Tuesday 25 June 2013
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
East of England Ambulance Service
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Anna Soubry.)
Mr. Howarth, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate and I thank all colleagues from across the region who are present today for their support in securing this debate and for pursuing this issue so assiduously.
We in the east of England are fortunate that two of our Members of Parliament are Ministers—the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—and both are well aware of this issue and have taken a great deal of interest in it. I put on the record my thanks in particular to my noble Friend Lord Howe, who has not only taken a strong interest in this subject, but helped facilitate many meetings with various bodies and the ambulance trust, and others, to explore this issue further. I know that this Minister will be well briefed on this matter and will be aware of the many and considerable concerns of colleagues in the region about the performance of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust. She has shown strong interest in the health problems of my constituents and they will welcome her active involvement in helping to get this trust turned around.
This is a timely debate, following on from the scandalous revelations about the cover-up at the Care Quality Commission and the lack of responsibility and accountability from NHS directors. This trust has also experienced serious issues with accountability and mismanagement. It is suffering from the rotten culture that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich recently mentioned.
Before I run through many of the problems with the trust encountered by my constituents and I, and the challenges, including delays, response times, damning reports from the CQC and from Dr Anthony Marsh, I should like to begin on a positive note and pay tribute to the outstanding work undertaken by the front-line staff. Despite many problems with the trust and its board, the front-line staff have earned admiration and a great deal of respect from all our constituents. They work in difficult conditions, all made worse by the failure of the trust’s board, but they continue to save lives daily and, of course, they help patients get better.
I support what my hon. Friend says about front-line staff; I have had personal experience of that in my own family in Norfolk. The paramedics that we encountered were outstanding. Does she share my puzzlement that some of the best staff in the call centre, whom I have sat next to, were bewildered by the systems they were asked to deal with? The problem is not the front-line staff at all, who are superb, but is basically one of leadership.
Of course, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. This is about management and lack of leadership and direction from the trust.
I also pay tribute to the volunteer community first responders who support the trust. I think that all hon. Members will have met first responders in their constituencies. Let us be clear that those individuals sacrifice their own time to attend to ill and injured people quickly and remain with them until paramedics arrive. I have been briefed by the co-ordinator of first responders in my constituency and am more than impressed by the actions they take to save the lives of patients in emergency situations, dealing with a wide range of conditions, including heart attacks, allergic reactions and unconsciousness. This month, the trust announced that 30 more of these volunteers had completed their two-day training course. We should celebrate that achievement and praise those volunteers for their dedication to helping the ambulance service and, of course, all our constituents. Those front-line members put the needs of patients first.
With so much devotion and commitment from the front-line staff and volunteers, of course it is more than disappointing that they have been so badly let down by the trust’s board and management. Staff and volunteers deserve more support and strategic leadership from the trust. It is because the trust’s board has failed to demonstrate in the boardroom the high level of expertise, skill and devotion required that is displayed on the front line that the trust has been brought into such a dreadful state.
The biggest danger to patients, which many hon. Members have experienced, is delays getting ambulances to them. The Minister will know that this trust has failed lamentably to meet the A8 and A19 targets. Patients with life-threatening conditions are being made to wait longer than they should for paramedics to arrive.
I agree with what my hon. Friend says about ambulance delays, but does she agree that this is a particularly severe problem in more rural areas, such as the Dengie peninsula, which I represent, where one survey of a patient group of a medical practice, the William Fisher medical centre, showed that patients had to wait for more than 40 minutes, and in some cases more than a hour, before the ambulance arrived?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this important debate on an unacceptable level of service. Further to the previous intervention on rural areas, can we also agree that this is not just about what are called emergency services, but also about non-emergencies? Many people in my constituency, particularly elderly people, are kept waiting for up to eight hours, often in significant pain, before the ambulance gets to them.
My hon. Friend makes the point clearly about the impact on elderly patients and the unacceptable waiting times that his constituents, and those of other hon. Members, have endured.
Data from the trust show that in the last quarter of 2012-13, the A8 target for paramedic arrival to treat a patient in a life-threatening condition within eight minutes was met 70% of the time, compared to the 75% target. The A19 target was also missed, as ambulances arrived to transport patients with life-threatening conditions within 19 minutes 92% of the time, compared to the 95% target. Patients with other conditions have experienced appalling delays. In each of the 10 months from April 2012 to January 2013, the trust failed to meet the target to get 62% of stroke patients to hospital within 60 minutes. In fact, in seven of those months the figures were below 50%.
The delays in an ambulance arriving to transport patients to hospital after they have been attended to by a volunteer community first responder or paramedic in a rapid response vehicle are particularly alarming. Figures provided by the trust to me covering Essex showed that in 2012 there were 39,921 of these back-up requests, but on 12,584 occasions it took more than 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. In Witham alone, in 206 incidents it took more than 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, from 639 back-up requests.
It is scandalous that almost one third of patients needing to go to hospital by ambulance were left waiting, causing them distress and preventing the initial paramedic or volunteer who attended the scene from moving on to help other patients elsewhere. Four patients a week in Witham, 242 in Essex and many hundreds more across the region have endured those waits, and the trust’s board sat idly and did nothing while the situation got ever worse. The failures have led to the trust becoming the worst performing ambulance trust in the country. The statistics are terrible and the delays can have serious consequences for the lives of patients affected.
The Minister will have seen numerous news reports from local, regional and national newspapers highlighting devastating cases across the region. Colleagues from across the region will, like me, have seen cases all over their local newspapers and will have had numerous constituents writing to them about their own experiences.
There have been some dreadful incidents affecting my constituents who have faced not only unacceptable delays, but a devastating impact of the consequence of those delays. One constituent from Tiptree suffered lengthy delays on not just one but two occasions—in August and September—before passing away. On the first occasion, she suffered a mini-stroke, and the emergency doctor who attended her home called for an ambulance that morning, but it took more than three hours for a paramedic to arrive. The paramedic then called for a back-up ambulance, which did not come. After waiting four hours, members of my constituent’s family placed her in one of their cars to take her to hospital. Although my constituent had suffered a stroke, the trust neglected her. If her family had not taken the risk of transporting her to hospital, she may never have got there.
The following month, my constituent fell in her care home and banged her head, resulting in a lump larger than a chicken egg on her temple. The ambulance was called at 9.38 pm, but it did not arrive until almost two hours later, at 11.25 pm, despite the fact that the care home was barely five minutes from Colchester ambulance station. Once my constituent was in hospital, a CT scan confirmed that she was haemorrhaging on the brain, and she died soon after. Had the ambulance arrived sooner, my constituent would have received treatment more promptly and might still be alive today. I raised the case with the trust, but it took two months to reply, coming up with a feeble excuse and a shallow apology.
Other constituents have also let me know of their frustration about delays. Mrs Houghton, from Tolleshunt Knights, has two young daughters with serious medical conditions that require frequent hospital care. One has a condition that can lead to sudden death syndrome; the other suffers from a condition that includes supraventricular tachycardia, which can cause her heartbeat to quicken, and her treatment requires a life-saving injection. Last year, my constituent reported to me that ambulances were taking longer to arrive than they used to and that rapid response vehicles were sent instead to take her daughters to hospital. As the Minister will appreciate, these incidents have caused Mrs Houghton increased anxiety, particularly given that her daughters are children. They need an ambulance to attend promptly, but that is simply not happening.
In a separate case, a constituent who is a carer for a relative, Mrs Gladys Money, reported to me the delay Gladys experienced while waiting for an ambulance. Only two weeks ago, Gladys, who is 96 years old, suffered a fall in her kitchen. She could not reach the telephone, so she used the emergency call line button she carries with her at all times to request assistance. An ambulance was called, but it did not arrive for an hour and a half. During that time, Gladys was in much distress and could not lift herself up or even call for further help. Such delays in the treatment of elderly people are unacceptable; they are simply not right, and people cannot be treated in this way.
Another constituent reported to me his outrage when, in November, an ambulance failed to arrive after his 20-month-old grandson started hyperventilating and developed a high temperature. After two hours’ waiting and three telephone calls, he was assured an ambulance would arrive shortly, but that did not happen. After being told that ambulance crews were too busy to attend, he resorted to taking his grandson to accident and emergency himself. There are so many other cases I could mention, and I have no doubt that other hon. Members have plenty of other examples they wish to raise.
Despite the fact that the trust received complaints from Members of Parliament, members of the public and its own staff, nothing was done to address the problem seriously. What made the trust’s lack of attention to the problems all the more shocking was the fact that, in May 2012, the CQC reported concerns with response times. It clearly stated that
“the Trust had not met some of its key performance standards in relation to response times”
“to seek ways of addressing the challenges it faces in responding quickly in very rural areas and on improving turn around times at the hospitals in its region so that people receive care in a timely and effective manner.”
Senior managers, directors and non-executive directors should have seen the warning signs. They should have been working with hospitals in the region to improve handover times. They should have reassessed changes to staffing rotas and brought in new front-line staff to fill the 200 empty posts. They should have re-examined how they prioritise calls. They should have altered the allocation of resources to put more ambulances on the road. Finally, they should have got a grip on the trust’s growing deficit.
Many things should have been questioned and required serious attention. However, the trust acted only this year, following another CQC inspection in February, the report of which was published in March. That inspection came about only as a result of the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)and other Members of Parliament in the region, who pressed for an investigation into the trust. The report demanded action to improve the
“Care and welfare of people who use services”.
It concluded that since the
“last inspection the trust’s performance in relation to its ambulance response times had deteriorated and people could not be assured they would receive care in a timely and effective manner.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—La Pasionaria of Southwold, as she is her known in her constituency—on her role. Last October, my wife had a serious accident, and there were considerable delays in treating her. We are all aware of such things, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) agree that there is a systemic culture of failure and buck-passing not only on this issue, but, sadly, in wider areas of the NHS and the public sector? What worries me—my hon. Friend might come on to this—is that if a new board is appointed, it might well consist of recycled individuals from the quangocracy who may have failed in other parts of the country.
My hon. Friend’s assessment of the culture in the NHS is absolutely correct. Let us not forget that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, alluded to the rotten culture in the NHS. I will come to the fact that cultural change is required and that we must stop this revolving door and this recycling of people in the NHS.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. Although the debate is specifically about the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, the same rationale applies across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The response by paramedics relies on data and modern technology, so it is important that funding restrictions do not limit what they can do. Does the hon. Lady feel that it is essential that funding is always available so that they can do the work they need to? Does she also feel that training is important?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Interestingly, funding was not an issue in this case; the trust is very well funded, and I will come to that. This is about professionalism and training. With the board and the trust, we have seen a complete failure of not only leadership, but skills; there is a question about the skills base of the board and the non-executive directors, and it is clear that they have failed in their duties and responsibilities.
My hon. Friend the Minister will know from the Mid Staffordshire inquiry and from events involving the CQC, Cumbria and other trusts the consequences of the rotten culture of management failures, cover-ups and inept strategic leadership in the NHS, which the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, touched on. That culture is simply not acceptable, and it is about time we took the lid off many NHS trusts and started to ask questions about the failure we have seen across the country.
The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust is another trust we can add to the list of those where scandal and incompetence have put lives at risk. As I said, this is not a resourcing issue, because the trust is funded above the national average. This is a problem with senior management, directors and non-executive directors. Since the publication of the CQC report, a new interim chair, Dr Geoff Harris, has been brought into the trust. A governance review and additional support are being provided by Dr Anthony Marsh, the chief executive of the country’s best-performing ambulance trust, in the west midlands. Those are welcome steps. Of course, it was Dr Marsh’s review of governance that highlighted the extent of the scandal and failure at the heart of the trust.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the debate, and on the work that she and colleagues have done over many months. She is right to say that the issue is not money. I have heard it suggested that the problem is to do with rural ambulance services, but I assure her that constituents of mine with awful problems have had to wait an hour and a half for ambulances that were simply not available. The problem is urban as well as rural, and I know that she realises that. The solution must affect all of us.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right. The key is that there is a failed service, and it requires immediate turnaround, which must have one clear focus: putting patients first, rather than the interests of board and trust members. The issue is about patients.
I am encouraged by my initial contact with Dr Harris and Dr Marsh. It is incumbent on us all to support them, to ensure that they get the trust back on its feet.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the lead she is giving and on bringing the facts to light, although I worry that in rehearsing some of the problems we create greater worry among our constituents; but we must get to the bottom of the problem. She has mentioned Dr Anthony Marsh, and some of us recall that in the days of the Essex ambulance service there were nothing like the difficulties that there are today. It is clear from the fact that other ambulance trusts are performing better—some to a very high standard—that there should be some pressure. There is a model of how things should be done, and pressure should be brought to bear so that we can get the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust sorted out.
My right hon. Friend is right. The issue is the turnaround of the trust and a key thing is to learn from successful ambulance trusts. That means looking at skills and capabilities as well as at times, both in urban centres and rural parts of constituencies. The east of England is a big region, and we must consider how resources can be correctly allocated to ensure that patients are not left waiting as they have been in the past.
Most of the executive directors at the trust have moved on, and the former chair, Maria Ball, resigned recently after the CQC report earlier this year. However, it is deeply alarming and thoroughly disgraceful that five non-executive directors who have presided over the mismanagement of the trust still sit on the board. They are Paul Remington, Phil Barlow, Margaret Stockham, Anne Osborn and Caroline Bailes. They all seem to refuse to take any responsibility for the failure that they have presided over, and they continue to receive funds from the taxpayer to continue in their role. By choosing to remain in post they are putting their own interests above those of the public, patients and front-line staff.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the issue up for discussion. There has been a series of appalling incidents in my part of Essex as well, in Tendring. Are not all the failures further evidence that the ambulance trust is run for the convenience of the senior management on the payroll, and not that of the taxpayer who pays taxes to be provided with an ambulance? Surely we need proper accountability, which means examining the regional structure, which is too cumbersome, and perhaps adopting a system of local accountability, putting it at county level as it once was. We should also make sure that the service is not stuffed full of quangocrats, and that the people who are there to speak for the taxpayer are accountable to the taxpayer, rather than having CVs full of parasiting off the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend makes some pertinent and valid points. Transparency and accountability are key things. I have touched on the issue of the revolving door in the NHS, but cronyism is another issue. We must stop the same people being placed on and recycled around various boards in the NHS. NHS board members should put patients first, but, as the governance review by Dr Marsh concluded,
“there is a lack of focus and grip from the Board which has contributed towards the deterioration of performance across the Trust.”
The question, as we have already heard, is whose interests the board is serving. It should be putting patients first.
The Minister will know that the review is full of many other statements about the board, each of which is a damning indictment of each non-executive director and of the board. As to the quality risk profile showing that a number of outcomes relating to patient care and welfare were not being achieved, the review states at page 13:
“The Board should be taking leadership decisions and actions on these Outcomes and holding others to account,”
but of course there has been collective failure and
“this doesn’t appear to be happening.”
On page 14 the review refers to the current trust board and senior management team appearing to have developed “a sense of ‘helplessness’” and states that
“the Board have not been taking both the responsibility collectively as well as they could or should have and that Board members have not been held to account”.
On page 18 the report highlights
“a lack of confidence and trust that the Board has the expertise, experience or gravitas to respond to the substantial challenges facing the organisation.”
Page 22 contains the conclusion that
“the overall Governance arrangements cannot have been adequate for the Trust to get into this much difficulty.”
The non-executive directors’ fingerprints are, to be frank, all over the crisis. The trust is experiencing major failures, and every day that the individuals remain on the board they are being financially rewarded for blatant failure. Their poor leadership and inability to acknowledge and deal with the challenges facing the trust have led to patients’ lives being put at substantial risk. The trust’s staff survey results have demonstrated the lowest morale in the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal and I wrote to Paul Remington while he was acting chair, to ask him and his fellow non-executive directors to explain their actions and what they had done about improving the trust. We wanted to give them a fair and proper chance to explain themselves in the aftermath of the CQC’s report earlier in the year. We received a substantive reply from Mr Remington two months later, on the eve of the publication of the Government’s review, and it was light on information and did not acknowledge the mess that the trust was in. It was thoroughly unconvincing. In view of those poor responses I hope that the Minister will appreciate that the presence of those non-executive directors on the board is undermining public and staff confidence in the trust. It is scandalous that they have not already been dismissed, and shocking that, despite the publication of the Marsh review, board members whose terms are due to expire this year are to be reappointed for the foreseeable future. The report of the chair and chief executive for tomorrow’s board meeting states that, during the recruitment process for the new non-executive directors,
“the TDA has agreed to extend Mr Remington’s period of service on an interim basis.”
That is utterly unacceptable. Why should Mr Remington and other non-executive directors be allowed to continue on their taxpayer-funded ride, when they have failed so miserably to fulfil their responsibilities? What will happen to the other non-executive directors, whose terms do not end this year? How much longer will they be permitted to remain in post? They refuse to do the right thing and step down, so I urge the Minister to recommend to the Secretary of State and the NHS Trust Development Authority that they should use their powers to remove them with immediate effect, before the board meets in Bedford tomorrow.
In addition to the board’s inability to lead the trust, its secretive and unaccountable handling of criticism by Members of Parliament is also disturbing.
My hon. Friend asks a valid and pertinent question, and I give him one word: accountability. His question is very good, and we need to continue to ask who is making the decisions.
In the board papers for the trust meeting tomorrow there is no reference to the fact that Members of Parliament for the region have questioned the board’s competence and called for resignations. Our correspondence is not even mentioned. The papers merely state that the chair and the chief executive have
“met a number of MPs over the last month to discuss issues such as ambulance responses”.
That is simply not good enough and fails to reflect the serious concerns that all Members of Parliament across the region have expressed in their questioning of the trust on behalf of their constituents. Decisive action is now necessary, because the trust, its front-line staff and the 6 million people who live in the east of England need to have skilful and competent non-executive directors leading the board. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister concludes the debate she will commit to ensuring that resources will be made available to help the trust head-hunt and bring in the right set of people as soon as possible to support both Dr Harris and Dr Marsh.
It is also clear to me that the problems with the board have yet again demonstrated the wider failures within the NHS appointment process. Again and again, incompetent and ineffective individuals have been placed in important roles. Some of the five non-executive directors who should be dismissed from the trust sit or have sat on other NHS bodies, and it is shocking to think that they could be recycled elsewhere in the NHS. I would welcome an assurance that those non-executive directors, who have devastated the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, will be prohibited from holding any further NHS job.
By the end of the debate, I am confident the Minister will be left in no doubt of the seriousness of the situation with the ambulance trust and of the desire of the public, front-line staff and all Members in the region to see our trust improve. I hope she can give an assurance that the Government will do everything possible to help patients receive the first-class service that they deserve, to hold those in responsible positions to account and to resolve the mismanagement of the trust that we have all endured for far too long.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on her characteristically candid and very well-crafted speech. She speaks for many of us in expressing those strong arguments.
