient soldiers to defend our country at whatever price.
I was and remain a huge supporter of the TA, but I simply have grave concerns about whether its successor, the Reserve Army, will be able to provide crucial and immediate support to our front-line troops if that is required. I have suggested some of my main worries in these opening remarks. I now look forward to listening to the opinions of the Minister and my colleagues.
Order. A considerable number of Members desire to speak. I do not want to impose a time limit, so I ask them to be considerate of their colleagues. Given the number of Members who have asked to speak, contributions should be six minutes.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship once again, Dr McCrea; I think that this is my third outing with you in the past three years. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this timely debate. I am sure that the Minister is heartened that so many of his Conservative colleagues are here, obviously to support him.
The debate is timely because the decisions made in the 2010 strategic defence and security review are beginning to hit home. The regular basing announcement was made some five weeks ago, and the first thing that struck me was that, for all the talk from the Ministry of Defence about our single Army and the regulars and reserves being the same, it is clear that some people in the MOD—not the Minister, who has experience in the reserves, but some of his civil servants—think that the reserves are an afterthought. We still do not have the lay-down for the reserves, because the work has not been completed, and not making a single announcement was a grave mistake. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share that view, so will the Minister address why there was not a single announcement, rather than two separate bits?
Shrinking Army strength has been mentioned. When the Chief of the General Staff appeared in front of the Defence Committee in December, we directly asked him at what point the British Army would no longer be able to achieve the planning assumptions made in the 2010 SDSR. As the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned, 2018 is universally agreed as that critical date.
The mistake has been to cut the Regular Army before the reserves have been uplifted. We are already falling behind on the recruitment target for reserves. In a written answer to a question about the recruitment target for this financial year, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), replied that out of an Army Reserve target of more than 6,500, only 2,000 reserves had been recruited in the first three quarters of the year. I think that we would all agree that that shows that we are already significantly off track.
I am sure that the Army will tell the Minister for the Armed Forces that it has a plan, and that that will centre on the £1.8 billion that has apparently been allocated to the reserves for the next 10 years. The Army probably has not told him that all £180 million for the first year was spent on the regulars. Not one penny of the money allocated to the reserves was spent on the reserves. The Chief of the General Staff took the money—I understand why he had to make this choice—and spent it on his regulars. Will the Minister explain the point of giving the reserves money if the regulars then claw it back to spend on their own pressing requirements?
The hon. Member for Beckenham also talked about training. I am not convinced, and nor is the Defence Committee, that the adaptable forces themselves will have sufficient training. They will go to readiness for only six months in a three-year period and it is clear that relatively senior military personnel still do not have a grasp on how that can be delivered. Why would somebody join the Regular Army, wanting to become a professional soldier, if they are to be told after their training, “Congratulations, you are off to the adaptable force, where you will get your kit for only six months in three years and you will effectively be doing something useful for only six months in three years”? The problem will be even worse for the reserves attached to the AF, so will the Minister explain how he will ensure that there is adequate training for the adaptable force and the reserves?
It is important to recognise that there are tasks to which the reserves are particularly well suited—the medical corps and logistics, for example. It is obvious, but when operational requirements increase, those skills need to be uplifted. However, the “teeth of the British Army”, as the Army calls it, is a capability that must be maintained all year round. I am not sure that I have heard how the MOD intends to ensure that we have sufficient reserves not only with the skills for logistics, the medical corps, public relations and other back-office functions, but to fill combat roles.
I am conscious of the time available, and many speakers will probably be more knowledgeable than me. I hope that we will get answers from the MOD today.
I am proud to be a yeoman. Throughout history, the reserves have risen to the challenges that they have been set. I appreciate the concerns of regular soldiers and regiments that the Regular Army has to contract, but the British Army has contracted and expanded over the years in accordance with perceived threats. To listen to some hon. Members, one would think that no regiment in the British Army had hitherto been disbanded. My grandfather served as a regular in the Highland Light Infantry and my great grandfather served as a regular in the Gordon Highlanders, and both regiments were disbanded many years ago. The reserves have managed to fulfil full-time regular roles with great efficiency. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made it clear that when he was interviewing soldiers in Iraq, he could not distinguish between full-time regular soldiers and the reservists, because the reservists demonstrated all the professional skills of a regular soldier.
My last appointment in the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve was as honouree colonel of what would seem to many a somewhat unglamorous unit. When they were on parade, however, they all had a chest full of medals, because they had served in pretty well every conflict since Iraq 1. We were always over-recruited. That was the laundry troops of the Royal Logistics Corps, and that demonstrates that if we give men and women a purposeful task through which they can see that they are contributing, whether that is as laundry troops, in the Army media group or as front-line combat troops, they will respond. There has been a scintilla of a suggestion from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that reservists do not necessarily have a high degree of competence.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was all very well for reservists to be working as medics or doing back-office jobs. During my 22 years in the TAVR, I was fortunate to serve for eight years as a staff officer to the artillery commander of the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force. If one is trusted as a command post officer to have under one’s command a multi-force battery of guns, as a TA officer, it is perfectly clear that, with training and commitment, reserve officers, men and women can do whatever task is required of them in the British Army.
We will clearly need to recruit men and women into the reserves, and as MPs, we all have a duty in that. We all have convening skills. I certainly talk to local employers in my patch to ensure that they understand what is required of them and what is involved in the reserve forces of the 21st century, and to ensure that Oxfordshire gives the armed forces—the Army and our reserves—the fullest possible support, as it always has done. I hope that Ministers will consider ensuring that those employers that step up to the plate by releasing men and women to the reserves are able to demonstrate that on their letterheads. Such a thing has been done in different ways throughout history.
My final point is totally separate from, but related to, the thrust of my comments. The reserves have a number of skills that the Regular Army either does not have, or is giving up. One of the Royal Logistic Corps units that regularly trains at Bicester, in my constituency, is a railway unit that is made up almost entirely of Network Rail employees. Its intention is to keep a railhead open from ports to theatres of war. It was used in Kosovo, and its guys are very committed. When I was recently in Kosovo, the Kosovan Government said that they would be very willing to have them go there to continue their training, if the Ministry of Defence was agreeable. I understand that the unit might be threatened with disbandment, but such areas of expertise within the reserve forces are worth keeping.
I was a founder member of the Army’s media group, which was set up by Colonel Alan Protheroe—recently deceased, I am afraid—who was a deputy director-general of the BBC, because the Regular Army realised that it did not have people who could cope with journalists and the media in times of conflict. Over the years, the group has built up considerable expertise. The reserves often can cost-effectively ensure that the Army has areas of expertise that it can call upon.
The evidence of history will show that when the yeomanry—the reserves—have been given a task and training, and have been told what is required of them, they have always stepped up to the plate. I have every confidence that if the reserves are pointed in the right direction and given the right support and training, along with the encouragement of this House and others, they will have no difficulty recruiting and retaining, and ensuring the operational efficiency required for the defence of the realm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I begin by declaring an interest: I am in the process of joining the RAF reserves—[Hon. Members: “Good for you.”] Thank you. I used to be a TA soldier—I volunteered to be mobilised in 2008, spent a year with 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and served with them on Op Herrick 9 in Afghanistan. I was immensely proud to serve with 29 Commando as part of 3 Commando Brigade; it was one of the best years of my life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made some interesting and valid points, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He was very positive about the TA’s role and the contribution it could make. I pay tribute to the fact that reserves have served with great courage in every recent conflict, from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, and have made a major contribution to the success of the operations. We hear time and again—in fact, a number of us were talking just last night to senior and non-commissioned officers of the 4th Mechanised Brigade who said the same thing—that reserves are often as good as or in some cases even better than their regular counterparts, due to the specialist skills they can bring to their units, their life experience, their enthusiasm and their determination to prove themselves alongside regular soldiers.
On the whole, I welcome the Government’s commitment to reservists. We have been left to lag behind other nations in that area, and I am pleased that that is finally being rectified. I fear, however, that we have cut our regular forces without first ensuring that we are able to bring our reservists up to the required numbers and capabilities.
I shall draw on a recent example from my previous unit. I know a new recruit who signed up enthusiastically last August, but the process and the administration have taken such a long time that he has only just been able to join the unit and begin his basic training. An eight-month-plus delay before a new recruit can even begin basic training is a major obstacle to the kind of recruitment drive the Government need and hope for. It is no surprise that TA numbers are falling when that is a recruit’s first experience of the reserves. If that is the best we can do, I fail to see how we will ever reach the target of 30,000 combat-ready reservists, in time to replace the 20,000 or so regulars lost to defence cuts.
I believe there are two major strands to the debate. The first is how we can improve the capability and effectiveness of our reserve forces, including issues such as kit, training days and manpower and, in the particular case of the TA, how we can make the “one Army” concept a reality. The second strand is that the Government are being forced to take this action because of the reduction of the Regular Army down to roughly 82,000.
Taking reserves first, the issue is not just one of manpower, resources or training; we must change the culture in this country towards our reservists, particularly and importantly among employers. Although I am sure that some large corporations could easily accommodate their employees serving in the reserves, small and medium-sized enterprises, with work forces of only a dozen or so, might find it more difficult to allow staff to leave for a tour of duty or extended training, or to go to the annual camp. It is vital, therefore, that the reserves provide added value for employers. As well as providing the honour of earning a kitemark for releasing employees for service, we could consider financial compensation for employers, or training for those who serve so that they can earn transferable qualifications that add value to their civilian careers.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this important debate.
Is my hon. Friend aware that even in professions that have well-established systems for replacing people, such as the supply system in teaching, a lot of reservists find it difficult to get time off for deployment or training courses? He is absolutely right to mention changing the culture as well as the practice.
Absolutely, and I am surprised that professionals such as teachers find it difficult, but that is given what I have experienced and witnessed under the old regime. If we are considering putting on more pressure, with more commitment, the position will, I fear, only worsen, if we do not radically consider how we can make it as easy and as profitable as possible for employers.
The “Future Reserves 2020” review could be a great opportunity for the future of our armed forces. Fostering a “whole force” mentality and a closer relationship between regulars and reservists could help to eliminate some of the obstacles that frequently make life difficult for reservists. The indisputable fact is that reservists currently operate on 35 man-training days a year—a number which it is planned to increase to only 40 days —compared with 223 working days for a soldier in the regulars. The “Future Reserves 2020” review states the desire to deploy reservists as sub-units, or even perhaps full units, while recognising that it is impossible to train sub-units to the standard required within the 12-month mobilisation window as things stand. Significantly increasing the number of man-training days required would place a huge demand on reservists and their civilian employers, and I am not convinced that an extra five days alone will be enough to progress from our current situation to one in which we can mobilise sub-units trained to the necessary standard. As such, it seems that far greater investment is needed in training infrastructure if we are to accommodate greater numbers of reservists and train them to a higher level than we currently achieve.
I have concerns that the expenditure required to recruit and train such a large number of reservists, as well as radically to restructure the reserve forces as a whole, will mean that the savings made will be significantly less than expected. It is imperative to ensure that we can supply the equipment, training and personnel necessary to bridge any capability gap left by the reduction in the size of the regulars. We cannot afford to be left with an under-strength military because the “Future Reserves 2020” recommendations end up costing more than expected. I hope that the Minister can make a firm commitment that that will not be allowed to happen, regardless of the financial cost.
I was elected to Parliament on a mandate to increase the size of the Army, yet the country now faces the reality of a force of only 82,000 soldiers. That is the smallest it will have been since before the Napoleonic wars, despite us all having seen how stretched we have been in recent years in conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much tribute has been paid recently to the performance of our troops in the Falklands conflict and the leadership of Baroness Thatcher, but the sad truth is that we could not mount that type of operation on such a scale today. We have no aircraft carriers and a much reduced Navy, and the Government are overseeing the redundancies of 20,000 soldiers.
Earlier this year, in relation to the new front against global terror in Africa, the Prime Minister said:
“we must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 27.]
How does the Minister expect us to project that force globally, given the armed forces we are left after the SDSR? In any future conflict that comes from left field, as conflicts normally do, are we just to hope that there is a NATO airstrip nearby that we can use?
Members might ask where the money will come from to increase spending on our armed forces, and rightly so. However, I remind colleagues that we are still committed to ring-fencing the aid budget. We are still sending aid to a country with a space programme. We are still paying roughly £50 million a day to the EU. Surely the Government’s first priority must be the defence of our country.
Former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently expressed his concern that neither the US nor the UK could afford to weaken their defences in the process of solving their budget woes, but that is exactly what we are doing. Two years after the SDSR, we are still waiting for the White Paper on the reserves. It is incredible that the Government can go ahead with the redundancies of 20,000 soldiers without knowing whether or how their policy of replacing them with reservists will work. I implore Ministers to look again at some aspects of the SDSR.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which was born out of experience of commanding soldiers in the field.
When I was a young platoon commander in Berlin in 1984, we were told not to worry, because the quality of our troops and our kit would see us through. We knew very well that we could hold out only for so long, because quantity has a quality all of its own, as the German forces on the eastern front during the second world war found to their cost.
I mention that because I see similarly flawed thinking in the Government’s plans for 30,000 reservists somehow to plug the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regular troops. Let us be clear: this plan is designed to save money. It is not what the MOD would have wanted to do, as the CGS confirmed to the Defence Committee. The focus seems to be on the bottom line. The plan might work on paper, but a number of us severely doubt whether it will work on the ground.
I have three main concerns. First, could this be a false economy? The Green Paper admitted that it costs more to train reservists than regular soldiers, a fact confirmed by the Secretary of State during Defence questions. When we add in other factors, such as force-generation figures and the additional costs of matching a TA soldier’s civilian salary, there is a big question mark over how much this will all cost. To date, the Government have been coy about costings. We are promised a White Paper, but it has been too long in the coming. As several colleagues have said, none of that would matter were it not for the fact that five regular infantry battalions will be disbanded over the next 18 months; indeed, 20,000 regular troops have been given their marching orders. Pursuing such a policy before we are sure that the reservist plan will work is foolhardy and a high-risk strategy.
Secondly, I have concerns about whether 30,000 reservists could plug the capability gap. In my day—in the 1980s—TA reservists, gallant though they were, were essentially expected to ship out to Germany and wait for the Warsaw pact forces to come to them. Today, reservists are expected to have a much broader range of roles, but they are still expected to achieve that higher skill base with about 35 to 40 days’ training. We live in a world where challenging, asymmetrical warfare will become the norm.
My third concern is about boots on the ground. I doubt whether 30,000 reservists can plug the gap. The Government make great play of the fact that they have had many expressions of support from prospective employers, but expressions of support and boots on the ground are often two very different things. The latest MOD figures I have—they are fresh out of the MOD, and the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—show that the establishment strength of the TA infantry is about 6,700 soldiers, but only 2,800 of them are actually eligible for mobilisation. That suggests an effective rate of about 40%. The MOD’s own figures—as I say, the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—suggest that, in terms of plugging the gap left by 20,000 regulars, the Government’s estimate of 30,000 reservists is way off beam. A minimum of 50,000 reservists is more the ballpark figure.
We then need to look at further factors, which could throw even the figure of 50,000 into doubt. MOD figures confirm that the TA is losing infantry soldiers. Furthermore, as a number of colleagues have pointed out, the current economic climate means that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will struggle to allow key employees to leave employment with them for extended periods without being compensated by the MOD. I am not convinced that that costing has been factored in.