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the paramedics, drivers and engineers—the people at the sharp end—because they have done a consistently good and professional job, despite poor leadership; they have not had the backing that they deserve. I also join her in paying tribute to the Minister’s ministerial colleague, Earl Howe, who has been very attentive to our concerns throughout.
Dr Marsh’s report is well researched and impressive. If the report has one compelling conclusion, it is that the crisis in the ambulance service trust is the consequence not of a lack of resources, but of a lack of leadership, vision and strategic direction. The comparisons that he draws with West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust are pertinent, because it is a trust with a similar population base—the population is obviously more urban—that faces similar challenges, but it has met those challenges through strong direction and leadership throughout. That is why the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust is at the top of the pile. Unfortunately, our trust is down at the bottom.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who said in his important intervention that recently, over a number of years, a management culture has emerged in the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust that basically deems second best to be acceptable, and consequently action that should have been taken has not been taken.
If the trust was an alternative investment market-listed company that had gone into crisis mode, the non-executive directors would have resigned on principle; if the trust was a company listed on the main stock exchange, the directors would have had to resign. It is staggering that they have somehow decided that it is okay to cling on to their jobs and stay, despite the complete lack of oversight of corporate governance and the failure to adhere to the combined code. As I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—the non-executive directors are responsible under the combined code in the same way as directors of public companies. The trust is obviously not a public company, but it has the same corporate governance rules. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a different organisation, the non-executive directors have that responsibility. If they had any integrity, they would offer their resignations.
I hope the Minister is able to tell us that she will advise the non-executive directors, with the approval of the Secretary of State, to resign before tomorrow’s board meeting. It is no good for the interim chairman, Dr Harris—there is a whole lot of management speak here—to review the board members’ benchmarking against leadership criteria, etc. What the hell does that mean? Basically, the board needs reconstituting, and it needs reconstituting very soon. Will the Minister give us some insight into what her Department is doing to try to bring new blood—people with real ability, not jobsworths who simply get recycled around one public board after another—on to such boards?
Just as the trust has fallen way down to the bottom of the league, King’s Lynn and west Norfolk is unfortunately lagging behind the rest of East Anglia. I find that very worrying. Obviously, I accept that, in remote rural areas, there are some hamlets and remote communities where it is physically impossible for an ambulance to reach a patient within the targets. We know that. There are some places in my constituency, and in the constituencies of many of my colleagues here today, where that is absolutely impossible, even with the best will in the world. There might be a coincidence in which, for example, an ambulance is going along a main road at a particular juncture, but achieving the target may well be impossible, so it is even more important that the targets are met in the towns and bigger communities, where it might be thought perfectly reasonable to expect ambulances to get to a call within the target time in 95%-plus of cases. Unfortunately, the targets are not even being met in the towns in my constituency.
I have been given permission by my constituent Mrs Delna Barrett to refer to her case. Her husband, Chris, had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for some 20 years. He stopped breathing in a restaurant in Hunstanton, which is the second-largest town in my constituency, and it took the ambulance more than 20 minutes to arrive. Despite numerous resuscitation attempts, he died in hospital two days later. We do not know whether, if the ambulance had arrived within the target time, he would have had a better chance of surviving. The family are not criticising the paramedics or the staff, but the bottom line is that the ambulance did not arrive within a reasonable time.
We know that many difficulties are caused by the problems at A and E, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham alluded in her excellent speech, and we know that those problems have been around for quite a long time. There certainly are problems at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency, and there are problems at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, where at one stage back in March all 17 of the trust’s ambulances were tied up waiting outside. All that is well documented, and it is not entirely within the purview of this debate, but we cannot consider the problem of the ambulance trust in complete isolation; we must consider out-of-hours services and out-of-hours cover.
Very often, individual family events bring home to us the different parts of the health service that are perhaps in need of improvement or are examples of best practice. Some 20 years ago, I was staying with my mother near King’s Lynn, and at about four in the morning she banged on my door and said that she was dying. She was in the most appalling pain—absolute agony. My mother is a war veteran who was in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She is a very tough person, and she never complains about anything. She told me that she was in complete agony and could not move. I rang the local doctor, who came out within 20 minutes. He said, “You have kidney stones, and I am going to give you an injection that will put you asleep until tomorrow afternoon. I will then come back and we will take stock of the situation.” He gave her some more injections the following afternoon. The stones were broken down, and she did not even have to go to hospital.
If my mother knocked on my door now, what would I do? Obviously, I would dial 111 or 999, but so risk-averse are all those call centres that she would undoubtedly have gone into A and E. I would not have been happy with any advice from someone who did not know her medical records. The key to her treatment by the local doctor was that he knew her medical records and understood that she might be prone to that problem.
We must sort out the out-of-hours cover. We cannot go back to what we had before, when each doctor’s surgery provided out-of-hours cover, but the idea of co-operatives and mergers between GP practices to provide cover and ensure that the people who deal with patients out of hours understand their medical records and are prepared to provide service is key to sorting out the problem. Otherwise, given that the population in some parts of the country is growing, that people are living longer and that many more people have challenging illnesses and a multiplicity of problems, more and more people will have out-of-hours difficulties. Unless we sort out the out-of-hours service, we will have more and more problems.
I shall do so immediately, Mr Howarth, as that is the topic of the debate. However, I wanted to put it into that context, because we cannot consider the ambulance service in isolation.
In conclusion, there is a great deal of concern throughout the region, but we take the view that the problem can be solved through new leadership if management get a grip, put common sense first and, above all, bring out the best in the people at the sharp end, who serve our constituents and take great pride in doing so. Those people set high professional standards. Given the right management, they will do the job to a high standard and give our constituents the ambulance service that they deserve. This is a turn-around situation. I wish the interim chairman and chief executive all the best in sorting out the problem. However, they require the Minister’s assistance and support, and her first step must be to grip the decision of the non-executive directors. She must then work closely with the management team to ensure that the trust is turned around for the benefit of our constituents, who deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for leading this debate so well; her speech was a tour de force. I will bear in mind your time limit, Mr Howarth, although I could take the whole 90 minutes to tell the sad tale. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust is actually responsible for out-of-hours care in Norfolk, so the left hand should be talking to the right hand.
I also thank the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who started work on the issue. It was right for my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, a doctor, to take the lead on such matters in Suffolk, but pushing on, consistent performance from colleagues across the counties in the east of England has brought the issue to the fore.
As I suggest, this is a sad tale that started some time ago. My timelines of the issue start in the middle of 2011. We are driven by the experiences of our patients —those who have suffered. Let us be honest: the vast majority of people in our constituencies have a good ambulance service. Once an ambulance arrives, care is very good; nobody denies that. However, too often that excellence of service is concentrated in certain areas of the region in order to meet a false regional performance target, and almost everything else is put aside. It does not matter if only 50% of people in south Norfolk get an ambulance within 90 minutes as long as the regional target is met. That is all that matters to the leadership and the board of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust.
We have had a long series of meetings, Care Quality Commission inspections and promises of change. Transparency has been lacking. The trust has been dragged kicking and screaming into showing its performance targets in a meaningful way—first by county, now at clinical commissioning group level—but that took a long time. It used to say, “You can look in the minutes of your local primary care trust to find response times.” It is unacceptable for those at the very top to say, “Well, that’s all right; we’re hitting our regional target.”
I have used the constituency of the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) to say that if it can happen in Cumbria and Cornwall, it can certainly happen in Norfolk and Suffolk. It is important that the Opposition spokesman does not try to drag party politics into this debate or talk about finances. The issue is about those at the top having wrong priorities and forgetting that every patient matters.
I have never had to call an ambulance in the east of England, or indeed at all, but I like to think that if I did, I could have some confidence that it would arrive in time. In reality, however, there are not enough ambulances and not enough staff. Mr Andrew Morgan recognised that early on when he came into office as interim chief executive. As Dr Marsh pointed out in his excellent report,
“the current leadership from the board just isn’t strong enough to take them forward…there is a lack of focus and grip from the board which has contributed towards the deterioration of performance across the trust.”
Many of the issues breaking open at the moment have been deteriorating for some time. The non-executives have not shown leadership by asking hard questions and going beneath the surface; they have relaxed and considered only the top regional performance target.
I thank our local newspapers, the East Anglian Daily Times and the Eastern Daily Press. Nigel Pickover and Terry Hunt have done good things to keep up the pressure and stand up for their readers, our constituents, who are patients of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust.
And the Harlow Star, apparently.
In December 2011, we finally got a meeting with the Health Minister and a range of other people around the table who could have fixed the issue. We were promised that there would be change and more focus at county level, and that patients mattered. The postcode data released in November 2011 showed that that had not been the case. We have never been able to get data at that level since then, because the trust does not want to share it with us and, frankly, I am not sure that I should spend all my time on freedom of information requests.
One of the things agreed at that meeting was that contracts would change. That did not happen, which is one issue relating to trust. In October 2012, Hayden Newton resigned. Coincidentally, that was a week after a series of complaints, including about the case of Nora Dennington, whose family finally went to the press to get an answer after three months. To be fair to Maria Ball, the former chairman of the trust, she got answers to those complaints then and there, and within a week, Hayden Newton resigned.
However, Newton was still on the payroll until the end of March 2013, and the chair at the time gave him a glowing tribute, saying that he would be greatly missed and
“a hard act to follow”
and that under his leadership, front-line staff were still being recruited and quality of care had improved. The chair also said:
“Thanks to Hayden’s stewardship, EEAST is now a stable, sustainable and financially sound organisation”.
I am afraid that the Marsh report blows that out of the water.
I could go on about all the different meetings, but I will not, as I am conscious of the time. What I will say is that patients’ complaints were not being answered, and patients were not being treated as individuals. The board should have seen it in the survey and the climb in sickness rates, and the CQC should have done more than tick the box saying that the trust had passed staff compliance on the basis that appraisals had been done. There was an element of external scrutiny by the CQC, the strategic health authority and, to some extent, Monitor, which did not approve the foundation trust status application, but passed the trust on the governance rating. All those different regulators, as well as the leadership of the board, need to look at themselves to understand why they, in effect, let people down. The board was fixated on getting foundation trust status; it was only focused on the regional target, and it did not matter that residents in Suffolk were being failed, as long as the regional target was okay.
Moving forward, my hon. Friends who have spoken are absolutely right: it is imperative that the remaining non-executive directors resign their posts immediately and that the NHS Trust Development Authority acts on that. The ideal solution for me would be to ask Dr Marsh to come in, whether permanently or on an interim basis, to turn around our ambulance trust, because he has the skills to make that happen. I want Dr Harris to succeed; however, it is important that we do not rely on the management speak to which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk referred, but recognise that we need to clean the slate.
There are of course external factors—we need to work with GPs and A and E—but much of the problem is internal, because there were not enough training places or staff. Incidentally, it is right that Whitehall should not seek to control everything, but it is vital that MPs have confidence that the NHS Trust Development Authority will take the matter seriously. Furthermore, CQC needs to be quicker—not to be rash, but not to be tick-box driven. It failed the ambulance trust and, more recently, it decided to withdraw from a meeting with MPs to talk about its reaction to the trust plan issued in April.
I could have spoken for longer, Mr Howarth, and I have spoken for longer than you requested, but I genuinely want to ensure that our patients, constituents and residents can rest assured that we will not stop continuing pursuit of excellence on their behalf, wherever they live in our great part of the country—they deserve nothing but the best. Again, if Cumbria and Cornwall can do it, we can certainly do it in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Frankly, until those non-executive directors go, we will not have confidence in the leadership of the trust to make the difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I give my sincerest congratulations to my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has led the campaign against the shocking performance of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust.
The East of England ambulance service continues to give my constituents and me huge concern. As my hon. Friend said, however, I want to make it clear that those worries are not aimed at front-line staff, for whom I have nothing but admiration, especially the senior staff and the paramedics in Harlow. They do a tough job and give 100% to their work; I am proud that we have such extraordinary people living in Harlow and throughout the east of England. The staff, however, are lions being led by donkeys—that is the truth of the matter, as so brilliantly highlighted by my hon. Friend.
At the end of 2012-13, the East of England ambulance service had failed to reach its targets, whether for category A response times for calls to do with life-threatening situations, the less serious green calls or even the ability to pick up the phone on time. Not only is the trust failing to hit demanding targets, but my post bag is regularly filled with letters from local residents complaining about the service that they have received. I have also had staff contact me to complain that they feel they are offering an inadequate service because of the shocking performance of senior managers.
It is outrageous that when I have raised constituents’ problems with the ambulance service, it has taken an unacceptably long time to respond. For example, I wrote to the trust about a serious case in which one person had, tragically, died. The trust did get back to me and acknowledged that its response was unacceptable, contributing to the man’s death, but it had taken nearly five months to respond to my letter on behalf of the family—that is a disgrace.
We have to see change in three areas: we need better resources, targeted at delivering better patient outcomes; the management system urgently needs restructuring; and we need to show staff that they are valued, increasing their skills, so that they continue to make progress. Only by doing those things can people in Harlow and throughout Essex and the east of England get the treatment that they deserve.
For far too long, I have had residents contacting me about the poor level of service. Nearly all the concerns are focused on delays that their family or friends have suffered when waiting for an ambulance or during the handover time in hospital. A tragic case is that of cyclist Robert Tyler, who died by the roadside in my constituency after waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance, despite being only three minutes away from A and E. Sadly, such anecdotes are borne out by the statistics and, as I said, the trust failed to meet its operational targets last year.
I was glad to receive a letter from Dr Geoffrey Harris that claimed he is starting to see signs of improvement. I hope that is so, but on speaking to a worker from the ambulance service yesterday, it was troubling to hear that they felt that little had improved. The worker made the important point that we need more ambulances on the road, telling me that the rapid response vehicles were only being used to ensure that targets were hit. To deliver the best patient care, according to the worker, rapid response vehicles should be in addition to ambulances, not a replacement for them. That view is held across the trust, with more than 300 staff supporting a move calling on the management to claim the A19 target only when an ambulance arrives.
I was disturbed when a constituent told me about her 97-year-old mother who had fallen, hurt her leg and was unable to stand. The first responder arrived quickly and provided good care, but because no ambulances were available, my constituent was left waiting in pain for eight hours. That is absolutely unacceptable, and the new chairman must look at providing more ambulances, so that we can minimise patient suffering and provide a more efficient service.
When I speak to local staff, time and time again they bring up problems with the management structure and their dissatisfaction with it. Some have pointed to directors whom they hold accountable for the problems in the trust; those directors have not resigned, despite the strong pressure to do so. Dr Marsh’s report, as has been highlighted, is no different: he has made it clear that some trust non-executive directors need to resign. He points to an inability of the board to claim responsibility, a lack of clear vision, too much management and no tangible recruitment plan.
It is good news that the new chairman of the trust has stated that he will be making changes to the board, but I join my hon. Friends in calling for five board members to resign and, if possible, for them to be taken to court to be sued for legal negligence—I wish that could be the case. It is shocking that they have been allowed to continue when their failings have been made so apparent. They have put their people’s lives at risk and they have treated my local residents of Harlow shoddily. The board must be refreshed, replacing those members with people who have a proven track record of driving up standards.
I have heard of other problems from workers and residents. Staff are always praised, but staff morale is the worst of all the ambulance trusts in England—it is chronically low. Staff are embarrassed by how long an ambulance can take to reach patients. Sickness levels are high, with an 8.8% sickness rate—almost double the national average for ambulance trusts in England. Also, there is lack of training, with staff telling me that they feel unsupported; records show that the level of completed training days is abysmally low and last year only 45% of appraisals actually took place.
I am pleased that Dr Harris is making some changes, but action needs to be far quicker. At previous meetings with the trust, it seemed to be suggesting that Government funding was partly to blame, but Dr Marsh’s review blows that excuse out of the water. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witham says, the review found that the trust is funded above the average for ambulance trusts, possibly by several million pounds.
The board must take full responsibility for the problems that have plagued the service over the past few years. Action should be taken, including provision of a proper training programme for existing staff, a coherent recruitment plan to rebalance the staff ratio and direction of resources so that more ambulances are on the roads. I favour the ambulance service being broken up, so that there is an Essex ambulance service, because the East of England service is far too big. Genuinely, with the right management and the right resources, we can deliver some of the best care to my constituents in Harlow, to Essex and throughout the east of England.
I will try to keep to your timetable, Mr Howarth, but if I do not, please intervene.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for this debate. In the middle of last year, it hit home to me that there are serious problems with the ambulance service and that they are placing people’s lives at risk. The trickle of complaints became a torrent. When an elderly lady suffered a stroke, the paramedics and rapid response vehicle arrived within 10 or 15 minutes, but the ambulance to take her to hospital did not arrive for another 105 minutes. A gentleman in Lowestoft fell off his bike and it took 90 minutes for the ambulance to arrive from Ipswich, some 45 miles away. A 90-year-old disabled gentleman fell at home when going to bed and his 84-year-old wife was unable to help him. It took four and a half hours for an ambulance to arrive.
Only in December did the ambulance trust agree to carry out a full review of operations, and that was when I spent two evenings with crews working out of the Waveney depot in Gorleston in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). Those evenings left me with three lasting impressions.
First, all the staff I met were dedicated professionals, but they were worn down by the pressures of the job. Their pleas for understanding to the trust’s senior management fell on deaf ears. On those two evenings, we were on the go from the moment we left the depot. There was no time for meals or comfort breaks, and I was told that 12-hour night shifts almost invariably became 13 or 14-hour shifts.
Secondly, it became clear to me that the trust did not have the right balance of vehicles on the road. There were too many cars and not enough ambulances. There is concern that the cars are used to reach patients quickly and to meet targets—effectively acting as clock-stoppers. If an ambulance is then required to take a patient to hospital, there can be a long delay before it arrives, and for a stroke victim that could be very serious.
Thirdly, based on what staff told me, it was clear that the handover delays at district general hospitals are a major reason why the service is not functioning properly. On the two nights when I was out, there were no problems at the James Paget hospital in Gorleston, and I pay tribute to David Hill, its interim chief executive, who will step down shortly. Whenever I am with him at the hospital to discuss the problem, he takes me straight down to A and E to see what the situation is like at that time and to get feedback from staff. His is the hands-on, at-the-coal-face, sleeves-rolled-up management that the trust should replicate.
Although there were not problems at JPH, there were problems at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, which is a Bermuda triangle that swallows up ambulances. I do not want to place too much blame at the hospital’s door, but the development of a large hospital, albeit one that provides high-quality services and serves a large rural catchment area, means that a possible weak link is inadvertently created in the health system in Norfolk and Suffolk. It is important that the new management of the ambulance trust work with the Norfolk and Norwich hospital to strengthen that weak link.