For those three reasons—value for money, the capability deficit and boots on the ground—several of us have severe reservations about the Government’s plans. Meanwhile, however, those plans are having distorting effects on the ground. Excellent infantry battalions are being lost, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is a case in point. It is one of the most experienced battalions in the British Army, having served in all the major conflicts during the past 15 years, including Kosovo and Bosnia. It remains one of the best recruited. By the MOD’s own admission, it was not one of the original five infantry battalions to be disbanded; instead, more poorly recruited battalions were meant to go. However, through interference, intervention or whatever we want to call it, it was decided to save a poorly recruited battalion north of the border. The MOD then had to go hunting for a battalion south of the border, and, for some reason, fell on 2RRF.
I am conscious that I am running out of time, so I will proceed if I may.
In our contracting Army, one-battalion regiments stand less chance of survival. We were told a few years ago that the future rested with larger battalions. However, that distortion means the Government are spending millions of pounds unnecessarily supporting understrength battalions. Surely, the Minister can understand that it is more economical to keep well-recruited battalion families together than to spend millions of pounds trying to bring understrength battalions up to strength. Such a policy simply suggests we are reinforcing failure.
In short, these plans are fundamentally flawed. Parliament has not been made aware of the costings to justify their execution, despite the fact that five regular infantry battalions have already been given their marching orders. I strongly suggest to the Minister that it would be wiser to see whether the plans work first, before losing 20,000 regular troops.
There is one final reason why the Government’s policy is high risk. Our armed forces are being reduced at a time when many countries, which are not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their expenditure. No one can tell where the next threat will come from. We must always remember that the first duty of the Government is defence of the realm.
I apologise to you, Dr McCrea, and to other Members for being late. I was unavoidably detained with a constituent. I am sorry that I was not here to hear all the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It has been an education to listen to hon. Members who have served in the reserves, as I know the Minister has, and he will no doubt talk about his experience.
I will be brief; I do not think I will need even five minutes. I want to talk about the plans to disband the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a TA regiment with a base in Vicar street in Dudley. Under the proposals, A Squadron, which is the Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire yeomanry, and B Squadron, which is the Shropshire yeomanry, of the Royal Mercian Lancastrian Yeomanry, are to be merged and transferred to the Royal Yeomanry. Other changes involve transferring C Squadron and D Squadron to the Queen’s Own Yeomanry.
I am concerned that those changes will mean the midlands losing half its five squadrons, essentially so that a new organisation can be created in Scotland. That is my understanding. I have written to the Secretary of State and pointed out that the RMLY is one of the best recruited yeomanry regiments in the Territorial Army. The people of Dudley make an enormous contribution to A Squadron. They recently recruited 47 new trainees, and another 60 leads are currently being processed. That is exactly the sort of contribution that the Minister would want communities such as mine to make, so that the Territorials can expand. Two dozen from the regiment are currently serving the country overseas. That is an enormous contribution, and the people of Dudley are very committed to the TA.
The Minister will be delighted to hear that Ellowes Hall school, a comprehensive in Gornal in my constituency, is the first state school to set up an Army Cadet Force, working with the Territorials. That is a brilliant initiative by the fantastic head teacher, Andy Griffiths, and it is exactly what other schools should do. I do not know, but I suspect, that many hon. Members who have served in the Territorial Army will have done so as a result of being in the cadet forces at school. I went to a bog standard comprehensive in the middle of Dudley and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that we did not have the opportunity to do those things. Of course, it was possible to join the cadets, but if there is a cadet force in a school, I think there is much more likelihood of people taking part; but I have digressed.
If the Dudley and Telford units are merged, it will, as the hon. Member for Beckenham pointed out, be much more difficult for people who have done a full day’s work in Dudley and who will then have to travel 30 or 40 miles to do their training and fulfil their responsibilities to the Territorial Army in Telford. It is also important for a diverse community such as ours to have a Territorial base at its heart. At events such as the past weekend’s St George’s day parade, or on Remembrance day, the Territorials parade in the town, and people see them as a central part of the community.
I urge the Minister not only to listen to what I have said about the contribution that the unit makes to the Territorial Army, and about local people’s commitment to it, but to speak to the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). He is a former commanding officer there, as I am sure the Minister knows. Will the Minister also visit Dudley with me, and visit the base? He could at the same time come to Ellowes Hall school and meet the cadets of what I believe is the first cadet force to be established in a state school recently. Will he also guarantee the future of the Territorial Army in Dudley, so that my constituents can continue to make a huge contribution to our nation’s defence?
I had the privilege to serve as a Territorial soldier for 12 years, first in the Honourable Artillery Company and then in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, two regiments in which I know other hon. Members have served with great distinction.
A fact that has not yet come out in the debate is that, to achieve the Government’s target of a Reserve Army of 30,000 we need to recruit only 0.15% of the younger working age population. When the Minister with responsibility for veterans, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), was a Territorial soldier like me in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a Territorial Army of 75,000 trained soldiers, so I do not believe that the Government’s target of an Army Reserve of 30,000 is unrealistic; I believe we can achieve it.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there has been a massive change in culture and psyche from the 1980s and early 1990s to recent years? I got my opportunity to serve in the reserve forces only because so many had left because of compulsory mobilisation. I was already three years over the age limit. That is how much things have changed.
I accept that there has been a change in the culture, and part of the Government’s job will be to give the Army Reserve a clear direction and mandate. We have already received commitments about training and equipment. Only today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, said in an article in The Daily Telegraph that there would need to be a “cultural reset” among employers. That is right, and my hon. Friend’s point is valid.
We need not look far to find other countries that have already achieved what the Government want to achieve. The reserve forces of our near neighbour Ireland are already larger as a proportion of the working population than the total that the Government want to achieve here. The same thing has already been done in the United States and other countries. It is by no means unachievable. Of course, what is envisaged will be easier for larger companies; but we need only 0.15% of the younger working age population—we are not talking about taking the crucial foreman of a small engineering business away on a six-month tour of duty, so that the firm will collapse. We will be able to manage things by taking the employees we need from larger companies, and from among part-time and seasonal workers and those whose civilian work fits their Reserve Army commitments.
One of our key concerns is that, although enough money thrown at the situation will get 30,000 reservists, the MOD’s figures suggest a 40% effective rate when it comes to established strength and ability to mobilise. On those MOD figures, it is not 30,000 but a minimum of 50,000 reservists that are needed—and then there are additional concerns.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, in that we must make sure that the 30,000 we seek are battle ready and deployable. That is a fair point and my hon. Friend is right to make it.
In the late 1980s, there was the National Employers Liaison Committee, but we will need a similar body to do the work of cultural reset that the Chief of the General Staff has suggested. We need a band of patriotic employers. Perhaps the idea of something on the letterhead would be useful, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) suggested.
The Army Reserve plays a crucial role as a bridge between the civilian and military populations, two communities that can become very separate. When I was a Territorial soldier the great phrase that was used was “one Army”. There should not be a distinction between regular soldiers and part-time soldiers who are somehow less professional. We need to re-establish the ethos of one Army, with both components working together and integral to the whole. Several hon. Members have already pointed out that in Afghanistan up to 10% of troops on the ground have been provided by the Territorial Army; and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned a figure of up to 14% for Iraq.
As we know, the Government are putting £1.8 billion towards the training and equipment that the reserve forces will need. The increase in training from 35 to 40 days a year will come from weekend and evening commitments, and so should not be a burden on employers.
I speak as a graduate of only the second officer training course to run alongside the regulars’. Does my hon. Friend recognise what a step change there is in training? Next year’s recruits will get nearly 10 times more weapons handling training than I had.
My hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably, as she is currently a reserve officer, and that is right. The question comes down to the quality of the training, and the understanding of the reserve forces that they have an important role in the armed services overall. That message will come clearly from the Government to employers, and to the whole of society. The training, focus, equipment and mission are critical to the achievement. Of course, the Government already help companies with financial assistance to cover mobilisation costs. It is important to put that on the record.
I absolutely recognise that the decisions are difficult—they are not easy. Like every other hon. Member in this room, I grieve when battalions are disbanded, and we all recognise the heartache and real difficulty that is caused. The Government inherited a great challenge: a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget was left by the Labour party when it left government, which is forcing this Government to take some very difficult decisions. If we approach this with the right spirit and a can-do attitude, and if we look at other countries that have already more than achieved what the Government intend, I believe that we can do it without imperilling the crucial defence of the realm.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), including on the fact that he has the second-last ever Distinguished Service Order awarded for gallantry. I am conscious that many hon. Members—including the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place, and the Whip, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster)—have been on active service, and that I have not.
Let me be absolutely clear that I firmly believe that the Government’s direction is right. I have one or two reservations on details, but we should be clear that the tiny proportion of the work force that we need to recruit to make it work is much smaller, and the balance with which we will be left is a much smaller proportion of reservists, than in any other English-speaking country.
I am sorry, but I am conscious that I must leave time for other Members.
The national guard and the US army reserve make up more than half of the American army, and two thirds of Australian infantry battalions are in the Australian army reserve. The fact is that other countries have delivered such a change and have been able to do so. When I visited units from the national guard in Afghanistan, I was told that its brigade, commanded by a civilian soldier—he is a banker in civilian life—had achieved a 98% turnout for its deployment for three months’ work-up and nine months’ active service there. I was intrigued by the roles that it had been given. The infantry battalion that I visited had detached platoons along the Pakistani border defending provincial reconstruction teams, a role in which older soldiers with civilian skills could produce double value, given the skills that they bring as well as their being infanteers.
I am a great believer in maintaining political control over the call-up of volunteers, but the one area we must delegate is disaster and emergency relief. The Americans, Australians and Canadians all say that that is their No. 1 recruitment factor with employers and local communities, although it is a tiny proportion of their activity.
I want to suggest a couple of things that need sorting out. We must be clear that we are talking about the integration of two forces, each of which has a very different ethos. There is a danger of sliding back into the old days of assimilation. The absolute shambles in recruitment for the nine months from April to December, which will leave a permanent gap in the numbers, was because of the Regular Army’s imposition of a completely unworkable system on the reserves. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) gave good examples of that. It has now been sorted out, but it has left a nine-month gap in recruiting numbers.
If we are to maintain the distinction of ethos, we must also be clear that the vast majority of volunteer reserve units abroad are commanded by reservists. Unbelievably, 24 out of 30 commands went to regular officers on a 2011 list; the last was a little better, but not a lot. If we are to produce the volunteer ethos, soldiers need to be commanded by people who are used to dealing with employers, understand how to market training to soldiers with competing demands and, above all, have the moral plus that comes from being able to look a soldier in the eye, when he is under serious pressure from his employer, and say, “I’ve been there too”, not someone who can take Mondays off. To do that, we must provide more support for Territorial Army commanding officers, so that people with busy civilian jobs can fulfil their role on a genuinely part-time basis, as they do everywhere else in the English-speaking world.
We need to see off the attempt by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to take over the control of the reserve forces and cadets estate from the reserve forces and cadets associations, which have much lower overheads and are far more efficient. We must also sort out the muddle in cyber, where a centre of excellence—the Specialist Group Royal Signals—has been broken up, with its squadrons sent off to different parts of what some of us think is a rather expensive and wrongly oriented set-up.
Those are points of detail, however. The fact is that the Government have set the right course. They are tackling a profound imbalance in the system. Everyone here wants defence to have a higher priority, but the balance was wrong and the Government are doing everything they can to restore it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon.—and distinguished—and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and other Members on their speeches, all of which have been excellent.
Before I touch on a few points about the reservists, I want to expand on the general state of our armed services. After this vision for the future, will we have sufficient armed forces to safeguard our country and all our various roles and peacekeeping tasks around the world, such as in NATO? I very strongly argue that we will not and that as our professional, regular arm becomes smaller, the share of regular to reserve should be higher, not lower.
We now have to field 30,000 reservists, which will require a substantial jump in the numbers. My research indicates that, of the 38,000 reservists required in 2009-10, we recruited in the region of 29,000, and only 19,000—50%—of those were fully trained. Our target is now to have 30,000 trained reservists by 2018, but we currently have 19,000 reservists trained to phase 2 levels, which is exactly the same as two years ago. We therefore need to recruit thousands more. Interest in joining the Territorial Army rose by 6% this year, but it would need to increase by 400% to meet the new Government target, which I do not believe is feasible.
Are the reservists value for money? Training the current 19,000 reservists to phase 2 levels costs £455 million a year, for which the Army could have recruited 10,500 full- time, professional, regular soldiers. My sources tell me that that is what they would rather have. I am not here to disparage what the TA reservists do or their honourable and fantastic role, as some colleagues think Government Members have done. We have not said that or implied it. I served for nine years in the Regular Army and met many hundreds of reservists, all of whom did the most fantastic job, as they still do.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the 47 new recruits to the TA unit in Dudley and the 60 new leads currently being processed, which I mentioned earlier? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of contribution that local communities need to make if we are to hit the targets? Would it not therefore be a real risk if there were less activity at the TA base in Dudley after the merger goes ahead?
I did not quite get the gist of the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I of course pay tribute to the reservists in his constituency. I hope that he will forgive me for not picking up quite what he said. I have not got long, so I will finish quickly.
Reservists take between 36 and 40 months to be considered fit for mobilisation. As I understand it, they may then be used for 12 months in any five-year period. Will the Minister confirm that? Yet I understand that the Government may spend £1.8 billion in enticements to the new lot of reservists over the next 10 years. Again, I would be grateful to the Minister if he could confirm whether that is true. In these tough times, £1.8 billion over 10 years to entice people into the reserves is an awful lot of money. Perhaps that money would be better spent on the regulars.
A possible solution that has been mooted is to cut the reserves by half, to 15,000. That would save money and retain the essential niche roles of, for example, lawyers and tanker drivers, whom we have already discussed in this debate. Of course that niche market must be maintained; such people do a fantastic job.
I want to draw to an end because there is, I think, one more speaker. If not, the Minister will sum up. Let me just go back to my first point and ask whether this is the direction that we in this country want to go. Many honourable and distinguished predecessors of ours in this place have issued warnings when our country has cut her armed services. We are now cutting down to a point where, whatever the calibre of the extra reserves, and they will of course be top notch, will they be enough to fulfil all the roles, commitments and responsibilities that this country has? Some Members have compared what we are doing here, or not doing here, with other countries. I always think that it is a great danger to compare the United Kingdom and what we are trying to do with our armed services with another country, such as America, which has a very different budget from our own. America has the ability to produce aircraft and all the equipment that it needs to train its reserves.
Back in the 1980s when I was a regular soldier, the TA was having huge difficulties getting on to the appropriate training ranges and all the things that it needs to do. I suggest today that with all the training disappearing in Germany and everyone coming back to this country, these facilities will be hard sought by the Regular Army let alone the TAs who desperately need it as their percentage increases.
You are extremely kind, Dr McCrea, and I shall stick to two minutes if I possibly can. Not for the first time has my gallant and hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) done a great service to the country and to the House—to the country previously in his distinguished military career and to the House today in securing this debate. Inevitably, the debate has concentrated on the Territorial Army, or the Army Reserve as it may be known in the future. Let us also put in a word for the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marine Reserve, and the RAF Reserves, all of whom make a valuable contribution.
As a former junior member of the senior service reserve, I well recall what a bridge the reserves constituted, and still constitute, between the armed forces and society. The role of the reserves should be flexibility to deal with the unknown. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, we do not know from where the next crisis will come, and we will not know the nature of that crisis until it is upon us. Reserves should be an augmentation of, not a substitute for, regular forces. If trained-up former regulars constitute our reserve, we will have a better chance to get them to the sort of standards that we need very quickly than when we are dealing with civilian-only reserves. Nevertheless, there is potential in both cohorts. I am concerned that the strategic context is being skewed by budgetary constraints. The truth of the matter is that we are having the debate in these terms because not enough money is being spent on defence.