Is it any wonder that the management have become so out of touch with their staff and the service they run when they set up their headquarters in a stand-alone, business park location in the middle of the fens? In effect, they are working in a vacuum. Surely they should be close to their operational centres where they can be in day-to-day contact with those who are working on the front line. That isolation may have contributed to their pursuit of foundation trust status when the service they ran was so clearly inadequate for the needs of their patients. They were fiddling while Rome burned.
There has been a failure to work properly with voluntary first-responder groups, which play a key role in working with professional paramedics in more isolated rural areas. Rumburgh in my constituency has a dedicated team of responders with the necessary equipment provided by successful fundraising activities, but it has been unable to work properly because it has been provided with no training, no accreditation and no up-to-date maps.
As to the future, I believe that a corner has been turned, but a lot of work is necessary. The trust’s turnaround plan includes 89 recommendations and there is concern that if they are addressed in a random, scattergun way the new board might achieve nothing. It must focus on the most important issues: patients and staff. Staff are the most important asset in any organisation, and that must be remembered as we go forward.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing it. The national health service includes many people with different callings, and thank goodness for that. Some have a calling to look down microscopes and to do scientific experiments to figure out how to solve the problem of cancer. Some have a calling to work with people with mental health problems and to help them return to stability, productivity and a flourishing life. Some have a calling to help at the roadside those who are in critical danger following dreadful accidents and those of us who are unfortunate enough to face near death. Imagine what it must be like to have that calling, to feel that one’s life purpose and work is to help such people, to have the training of a practitioner in emergency medicine, but to have to hold someone who is dying because an ambulance trust does not work properly and those higher up let down the practitioners. What would be the reaction?
There would come a point when people would say, “I can’t stand this any longer. I can’t stand coming to work and failing people because those above me are failing me.” That is exactly what has happened. It is absolutely clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said when quoting from the Marsh report, that it is not about money. The problem is about leadership and accountability. I will draw out some brief points from that report. It says that
“critical decision making has ceased in some areas. The trust has lost focus of the strategic objectives, which may partly be due to the board not fully understanding the purpose of the business.”
The management structure is overly layered and appears heavy…The trust seems to demonstrate limited urgency and pace in moving forward.”
It also states:
“Leadership does not come from Board level”.
What are they doing, and why are they still there after that damning report?
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have spent 12 years studying slow-motion disasters in various areas of Government and I have read many National Audit Office reports across the whole swathe of Government activity and public expenditure, but I have rarely read words as damning as those. Yet the people who are responsible, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said, have so badly failed those whose job it is to serve us and our constituents, are still in post. That is something I cannot understand, and I very much hope that the Minister will address it. If it is not addressed, there will come a point when people will start asking the Department of Health why it has not been addressed, because the matter is so serious.
This did not use to happen. I have been the Member of Parliament for South Norfolk in the east of England for 12 years, and until the last year or two I do not recall people regularly writing to me with complaints about ambulance delays. I do not remember regularly turning up at meetings in the House where there were 15 paramedics talking to the Minister, Earl Howe, facilitated by east of England MPs, because there was no possibility of their having a sensible conversation with the management of their own organisation. This is an extraordinary state of affairs and it requires radical reform.
There is not time in this debate to talk about the wider issues of the NHS culture, but reference has been made to revolving doors and how people lose jobs in one place and gain them in another—I have seen a lot of that myself. In addition there is the issue of confidentiality clauses and the way in which the guidance against using them has been weakened. In 1999, it was stated that confidentiality clauses had no place in NHS contracts; by 2004, it was apparently okay if the guidance was studied carefully.
In the limited time available I want to make a point about size. The ambulance trust in the east of England covers Hertfordshire, which is practically outer London, and Bedfordshire, which is also practically outer London and highly urbanised, as well as places as far away as Cromer in north Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, Southwold in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and Lowestoft in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). It is simply too big, and that is obvious to everyone.
In my rural constituency, ambulances are not just dragged away from the rural areas to Norwich. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who is no longer in his place, that it is not just a rural problem; it is a rural and an urban problem. When I find that ambulances are being dragged away to Bedford and Luton, which are one hour 20 minutes, one hour 25 minutes or one hour and 30 minutes from my constituency, I know that something is fundamentally wrong. We must stop thinking so much about economies of scale and start thinking about the economy of flow—removing the blockages that stop things working properly.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth. I intend to be fairly brief, to allow the Minister to answer many of the questions that have been put to her by colleagues. I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate, which is timely and important, as today’s attendance illustrates.
Along with other Members, the hon. Lady is right to praise the commitment and dedication of front-line staff. Their vocational example illustrates the best of everything that there is to say about the NHS. I am sure that all Members are aware of cases that have arisen through poor ambulance service performance. Members have spoken today, sometimes in shocking detail, about examples of people who deserve better care from this ambulance service, and the debate is needed because of those cases. Indeed, in opening the debate, the hon. Lady said that, right now, lives are being put at risk.
The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust covers more than 7,500 square miles and deals with more than half a million emergency calls a year. That undoubtedly presents challenges, but there can be no excuse for less-than-excellent service. As the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) said, second best is not good enough, and I absolutely endorse that.
Dr Anthony Marsh’s governance review, which was published earlier this month, is deeply worrying. He commented that the trust’s board and senior management team have developed a sense of helplessness. That is exceptionally disturbing, and it needs to be rectified. He has said that internal and external communications need to improve without delay, but furthermore, performance needs to improve.
Comparing December 2011 with December 2012, the average handover time—the time between an ambulance arriving at a hospital and the hospital taking responsibility for the patient—increased by more than three minutes to more than 20 minutes a patient. The number of patients waiting more than 30 minutes increased by 75%, from around 2,000 to more than 3,500. Even more worryingly, the wait for patients does not start there; the number of ambulances responding to the most serious call-outs within eight minutes was fewer than 70%.
Those numbers are shocking enough, but the figure that helps to demonstrate the worst type of patient experience is that, in December 2012, at least one patient waited in the back of an ambulance for more than six-and-a-half hours, and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) raised an even worse example. It is worrying how only a few numbers can paint such a vivid picture of a service that is clearly not working as it should for the patients who rely on it, and, as has been pointed out repeatedly, who pay for it as well.
I am heartened to learn that the trust recognises that its service has not been acceptable, and I welcome the turnaround plan that was released in late April. I ask the Minister to outline any discussions that she, or the Secretary of State for Health, has had with the trust that informed the plan and its implementation. Will she explain why, when the data that I have just given, as others have freely done today, are so easily accessible, nothing has been done previously to improve performance in the trust? I also ask her to provide the details of all efforts made by the Department to help the trust improve performance, when those began and what the results have been. We are seeing all aspects of emergency care services—whether ambulance trusts or accident and emergency departments—being driven into chaos too often of late. We have just endured the worst winter performance in A and E for years, and the warnings are that next winter’s will be even worse.
It cannot be a coincidence that during December 2012—the month to which my previous figures relate—hospitals in the east of England region missed their A and E target more often than not, and almost one in 10 patients had to wait for more than four hours in A and E before receiving treatment. Pressures in one part of the service can manifest in other places—as has often been said, A and E is the bellwether of NHS performance—and there is clearly a link between poor performance in ambulance services and the pressure so clearly apparent in A and E units around the country. When a patient needs emergency care, they are being made to wait at home, then wait in an ambulance, and then wait in a waiting room. When the Minister responds, I hope that she will offer some explanation for that poor performance. I hope that she will also outline any discussions that she has had with other ambulance trusts to ensure that those failings are not repeated elsewhere in the country.
Moving on to the personnel aspect of Dr Marsh’s report, he raised concerns about the rate of sickness absence in the trust. Alarm bells should be ringing that the level is so much higher than in other trusts. Did the Department of Health become aware of that, and if so, when did it become aware and what was done about it? In April, at the time of Dr Marsh’s governance review, the acting chief, Andrew Morgan, announced plans to recruit 350 staff. He denied a staffing crisis, but admitted that the leadership was not good enough. I think that that is an understatement, given that it was widely reported in May that the trust was offering financial incentives to staff to retire early or to leave the service. The trust spent almost £100,000 on those incentives, and it is now offering staff a £500 bonus if they refer a friend to join the trust. If it needs staff, it should not be offering incentives for staff to leave. What kind of recruitment programme is that, and how does that illustrate protection of the public purse? It is an incredibly worrying demonstration of the lack of communication and oversight within the trust. The position appears to be entirely incoherent.
Dr Marsh’s report put a great deal of emphasis on the existence of a real disconnect within the organisation. As he rightly outlined,
“It is the responsibility of the Board…to ensure the Governance arrangements and the plans for the Trust are appropriate and robust enough to keep risk as low as practicably possible”,
which includes ensuring that
“all patients receive the best treatment in a timely fashion.”
It is crucial that members of the board take responsibility for that and for patient care in a wider context. Has the Minister met the board recently to find a solution to the current organisational and personnel issues that are referred to in Dr Marsh’s report?
I have outlined the poor performance of the trust from only a few key indicators from data that are widely available. The Department needs to be robust in helping to address those issues, and I hope that the Minister gives the assurances that patients need and deserve. In her response, I hope that she tells the Chamber when she expects the problems with this ambulance trust to be resolved; what the Department is doing to assist the trust with its recovery; what additional expenditure, if any, that will require; and whether hospitals that are reliant on the trust can expect any additional support, financial or otherwise, owing to the avoidable operational pressures that the ambulance trust has placed upon them. Can she guarantee that the performance of the trust has not seriously affected clinical outcomes for patients in the local area? Based on today’s evidence, I would find that hard to accept. Can she give an assurance that, once the trust is operating acceptably, the Department will not allow this to happen again? Finally, when will patients in the east of England get the ambulance service that they deserve?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for bringing this matter, quite properly, to Westminster Hall this morning, for giving an excellent speech, and for her outstanding campaign on behalf of her constituents. In simple terms, she seeks to hold the ambulance trust, which clearly has performance figures that are simply unacceptable—they are the lowest in the country—to account. There is a clear feeling of anger—that is no criticism at all; it is based on frustration. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has joined her in this admirable work, and despite raising the issue and notwithstanding all their efforts, they are frustrated and angry because they feel that it has taken many months for the trust to even begin to make some sort of attempt to address the inherent problems that it clearly faces.
Another thing that clearly emerges from the many interventions and excellent speeches by hon. Members this morning is that there is wholesale support, and many tributes, for the staff—the front-line workers. Nobody is for one moment saying that there is any failing on their part. The failing is clear: it is failing at a leadership level and at board level. There is a failing of leadership, which must be addressed as a matter of some urgency.
I only have about 12 minutes to address the many points that have been made, so the usual rules apply: anybody who has asked a question that I am not able to answer in my short speech will, of course, get a written answer. I just want to deal quickly with the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who asked whether the usual rules that apply to non-executives on public limited companies, or on companies that are listed on the stock exchange and so on, apply to non-executives who are appointed to NHS trusts. I must tell him that the rules are not the same; their responsibilities and duties are different. I will provide more detail in a letter to my hon. Friend, but it is not as simple as it is when people are non-executive directors on other bodies, where it could be said there is much more accountability and much more of a duty on them to resign when there have been the sorts of failings that we have heard about today—if that was applied to a business, for example.
May I just make one other point? Then I shall be more than happy to give way, although the clock is against me, as my hon. Friend will appreciate.
Here we have another issue that should concern, as I know it does, all hon. Members, on both sides of the House. It is the culture that is now becoming clear. I take the view that it is not a new culture. I suspect that it has been there for many years. It is just that it is now being exposed, often through the admirable work of Members of Parliament and because of the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. That is a mates culture, where people’s priority is to protect their mates, systems and procedures, as opposed to what should be the absolute priority for somebody in the NHS, which is to protect the patient—not their friends and the structures, but the patient—and also, of course, the hard-earned money of the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend will have heard me set out the treatment of Harlow residents. Does she agree with me and with our hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) that the East of England ambulance trust is too big and should be broken up, and that we should restore the Essex ambulance service trust?
That is a good point, but it is not for me to say whether it has any merit that should be taken forward. But clearly it is an important point, which must now be considered.
May I quickly pay tribute to all the very helpful interventions from hon. Friends? My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) talked about the buck passing in the NHS and the recycling. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly). My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made an excellent speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal also made an excellent and important speech. There were interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Mr Carswell) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). There were speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow, for North West Norfolk and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon). They all made important and good points.
We know that overall in England in 2012-13 the number of emergency calls to ambulance services was 9.08 million—a 6.9% increase. That is an important figure, I would suggest. We know that overall, in England, the performance figures are stable. That does not really assist in this debate, of course, because we also know that the East of England ambulance trust and, I have to say, my own, the East Midlands ambulance trust, have serious failings and the performance figures are simply not good enough.
The best that I can say of the performance of the East of England ambulance trust is that it has not been good. It is clearly recognised as the lowest-performing ambulance trust in England. As with the national picture, its overall poor performance figures hide huge discrepancies between the services and response times in the urban and rural areas that it covers. There are too many stories—we have heard many today—of patients in distress having to wait hours for ambulances, or solo paramedics being sent when an ambulance is needed. Solo paramedics cannot transport patients and might not, for instance, be able to lift or move a patient unaided. It is simply not good enough.
It is clear to me that some hon. Members and many patients might be forgiven for thinking that the trust seems to have forgotten that it is there to serve all patients and not only tick the performance boxes as far as it can. Concentrating resources in towns and effectively abandoning people in the countryside is simply unacceptable.
May I make some progress? Then I will take an intervention. The latest figures, as we have heard, show that the East of England ambulance trust failed to deliver two of the three response time standards. The exception was the performance against Category A Red 1—immediately life threatening—calls, where the 75% standard was achieved, with 75.8% of calls responded to within eight minutes.
The phenomenon of people forgetting what they are there for, which my hon. Friend alluded to, is of course what would happen in a mates culture. I have had the feeling for a long time that there has been the growth of what we might call a self-serving nomenclatura that looks after its own interests first. Then I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on the radio the other day referring to a mafia within the top of the NHS, looking out for their own interests. What I want to know is, as this is a recognised phenomenon—I do not think we are going mad—what is the Department going to do about it?
In short, what I will say is that the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is a culture that he will not accept, and that no member of his ministerial team will accept. He is now becoming undoubtedly the champion of the patient. We are seeing that. We saw it last week with the CQC and then of course we saw the change: the names of people who had been put forward in the report were made public and people are now being held to account. We are beginning to see at least a tackling of this culture; we now need to see some results.
My hon. Friend has alluded, as have other hon. Friends, to leadership. Is the NHS thinking of positively recruiting from senior retired people from the armed forces, who display leadership and the ability to get people to work together? A brigadier had to sort out BSE over 10 years ago, because nobody in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could.
That is an excellent point, extremely well made. I shall certainly take it away and speak to the Secretary of State, because this really is important, but to be fair to the NHS, it does have its own leadership academy, where it seeks to bring on people. That is within the NHS. But I think that we should involve far more people from other fields, who could come into the NHS—people with huge skill sets, who have proved those in other walks of life. I am thinking of, for example, retired judges, who would have an invaluable role to play—people who have shown real leadership and not been afraid to make tough decisions in the right circumstances. All these people should now be being looked at actively to play a role.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she has been very generous. There is a specific issue not just about leadership but about accountability with this trust. Is the Minister able to tell us what is preventing the current non-exec directors from resigning their posts immediately?
I know of no reason why they should not. Of course, it is a matter for their own consciences. I am not one who normally shies away from giving an opinion, as my hon. Friend, I hope, would agree, but I think that in this instance it is very important that Ministers do not give an opinion and do not get involved. I think that would be quite improper. It is for those people, or anybody who has come under criticism, to examine their own role and their own conscience and act accordingly.
We might well ask why some ambulance services with comparable funding to the East of England trust—this is not about funding, cuts or money; it is about leadership and poor management—and the same mix of urban and rural areas can provide a good level of service and others cannot. I believe that the ambulance staff will generally be the same in their dedication to caring for patients, so as I said, it is all about effective—or in this case, ineffective—management.
The trust has recently had the benefit of an excellent governance review prepared by Dr Anthony Marsh. I pay public tribute to him and thank him for that. I have referred to it already, as have other hon. Members. It is a clear and professional account, and I will arrange for a copy of it to be placed in the Library. Dr Marsh is, as we know, the chief executive of the West Midlands ambulance service and he chairs the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, so he knows what he is talking about. His report, as we have heard, reveals how poorly the trust has been managed and how the valiant efforts of front-line staff have been undermined. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow described them as “lions led by donkeys”.
Results from the 2012 staff survey for the trust underline that. Only one key finding improved; nine key findings became worse. The East of England ambulance service trust had by far the worst staff survey results of all ambulance trusts in England, with 13 of the lowest scores. Its sickness levels—I think this is a very important statistic; it says it all—are nearly twice the average of those in other trusts. However, I am pleased to say that Dr Marsh will be working closely with the trust over the coming months to ensure that the necessary action is taken, and taken quickly.
The NHS Trust Development Authority—it is called the TDA—provides the line of accountability from local NHS trusts to the Secretary of State for the performance of the organisation. Steps have already been taken to address poor performance. As we know, a new interim chair, Dr Geoff Harris, has been appointed; he took up his post at the end of May. His first task is to review the trust board and ensure that the right people are on it. He needs, if I may say so, to be quick and decisive. To make the necessary changes, the board needs to be fully capable of radically improving its performance. I am fully aware that many hon. Members hold strong views about the role that board members play, and I have made my comments accordingly. The duty of the trust board is to add value to the organisation, enabling it to deliver health care and health improvement within the law and without causing harm. It should do that by providing a framework of good governance.
Earl Howe, as we have heard, is the Minister responsible. He has taken a close interest in the matter and visited the trust at the end of May. He has met hon. Members. He is committed to convening a second meeting towards the end of this year, when we all expect to see real evidence of changes for the better. We will of course continue to monitor the situation closely.
Habitats Directive (Bats and Churches)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of bats in churches and the impact of the EU habitats directive. The House will not be surprised that I wish to do so, given my role as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. At the outset, I want to make it clear that as far as I am concerned, bats are part of God’s creation. Indeed, there are three specific references to bats in the bible: Leviticus, chapter 11, verse 19; Deuteronomy, chapter 14, verse 18; and Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 20. Bats are part of the interdependence of God’s creation, but the numbers of some bat species in the UK are under pressure, which is why the EU habitats directive applies.
Bats are mammals, and one of the things I remember about mammals from my A-level zoology course is that they can be distinguished from other species by seven characteristics, two of which are that mammals defecate and urinate. The blunt reality is that bat faeces and bat urine have the potential to cause and do cause enormous damage in churches. English parish churches and cathedrals have significant holdings of monumental sculpture that date back to medieval England. Bat urine and faeces are extremely damaging to church monuments, as they are to other important artefacts in churches. Bat urine decays to form dilute ammonia, which is alkaline, chemically aggressive and can cause pitting, staining or etching on porous or polished material. Monumental brasses are particularly affected by the urine. It causes corrosion, evidenced in a disfiguring spotted appearance to the surface, as on the brass at the church at Elsing in Norfolk—one of the finest brasses in England.