Finally, I am concerned that in the future we will see a repeat of the sort of false opposition that was put forward by certain people in the past between what was called preparing for a war in the future against an unknown modern state, and fighting the war in which we are engaged at the moment, namely counter-insurgency. We have seen how quickly the threats change. We are making important decisions about the future. For example, we must decide about the future of the nuclear deterrent. I do not want to see that debate skewed by people who think that if we cancel Vanguard class replacement submarines we will get more troops. The truth is, we get the defence that we pay for. We are not paying enough; we should pay more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and making some important points. It is worth reflecting on how valuable it is to have so many Members in the Chamber who have served or are serving in the reserves, or who have served in the regular forces along with the reserves.
The Secretary of State for Defence has set out his ambitious plans for the future of our reserves, shifting a greater emphasis on to them by doubling their numbers to 30,000 by 2020. The reserves have played an important role in our forces. In recent times, they have served in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. I believe that 29 reservists have lost their lives serving their country in the past 10 years, and we pay tribute to them.
When those plans were announced, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) made it clear that we support an enhanced role for our reserve forces. They make a very useful contribution, particularly in specialist roles, and we agree that they can make an even bigger contribution. However, we must get the changes right, and we have concerns about the Government’s proposals.
Any expansion of our reserve forces will succeed only if the Government work with employers. We must consider carefully the particular challenges that members of the reserve forces face in employment, and the Government are not dealing with the matter correctly. We have already heard that the recruitment target is being missed, and it seems that the MOD will have to increase recruitment by about 66% this year even to stand a chance of meeting its targets.
A recent survey from the Federation of Small Businesses set out some of the challenges. It found that six in 10 businesses would not consider granting reservists additional leave for training, so if the Minister wants the plan to become a reality, he might have to consider passing further legislation. The survey also showed that one in three businesses said that nothing would encourage them to employ a reservist, while 39% of those who had employed a reservist, or would consider having one in their company, said that the proposed reforms would have a negative impact on their businesses. A staggering 89% said that they had not heard of the MOD’s employer awareness events, so there is clearly some distance to go.
Over the past three years, the reserves have lost around 1,000 members. It would appear that bureaucratic problems mean that there is a backlog in the processing of applications, so the target is looking challenging and perhaps unattainable.
When the proposals were announced in November, the Secretary of State spoke about a kitemark to recognise employers that encourage and support their employees to participate in the reserves. In principle, that is a good idea, so we hope the Minister will be able to update us on when the scheme will be in place. We also think that it could be extended to companies that have a good record on employing military spouses and veterans, because clearly more work needs to be done in that area. Membership of the reserve forces should not be a barrier to employment, so the Government should look at our proposals for anti-discrimination legislation applying to members of the forces.
As the Government have cut numbers in the regular forces so dramatically, the system has to work. The enhanced role for reservists must be matched with improved training. We have heard a lot about an integrated concept between reserves and regulars over the past few months. That should not be limited to operations; it must also be extended to preparation. If we are asking our forces to serve together on operations, they must train together as well.
Reports have shown that reservists are much more likely than others to suffer from poor mental health, especially if they have been on active duty, and we need to look carefully at the reasons why. For example, reservists are less likely to have a military support network, they do not receive the same decompression as the regulars and there is the problem that reservists do not gain access to specialised MOD health care in civilian life. I am sure that the Government are serious about meeting their target, so they will want to take heed of the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress, which have come together to highlight the problems of mental health care among reservists. Post-deployment care needs to improve, and we have to ensure that employers have a better understanding of the issues that reservists can face when they return from serving. Access to MOD health care needs to be considered much more carefully.
We should not forget about the families of reservists, although the recent handling of the bedroom tax was an example of how not to do things. The Government finally U-turned by recognising that reservists and their families could be affected by the bedroom tax, because they are mentioned in the exemption. The Government need to think about how they implement the armed forces covenant because the necessary processes are not in place.
Hon. Members have highlighted concerns about capability by asking whether we will meet the target and therefore have the capability that we as a country want. I hope that the Minister will address the crucial question of how many reservists must be recruited if we are to have a deployable force of 30,000.
The worry is that the Government have a policy but not a proper plan to see it through, and there are some unresolved questions and problems. In the coming years, it appears that our national security will increasingly depend on reserve forces, so it is vital that the Government get this process right. We, of course, will want to support them in doing so.
Dr McCrea, I fear that we are very constrained by our time, but I also congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this debate. I think that we first met when we served in “Military Operations 2” in the Ministry of Defence in 1984, when his hair was less grey.
I know that this debate is very important to many Members of the House, and that it is especially important to members of our reserve and armed forces. I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I will address some of the questions that have been put later, if I have the time; otherwise, I will be very happy to answer hon. Members’ questions by letter.
Our reasons for changing the structure of the Army, which include a much greater reliance on a fully integrated reserve, are well known. They are both an imaginative and pragmatic response to the dire financial situation that this Government faced on entering office in 2010, as well as a determination to do the right thing by establishing a credible, relevant and useable Army Reserve fit for the demands of the 21st century while maintaining a larger proportion of regular forces than our closest allies. I can assure you, Dr McCrea, that none of us came into government to reduce the size of the armed forces, including the Regular Army. However, to quote the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), “There is no money”.
The principle of greater integration of the reserve was established in the report by the independent commission to review the UK’s reserve forces, which was led by the vice-chief of the defence staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) also took part in that process, and we are grateful to him for that. We are committed to expanding the volunteer Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000, and to integrating those reserves fully into the structure of the Army as a whole. As has been mentioned already by hon. Members, that requires a change in the attitude of society and of the Army towards the reserves.
Achieving that has already involved hard choices on the Regular Army side, to make sure that the Army plays its part in ensuring that the MOD continues to live within its means, while maintaining an Army that is capable of operating across the full spectrum of operational capability and one that also offers fulfilment and challenge for its reserve members.
Many hon. Members have spoken with passion and some experience about a lot of issues, including whether we can get this Army reserve of 30,000 at the pace that we require. To be clear, a target of a trained reserve of 30,000 is well within historic norms. In 1997, the Territorial Army was over 50,000 strong; it was reduced to around 40,000 by 2000; by 2009, it was down to just 26,000; and we now reckon that we have about 19,000 trained reserves. That shows that the current initiative to increase its trained strength from the current level of around 19,000 to 30,000 is perfectly achievable. Indeed, to look at it in parochial terms, this increase would require rather fewer than 20 individuals per parliamentary constituency to join up and to train in the Territorial Army.
By the way, we should not overlook the contribution that the reservists have already made to operations. In the last 10 years, almost 30,000 members of the TA have been deployed in operations overseas. Of those, some 3,500 members were compulsorily mobilised to take part in Telic 1 in Iraq, and during operations in the past 10 years more than 70 members of the TA have received operational honours, while 21 have sadly been killed on operations either in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The Government are investing heavily in future reserves and taking other actions to create the conditions required to achieve our target of an integrated Army. Extra financial investment is indeed worth £1.8 billion over 10 years, as has been mentioned, of which the Army Reserve will get the largest part. Other investment includes, for instance, overseas reserve training exercises at company level, which are very much welcomed. It also includes more equipment arriving to provide more modern support for the reserves, including modern vehicles, the latest weapons, and phones and radios, which is exactly what reservists want.
I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.
We have planned that, over time, reservists will have access to exactly the same equipment for training that is currently used by regulars. There will be opportunities for deployment, as we have mentioned already, but there will also be opportunities for shorter periods of deployed service commitment for those in some specialist roles, and reserves will also routinely fill roles that historically were the preserve of the regulars.
Officers and soldiers will also have command appointments, which have not always been available, and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has been bending my ear about that for many, many years—since way before 2010. We need the Government and society to get behind this process. The skills and experience gained by reservists will be of considerable value to civilian employers, as has been mentioned, making the proposition all the more attractive.