Sculptured monuments are also being damaged by bat urine and faeces. The small number of medieval wooden effigies that survive in England are susceptible to damage to the pattern of the surface, which has been built up over centuries. Bat urine can also harm precious original paint and other surface finishes on historic monuments. For example, the church of St Peter ad Vincula at South Newington in my constituency has some very fine—almost unique—medieval wall paintings, which were spared by Thomas Cromwell’s men, but having survived the ravages of the Reformation, these irreplaceable parts of our national heritage are now threatened by bat urine. A build-up of bat faeces on the porous surface of monuments, especially marble and alabaster, is also problematic. The excreta hardens and is then subject to moisture, which is common in churches. Bat faeces can cause marked discolouration and other harm. Of course, it is possible for monuments to be protected to an extent by covering them with sheets of plastic, but that is unsightly, prevents them from being seen and enjoyed by the wider public, and can produce a microclimate that leads to other conservation issues.
Importantly, churches are places of worship; they are not field barns. I fully appreciate that one of the challenges for bats is that some of their natural habitat is threatened, but there has to be a balance. Churches are active community centres; indeed, the Church of England is making every effort to ensure that as many churches as possible can be centres for community use and community life, used throughout the week, not just for a few hours on a Sunday. Churches play host to a wide range of events, such as children’s playgroups and lunch clubs for the elderly, for which a domestic level of hygiene is expected.
Large internal roosts of bats have significant financial and human costs to those who worship in church buildings. The cost of cleaning, bat monitoring, delays to building work and bat mitigation measures are significant and must be funded by weekly church collections, at the expense of the other pressing demands of sustaining the church community and church buildings. The amount of monitoring and mitigation required, before even basic repair works can be undertaken, can act as a disincentive to the ongoing maintenance needed to retain a church building in good condition. Such delays are not only costly, but disheartening for church congregations and communities, who work hard to keep church buildings alive and fit for community use. Many of the churches affected by bat infestation are approaching a situation where their buildings may be unsustainable as places of worship. It is sometimes said that excluding bats from churches will render the bats homeless, but there is every chance that church congregations will find themselves homeless and without a place of worship, with listed buildings left unoccupied. That solution is surely undesirable for both bats and people.
The costs are not insignificant. St Hilda’s, Ellerburn, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has so far spent some £29,000 on mitigation repairs. Another typical example is St Andrew’s church in Holme Hale, Norfolk, which was forced to spend £2,600 in a single year on cleaning costs to clear up after its resident bats. The mitigation work associated with church repairs over three years for just one architect—just one architect!—totalled £57,000.
The situation is summed up in a letter sent to me after I had an exchange in the House with my hon. Friend the Minister. I posed the question:
“Do Ministers consider it acceptable that a number of historic English churches are being made unusable as a consequence of bat faeces and that mediaeval wall paintings and other historic monuments are being irretrievably damaged as a consequence of bat urine? Churches are not farm barns. They are places of worship and should be respected as such.”
The Minister responded:
“I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and share his intense frustration. I am glad to say that we are moving forward with one church in Yorkshire, where we think we may have found a resolution, and some churches in Norfolk. It cannot have ever been the intention of those who imposed this directive on us to limit the ability of people to worship in a church that has been there for centuries.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 1112.]
That exchange prompted a number of people to get in touch with me, including Mr Thompson from East Keal in Lincolnshire, who wrote:
“My local Church is St Helen’s Church, East Keal, and we like so many Churches have problems with bats. The pews have become damaged and the organ pitted with their urine and droppings. We are lucky in so far as we have a dedicated team who clean the Church weekly. The Church goes back to 1067. Recently we had the Tower blocked to keep the birds out. We however were required to make slots convenient to the bats to come into the Church. Having the bats means any work to be carried out on the roof can only be carried out during a small timescale. We now need a new roof and are trying to get a grant from English Heritage. We are trying to get a toilet and kitchen but in the interests of Health & Safety, we should be looking to have bats removed from the Churches.”
We will all have enormous sympathy with the congregation and the community of East Keal in Lincolnshire who are confronted with those challenges.
What are the policy issues here? Bats are a European protected species under the habitats directive 1994. In most circumstances, it is a criminal offence to disturb bats or to damage or destroy their breeding site or resting place deliberately. The criminal offence in English law, with a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, is provided by regulation 41(1) of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. Natural England has the power to grant a licence, the effect of which is that bats can be deliberately disturbed, or their breeding sites and resting places damaged or destroyed, without its being a criminal office. The existence of such a licence constitutes a defence to the criminal charge. There are four possible grounds on which Natural England can issue a licence. For the purposes of
“preventing serious damage to...property”,
a licence can be granted under regulation 53(2)(g). I would have thought that if bats were fouling a church, or otherwise making it, or parts of it, unusable, that would constitute “serious damage” to property.
I cannot see why a licence cannot be issued if it is for the purposes of preserving public health. A licence can be granted under regulation 53(2)(e) on such grounds, and if it can be shown that the use of a church, and the public health of the congregation and the general public, have been damaged by bats, it should be possible for Natural England to grant a licence.
There is also provision for granting a licence, if there are
“imperative reasons of overriding public interest including those of a social or economic nature and…of primary importance to the environment”.
In such circumstances a licence can be granted under regulation 53(2)(e). I would have thought that being able to use a church as a church, and being able to have churches not only as places of worship but increasingly for use by the wider community, was a matter of overriding public interest and importance. Moreover, as far as the second part of the test is concerned, when one has regard to grade I or grade II* listed churches, the removal of bats will make possible the preservation and enhancement of a listed building, which is of particular importance to the higher grades of such buildings, and to our national heritage.
I appreciate that Natural England cannot grant a licence under regulation 53(2) unless it is satisfied of two further matters. The first is that there is no satisfactory alternative under regulation 53(9)(a), but I cannot see that being a problem. Obliging churches and church congregations and communities to co-exist with bats is plainly not a “satisfactory alternative”.
I am finding the debate very interesting. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many churches do co-exist with bats? Is he aware of the work of the Bat Conservation Trust and its national bat helpline, in helping churches to adapt to having a bat population? I appreciate that protecting both historical buildings and a protected species is difficult, but the trust does some good work.
This debate would not be necessary, and I would not be detaining the House by raising the issue, if it had been possible to sort out satisfactory bat mitigation measures. If the hon. Lady would like to visit with me some of the congregations and communities whose lives have been made difficult and whose churches have been made unusable as a consequence of bats, I will most certainly arrange that.
The Bat Conservation Trust has singularly failed to solve the problem as, in my judgment, has Natural England, and that is why it has been necessary to raise the issue and to continue to press the Minister to find a solution. Only this week European Union Heads of Government were giving thought as to how to protect freedom of religion within the EU, and I cannot believe that the European Commission and the Commissioner would want a situation in which it was not possible for congregations to worship in churches that go back to the time of the Conqueror, because of bat infestations.
The second matter to which Natural England must have regard to grant a licence is that, under regulation 53(9)(b), the interference with the bats
“will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the population of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range”.
Again, unless the bats were of a particularly endangered species—for example, Greater Horseshoe bats—it is difficult to see how that provision could cause a problem to Natural England. For far too many churches and communities it seems to be taking far too long to achieve the reasonable mitigation or exclusion of bats, with practical difficulties and expense involved in seeking permission and getting licences, without any guarantee as to the outcome. I cannot believe that if I were to get in touch with the EU Commissioner they would consider it appropriate that churches were being treated in that way. There needs to be a significant reduction in the costs, along with a simplified process for securing a licence from Natural England.
As I have already indicated, mitigation work associated with church repairs over three years for just one architect in one church totalled £57,000 and, prosaically, a replacement of a broken window quarry with a lead back-flap cost £140 rather than the £5 it would have cost for plain glass, which is the equivalent of four weeks’ collection in the rural parish church of Wiggenhall St Germans. At the moment, the expense of getting a licence is prohibitive and, as a consequence, the law is inoperable.
I wish to make it clear that this is not simply a matter of aesthetics, of ancient monuments, irreplaceable pictures and wall paintings being damaged. A paper published by the Royal Society earlier this year entitled “A comparison of bats and rodents as reservoirs of zoonotic viruses: are bats special?” was unambiguous. The abstract states:
“Bats are the natural reservoirs of a number of high-impact viral zoonoses. We present a quantitative analysis to address the hypothesis that bats are unique in their propensity to host zoonotic viruses based on a comparison with rodents, another important host order. We found that bats indeed host more zoonotic viruses per species than rodents, and we identified life-history and ecological factors that promote zoonotic viral richness. More zoonotic viruses are hosted by species whose distributions overlap with a greater number of other species in the same taxonomic order…Specifically in bats, there was evidence for increased zoonotic viral richness in species with smaller litters…greater longevity and more litters per year. Furthermore, our results point to a new hypothesis to explain in part why bats host more zoonotic viruses per species: the stronger effect of sympatry in bats and more viruses shared between bat species suggest that interspecific transmission is more prevalent among bats than among rodents.”
The potential for bats to spread disease is of significant importance to churches that provide food and drink in their buildings, and have old people’s and children’s and toddlers’ groups. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is as anxious as we all are for a solution to be found. This is a serious problem; it is not a joke. The issue is getting more difficult, more frustrating and more challenging for more communities all the time, and we look to the Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come forward with practical proposals to ensure that churches and communities can worship and flourish unimpeded by bats.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry)for raising this important issue. It is always a pleasure to see him, but I was dismayed that not long ago he had to bring yet another delegation to my office—a Trollopian group of senior clerics and others—to talk about the problem yet again. I would have hoped it unnecessary to have this debate, but I recognise that the problem persists, and I hope to be able to reassure him that we are tackling it.
The simple way to look at the issue is to say, “We can interpret the regulations how we like, and if the European Union doesn’t like that, we will see it in court,” but that is not a sensible approach to such directives, as my hon. Friend well knows from his experience in my Department. The alternative is to seek to change the directive and its implications for churches and other places of worship. That approach may have merit, but it is a longer-term route down which we need to go in a proportionate way because, as I will go on to say, we should be mindful of the species that we are discussing and the serious declines that they have suffered. The third way is to seek to find a solution within the framework of the directive, but one that is quick and effective, and I hope to give him some comfort about that in the remaining minutes.
I stand by every word that I said in reply to my hon. Friend’s question in the House. It is clearly not acceptable that people’s rights to worship in buildings that were consecrated many centuries ago and are used for that purpose should be affected in such a way. Equally, it is not acceptable that priceless artefacts or the furnishings necessary for a church to function as a place of worship should be damaged or put at risk. He clearly outlined that that is happening in many churches because of the presence and impact of bats.
The way in which I look at churches has changed since the problem was brought to my attention. My mind now occasionally strays from the sermon, and I look up to see the impact that bats may be having in my church or elsewhere. In the vast majority of places of worship, it is managed perfectly well: either the quantity of bats is small or the species does not affect the premises, or the bats are properly dealt with by those who manage the building, but in all too many cases there is a serious problem. My hon. Friend is right to raise a problem that causes great distress to people who value places of worship not just for their heritage and religious importance, but for what they do for their communities.
Like my hon. Friend, I support bat conservation. As he said, bats are another of God’s creatures and are part of our natural heritage: 17 species of bat are resident and breed in the UK. I want to say a few words to put into context the protection that they enjoy before I turn to the specific issue of bats in churches. Until very recently, the number of bats in this country had suffered a dramatic decline, most notably because of changes to habitats, such as the loss of many of our hedgerows in the last century and the destruction or refurbishment of many traditional buildings. Those changes, particularly the loss or alteration of other old buildings, have resulted in bats increasingly making use of and seeking refuge in some older churches. In turn, those buildings have in some cases probably become more important to the survival of bats.
Although the presence of small numbers of bats in churches rarely causes any problem, larger numbers certainly can result in intolerable problems in some churches. Given the reduction in the number of bats and the threats that they face, all species of bat have been listed in the EU habitats directive, but as my hon. Friend said, there are a number of derogations from otherwise prohibited actions, including activities that cover public health and safety or the prevention of serious damage to property. Natural England is the licensing authority for such cases in England.
One or both of those tests would clearly seem to be met in the circumstances that we are discussing, but the directive and our implementing regulations require some checks and balances to ensure that harmful or unnecessary actions are not permitted, such as that the action must not negatively affect the conservation status of the species and that there are no alternatives to the actions proposed. Although many people may agree with my hon. Friend’s points about the likelihood of bats finding alternative roost sites and, indeed, about the unacceptability of the alternative of doing nothing, the tests are not easy to meet, as is clear from some European Court cases. Frustrating though that is, it is a fact.
As my hon. Friend and I have inferred, the problem may be that some affected populations are the rarest and are in locations of particular importance to the species. Like him, however, I simply do not believe that those who drafted the habitats directive intended to render places of worship unusable to congregations or to impose unreasonable financial burdens on them. That cannot have been the purpose of the directive, and we must find a way round it.
It is clear that the granting of permission—for example, to destroy a bat maternity roost by blocking access to it—might result in challenge and delay. Nobody, least of all parishioners, wants a long drawn-out debate; they want solutions. To achieve solutions and resolution to such intolerable problems sooner rather than later, we are taking action on two fronts. First, we are making sure that the guidance offered by Natural England and the national bat helpline is clear, proportionate and unambiguous. Secondly, we are undertaking specific actions at several churches to find means of moving bats away from sensitive areas.
Unfortunately, there are examples of costs and delays occurring, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. For that reason, I have asked Natural England to look again at the guidance that it provides to churches about the sort of operations that can take place without a licence or a bat survey. The figure that he mentioned of the cost to a small rural church is intolerable: the process has to be quicker and cheaper, which I am doing everything I can to ensure.
To make sure that unnecessary costs are not incurred, I have asked Natural England to provide guidance on the nature of surveys that may be required or the sort of actions to prevent impacts on bats. I believe that many problems come not from Government agencies, but organisations such as building companies or architects who say, “Oh, you need to do this,” or “You will get into trouble if you don’t do that.” We need to get to those people as well, because they advise church wardens and others about what they can and cannot do. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what is required.
I have also asked Natural England to look into reports of over-zealous advice being given to churches. It has assured me that it will investigate any such instances. I rely on my hon. Friend, in his position as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, to keep me informed of the dafter stories.
Better guidance will go a long way to minimising the impact of bats on most churches, but as we have heard, large populations of bats cause serious concerns in too many churches. In those cases, dealing with them is not just an expensive chore; they can make the church unusable at the worst times. That cannot continue, so we are funding research to find ways to move bats to less sensitive areas of churches.
In a two-and-a-half year project, a team led by Bristol university is investigating the combined use of deterrents and alternative roosting sites, such as bat boxes, to encourage bats to move away from sensitive areas in churches. The study, which is taking place in eight Norfolk churches, began in 2011, and the project trialled the use of three types of deterrent—lighting, acoustic and radar—last year. For those who think that we can just block bats out of churches, that is more difficult than they possibly imagine. Many of the buildings are mediaeval and have more ways in than we can imagine.
The most dramatic effects were found when using 500 W halogen lamps: the bats simply refused to come out of their roosts. That solves one problem, but it might create another by entombing the bats, possibly resulting in the presence of rotting carcases within the infrastructure of a church. Therefore, the Bristol university team will trial smarter uses of lighting this year to see whether such a relatively cheap method could be used effectively by churches.
Based on last year’s results, acoustic devices appear to present the best hope for a solution. To date, those devices have been used only for short periods, but they were effective in moving the bats from their maternity roosts to other parts of churches and, in some cases, in moving them out of churches. This year, acoustic devices will be used for longer periods to prove, I hope, that the bats do not habituate or get used to the devices and simply start to ignore them.
At the same time, Bristol university has initiated work to explore the use of a prototype acoustic device that would be portable and cheaper to use. I am hopeful that extended trials this year, together with the production of portable devices, will finally produce a permanent solution to the problems that many churches have had to put up with. I look forward to seeing the results of the work at the end of this year and to sharing those results with my hon. Friend and the Church. Those deterrents may not, however, provide solutions for all churches.
I conclude by mentioning one situation that my hon. Friend raised—that of St Hilda’s, Ellerburn, in North Yorkshire. St Hilda’s is a single vestibule building, and in such a case there is simply no possibility of moving bats to a less sensitive area. To resolve the problem there, Natural England has let a contract to gain the necessary evidence to enable the complete exclusion of bats from the church. It was hoped that the exclusion would occur before the bats begin to arrive in a week or two’s time, to avoid entombing the young bats. If, because of the unpredictable weather, insufficient data were gathered before the summer to support an exclusion at St Hilda’s, work will continue over the summer to ensure that there is enough information to reach an absolutely clear resolution of the problem in that church.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to outline a problem that I am absolutely determined to resolve. I really respect my hon. Friend for how he introduced the debate, and for his work to resolve this problem.
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to see you in the Chair and to have secured this debate on the privatisation of Royal Mail. I should declare an interest here. I am chair of the Communication Workers Union’s parliamentary group. Members may well be aware that only last week in a consultative ballot on Royal Mail 96% of CWU members voted to reject the Government’s proposals in relation to privatisation. Other organisations such as the National Federation of SubPostmasters have also expressed concerns about the Government’s plans and have called for a delay in the proposals. It says that post offices will face an “extremely uncertain future” should the proposals go ahead. Given the concern in the industry about the Government’s plans, Parliament should have the time and the opportunity to debate such issues.
In addition to the concerns that I have just outlined in relation to post offices, the affordable six-day service is under threat and would be less secure if Royal Mail is transferred into private ownership. The Government claim that the universal service is enshrined in law, but many aspects of the universal service obligation are set by the regulator and can be easily changed. The track record of the regulator to date does not inspire confidence. The regulator has recently consulted on user needs from the universal service. It looked at ways in which the universal service could be changed to make it cheaper to run, including getting rid of first-class mail and therefore next-day service, reducing quality standards and cutting delivery days from six to five days each week. The regulator stepped back from making any changes, but a privatised Royal Mail under severe pressure to compete and to generate a return for shareholders is likely to lobby for such changes.
In the coalition agreement, the Government said that they would aim to inject private capital into Royal Mail. The Postal Services Act 2011, which was passed by Parliament in the last parliamentary session, enables the Government to proceed with the sell-off of the 497-year-old postal service.
In January 2012, during the passage of the 2011 Bill, I secured a debate on the privatisation of Royal Mail that focused on the impact that privatisation might have on the post office network.
I am sure that, later on, my hon. Friend will touch on the matter of the remote areas of this country, such as Cornwall, Devon and the isles in Scotland. Under the proposals, many people will not get regular mail and will therefore feel cut off, especially when it comes to receiving giro cheques and other such things and communicating with their families.
Although this proposal is an opportunity, it also has some costs. My concern is that rural and island areas such as mine would face problems. Is it the case that keeping the service with Ofcom provides a guarantee and means that there will be no change?
I thank the hon. Lady for being so gracious in giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. The fact that so many Members are here indicates the interest in the matter across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Is she aware that the annual profit of Royal Mail has risen by up to 60% in the past year, which shows that we now have a more viable and stable business? Does she also think that, perhaps for older people in rural areas, the post office represents more than just a place to go to buy their postage stamps and that the impact on them will be greater than on anyone else in the population?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, which I hope to explore in my speech. The point that I was making 18 months ago when I previously secured a debate on this issue was that no other country in the world has attempted to do what the Government are doing here, which is to separate the mail service from the post office network. At that time, a great deal of the concern over the proposed privatisation related to the already vulnerable post office network. At the time, there were many warm words from the Government about how post offices would not suffer as they would become the front of house for the Government. Indeed, the Government said in that debate that they were looking at a range of both national and local government services that post offices could provide. They said that post offices could act as the front line for users in local communities.
One of the major reasons why the National Federation of SubPostmasters is now saying that there should be an immediate delay in the privatisation plans is that the Government have failed to deliver on that promise. Its concern is that post offices remain highly dependent on Royal Mail transactions. It says that both post offices and a stand-alone Post Office Ltd would have a highly uncertain future should privatisation of Royal Mail go ahead.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Integral to the whole postal and Royal Mail industry is the cross-subsidy, which is justified because the industry is, at least in part, a public service; it is not just a commercial service. Does she agree that if it is a public service and there is cross-subsidy, it does not fit with the private sector?
May I add an additional factor? My hon. Friend and I are on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and last week, we took evidence from Royal Mail on the impact of the independence referendum, which is due to take place after the timetable for privatisation. The representative was unable to provide any scenario planning by Royal Mail should the referendum result be a positive one for independence, or to tell us what the consequences would be for Royal Mail. Does she not agree that that was utterly astonishing?
I thank my hon. Friend, who serves with me on the BIS Committee. I was also astonished by that fact. There are specific issues for Scotland, given its demographics and its large rural areas. My fear is that if Royal Mail was allowed to be privatised, the consequences in Scotland would be particularly harsh.
My hon. Friend has been generous with her time. I agree with the points that were made earlier about the separation and atomisation of the whole post office network between post offices and mail delivery. Is she aware that those of us who are fighting to defend our post offices, such as the one in the Holloway road in my constituency, are told that the solution is to hand it over to a supermarket, get rid of the staff and bring in staff on lower wages who will share what is already a very busy post office with the supermarket. The proposals are nonsense and are claiming all kinds of losses that I do not think exist to justify privatisation of a valuable public service.
My hon. Friend clearly expresses the risks that exist in city as well as rural areas.
Before I move on to the next part of my speech, I call on the Minister to outline what work has been done to date to provide more Government work to the post office network and to say what work is in progress and will be completed prior to privatisation going ahead.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. However, will she not acknowledge that under the previous Government many post offices were closed with inadequate consultation? In my constituency, we saw several closures. At least under this Government there has been an end to those closures. Also, contrary to what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, in my constituency we are working with some very good supermarkets to bring back a post office counter service that will deliver 95% of what a traditional post office would have delivered, and surely that is a benefit.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course, I served with her on the BIS Committee for a considerable period. Clearly, she is making a party political intervention. Unfortunately, we are still seeing post offices closing as a result of the vulnerable situation that they are in, and we must not be complacent. We need to ensure that we put in place a framework whereby the Post Office is able to survive and our mail services can operate in such a way that they have a long-term future.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and she is quite right that some post offices are still closing. However, many other post offices are suffering from having to offer reduced services, because they are being moved on to the Post Office Local model, and in some cases the Post Office is approaching local postmasters and asking them if they want to change or retire and consequently downgrading the service.
The hon. Gentleman puts his point well. I will now move on to discuss some of the issues relating to Royal Mail itself, because I think that we have fully explored some of the challenges that the post office service will face if this privatisation goes ahead.
Since the legislation was passed, the Government have taken a considerable number of steps to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation. Royal Mail Holdings Ltd, as it is now known, is currently a 100% publicly owned UK-wide company, which was established as a sister company to the Post Office. This restructuring took place as part of the preparation for privatisation. A legal framework has been created that makes Royal Mail responsible for the collection, sorting and delivery of letters and parcels under a universal service obligation. The Government have indicated that they intend to sell shares in Royal Mail in the financial year 2013-14. Indeed, in a written statement in April, the Minister said that the Government would proceed with the sale of shares at what he called a fair commercial price.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. Earlier, she made a compelling case about who stands to lose from the Government’s sell-off of Royal Mail, but I am pleased that she has turned her attention to who stands to gain from it. Does she share my concern that the Government are refusing to answer questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about the involvement of Goldman Sachs and UBS, and that—despite repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act—they will not reveal the fees that Goldman Sachs and UBS stand to make from the sale of Royal Mail?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, that was one of the questions that I was going to ask the Minister, and she has saved me from putting it to the Minister in my speech. I very much hope that he will address that issue when he responds to this debate.
In the Minister’s letter to all MPs dated 17 May, which enclosed a copy of a speech that he had made to the Policy Exchange, he stated that the Government’s policy was not ideological and a number of assurances were given to MPs. It would be useful if he could provide the House today with a great deal more information about what the Government plan to do and how many shares they will sell off.
Royal Mail is unique in the UK postal market in that it is the only universal service provider. The 2011 Act has enabled a regulatory framework to be created, so that persons are automatically entitled to provide postal services provided that they notify Ofcom and comply with the conditions set by that organisation. This is a serious threat to Royal Mail, as competitors are now entering the end-to-end market.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this very important debate. I am sorry that I missed the early part of her speech. Does she agree that the current approach is really about privatising profitability but nationalising debt—in other words, corporatism?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the profits currently being made by Royal Mail have already been highlighted in an earlier intervention.
Many MPs will be very aware of some of Royal Mail’s competitors, such as TNT, which for many years have had a role in the postal market through what have been called downstream access contracts. Of course, many MPs will be aware of that from their annual visits to post offices at Christmas, where they will have heard of the frustration of those who work in sorting offices at having to deliver items for TNT and other organisations for what is called “the last mile” or so, and at a financial loss to Royal Mail. There is a very strong view that this practice is unfair and that it is unreasonable to expect Royal Mail to carry out that work at such a loss-making rate. My experience of meeting delivery staff working for Royal Mail is that they have a very high level of public service ethos and wish to see the highest possible standards in service to the public. There was real frustration that Royal Mail was being forced to operate with its hands tied behind its back in this way.
Now, however, TNT is also being allowed into the end-to-end market. TNT has set up a delivery service in west and central London, and it recently announced the extension of that service to south-west London. Of course, TNT is able to win business because it can choose where, when and what to deliver, without the quality of service standards and by undercutting the jobs, pay and conditions of other postal workers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I hope that she will get some response from the Minister. However, I must say to her that it is not only in rural areas that we are concerned about the loss of what is the universal standard; it is also in urban areas. We could be facing the prospect of just one or two deliveries a week—far fewer deliveries than at the moment under the present certainties that we have.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
It may well be possible for TNT to provide a service by undercutting in places such as London. However, it is highly unlikely that they would ever be able, or willing, to provide a similar service in areas such as North Ayrshire and Arran, or indeed in many other parts of the country. The TNT model of competition means cutting costs at the expense of decent jobs. TNT employs staff on zero-hours contracts at below-living wage standards. In London, I understand that TNT pays £7.10 per hour, which is £1.45 below the living wage. I am also advised that TNT over-hire staff to ensure that there are more than enough people to do the job every day, so that each day workers on zero-hours contracts are turned away.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is indeed something that many people are fearful of.
Frankly, I say to the Minister that it is completely unacceptable to proceed to develop our postal services in this country in the way that TNT is operating at this time. We all know from our own experiences that if we allow sectors to offer poor conditions and poverty pay then it is the state and society as a whole that end up paying the price by subsidising bad employers. If the Minister is saying that his policy is not ideological, surely he must accept that allowing operators to come into the market in this way is highly damaging, both to the universal service obligation and to the public sector employer, which takes people on with better terms and conditions of employment. This cherry-picking of work is undermining the Royal Mail service and the universal service obligation.
If a privatised Royal Mail were to operate in a similar way, which we can only presume it would given that its main motive as a private company would be to maximise profits for its shareholders, then we can only expect it to try to cherry-pick, given that it has to compete with the TNTs of this world. This is incredibly bad news for our mail service.
The fact that the Government have taken over responsibility for the pension fund has made Royal Mail a far more attractive prospect to anyone who wants to buy shares. I believe that that was why the Government decided to go ahead in that way.
In the run-up to privatisation, price controls have been removed from the cost of stamps. The cost of first-class stamps increased from 46p to 60p in April 2012, and second-class stamps have gone up 36p to 50p, although there is a 55p cap on the cost of those. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which I am a member, expressed concern, in our report on stamp prices, about the impact that this will have on vulnerable customers.
On 29 May, the Government announced the appointment of advisers to the Government for the sale of Royal Mail. We understand that they are working on a flotation with a value close to £3 billion. This will be the largest privatisation in the UK since the railways in the 1980s. However, the Government have not specified what the form of that sale will be, whether an initial public offering or a sale to private equity, although they have said that an initial public offering is their preference. Will the Minister give an update to the House on the Government’s thinking on this aspect?
The Minister took the unusual step of saying that Royal Mail may be sold to a foreign buyer if the communication workers continue with their campaign against privatisation. Can the Minister say when a decision will be taken as to what the form of a sale will be?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) highlighted, there has been a great deal of concern about the costs associated with privatisation, which are likely to be huge. Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and UBS have been employed to work on the sale. It is believed that the banks alone will receive £30 million in fees. No detail has been provided to the House. Will the Minister outline in detail all costs that will be incurred by the taxpayer in the process of this privatisation, and undertake to ensure that all costings are put into the public domain?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She said that the Minister said that Royal Mail could end up being sold to foreign companies. Is that not the case, because as we have seen with railway privatisation this week, 64% of what was British Rail is now owned by foreign companies? Does the Minister, and does my hon. Friend, think that the public in this country are aware that our Royal Mail could be owned by foreign companies?
I apologise because other business in the House detained me, although I know that my hon. Friend’s speech will have been excellent so far. I congratulate her on securing this debate. Does she agree that there is also quite a strong possibility—indeed, a probability—that because of Royal Mail’s land assets and buildings, often in central locations in our cities, we could end up seeing the complete dismantling of what we currently know as the Royal Mail, with bits being sold off, left, right and centre?
My hon. Friend highlights a real threat.
The original Hooper report in 2008 identified a number of issues with Royal Mail that needed to be addressed, many of which have now been dealt with. We have already heard that the Government have taken over the pensions deficit and that regulation has been put in place. The Government’s case now seems to be based on the need for capital. However, Royal Mail is doing well in the public sector and, contrary to the Government’s claim, there does not seem to be any good reason why Royal Mail should not be able to borrow the capital it needs to invest, while remaining in the public sector.
We have heard that Royal Mail’s operating profits increased from £152 million in 2012 to £403 million in the last year. The state aid approval that enabled the Government to take on the pension deficit also gives them authority to write off almost £1 billion of Royal Mail’s debt, as £1.1 billion was allowed and only £150 million has been used so far.
Any revenue from the privatisation would go to the Treasury, not the company. If the Government believe that Royal Mail will be strong enough to borrow in the private sector, why do they not believe it will be strong enough to borrow in public hands? Network Rail, for example, is to all intents a public company, but it has borrowed more than £30 billion from private markets. This borrowing does not count towards public debt.
I have asked the Government today to confirm how many shares they intend to sell off. For example, should only 50% of the shares be sold, does the Minister believe that Royal Mail could borrow from the private sector, or does he believe that all the shares need to be sold off to do that?
The service to the public is severely put at risk by a privatised Royal Mail. No doubt, the Minister in response will explain the protections of the inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office. However, he will also be aware that there are few safeguards to ensure that that agreement is not watered down significantly a few years down the road. The Government may say that this proposed privatisation is not ideological, but given the risks of proceeding down this path, surely the Minister must accept that it cannot be in the interests of the public for this privatisation to take place at this time.
I ask the Government to answer a number of questions. Will they explain whether the legal requirement for the provision of universal service is a UK-wide obligation or could it be met in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland alone? How frequently will Ofcom, the regulator, be required to carry out a review of the universal service requirement, to ensure it reflects the reasonable needs of postal service users? Will Ofcom be required to seek the Minister’s approval before it can carry out a review of the universal service requirement?
Will prospective purchasers be allowed to divest Royal Mail of its international parcels business, General Logistics Systems? Will Royal Mail purchasers be allowed to divest the business of the postcode address file? What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the universal service is protected following privatisation? What steps are the Government taking now to publish the terms of the sale of Royal Mail and how they intend to proceed, so that Parliament can give proper scrutiny to what is going to happen in the next few months?
Order. At least seven hon. Members wish to catch my eye. I intend to go to the shadow Minister no later than 3.40 pm. I shall not impose a formal time limit at the moment. I ask hon. Members to be considerate to each other, which will mean about five minutes each, as a guideline. If they can keep to that, that will help everyone get a fair crack of the whip.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this important debate.
As the hon. Lady says, Royal Mail is an essential part of Britain’s social and economic fabric. One of the UK’s largest companies, it has more than 150,000 employees and a turnover approaching £9 billion. In 2012, research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that, in terms of Royal Mail’s economic footprint, its core UK business ranks as the eighth largest organisation in the UK. It contributes nearly 0.5% to the UK’s total GDP, rising to 0.7% when its wider economic impacts are included. That means that, for every £1 Royal Mail pays in wages, an additional 57p is generated elsewhere in the economy; it is a massive organisation by anyone’s standards, and one that is operating in a fast-moving and ever-changing marketplace. Like any business of that scale, the key to Royal Mail’s future success is access to the flexible capital that it needs to innovate and invest.
My first real involvement with Royal Mail came back in the ’90s, when I was running my own small business. In the days before e-mail, as I am sure everyone recalls, we had a daily collection for franked mail, through which we sent out all our mailshots, quotes, artwork and invoices, as well as the products that we manufactured. Now, all those things, other than the products themselves, are sent electronically. My business, like many others, has seen a massive fall in its use of the post. Conversely, of course, there are other small businesses across the UK for which the internet has been the catalyst for a massive increase in their use of Royal Mail, with the growth of online shopping, eBay and mail order.
On average, the spend on post by small businesses is quite low—just £9 a month for the average micro-business. Royal Mail has always kept the needs of business customers at its heart, as far as I can tell. Prices of franking services used by businesses have lagged behind inflation for many years and continue to do so. Franking customers benefit from good prices and significant discounts, but even so, as the hon. Lady said, the marketplace is increasingly competitive. Many large businesses, such as banks and utility companies, already employ one of Royal Mail’s rivals, such as TNT and UK Mail, to collect bulk mail. According to its website, UK Mail is the UK’s self-styled leading alternative mail service provider and claims to handle more than 2 billion letters per annum and to support more than 1,000 businesses. To survive in the face of such competition, Royal Mail needs flexibility to act in the most businesslike way possible.
I was also on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s visit to Glasgow, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) mentioned a moment ago, and I was struck by how unbusinesslike the Royal Mail’s spokesperson was in his approach to potential Scottish independence. I found that shocking. Royal Mail must act in a more businesslike way, and it needs to improve its efficiency to invest and innovate, which means that it needs access to the capital that other large companies enjoy so that it is sustainable over the long term.
The hon. Lady is accurately outlining the change in the business climate in how often small businesses use the post, but she is also outlining Royal Mail’s need to be adaptable. Does she understand that, as we have already heard, Royal Mail’s profit in the past 18 months has increased considerably in the face of all that she has just outlined? It is in the public domain that Royal Mail is earning a significant profit, which should continue to be the case.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, but for any business to continue, it cannot just look at what it is doing now; it must consider future challenges. As we have already heard, the self-styled rivals to Royal Mail offer daily challenges, and any company with long-term aspirations must be able to innovate, invest and grow in the future. That is the problem. At the moment, Royal Mail is competing for scarce public capital against other priorities such as schools and hospitals. Unless Royal Mail can access equity markets, every £1 that it borrows is another £1 on the national debt.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, but I do not recognise some of the things she is talking about. From my experience, the work force in Stoke-on-Trent have gone through incredible change and have adapted to new systems. Indeed, they are so efficient that I sometimes wonder how on earth our postal workers manage to do some of the things they are being asked to do. There is new equipment and new vans. There has been huge investment, and the work force have adapted incredibly to very stringent business standards. I really do not recognise the picture that she is painting when I see for myself what is happening in places such as Stoke-on-Trent.
I am sure Stoke-on-Trent is a fabulous paragon of what our wonderful mail services do—as is Gosport, I hasten to add. I do not think anyone today is in any way casting aspersions on either the service or the quality that Royal Mail delivers; we are talking about how to ensure that Royal Mail is able to continue doing that in the long term when we are facing other challenges to the public purse. Clearly, adding further to the national debt would not be responsible in the current environment, especially when Royal Mail can run on a fully commercial basis and already has the capacity to be profitable, as we have heard.
Royal Mail has the highest service specification of any major European universal postal service: 93% of first-class mail is delivered the next working day and 99.9% of delivery routes are completed each day. But I argue that the quality of service framework that applies to Royal Mail under public ownership would continue to apply under private ownership. We talk about private businesses being interested only in shareholder profit, but having run a private business for more than 20 years, we are also very keen on quality of service and maintaining our customers, which must be taken into consideration.
Leading postal operators that provide universal postal services in other European countries have moved into the private sector and been successful. The Austrian postal service and Deutsche Post, for example, have delivered consistently high mail profitability since flotation, and Deutsche Post is perceived as being in the vanguard of digital transition. Furthermore, levels of service have remained consistently high. In 2012, for example, the proportion of letters delivered the next day in Germany and Austria was 95%, compared with the 93% regulatory target in the UK. Those and other international examples show private sector investment delivering competitive, profitable postal frameworks without necessarily compromising on service levels.
The Government say that their overarching objective is to safeguard the one-price-goes-anywhere, six-days-a-week universal service, to deliver taxpayers value for money and to deliver customers the quality of service that they are used to. The best way to safeguard the universal service for future generations is to combine the best of both the public sector and the private sector and to give Royal Mail the independence, flexibility and, above all, access to the investment it needs to face future challenges.
I start by declaring an interest: I am proud to say that I am a member of the Communication Workers Union, and I am also a member of the Communication Workers Union all-party parliamentary group. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who chairs that group, on securing this timely and important debate and on her passionate opening speech.