We need to get behind the new reserves. NEAB, which is the National Employer Advisory Board, and SaBRE, which is Support for Britain’s Reservists and Employers, although I do not know where the “a” in SaBRE came from, are working on these issues, and we need to continue that work. Soon we will publish the White Paper that will set out a number of measures to encourage that process, and the collaboration with employers is absolutely vital. I take the point that it is not an easy answer, but we are determined to get this process right.
Of course, collaboration needs to be tailored to fit different types and sizes of employers. I was in Keighley last week, visiting Snugpak, which had a SaBRE commendation signed by the Secretary of State for Defence. Snugpak is a medium-sized enterprise rather than a small one, which incidentally produces some very decent kit if anyone wants insulation for their camping trips. While I was there, I spoke to a reservist who was indeed supported by his employer. However, we need to take this process further.
Although it is still in its early stages, we are confident that we can get a more streamlined recruiting process, in conjunction with Capita. I know that Capita has been slightly criticised in one or two scurrilous magazines such as Private Eye, but we believe that we are getting there and Capita should deliver an acceleration in enlistments during the next few years. If my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who was somewhat sceptical about that, wishes to review the recruiting process, we would be very happy to facilitate that. Key changes that we are introducing include: a national recruiting centre administering all applications to a common process; a more imaginative approach to marketing; and a fully resourced assessment process for the reserves.
I am sorry but I really do not have time to give way.
We remain confident that our proposition, in addition to being the right thing to do, will deliver value to the taxpayer. The independent commissioner for reserves concluded that reserves are significantly cheaper to maintain than regulars, and that they are no more expensive than regulars even when we take into account the costs on operations. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who just tried to intervene, I will say that part-timers are inevitably cheaper than full-timers.
As I have said, we need a change in the mindset regarding reserves, and a change in the attitude towards them. I absolutely believe that this policy is the right thing to do. It is not that we are keen to reduce the regular Army, but it is ridiculous to have a trained reserve of 19,000 for a country of our size; that is a ridiculously small number. We can do better than that—using reserves has huge social benefits—and we shall do better than that. Rather than admire the problems that we faced on inheriting an overblown defence budget in 2010, this Government have taken the necessary decisions to deliver a credible future Army which is fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
Just before I sit down, may I also say that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I served in another English regiment, and not just in the Fusiliers? On St George’s day, we used to have a service, quite a good lunch as I recall and then the rest of the day off.
I appreciate the opportunity to debate this important issue in the Chamber. We have the privilege of living in a free society, in which the rights of the individual are not determined by their gender. We live in an open, tolerant country, which rightly welcomes people’s different faiths and religious beliefs and is diverse and benefits socially, economically and culturally from that diversity. Many individuals have campaigned, fought and given their lives for the freedom and values that make up the United Kingdom. This is a special place, embracing democracy, free speech and, just as important, a justice system that has evolved over a millennium.
One of the cornerstones of our justice system is that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Embodied in the law of our country are the demands for equality, the challenge to the wrongs that appear in prejudice and discrimination in our lives. We can be proud—but we should not be complacent—that the vast majority of our judges, magistrates and clerks come from all backgrounds and are of both genders.
When I read that my local council of mosques had issued a press release calling for the Government to recognise sharia councils—they are courts in any other country—and ensure that they are better resourced, I was greatly concerned. Exploring this issue, I find that most of the debate that reaches the public comes from far right blogs and racist rhetoric. Little thoughtful contribution to understanding or exploring these issues comes to the fore. There are a couple of notable exceptions: the work of Baroness Cox, from the other House, and the work of the BBC’s “Panorama” programme, led by the journalist, Jane Corbin. I am grateful to Miss Corbin for conversations that I had with her in preparing for this debate, and I put on the record my appreciation of an excellent programme transmitted yesterday evening. Baroness Cox’s exceptional work seeks to ensure that sharia tribunals and councils operate within the law and should not form a concurrent legal system in the UK. With that aim in mind, I have four questions for the Government.
First, I should like to hear from the Government that we have only one law in this country. Secondly, I want to hear that sharia councils must comply with UK law. That includes compliance with all equality and anti-discrimination laws and family law. Thirdly, I should like to understand how the Government will ensure compliance and what penalties will be applied to a council or court if it breaks the law. Fourthly, I should like to know what consideration the Government have given to ensuring that all sharia marriages are legally underpinned by a compulsory civil marriage.
In last night’s programme, it was evident that women were not being treated equally. In the so-called arbitration process, even a simple issue of cost was clearly discriminatory. Women pay £400 to get a divorce; men pay nothing. Women are encouraged not to report to the police. A woman was given a divorce only after she agreed to hand over her children to the husband. The council or court was only ever made up of men or a man.
I understand that the act of determining child access or contact cannot be undertaken in law by a sharia council or court. I hope that, if evidence of wrongdoing can be established, those who have broken the law, as shown in the programme last night, will be pursued. On seeing the programme’s evidence, the chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west said that he was disappointed, but not surprised. If the CPS is not surprised about such findings, why are we, as a Government, allowing such things to happen?
The director of Inspire, an organisation with an impeccable reputation, issued a statement following the “Panorama” programme last night:
“Panorama’s programme, (22nd April 2013) on the unregulated and discriminatory practice of some of Britain’s sharia councils has been of long concern to Inspire. ‘Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils’ highlighted how some of the services provided by Sharia councils, in particular arbitration and mediation services, operate in a way that is at times discriminatory towards women, undermining their human rights which should be protected by British law, especially with regards to child custody and domestic violence cases.”
That is part of a long, detailed release that is a thoughtful contribution to the debate. That paragraph in particular highlights problems that I am concerned about as well.
I want to discuss underpinning religious marriage with civil law marriage. Some men are choosing not to marry through the civil law process, because doing so makes divorce simpler and does not enable a woman rightly to claim her share of the assets at the time of divorce. There is also an opportunity for men to marry a second wife, because the first, sharia marriage is not recognised in law. We have to ensure that the rights of women are protected. I therefore concur with Inspire’s call that all sharia marriages be simultaneously registered as civil marriages, thus offering much-needed protection to women.
I believe that, sadly, the word “sharia” has more negative connotations than positive images in our country. Only by exploring why will we begin to address those concerns. Unlike the far right, I do not believe that Islam is evil. We should not underestimate the level of distrust and sometimes fear that exists. It is our responsibility to challenge the wrongdoing and allay those fears. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the concerns raised in the BBC “Panorama” programme last night on this subject.
My hon. Friend has eloquently, carefully and respectfully explained why he is opposed to any establishment of a state-sponsored, alternative judicial process in England and Wales. I recognise that there is some confusion about what the exact position is on this issue. Therefore I start by stressing plainly and clearly that sharia law has no jurisdiction under the law of England and Wales and the courts do not recognise it. There is no parallel court system in this country, and we have no intention of changing the position in any part of England and Wales.
On the points raised by my hon. Friend, sharia law is the code of personal religious law governing the conduct of Muslims. Those principles can extend to all aspects of people’s lives. There are a number of sharia councils in England and Wales that help Muslim communities resolve civil and family disputes by making recommendations by which they hope that the parties will abide, but I make it absolutely clear that they are not part of the court system in this country and have no means of enforcing their decisions. If any of their decisions or recommendations are illegal or contrary to public policy—including equality policies such as the Equality Act 2010—or national law, national law will prevail all the time, every time. That is no different from any other council or tribunal, whether or not based on sharia law.
Britain is proud of its tradition of religious tolerance. The Government do not prevent individuals from seeking to regulate their lives through religious beliefs or cultural traditions. Provided that an activity prescribed by sharia principles does not contravene the law of England and Wales, there is nothing that prevents people from living by sharia law.
The use of religious councils or other extra-legal bodies to deal with civil disputes is well established and non-contentious. Communities have the option to use religious authorities to adjudicate disputes and to agree to abide by their decisions on a voluntary basis, but such decisions are subject to national law and are not legally enforceable. Any member of any community should know that they have the right to refer to an English court at any point, especially in the event that they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way with which they feel uncomfortable.