Of course, this debate is timely in that it closely follows the result of the ballot held last week. The result should embarrass the Government, as 96% of postal staff rejected their plans, despite the cash bribes that Ministers said postal staff would receive. That is a reminder to the Government that principles cannot be privatised, which I know is not something many Tory MPs understand. For them, privatisation is a panacea to every problem, whether or not the problem is even genuine. I say that because this debate strikes more than a passing resemblance to the debate on the privatisation of the east coast main line, with which I will draw some parallels to make my points even stronger.
Just as with the east coast main line, the Government want to privatise a key national asset against the wishes of the vast majority of stakeholders, and just as with the east coast main line, the desire to privatise clearly owes more to dogma than to the bottom line. The east coast main line has flourished under public control since the collapse of the private operator and has generated hundreds of millions of pounds in returns to the Treasury while requiring little subsidy and ploughing tens of millions of pounds from the remaining profits into service improvements. Similarly, last month we saw that Royal Mail profits are also showing hefty improvements —up to £324 million—as a result of modernisation and the increasingly buoyant internet sales market. Royal Mail has made a total of more than £0.5 billion over the past two financial years.
The east coast main line and Royal Mail are not failing monoliths or drains on public resources; they are valued services that can and should provide an ongoing contribution to the public purse. Yes, we should always look for them to be better, but private does not necessarily mean better and in many cases may well mean worse. In both cases, the fear is that the Government are opting for a short-term, one-off cash boost ahead of the election, rather than retaining assets that can and should generate ongoing returns to the public purse for years and decades to come. I am sure the Minister will say that that is not the case. Why, then, do the Government plan to pursue the sale of shares in Royal Mail during this financial year, while markets are still quite shaky, rather than waiting until the time is right, to ensure that the best value can be achieved for taxpayers? If Royal Mail is sold off in the next few months, what guarantees do we have that that would represent a good deal for the country? I know there is a difference between rail franchising and a flotation, but what guarantees will we have that the taxpayer will not be called on to foot the bill for private failure, if it comes to that, as happened with the east coast line?
It should not be forgotten that, in pressing ahead, Ministers are not only forgoing the decades of returns that could be realised, but undermining the job security of more than 100,000 postal workers. They are also putting at risk the future of a service that millions of people rely on, despite having no electoral mandate to do so. As always, a Tory Government are putting private profits before people.
My constituents want their Royal Mail to continue to represent their monarch, not to operate in the interests of overseas royal families as part of their investment portfolios. They also want their Royal Mail’s directors to concentrate on improving services, not the bank balances of shareholders, which they would have a duty to do. Finally, they want their Royal Mail to concentrate on maintaining local delivery offices and on keeping services affordable because of the social benefit they bring, not on stripping assets to satisfy the demands of institutional investors. I believe that the Minister’s constituents also want that and that he does too, if his infamous letter to his constituents represents his personal view.
The legislation may be on the statute book, but that does not mean that we have to rush into using it; I would rather that we did not use it at all. Let us at least wait until we can be sure that using it will bring real benefits to Royal Mail and the country as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Davies. I would like to start by paying tribute to the Post Office and Royal Mail for the hundreds of years of service they have dedicated to the nation. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to the sorting office in Stourbridge. I visited the delivery office early one morning last summer, and it was an eye-opener to see the incredible hard work, commitment, organisation and efficiency that characterised it. I then went with a postman on his delivery round, which topped off the visit for me; indeed, it was one of the most rewarding visits in my constituency calendar last year.
Mention has been made of the price of stamps, and I was on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at the time the proposal was made to raise the price of first-class stamps to 60p. The Committee was concerned about that proposal, and I shared that concern, but if we are to guarantee a universal six-day-a-week collection and next-day delivery service, 60p is a fair price, and a favourable comparison can be made with other items we might purchase for a similar sum, such as daily newspapers.
The need for part-privatisation was accepted under the previous Government. Richard Hooper was appointed back in 2008 to conduct an independent review of Royal Mail’s future, and his report under the previous Government made the case for part-privatising the Royal Mail service to guarantee its future sustainability. The former Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Mandelson, was passionate about going ahead with part-privatisation at that point, firmly believing that Royal Mail was not sustainable in the form it existed in at that time. The current Government are merely taking on that unfinished business so that Royal Mail can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said, seek private capital on the stock market. We can surely all agree that we do not want to add in any way, shape or form to the country’s debt if that can be avoided. If private capital can enable the Post Office and Royal Mail to innovate to meet the challenges of the future, that is surely to be preferred to increasing the debt burden on the taxpayer.
On the opportunities for staff, I do not accept that the 10% employee ownership proposal is a bribe. I am impressed by certain models of capitalism—notably the John Lewis Partnership, which is a model many people in the Government respect. Lessons can be learned from that way of doing business. Members of the important staff stakeholder community have an interest in the business for which they work. I think that model will come to be appreciated with the passage of time.
Does the hon. Lady accept, though, that there has been a full democratic ballot of the work force, with a 74% turnout, which is probably more than for any of us at the last general election, and 96% of the people balloted said they did not want to get involved with these plans? Surely, the Government should listen to them; the people we expect to deliver the service do not want to go down the road the Government are suggesting.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. No doubt there will be many pressures and issues on the minds of people who work in the Post Office and the Royal Mail, and they came to their conclusion, although I do not know what the precise wording of the question in the consultation was.
I was talking about what would happen in the fullness of time. I think most employees who get a stake in the business for which they work—especially one with a good future, such as Royal Mail, which has a rosy future now that the Government have taken its huge pension obligations to one side—would welcome such participation.
I am impressed by the protections that the Government are putting in place. Royal Mail will still be regulated by Ofcom. There is the second-class postage cap. The VAT exemption will remain. The service will remain free for blind people and those serving in the forces. There is also a commitment on the Post Office side to maintain 11,500 branches. As I said—I am sorry the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) thought this was a party political point—I have seen with my own eyes in my constituency what has happened at several post offices. Only last Friday, I opened a branch that had been upgraded and renovated. We are also keen to get a Post Office Counters local service back in an area that had its post office taken away a couple of years ago, and we are close to achieving that.
There is, therefore, great promise for the future. I look forward to Royal Mail staff having the opportunity to take a stake in their business and the taxpayer having a fairer solution in terms of an ongoing commitment in the future.
I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who made a fine speech in introducing this important debate.
I served on the Committee that considered what is now the Postal Services Act 2011. I opposed privatisation at the time; nothing that has happened since has persuaded me to do otherwise, and I still strongly oppose privatisation. Areas such as mine have seen major changes in postal services, with reductions in mail collections and ever later deliveries. I live in a town, but I do not now get my mail until about 1 pm; in rural parts of my constituency, it is much later. For me, it is a minor inconvenience, but deliveries are crucial for many businesses in my constituency.
It is the business side of the matter that I want to comment on. Royal Mail is not a drag on public spending, but an important economic driver, especially in rural areas. In his evidence to the Committee that considered the Postal Services Act 2011, Richard Hooper quoted the point that I made to him at the outset of his 2008 investigation of Royal Mail, during the Labour Government. I observed that the universal service is crucial to businesses in rural areas, and have argued that point ever since. It colours my whole attitude to the issue; the service is crucial to rural areas throughout the UK.
Mr Hooper made a point about a young lady with a mobile phone and laptop, and wondered why she would need anyone’s physical address. Perhaps she has now moved on to a smartphone, and I empathise with that view, because young people are no different in Angus from anywhere else. They use e-mail and texts. Mr Hooper made the point that only about 10% of mail is private letters, and about 8% of that is sent around Christmas—it is mainly cards. That is a sobering fact, and I suspect that things have deteriorated since then. It seemed to me that there were fewer Christmas cards about last year. Perhaps that was because of the rising cost of postage, or perhaps I am simply less popular—I do not know. The youngster with the phone and laptop may never feel the need to write a letter, but I am almost certain that if they live in a rural area they will use the internet to order books, CDs or DVDs, even though those may be under threat from digital streaming, and, increasingly, fashionable clothing—not a problem I have. There are very few outlets for entertainment and fashion items in rural areas now.
It is sobering that when last Christmas I, like many others, visited my local sorting office, I was struck by the fact that it was stacked with packages from Amazon and similar online retailers. That is where the great growth in mail delivery is happening. The important point for areas such as mine is that the process works both ways. Not only do people in rural areas use the post to get items delivered; crucially, small and medium-sized businesses in those communities use Royal Mail to get their products out. In many cases they do not have an alternative. The other private companies do not offer a service in many parts of rural Scotland. The universal service is crucial to those businesses, and it is crucial to those of us who hope that businesses will be created and sustained in rural areas.
The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) said that the regulations under the Bill were sufficient to enable a universal service obligation to be maintained. I am afraid I do not accept that. There are many aspects of the Bill that cause me great concern. That is nothing new, because under the previous system Royal Mail investigated the introduction of a zonal pricing system. I must ask what protection the customer really has. Ofcom has already removed price caps from all Royal Mail products, apart from the second-class universal mail service, with the result that that is now the only truly universal service. First-class mail can be priced out of the reach of many, and with the price of a first-class stamp already 60p—one of the highest in Europe—how many people or, crucially, small businesses will send first-class mail?
The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland has noted a substantial increase in the small packages rate, which is affecting many small businesses in rural areas of Scotland; and things could get worse. There is nothing in the 2011 Act to prevent Royal Mail or a private owner from introducing zonal pricing. I took that point up with Ofcom, which confirmed in a letter to me:
“Ofcom does not have any powers to restrict Royal Mail from introducing this pricing variation related to user location, as the Postal Services Act 2011 limits our regulatory powers to universal services and access”.
That is from the horse’s mouth—from the regulator that oversees the service. There is nothing to stop such a variation in price being introduced now, never mind after the service falls into the hands of a private operator.
The Government have talked about an initial public offering, but they have not ruled out a sale to one of the major international companies, such as TNT and Deutsche Post. The Communication Workers Union in its document in relation to the Bill made the views of some of those companies about the universal service very clear: they amount to an intention to get rid of it if they can, because they consider it to be an anchor on their business.
Ministers have previously argued that the universal service is a benefit to Royal Mail, as it is the only carrier that guarantees a delivery to every address. However, that ceases to be true when other companies take on the most profitable routes. A couple of months back I met a man delivering mail on the stairs of the block of flats where I live in London. He was wearing a postal uniform, but not a Royal Mail one: it was a TNT uniform. Ofcom has already, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, sanctioned trials in areas of London for other companies to run an end-to-end service. Quite how that fits in with attempts to sell Royal Mail to such companies I am not sure, but it is a sure sign of the huge pressures on the USO that will come with privatisation. You can bet the mortgage on the fact that they might do it in London, but they will not do it in rural Scotland.
I remind hon. Members that section 43 of the 2011 Act allows Ofcom to review the USO and recommend, among other things, a review of the minimum requirements —which amounts to cuts in what the USO must deliver. Royal Mail should be seen as part of our national infrastructure—an economic driver, not a drain on the public finances. It should remain in public ownership.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on obtaining this debate on a serious matter.
It would be a nice change if in this place we listened to the people who know: the people who deliver a service. The service we are talking about has been delivered for 497 years, and I reiterate what my hon. Friend said: what is happening is bribing people with public money—asking them to take shares in an organisation. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), 96% of the members of the union who were balloted said, on a 74% turnout, that they did not want that. Even Boris Johnson, who constantly lectures the unions about ballot thresholds, could hardly argue against those sorts of figures.
I have no doubt that people will say, “It’s self-interest. They want to remain where they are,” but the bosses of Royal Mail said—pigs may fly one day—that the terms and conditions of the workers will not be affected; so they cannot be accused of self-interest on that point. Perhaps their self-interest is based on their pride and faith in the service. They believe that Royal Mail is not just a brand to be bought and sold in the marketplace; they believe in the principles and ethos of public service. So do many other public service workers. In the past 25-plus years the House has ignored their voices. We have always known better. For example, in 1992 the public services trade unions argued against the private finance initiative. Hardly anyone in the House today would speak in favour of PFI as a wonderful success, but for 25 years when the trade unions said anything the response was, “Ignore them—they are just looking after their members.” They were right when they said it would not work: it has not worked.
Likewise, members of the National Union of Mineworkers said, “If you close the mines in this country and privatise them, what will you end up with?” We can see what we ended up with: there are three coal mines left in this country; we import 50 million tonnes of coal from some of the least secure regimes in the world; and the reality is that the lights of this country may go out. Similarly there was the “Tell Sid” debacle: “Tell Sid” to have shares, and we will transfer all the risk to the private utilities. What did we end up with? The voice of the work force was ignored, and the utilities sector is not fit for purpose. There is a £200 billion bill—we will have to find that to make sure we can power our country for the future—and a pricing regime that has pushed millions of people into fuel poverty.
Exactly the same process that is now being suggested for Royal Mail was carried out in the deregulation of bus services. In my part of the world we had something called Busways. We were told clearly, “Sell the shares to the work force—it will be their company.” What happened? In a few short months there was a management buy-out. Four people walked away with millions of pounds; the people on the ground were left with worse terms and conditions, working bad shifts with lower numbers, a poorer service for the public, a worse deal for the work force, and huge hikes for those using the service.
It is not just on the privatisation agenda that the voice of the workers has been ignored. When the Care Quality Commission was mooted, people in the health service said it would not work; and of course they were ignored. We saw what happened last week, but I will tell you what: I bet the two previous Health Secretaries—and probably the present one—wish they had paid a bit more attention to the people who actually work in the service than they did to those who advised them. But our arrogance as the political élite is overwhelming. We assume we know better than those who have dedicated their lives to delivering a service to the people of this country.
I make a plea to the Minister to stop rubbishing the voice of Royal Mail’s dedicated work force and accept the fact that they have been flexible in recent years. They have accepted huge changes to their working practices, shown huge experience and commitment, engaged much better with the modernisation programme and delivered much better industrial relations than in the past. They might just know something that we in this place do not. I ask the Minister to listen to the voice of the workers, and of the public. I am convinced that the people of this country do not know that this is being done, and they will not support it if they are made aware of it.
I look forward to the Minister’s response, particularly to the pointed questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. I look forward with almost as much keenness to what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), has to say, as I know that he is committed to the agenda of not privatising Royal Mail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this important debate.
The Government are pushing ahead with plans to privatise Royal Mail and hope to do so within the 2013-14 financial year. Members have declared interests. My interest is anti-privatisation. I am absolutely opposed to privatisation in any guise, for the right reasons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) mentioned, we only have to look at the coal industry, which has been completely obliterated, and the electricity industry, in which the big six companies make billions of pounds in profits, while millions of people head toward record levels of fuel poverty. We only have to look at the privatisation of telecoms and of the railways, where fares are sky high and investment is completely lacking. Privatisation fails this country. The record is there to be seen. That is my declaration. We should stop kidding people that privatisation is in the best interests of consumers—as though calling them consumers makes them feel more important. We should really call them the general public.
The Government are desperate and seeking to generate as much finance as possible to get them out of the hole that they created. Consequently, they are determined to press ahead with the fire sale of Royal Mail, which is scheduled for this autumn. The decision to sell and when has been dictated by what is politically expedient for the Tories and the coalition in the short term, not what is best for the country. For the record, Royal Mail is making a profit. It is a profitable and efficient business. Its operating profits were £403 million last year, up from £105 million the year before. It is not a failing business; it is a very successful one.
Looking back on what has happened since the Government argued for privatisation, the original Hooper report of 2008 identified a number of issues faced by Royal Mail. Many of those issues have been resolved, notably the pension deficit and regulation, which leaves the Government’s case resting entirely on Royal Mail’s need to access capital. Royal Mail is doing well in the public sector, and it is my view, and I am sure that of most people in the UK, that it is a public asset and should remain so.
I thank the Royal Mail work force, who have embraced much change in the name of modernisation. They have done everything that has been expected of them to turn Royal Mail around, so turning it into the successful business that it is today. I have visited the Royal Mail in my constituency and been on a round with the men and women who do that fantastic job.
Contrary to the Government’s claim, there is no good reason why Royal Mail should not be able to borrow the capital that it needs to invest, while remaining in the public sector. That would not be at the expense of public sector spending, and it would not need to count towards Government debt. In 2008, the Hooper report identified five problems with Royal Mail that it argued needed to be fixed: the pension deficit, the relationship with the regulator, pricing, modernising performance and industrial relations.
The report made three proposals: that the Government should take on the pension deficit, that the regulator should be changed and that Royal Mail should be part privatised. On privatisation, the only remaining step not implemented, the Hooper report argued that Royal Mail was trying to improve industrial relations and the quality of management, reduce political interference, introduce commercial and financial discipline and allow access to private capital. On pensions, the Government took on the assets and liabilities of the pension scheme in March 2012. Since then, Royal Mail’s annual pension spending has fallen by up to £300 million as a consequence.
It is worth reminding the House what Communication Workers Union employees were asked. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) said that she was not sure what was on the ballot paper. It said, “Do you oppose the privatisation of Royal Mail?” Can it get any simpler than that? It was pretty simple and not ambiguous in any way. The result was a 96% vote yes. The work force are totally behind it, and rightly refused to be bribed by the Government’s offer of shares or finance to privatise Royal Mail. We cannot continue to allow the likes of TNT and other companies that ignore good industrial relations with the trade unions and the workers and that pay well below the living wage to undercut such a fabulous service as Royal Mail.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for allowing me to speak. Put simply, the Labour party opposed the privatisation of Royal Mail while we were in government, and we continue to oppose it in opposition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate. I suppose that I should declare an interest as the proud parent of a Royal Mail employee.
For me, this goes back to the 1980s, the last time a Conservative Government decided to go on a privatisation binge. I saw it up close, personal and at first hand when I was an employee of British Telecom and the Conservative Government at that time decided to sell it off, supposedly to make it leaner and more competitive. I saw job losses, closed depots and lost opportunities for a future generation to secure good employment in my neck of the woods.
Like the last time, these sell-offs have been driven by a desperate need for money to plug a gap left by failing Government policies and to pay for the rising number of unemployed. The current group of state-owned businesses proposed for privatisation could fetch nearly £9 billion, £3 billion of which would come from the sale of Royal Mail. The original rationale for privatising the Royal Mail was that it was making a loss. We now know that that is no longer true. Annual profits are up more than 60%, and figures show that the amount of mail being sent has risen.
Royal Mail still needs investment. The coalition’s policy does not make economic, political or social sense. Ministers are motivated by ideological blinkers and the desire to make a quick buck, not by the long-term best interests of the taxpayer, the Royal Mail or the public. Under privatisation, there will be no obligation to deliver the 26 million letters a day that Royal Mail currently handles. Service will worsen, especially in rural areas.
Red pillar boxes are a symbol of Britain and give people a connection to the past not only of the GPO and the Royal Mail, but of their own community. There are no Government safeguards to prevent the organisation from falling into foreign hands. Royal Mail is more than a business; it is a service. To cite only one of the services provided, I can identify our posties, who we see every day up and down the country. They do more than just deliver mail, and they go in early to set out their walks and deliver their full mail sack; some of the private sector firms, however, after too much time into the day will take the mail back and not deliver the full amount. Posties are the ones who we see in the community and who are recognised as part of the community; they are the ones who see that the curtains are still closed and that the milk is on the doorstep. They provide more than a mail service; they are part of the community, which would not be the case under privatisation.
It is great to see you in the Chair again, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who set out a compelling case for keeping Royal Mail in the public sector.
I also pay tribute to the Royal Mail staff, who have worked tirelessly alongside their management to create a leaner, fitter and more modern company. As we have heard, the recent results, with profits in excess of £300 million, are testament to not only the hard work of the staff, but the steely determination of management and staff working together, in partnership with the trade unions, to make the Royal Mail service the best it can possibly be. It would be wrong of me not to mention especially the Royal Mail staff in Edinburgh, who got the best performance stats in Scotland only last month, so I say congratulations to them.
As we have heard this afternoon, Royal Mail is a much treasured institution, with a universal service obligation covering all parts of the country—whether north, south, east or west—for one uniform price. It dates back to 1516, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who mentioned that, was there at the time. It touches all of us, whether through birthday or Christmas cards, letters to friends, bank statements or the Liberal Democrats’ “We’re winning here” letters—given that, no wonder delivery volumes are dropping. Royal Mail also happily delivers my letters to the Minister, six days a week at one uniform price. It is the last major publicly owned business, which is something that we should cherish and protect.
Royal Mail of course has challenges. Letter volumes are falling fast, as everyone turns to electronic communications. It has some way to go to complete the modernisation programme, to make itself the best it can possibly be. There is of course the risk of industrial action, given the industrial relations issues that we heard about in the CWU survey just last week. The maintenance of the USO is of course expensive, and the position of Royal Mail on delivering that USO is compromised by the ability of other companies to come in and cherry-pick the most profitable end-to-end services. One of the critical things, which has not yet been mentioned, is that Royal Mail service standards are much higher than the standards of any of the businesses coming in, which makes cherry-picking easier and, obviously, a lot cheaper.
There has been a lot of talk about the Hooper report, including by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James). That report, however, if we analyse what has been done since, shows that the company can be viable in the public sector. The issues raised by Hooper deserve a bit of attention. The pension fund assets have of course gone into the public purse, so the public purse is now responsible for the liabilities. In essence, having just nationalised the liabilities to the taxpayer, the Government now propose to privatise the potential profits. The regulatory environment has improved, following the transfer of responsibilities to Ofcom, and we have seen that in the deregulation of pricing, with the exception of second-class stamps; a lot of the profits over the past year or 18 months have been directly attributable to freeing up Royal Mail from some of those industrial strangleholds.
Furthermore, industrial relations and quality of management have improved. We must pay tribute to the management, the chief executive officer, Moya Greene, and the CWU for again working in partnership to ensure that industrial relations were improved and the modernisation programme taken forward. That was not an easy task for anyone, but they have come through it with aplomb, and the profits have helped. On the other side, the explosion of the parcel business, which was highlighted by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), has given a real opportunity for Royal Mail to become even more profitable. I am slightly disappointed that he did not tell us what the cost of a parcel or letter would be in an independent Scotland.
I will not be taking an intervention, because I do not have much time, but perhaps on the next occasion that we debate Royal Mail, the hon. Gentleman might come prepared with some of that information.
The environment therefore has changed since the Hooper report in 2008. That is why we should allow Royal Mail, under its new regulatory regime and its new environment, the opportunity to thrive in the public sector.
What is the real purpose of privatising Royal Mail? First, ideology—there is an ideological thirst for privatisation in the Government—and, secondly, to plug a hole in the Chancellor’s funding gap, because he is borrowing £245 billion more during this Parliament, owing to his failed economic policy. The fire sale of Royal Mail is the opportunity for him to plug that gap.
Let us analyse who is against the proposals. The late Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, the architect of ideological privatisation in the Conservative party, said that it would be a step too far. More recently, the Bow Group, a right-wing think tank to which the Minister might give much credence, said:
“It is likely to be hugely unpopular, prices will rise at a time when people cannot afford it, an amenity that many communities consider crucial will be removed, it will undermine the heritage of Royal Mail. The privatisation of Royal Mail is likely to move swiftly from a poisonous legacy for the Government now, to a poisonous legacy for the Conservative Party going forward”.
I would include the Liberals in that.
I will not, if my right hon. Friend does not mind, because I have only 10 minutes and I want to try to give the Minister an extra minute to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. I apologise for not giving way.
In future, the privatisation of Royal Mail is likely to move swiftly from being a poisonous legacy for the Government to being a poisonous legacy for the Conservative party. That will include the Liberal Democrats, even though the Liberal Democrat manifesto was against the privatisation of Royal Mail—in fact, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke against it not that long ago.
We heard about the CWU consultative ballot this week, which produced a clear result from 96% of the very staff whom the Minister wishes to bribe with 10% of the shares. I hope that they are not shares for rights, which is a whole other subject for debate. Before the Minister jumps to his feet to say that the CWU ballot had a low turnout, it was some 78%, but this is not just about the posties. Unite, which represents a number of managers in Royal Mail, heard serious concerns expressed by management and senior management, who have also been saying that they have significant concerns about privatisation.
Concern about the rise in stamp prices has been expressed by the Countryside Alliance, the National Pensioners Convention and the Scottish Family Business Association, which are all becoming increasingly worried about the pace of the privatisation. The cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which many Members present serve on, was also against the speed of the privatisation. Critically, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which originally supported the Postal Services Act 2011 when it was going through the House, said that it no longer supports the separation of the two businesses and the privatisation of Royal Mail, because of the potential impact on the post office network. That includes the 10-year inter-business agreement and the £360 million a year that goes into the Post Office by having that inextricable link between the business and the delivery units. The Minister needs to address that and to let us know the impact on the post office network of the privatisation of Royal Mail.
If there is any doubt at all that the Minister does not believe the Countryside Alliance, the Bow Group, the late Baroness Thatcher, the CWU or Unite, why does he not believe himself? In February 2009, when in opposition, he said clearly in a letter reported in the press:
“I certainly do not support the…plans for privatisation”,
with reference to Royal Mail. Even with the Hooper environment getting better, the Minister now says that he is not against it. He might pop to his feet to say, “That is because we’re giving 10% of the shares to the staff,” but if that is the justification for changing his stand from being against privatisation to fully privatising Royal Mail, it is a weak argument.
The Government have also failed to address a number of critical issues with regard to the justification for privatisation. On the timing of the sale, why now? I claim that it is because the Chancellor needs the money in his Budget come April next year. I hope that the Minister can dispel that myth. The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said that Royal Mail has to compete with schools and hospitals and everyone else for public money. It does, but the future profits of Royal Mail could be building schools and hospitals and every other piece of infrastructure that this country might put together. Public services are not always a drain on resources; a profitable Royal Mail could contribute to the Government’s resources, to build schools and hospitals.
There are unresolved competition issues and questions about what happens if the Royal Mail falls into trouble in the regulated environment. The USO is expensive and the most profitable parts could be cherry-picked by other end-to-end deliverers, so that it might become unaffordable. What happens then? Does it revert back to the Government and the public purse, as happened with the east coast rail line, which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) mentioned, with the company handing back the keys? This is a huge issue, and there is an impact on customers and the post office network. If all that is put together, the strongest compelling case is to keep Royal Mail in the public sector, and that is what we will fight to achieve.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate, and I thank hon. Members who have contributed to it. It has been a good debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issues raised and to explain why the Government intend to sell shares in Royal Mail in this financial year.
The Government’s overarching objective is to secure the future of the universal postal service: the six-day-a-week service at uniform, affordable prices that delivers throughout the UK. The service is vital to our economy. The Government’s reforms go back to Richard Hooper’s independent review of the postal sector which was commissioned by the Labour Government because the volume of mail was falling. That review concluded that there was a substantial threat to Royal Mail’s financial stability and that the universal service was under threat. It recommended that action should be taken as a package to secure the universal postal service with responsibility for postal regulation being transferred to Ofcom, the Government tackling the historic pension deficit, and Royal Mail entering into a strategic partnership with one or more private sector companies to give it commercial confidence, access to capital and corporate experience. The Labour Government accepted those recommendations.
In 2010, following an updated report by Richard Hooper that confirmed his initial findings, apart from the need for a strategic partnership, the new Government introduced a Bill to enable implementation of the package of recommendations. Since the Postal Services Act 2011 received Royal Assent in June 2011, we have implemented two elements of that package by establishing Ofcom as the regulator with stronger powers to protect the universal service, and by taking on Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit. By removing those major barriers, Royal Mail has begun its journey to long-term sustainability. It is now profitable, as hon. Members have said, and its overall financial position has improved.
The challenge now is to maintain that positive momentum. We should not forget that in recent history the Royal Mail group has swung between profit and loss. Royal Mail’s core UK letters and parcels business suffered losses in five of the last 12 years. During that period, overall losses were around £1 billion and around 60,000 jobs were lost, so resting on the current year’s profitability is not enough. The core UK network made a margin of 3.9% in that financial year, which was an improvement, but it was well below international peers such as Deutsche Post and Austrian Post with a margin of more than 8% and Belgium Post with a margin of 17%.
A more profitable Royal Mail will be better able to weather any future market weakness and, more importantly, will be able to take advantage of new opportunities. The company needs future access to private capital to be able to continue its modernisation programme and to seize opportunities for growth such as the boom in on-line shopping. The final phase of our reforms and implementation of the Hooper recommendations is the sale of Royal Mail shares, which will give Royal Mail future access to private capital.
That is the way to put Royal Mail’s future on to a long-term sustainable basis. It is consistent with developments in Europe where privatised operators in Austria, Germany and Belgium have been profitable and continue to provide high-quality services. Only last week, there was a successful sale of shares in the Belgian post operator, bpost. The Government’s decision to sell shares in Royal Mail is not ideological. It is a practical, logical and commercial decision, just as the Labour Government’s decision was in 2009. What they got wrong and what everyone opposed, including me and most Labour MPs at the time, was of course their proposed implementation.
I will turn to some of the more detailed questions that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran asked. She asked about the effect on the Post Office, which is now a separate business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said, we put an end to the closure programme. I am looking forward to re-opening the refurbished Otford post office on Friday. It is winning a range of front-line service contracts from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Skills Funding Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Border Agency and many others.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran asked me about the type of sale. We have not made a decision on how much of Royal Mail to sell, nor what form the sale should take. I assure hon. Members that when we decide, we will make a statement to Parliament and under the legislation we must lay a report to Parliament at the same time. The hon. Lady asked about the fees involved. If there is an initial public offering, the fees will be set out in a prospectus. I assure her that we will be very careful to keep them as low as possible.
The hon. Lady also asked whether the universal service provision is UK-wide, and the answer is yes. She asked whether Ofcom can review the universal service provision and throw it up into the air at any particular point, and whether ministerial approval is required to do so. The answer is that Ofcom may review it at any time, but cannot change it. Only the House can change the universal service provision—
Sitting adjourned for Divisions in the House.
When I was interrupted, I was replying to the important question from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran on what triggers a review of the universal service requirement: could Ofcom do it at any time or does a review need ministerial permission and so on? The answer is that Ofcom can review user needs at any time and it must carry out such a review before it can modify any part of the universal service order, but it cannot modify the order in a way that changes the minimum requirements. That can be done only by Parliament amending the Postal Services Act 2011, which gives all of us the protection we need, and that protection continues irrespective of the ownership of Royal Mail.
The hon. Lady asked about disposables. The directors of the company—a privately owned Royal Mail—must act in the best interests of the company. The Royal Mail is already clear that it sees the postal access file as an integral part of the business. It is separately regulated by Ofcom, and that separate regulation continues irrespective of the particulars of ownership. If I have missed any of her questions, I will write to her after the debate.
The Royal Mail is a business with a £9 billion turnover, which employs more than 150,000 people, and of course, a company of that size and importance to the British economy should have access to the flexible capital it needs: to continue to modernise; to become more efficient and competitive; to innovate and invest; and to seize opportunities presented by new markets, such as the rapid growth of online shopping. Over the past years, Royal Mail’s investment in the business has increased from £555 million to £665 million. As I said earlier, Royal Mail is profitable, but its margins are still behind those of its competitors. Investment remains crucial if it is to continue to improve margins and provide the services that customers demand.
No responsible party would propose that in the current environment Royal Mail should have to compete for scarce public capital against other services, such as schools and hospitals. Royal Mail, run on a fully commercial basis, has the capacity to be cash-generative, profitable and perfectly able to raise the capital it needs from the private sector. A sale of shares will also reduce the possibility of any future Government interference in the operations of the company. It is time for Government to step back from Royal Mail, to allow its management to focus wholeheartedly on growing the business and planning for the future. We will give Royal Mail the commercial freedom it has needed for so long.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to be able to lead a debate on this most important subject. I shall speak about mitochondrial disease, the devastation it causes and the new techniques developed by Newcastle university to prevent it. I declare an interest in that my father studied medicine at Newcastle, so I am a natural champion of that great university’s medical research and innovation. I am here primarily to champion not Newcastle university however, but the interests of my constituents struck down by mitochondrial disease, and indeed all those who suffer from it.
The subject is technical and I will attempt to be as clear as possible in setting out the arguments. Mitochondria are found in every cell in the human body, except red blood cells. They are the batteries generating energy for the cell. Mitochondria convert the energy of food molecules into the energy that powers the cell’s functions. About 200 children are born every year with a mitochondrial disease. Such diseases are passed from mothers to their children and are caused by faulty mitochondria. Like all DNA, the DNA in mitochondria can mutate and mothers can pass those mutations on to their children. Faulty mitochondria mean that the cells are unable to function normally and the diseases caused by them can have a devastating effect on families. The diseases tend to affect parts of the body that use a lot of energy, such as the brain, muscles, nerves, liver, kidney and heart, and vary widely in severity, from life-threatening to having few or no obvious symptoms. Symptoms vary, but can include poor growth, muscle weakness, tiredness, poor co-ordination, and sensory, respiratory or cognitive problems.
There are no effective treatments available for serious mitochondrial disease. When the cells go wrong, it can result in serious conditions, including blindness, fatal heart failure, liver failure, learning disabilities and diabetes, and can lead to death in early infancy. Prevention is the only realistic option. In 2010, Newcastle university scientists, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, pioneered research into variations of in vitro fertilisation procedures that could prevent the transmission of the genetic mutations that cause these devastating disorders. The techniques use part of an egg donated by a healthy individual, to replace the faulty mitochondria of the affected mother. The intention is to give affected families a chance to have healthy children that are genetically related to them, but born free of mitochondrial disorders. Such techniques are not currently permitted in the UK, but legislation allows the Government to introduce secondary legislation that would allow the treatments to be used.
Mitochondrial disease can blight families for generations, because, as I said, it is passed from the mother to child during pregnancy. The techniques could put a stop to it, by preventing the faulty mitochondria from being passed to the embryo. Mitochondrial disease affects about 6,000 adults in the UK. In my constituency, four families—Bumstead, Cass, Bland and Mahmood—suffer from mitochondrial disease. Although every effort is being made to help them, there is no cure. For example, Lily Cass, who is in her 70s now, has five brothers and three sisters, and one brother who died at 56. They are all affected in different ways by mitochondrial diseases, and some more severely than others. Some days, Lily can hardly move due to lack of energy caused by her faulty mitochondria, which takes all her strength away. She has four children, including a daughter, who is likely to pass the disease on to her children. She worries about that all the time.
For those women and their families, the most important help we can offer is potential treatments, to prevent the next generation of patients from being affected. The opportunity to have their own children free of disease is something that the patients understandably want.
As with all such advances, it is right that the ethics are properly considered before techniques are adopted, and the Minister will be aware that concerns have been raised. There are those who argue that the techniques create children with three parents, but the embryo would carry only a small number of genes from the donor—just 13 out of 23,000, or 0.056% of the genetic material. How much of a parent is that? The function of the 13 genes is restricted to powering the mitochondria; they do not affect personal characteristics such as eye or hair colour, or behaviour.
Last June, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced a report that found that the technique would be an ethical treatment option for affected families, as long as research showed that treatment was likely to be safe and effective, and families were offered full information and support. The council’s report found that no strong cultural or social emphasis is generally placed on mitochondrial inheritance as a specific element of personal identity. Many of the social and biological aspects that typically imply a “parent”, and may be relevant in egg donation for reproduction, do not apply to mitochondrial donation. The council therefore suggested that if the treatments were made available, mitochondrial donors should not have the same status in regulation as reproductive egg donors.
My hon. Friend makes a good case about the serious effects that the diseases resulting from the condition have on families. If we think forward to any children who are fortunate enough to be born without disease because of the treatment, would there be any possibility that they might consider themselves to have three parents, whether or not they had any traits from the third one? Has thought been given to how that would be considered if it should happen?
My hon. Friend is right. There has been some debate about the status not only of the donors but, most importantly, of the children. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics says that families must be offered full information and support, and that must also apply to the children, so that they understand the scientific nature of the very limited gene inheritance from the donation.
If mitochondrial donors were not given the same status as reproductive egg donors, it would be not legally required for them to be identifiable to people born from their donations. The council concluded that the proposed treatments would be a form of gene therapy that would permanently cure the disease in future generations. Changes resulting from the replacement of mitochondrial DNA would be passed on not only to the resulting children, but to the descendants of any girls born from the techniques, via their eggs.
Dr Geoff Watts, who chaired the inquiry, said:
“We understand that some people concerned about the idea of germline therapies may fear that if such treatments for mitochondrial gene disorders were approved, a ‘slippery slope’ would be created towards comparable alterations to the nuclear genome.”
That is an understandable fear, but he went on to make a very important point:
“However, we are only talking about the use of these techniques in the clearly-defined situation of otherwise incurable mitochondrial disorders, under strict regulation.”
In 2012, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—HFEA—launched a public consultation on mitochondria replacement. It interviewed almost 1,000 people, and a further 1,800 completed questionnaires. It also organised public workshops around the UK and spoke to individuals affected by the diseases, to gauge their views. It published the results in March of this year, and found broad public support for the use of the technique.
The HFEA asked four main questions about attitudes to the gene treatment of mitochondrial diseases. When asked about attitudes to the selection of embryos based on testing, 65% of those questioned were positive or very positive, with only 8% negative. When asked about altering the genetic make-up of an egg or an embryo, 56% were positive or very positive and only 10% were negative. Attitudes to the use of genetic material from a third person showed that 44% were positive or very positive, with only 15% negative. The HFEA therefore advised the Government that there was broad support for mitochondrial replacement being made available to families at risk of passing on a serious mitochondrial disease. It also advised that if treatment were to be authorised by Parliament, it should be under certain conditions, such as its being available only in licensed clinics.