Because sharia councils do not have any legal means of enforcing their decisions, they can only make recommendations that they hope the parties will follow. There is no appeal mechanism. If a party decides to challenge a decision in a civil court, any decision would be made in accordance with English law.
Any use of sharia law in Scotland would be a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. My understanding is that there are no sharia courts in Scotland and that there is no intention of setting any up. However, individual parties can, if they wish, agree to use sharia law to settle disputes, so long as there is no conflict with the law of Scotland.
I understand the concerns, expressed by many, regarding religious councils involving themselves in matters of domestic violence, to which my hon. Friend referred. Domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse and is not acceptable in our society; it is not condoned or supported by any religion. It is absolutely essential that victims and potential victims are aware of their rights and of all the advice and support that is available. The Government are committed to working with both statutory and voluntary organisations to ensure that our messages reach across all communities.
My hon. Friend knows that Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill had its Second Reading on 19 October 2012. The Government are aware of the level of concern about the perceived use and interpretation of sharia law in this country, as was highlighted by the amount of support for that Bill on Second Reading. After careful and considered deliberation, however, it was evident that the provisions already existed in current legislation and so were unnecessary. Instead, we believe the issue is more about raising awareness of the existing position under English law. We are fully committed to protecting the rights of all our citizens and will consider what is required to educate people further on the protections afforded to them by UK law.
Under criminal law, any person who commits a criminal offence is liable to be prosecuted for that offence, provided it is in the public interest to do so. In England and Wales, criminal proceedings are always heard in a criminal court. We do not recognise any criminal law decision made by an alternative court in this country. The Government have no intention of changing that position.
My hon. Friend also asked about the recognition of sharia marriages by English courts. We are working to raise awareness of the need to have a legally recognised marriage, and we are encouraging mosques to register to carry out legally recognised marriages in their various facilities.
I hope that I have answered all the important issues raised by my hon. Friend. This has been a useful and timely debate, and I am grateful to him for his contribution.
Rightly, this country celebrates diversity. We are a country where everyone has an opportunity to contribute, no matter what their background, ethnicity or religion, but that must be within a set of laws and a judicial framework that is common to all and understood by all. There can be no question of there being a parallel court system in this country. I hope that that clarification of the Government’s position reassures my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are present
It is my great honour, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship.
It is crucial that everyone in this country, regardless of income or location, should have access to the same level of health care; social background should not be a determinant of health. Currently, people who live in the poorest neighbourhoods will die on average seven years earlier than those in the richest neighbourhoods, and the average difference in disability-free life expectancy is 17 years between the richest and the poorest. We should be concerned about health inequalities existing on that basis, because it shows not only that we are not all in this together but that people throughout the country are unnecessarily and unfairly suffering because of their social background.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on the work that he has done on the subject over the years. He was talking about life expectancy; in Medway, which covers three parliamentary constituencies, the difference in life expectancy between the most deprived 10% and the least deprived 10% is 9.6 years. He talked about all being in this together, but that 9.6 years did not arise in the past three years; that difference in life expectancy was present for many years under previous Governments as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his important intervention, but we are not present as part of the blame culture. We are not debating what happened 10 years ago; we are talking about learning from the past and about how best to improve services. I am sure that the Minister will answer such questions, but I assure Members that I am not here to defend or not to defend, but to raise the issue, and to talk about what is happening in today’s terms and about why, what and how to improve.
The previous Labour Government committed themselves to reducing health inequalities. They made progress in meeting targets on infant mortality and headline indicators for life expectancy as a result of early intervention programmes and initiatives such as Sure Start. Reducing health inequalities is not only fair but makes economic sense.
I am staggered by the hon. Gentleman’s statement about the previous Government making progress. The gap in life expectancy between deprived and wealthy areas widened under Labour, and there were more GPs per head of population in wealthy, healthy areas and fewer in poor, unhealthy areas. Can he explain why?
It is unnecessary to debate that. My point concerns what is happening today; I am not rude, arrogant or avoiding the issue, but the debate is about what is happening in the system, and the purpose is to find out what steps the Minister can assure us are being taken to improve the situation.
It is worth putting it on the record that the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, chaired by a Labour Member, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), looked at how in 1997 the Government were to put health inequalities at their heart and at setting targets in 2004, but those targets were not met. It is remiss of the hon. Gentleman to come to the Chamber today and to talk about the previous Government making progress when the gap in life expectancy increased, the GPs were in the wrong place and a cross-party Committee chaired by a Labour Member is saying that they failed to meet their targets.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for correction on that and I am sure that there are many other areas we could cover, but given the time available I want to complete my way of looking at the subject. He will have the opportunity, through the Minister, to talk about those questions.
Reducing health inequalities is not only fair but makes economic sense, as I said. Reducing such inequalities will diminish productivity losses from illness and cut welfare costs. My constituency is a diverse area with a high rate of deprivation and with about 19,100 children living in poverty. The impact on the health service is noticeable. The mortality rate is a lot higher than average, especially in the most deprived wards of the constituency. Diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and tuberculosis are much more prevalent than in the rest of the country, and they are unfortunately directly related to the social inequalities in the area.
The coalition Government have shown a lack of commitment to reducing health inequalities, whether through their health policies or their socio-economic policies which will increase inequality between the richest and poorest. Through the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the Government have increased competition and opened up NHS services to tender from the private sector; if the section 75 regulations are pushed through the House of Lords tomorrow, patients with complex conditions that are perceived as less profitable will not be as readily treated by private providers. On top of that, the increase in private patients in hospitals after the lifting of the private bed cap will mean that access to beds for those who cannot afford private services will be restricted, increasing waiting times. In my own constituency, Ealing hospital will be downgraded and the A and E closed. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people will therefore see the services that deal with their specific needs closed, and they will have to travel great distances, which they cannot afford to do, to get treatment.
Recent reviews and evidence have proved the link between health inequalities and wider social determinants such as income, employment, welfare and housing. The Government’s record gives us poor hope of progress in reducing those inequalities: fuel and food prices have gone up; increases in wages are less than those in the consumer or retail prices index, leaving people out of pocket every month; child poverty is increasing; homelessness is set to rise after the recent welfare cuts; and, as announced last week, unemployment is rising again. Those affected will only be more vulnerable to health difficulties, increasing the inequality between the richest and poorest in our society.
The Government need to commit themselves to reducing health inequalities to ensure that social background does not determine lifespan and quality of life. The previous Labour Government took some first steps towards reducing the health gap between the richest and poorest, but that progress is likely to be thwarted by the Government’s unfair policies. Can the Minister provide some reassurance from the Government that they are committed to reducing unfair and harmful health inequalities during their term?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate and raising this important issue, although this is only a half-hour slot.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was keen to learn from the past. That is an admirable aim but, unfortunately and with great respect, he has rose-tinted glasses when looking back at the previous Government’s record. I will look at that record with no rose tint. The simple truth has been identified by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), and despite the doubtless very best intentions, health inequality under the last Government got worse, notwithstanding their claim to have made it some sort of priority and to have put more money into the NHS.
The last Labour Government took more than 10 years to introduce even basic known measures such as smoking cessation programmes in deprived communities, although the science and evidence base was clear. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not say one thing and do another on health inequalities, but will follow the science?
I can say that absolutely. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall asked whether the Government are committed to reducing health inequalities and making the sort of progress that we did not see in 13 years of the previous Government. I assure him that it is not just a question of blind intention, but an absolute fact that we have already done it.
[Interruption.] I am making a noise because I am removing the script of my speech. I am not good at following a script from my officials. They are extremely helpful, and it sometimes causes them concern that I go off script and speak off the cuff.
I am familiar with the Health and Social Care Act 2012. What the hon. Gentleman either does not know—this is not a criticism—or may have forgotten is that, for the first time ever, there is a statutory duty, not just on the Secretary of State, but throughout the NHS, to improve health inequalities. It is not a question of targets, which have not always delivered the right outcomes, and Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust is a good example, as was identified in the Francis report. That duty is statutory so the Secretary of State and all those involved in the NHS must deliver, and the Secretary of State must give an annual account of how his work in leading the Department of Health and being the steward of the NHS in England has delivered a reduction in the sort of health inequalities that we all understand. That is there in law, but in 13 years in government, the hon. Gentleman’s party failed to do that.
I am not disputing the matter and, as I said at the beginning of my speech, I do not want a blame culture or to say what happened during those 13 years, but I ask the Minister to join me in my constituency on Saturday when thousands of people will march from Southall to Ealing. At the last march in September, there were more than 20,000 people, and we expect more this time. She will then know whether people believe that services have improved or got worse.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but, with great respect, he does not understand that reducing health inequalities is not simply about saving an A and E department. I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman is marching on Saturday, he will remonstrate with anyone who has a banner saying “Fight the NHS cuts”. Whenever anyone looks at reconfiguration, they do so on the basis of how to make the service better.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that, on reconfiguration, bodies such as the Royal College of Surgeons support specialised centres, because they save lives. The evidence from stroke services in London is that reconfiguration is saving around 500 lives a year.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that, at the end of the last Labour Administration, only 4% of the NHS budget was being spent on prevention? It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to join marches, but prevention is far more helpful from a value-for-money perspective than treating things when they go wrong.
I am very grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend makes the point more ably than I can that much of the great work to reduce health inequalities is not about whether there is an urgent care centre or an accident and emergency centre within 500 yards or 5 miles of where someone lives. Work on public health is critical, and that is why I am so proud that this Government have increased the amount of money available to local authorities, which now have responsibility for delivering public health. They had that historically and we have returned that power to local level. That is important in the delivery of improvements in public health. This Government’s view is that local authorities, as in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, know their communities better than Whitehall does. In the delivery of key and important work on public health, it is right and proper that local authorities have that responsibility. They, too, have a statutory duty to deliver on health inequalities. That runs through all their work of looking after the public’s health, but, most importantly, addresses those very factors that cause the sort health inequalities of which we are all conscious. For example, there is a clear demographic link between smoking and diabetes.
If the hon. Gentleman goes to Leicester, he will see the work that is being done there and in Leicestershire with the clinical commissioning groups—the GPs are now doing the commissioning—working for the first time with the local hospital and looking at a whole new way of delivering a better pathway not just of care, but of early diagnosis and prevention, linking those up in a way that has never been done before in the NHS. If he sees those examples, far from criticising the Government or having doubt about our commitment to health inequalities, he will take the opposite view.
If the hon. Gentleman needed yet further proof of the great work that can be done under the new way of delivering public health and commissioning in the NHS, he could do no better than take a trip to Rotherham in Yorkshire. I went there to see its fantastic work in tackling obesity. Obesity is a clear issue of health inequality and Rotherham has taken a totally joined-up approach. GPs are working with dieticians, schools and planners, with the local authority at the heart. They are all coming together to deliver a considerably better strategy, with real results in tackling the problems in that area.
On funding, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to understand that we have increased the amount of money that is available. It is now ring-fenced, on a two- year deal, so that real security and certainty is given to those local authorities. In some areas, we have increased up to 10% the money that is available to spend on public health.
I completely share the Minister’s opinion about an approach where local authorities know what is in their best interests—for example, in relation to obesity in Medway, which has one of the highest recordings above the national average for obesity. However, I want to raise another point with the Minister. On diabetes and organ transplants, certain parts of the community—or certain parts of minority communities—are more likely to be affected. Will there be a national strategy that covers and supplements what is going on locally, because these are national issues that affect minority communities throughout the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The subject of diabetes—type 2 in particular—and the clear link to obesity and being overweight is something about which I am beginning to have a passion, because I can see the great work that can be done. We have just done a cardiovascular strategy. It is a call for action about mortality, and we know that cardiovascular disease work sits within that, and that cardiovascular work—I am getting very worried, Dr McCrea, because I am beginning to sound almost as though I am a health professional, when I am nothing more than a simple hack criminal barrister, rather like my hon. Friend.
The point, however, is that we know that if we look at diabetes, many other boxes are ticked in improving the lot and the health of our population. Certain parts of our population, in particular, have suffered from health inequalities, and my hon. Friend makes a very good point about some of our communities—in the Asian community, there is a great prevalence of type 2 diabetes, as there is in the Afro-Caribbean population. If we look at diabetes prevention, earlier treatment and diagnosis, and then proper treatment and good outcomes, other boxes are ticked—for example, obesity and being overweight, and all the other things that often flow from diabetes, such as the link with cardiovascular disease and so on. My hon. Friend makes a very good point about how a local authority beginning really to drill in and target a particular illness or disease can have many beneficial spin-offs in the manner that I have described.
The Government have established a comprehensive measurement system designed to measure not only overall improvement, but, in particular, inequalities. The NHS outcomes framework—I know that these words do not trip off the tongue and that they may be lost on the majority of completely normal people, but they are important documents—forms the basis for measuring progress on delivering improved results for patients and reducing health inequalities. The NHS England business plan commits to assessing health inequalities across a range of dimensions in the NHS outcomes framework, and those important documents guide our clinicians, the commissioners, and everybody involved in ensuring that we live longer, healthier, and happier lives. That exercise may reveal important health inequalities that have not previously been evident. The public health outcomes framework includes an overarching aim to reduce differences in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy between communities, through greater improvements in more disadvantaged communities. Public Health England will regularly publish data for the indicators, including breakdowns by key equality and inequality characteristics to enable monitoring to help focus action where it is needed.
I am looking forward to the time when we begin to publish, by local authority, the outcomes in each local authority on such things as the stopping of smoking, and the work that is done on the abuse of alcohol. Invariably, we gather that information, but when we start to publish it and put it in the public domain, Members of Parliament, local councillors and members of the public will all have access to it, and they will be able to see how their local authority is performing. We will not try and trick anybody and we will not be unfair, but we will ask people to compare like with like. We make it clear to local authorities that they do not all start from a level playing field, because many of them, unfortunately, are inheriting public health policies that were not some of the best. Therefore, we will recognise that—it is one of the legacies left over from the previous Administration. However, because people, GPs, and everybody involved in the delivery of health, including councillors and Members of Parliament, will have public access to such information, I have no doubt that that will begin to drive a real desire to reduce health inequalities.
I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, but I know the previous job of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and he, like me, knows that there is no better grit in the millstone among professionals than when comparisons are made about who has a better set of results. There is always good, healthy competition between professionals. We have seen that in the past when we published—I am not going to try to pretend that I can remember what it is, and if I say what I think it is, Dr McCrea, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be wrong, but I know that in the past we have published the outcomes of particular procedures and surgery, and that it has improved the outcomes to everybody’s benefit when there has been a bit of healthy competition between professionals. That is what we intend to do by publishing the statistics on public health outcomes by local authorities, so that everybody can see what is out there. We saw it in recycling rates. Publishing information did exactly what we hope it would—it upped everybody’s game, and that is one of the reasons why we will do it.
To conclude, we have created a new health system that makes tackling health inequalities core business, underpinned by new legal duties, measurement and assessment. The local autonomy that we have given to our CCGs and our health and wellbeing boards will enable them to take focused action that meets the needs and aspirations of their populations, concentrating on the groups that experience the worst health inequalities. I hope that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall is now in no doubt about what has been done.
Tackling health inequalities is a key priority for the Government, and it supports the wider focus on fairness and social justice. I know from a radio interview that I gave on Friday—on the “Today” programme on the BBC—that Professor Marmot, who wrote his brilliant report on health inequalities, has already recognised how important it has been that we have made this a statutory duty. He has praised much of the work that this Government have done—I have to say, in stark contrast to the previous Government, of which the hon. Gentleman has been a firm supporter.
Our approach is to design a system that empowers those at a local level to take action on inequalities, with a strong focus on commissioning quality services and on improving the health of the poorest, fastest.
Question put and agreed to.