The HFEA recommendations have been widely welcomed by campaigners. For example, Dr Marita Pohlschmidt, director of research at the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, said:
“We welcome this outcome. There is currently no effective treatment available for mitochondrial diseases, and at this time, prevention remains our strongest option. By taking forward research into pro nuclear IVF, we move towards giving women living with these devastating and unpredictable conditions the choice to bear their own unaffected children. This technique does involve a step into new scientific territory. But it is a calculated, specific step with the sole aim of preventing a potential fatal condition from being passed down to the next generation, where possible.”
We are now waiting for a decision from the Government about whether secondary legislation that will allow the techniques to be licensed for use in patients will be introduced in this parliamentary Session. It has taken years to get to this stage, and it is important that progress does not stall because families are waiting for this. Introducing regulations now will ensure there is no avoidable delay in the treatments reaching affected families once research is completed and the HFEA considers there to be sufficient evidence that the techniques are safe and effective.
I called this debate to hear an update from the Minister on the progress that she has made, and to ask when we can expect a decision, and when we can expect to see legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) not only on securing the debate but on highlighting the impact of mitochondrial disease on families, and the potential of the new techniques to prevent suffering and premature death and bring hope to the many families who seek to prevent their children from inheriting these sorts of diseases in the future. The hon. Lady does everyone a service in raising the issue. It is a controversial issue, and she has asked me some direct questions.
The Government fully recognise the sensitivity of the issues, and since researchers first approached my Department in 2010 requesting that we make regulations, we have been collecting expert opinion and public views. I will be up front, and say straight away that the chief medical officer has given the issue her careful consideration in the light of the advice and the findings of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, following the consultation period. I anticipate that she will set out the Government response before the summer recess and, even with my poor mathematics, I can work out that that should certainly be within the next few weeks.
I emphasise that the Department of Health has given careful consideration to the advice and information passed to us by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on 28 March. We have also taken account of other published reviews, such as the one in 2012 by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in its report on “Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review”.
Our considerations are being led by the chief medical officer. It is right, if we are to move forward, that she should be the person to lead on the proposals—she may reject them—and, as the CMO, to make any announcement and to be at the forefront of any decision. I am told that her considerations are almost complete.
We recognise that allowing the treatment would give an opportunity for women who carry mitochondrial disease the choice—it is important to state that if regulations are introduced, they would have a choice—to have genetically related children without the risk of serious diseases; I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving examples of those diseases, and it is the understandable desire of many parents, especially women, not to allow them to be inherited by a child.
This issue is about giving women a choice on whether or not their DNA is put into another woman’s egg. In effect, a woman would be hijacking the batteries, because mitochondria are the batteries that provide the energy, and when they do not work, they cause these diseases. This is not about any kind of genetic engineering, about which people would rightly be concerned.
When the science and the real benefits are explained to people, and the fact that the child who is born has the same genetic background as their mother, they will see that the press have perhaps been a bit misleading in saying that, if it all goes ahead, some children will have three parents. They really will not: they will have their biological mother and father. It is simply that the batteries have been taken from another woman’s egg so that they are sure that any child does not bear some of the very serious diseases that often lead to premature death.
We recognise the concerns that have been raised about whether such techniques are a form of germline or genetic modification in human beings and about whether it would be ethical to allow them in treatment, and those considerations are important. Technically, the resultant embryo would be formed from the eggs of two women, but the genetic material that relates to the child’s characteristics would have been removed from the donor egg, so the child will have genes from the patient and her partner—in other words, from the child’s mother and father—but they will also have healthy mitochondria.
I thank the Minister very much for the constructive form of her response and for the new information. Her point about the child not having the genetic material is very important. Will she emphasise that the process is nothing like changing the eye colour or height of the unborn child? An important point to get across is that there is no genetic modification in that sense.
I absolutely agree. I am perhaps putting the subject in simple terms, but that is how it is. This is actually about the fact that if someone is effectively carrying this particular disease, the mitochondria—the batteries that charge things—are replaced to make sure that they do not have these diseases. Because the mitochondria cannot be taken out of the mother’s egg, a donor egg has to be found. The DNA is removed from that egg and the mother’s DNA is put in—taking those good healthy mitochondria or the batteries—so that she has a healthy egg that, in due course, can be fertilised by the father in the normal way. It is absolutely right that the genetic make-up of a resultant child will be the mother’s and father’s. That does not of course guarantee that the child will have the same colour eyes as their mother, as we all know, especially me as a blue-eyed mother with two brown-eyed daughters. As ever, Mr Davies, I digress, but this is a serious matter.
I pay great tribute to researchers at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle. The hon. Lady should not hesitate to do so, whether her father was there or not, because it is a fine institution. They have been developing their groundbreaking expertise for many years. In anticipation of significant advances in this field, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was amended in 2008 to introduce a regulation-making power that, if implemented, would enable mitochondria replacement to take place in treatment.
The powers are therefore there, but it is important to say that they would not be implemented in some secondary way. I understand that the matter would have to come to this place and that, in any event, there would be a debate. That is my understanding, but if I am wrong I will correct that, as you would expect, Mr Davies.
In 2010, Newcastle researchers approached the Department of Health and, in the light of their progress, requested that we consider introducing regulations to allow mitochondria replacement in treatment. In response, the Department asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to get independent advice about the safety and efficacy of the techniques.
An expert advisory group was established, and a report was passed to the Department in spring 2011. It found that the techniques were not unsafe, but it recommended that further research be undertaken. After careful consideration of that report, the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commissioned the HFEA in autumn 2011 to undertake a comprehensive set of public consultations to identify the public’s views about and understanding of this complex and sensitive issue. That consultation was held between July and December last year. It looked at the social and ethical issues raised by mitochondria replacement, as well as addressing a range of practical regulatory issues.
In collaboration with Sciencewise, which has a key role in helping the public to understand complex scientific issues, the HFEA took many different approaches to ensure that it gathered public views on the issue. It held workshops with members of the public, tracking their views over time and in response to new information. It ran what is called a representative survey, an online public consultation, two public meetings through which interested groups and individuals could express their views, and a focus group with families who are personally affected by mitochondrial disease, because their views are extremely important.
The HFEA report was published on 28 March and was passed to the Department. It provided us with three separate strands of advice: the outcome of its public dialogue and consultation; a scientific update on the safety and efficacy of the new techniques; and the issues to consider in introducing an appropriate regulatory framework. The public consultation indicated, overall, that there is general support for allowing the treatment techniques to be used, as long as they are safe and carefully regulated.
We appreciate and recognise, however, that a range of views, not all of which were in favour of a change in regulation, was strongly expressed through the consultation. A significant response came from the religious community, which was not in favour of allowing the techniques, whereas the scientific community, bioethics groups and patient and family groups were in favour.
The expert panel, which was reconvened by the HFEA, concluded that although there continues to be nothing to indicate that the techniques are unsafe, further research on some specific aspects should be undertaken. All the recommended research is currently being undertaken either in Newcastle or Oregon in the United States. The expert panel expressed the view that insufficient research is currently available to recommend one particular technique above another. It also recommended long-term follow-up monitoring of any children born as a result of the techniques.
I conclude where I began by saying that we anticipate that the CMO will announce the Government’s response very soon—before we break for the recess—which is at least some good news. As the hon. Lady said, the issue has been ongoing for several years, so it is important to find out whether it will reach the sort of conclusion that she wants, and we anticipate that that will be very soon.
Horn Lane, Acton
I am delighted, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I can scarcely believe that I am back in Westminster Hall with the same issue that I first raised with the Minister some two-and-a-half years ago—the outrageously high pollution levels on Horn lane in Acton. For years, they have blighted the lives of local residents who, while fortunate in many ways to live in this part of west London, suffer the severe misfortune of living next to perhaps the most unfriendly neighbour imaginable. That neighbour is a polluting industrial site, which is home not only to a waste transfer company but to a construction aggregates company, a cement company and a metal recycling plant, too.
The site sits slap bang in the middle of a residential community and is a throwback to a time when Horn lane was home to factories rather than the flats and houses that are there now. As forum posts on the local residents’ website frequently demonstrate, the community there cannot fathom how or why that industrial remnant is still allowed to be there. Residents have had enough of the disappointing performance of the local authority and the Environment Agency in getting anything significant done about the consistently excessive pollution that emanates from the site. They are able to provide numerous examples of the negative effects it is having on local people’s health.
Ask Vib Patel, a chemist on Horn lane, and he say that sales of inhalers for customers there are appreciably higher than those at his other shops in Tufnell Park and Victoria. That can be of no coincidence when we take into account the number of times so far this year that operators have again breached air quality objectives with their activity. Horn lane has been up there yet again as the most polluted area in the whole of London. A simple look at the readings broadcast on Ealing council’s own air quality webpage confirms that Horn lane is an outlier when compared with other sites, and all the while Ealing council is bidding to become an air quality exemplar borough, but more on that later.
As I know from previous attempts to get something done about this difficult site, responsibility for monitoring and taking enforcement action when necessary is conveniently shared between a public body, the Environment Agency, and the local authority, Ealing. I say conveniently because, as the Minister admitted in his response to me last time, this creates a complex and all together confusing picture, which I am afraid all too often leads to spectacular inaction. I do not think it is overly cynical to say that that suits almost everyone concerned apart from the residents who have to live with the effects of the site. I am back again to say that this time enough really must be enough. I am sick of the excuses. What we need now is meaningful action. Either we get some proper enforcement against those persistent polluters or we should completely rezone the area for business and residential use, a perfectly sensible and achievable ambition, especially with Crossrail set to arrive at Acton mainline station in the next few years.
As the Minister knows from my brief potted history of the saga last time, a group of determined and committed local residents decided that they needed to find a way of upping the ante and applying pressure on those with the power to take enforcement action against the operators at the site. They banded together to form an action group, SHLAP, or Stop Horn Lane Air Pollution, and I secured a series of meetings for them with the Environment Agency and an Ealing council officer here in Parliament. Together we tried to get to the bottom of various licensing agreement conditions and were presented with endless pages of monitoring statistics from the various monitors installed at the site as part of an attempt to control the operators.
It was a frustrating exercise in which we learned from the Environment Agency that because of potential legal action from any company that was threatened with losing its licence because of regular pollution breaches, it rarely, if ever, wanted to go down that particular route. As it said, it would have been necessary to be able to prove precisely which operator was to blame for any pollution infringement. As that would be nigh on impossible in such a complex area, it was never really going to be a starter.
We were left feeling that really the only lever available was monitoring and more monitoring, and many of us feel that monitoring without consequences can become rather pointless. This just is not good enough. How can the public continue to be told that there is unacceptable pollution at a site, but that nothing can be done about it or, at least, that no agency is prepared to do anything about it?
The issue has continued to simmer away, but things really came to a head in April when it came to the attention of local residents that Ealing council had put in for City Hall funding, from the Mayor of London, to the tune of nearly £500,000 to become an air quality exemplar borough. Imagine their surprise when, reading the report presented for a Cabinet discussion on the issue, they discovered there was not even a mention of Horn lane. Imagine their frustration. It really did beggar belief that Ealing would put itself forward as an air quality exemplar borough with absolutely no reference at all to the shocking pollution levels on Horn lane. Only when that was pointed out to the council did an addendum to the report magically appear, finally mentioning the site. It was a classic example of the prevailing attitude, showing a cavalier approach to the health of the local residents.
In fact the local authority’s casual attitude to the problems of this site and the concerns of local people is reflected in the way in which officers continue to reach for the convenient excuse that it is all to do with heavy traffic in the area. A large part of the problem is its failure to accept that the unusually high pollution levels in the area are caused by the Horn Lane industrial site, and I am sorry to say that that was a feature of the Minister’s response back in 2010 as well. The now familiar refrain, or a useful get-out clause is my view, is that there are numerous other potential sources of PM10— particulate matter of less than 10 microns in diameter—close to the monitoring station at the Horn Lane site. Examples cited are the nearby A40 and the Hanger Lane gyratory system and the heavy traffic in the neighbourhood.
In the Minister’s previous response he said:
“In the case of Horn lane, there are several potential sources of PM10 close to the monitoring station, including transport from Horn lane and the nearby A40, other transport sources such as buses and trains, and pollution from the industrial site, which has several units engaged in concrete production, aggregate supply, scrap metal and waste transfer, and also heavy vehicle movements. That combination of sources adds to the load of dust and pollution and requires that several agencies work together with operators to control it.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 295WH.]
In other words, this is a complicated picture. There are lots of sources of potential pollution and we cannot really be sure how bad or how responsible the Horn Lane site is for the actual breaches of air quality targets. However, if anyone spends five minutes on Ealing council’s air quality website, they will find all the evidence they could possibly want to show that that excuse simply does not stand up.
The website helpfully allows people to compare monitoring data on PM10 particulates on a graph that shows the monitoring stations at the three locations I have just mentioned: Horn lane; the Hanger Lane gyratory system; and the A40. The results speak for themselves. Horn lane always comes out as being at least two to three times more polluted than the other two locations. This month is as good an example as any. The latest readings show an average of between 100 and 200 micrograms per cubic metre for Horn lane, compared with less than 50 micrograms per cubic metre at the other two sites. I encourage the Minister and his team to have a look at the website.
How much longer do we have to go on hearing that traffic is the root cause of the problem at Horn lane when the facts clearly demonstrate that that is plainly not the case? Of course, much of the heavy traffic in the immediate Horn Lane area is actually generated by the industrial site itself. Moreover, there are many other major roads in other parts of London with similarly heavy traffic that do not generate the high readings that Horn lane does. It is also worth noting that Horn lane is a small connecting road, whereas the A40 is a main arterial road and Hanger lane a major gyratory system.
Obviously, general traffic in the Horn Lane area, plus the trains, ensures a degree of pollution that in itself might be problematic, but clearly it is the addition of the local industrial site that tips the levels around Horn lane over levels that would be acceptable. That is why attention must be focused on bearing down on that source of high pollution.
There is real frustration that no one seems prepared to get to grips with what is a serious problem. As I have already said, the Environment Agency has been busily monitoring the situation and it is only fair to say that it has succeeded in reducing the amount of tonnage going through the waste transfer facility. Despite this, however, on many occasions the spikes in air pollution remain as high as ever, so clearly the Environment Agency has not got to the bottom of the problem. Indeed, despite the engagement of the agency with the local SHLAP group, local residents are still being exposed to unacceptably high levels of pollution. The official monitoring statistics continue to register pollution levels that regularly breach requirements.
Similarly, Ealing council has consistently failed to do anything about a road that—under its watch—has fast become what is often the most polluted road in London. For example, it is quite extraordinary that Hansons, the cement plant, got away with expansion without planning permission, and it was only after local pressure was exerted that the council is now insisting on a retrospective planning application. That just goes to show how disinterested the local authority has been in what goes on at the site.
I know the council will say that since 2005 there has been an improvement. That is true—to an extent. However, that improvement seems to have tailed off since 2009. Equally, residents say that that assessment sounds like the council is resting on its laurels. The breaches continue to happen on a regular basis. Whenever they occur, and however often they occur, they are totally unacceptable and the council needs to be far more active than it has been.
As the Minister knows, I tabled a couple of questions recently that specifically asked about the role that local authorities should play in tackling persistently high levels of pollution, and what powers are available for them to do that. His answers could not have been clearer. He said that this is an area of local authority responsibility and there is a wide range of powers available to local authorities, including under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010; under the Clean Air Act; under the Environmental Protection Act 1990; and under the Noise Act 1996. These powers would seem to cover all bases, so why are they not being used to maximum effect?
Notwithstanding the inaction so far, I have pursued a further meeting with the Environment Agency and Ealing council, which we are holding at the Horn Lane site on 12 July as a last-ditch attempt to bang heads together. It is no use the council launching new and costly consultations about what new monitoring or green infrastructure measures might help to ease the problem. We have already had eight years of monitoring. At the very least, what is needed is action against the pollution perpetrators and, more importantly, greater thought to be given to a site that should be a regeneration priority for the borough, especially when we consider the fantastic opportunity that a new Crossrail station in the area presents.
However, there is a real fear that Ealing council will continue to make noises about small, remedial measures to ease the problem, which anyone who has followed this issue closely knows will do precisely nothing to ease the problem. Also attending the meeting on 12 July will be representatives from City Hall and I hope that Ealing council will be prepared to discuss with the Mayor’s team the wider planning considerations of a rezoning of the site for residential and business use, and to promote the obvious benefits that a rezoning might bring.
I understand that when a rezoning is being considered there are implications for the Mayor’s London plan, which make things more difficult. In particular, the site also operates as an important railhead for freight transport, which takes a degree of pressure off all the roads going into central London. Clearly, that element of the site might have to remain, but why should that preclude proper consideration being given to the rezoning of the rest of the site? After all, if we were planning from scratch, would we put this industrial site right in the heart of a residential community? I do not think we would. The benefits of a flagship new Crossrail station in the area—the last one before Paddington—are obvious. The council recognises and is planning for the Crossrail benefits in Ealing town centre. Why can it not see the potential for Acton too?
To sum up, surely there is something that we can do about this problem. We need a vision for the future of this part of Acton, and we need leadership to carry that vision through, which will require determination either to rezone or to crack down, to provide an enhancement of the quality of life for the local residents that they certainly deserve.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) for raising this issue. In one sense, I am dismayed that she has had to raise it. I recall our earlier debate; as she said, it was more than two years ago. It is clearly a matter of genuine concern that this site continues to be a problem for residents in the Horn Lane area. At the end of her speech, she talked about the need for “leadership”. Quite clearly, she is giving great leadership to her constituents, and she should feel reassured that that is something I recognise. Indeed, I recognise not only her determination to continue to push at the agencies and authorities that can have control of this matter but to look holistically at this problem, to see that we are not just talking about an issue relating to the problems of today but one that relates to the development of the area in the future. She has not only considered the benefits that could come from the Crossrail development but the wider need to take a proper strategic view about the long-term use of this site in relation to the local people who live around it.
To set this issue in context, the Government recognise the impact that poor air quality can have on public health and we have an ongoing commitment to work towards compliance with EU obligations on air quality. In a way, that is rather a low level of aspiration. We want to do something not because we want to fulfil an EU obligation but because we care about residents in communities such as the one that my hon. Friend so eloquently describes and stands up for.
We have seen considerable improvements in pollution over many years now. Measures to reduce pollution from transport sources, industrial sources and other sources have ensured that the UK now meets EU standards for annual limits of particulate matter pollution, or PM10, and daily limits. In particular, measures to reduce transport pollution, such as increasingly tight European standards, have been effective in controlling particulate matter pollution, and, in London, actions such as the Mayor’s low emission zone, fitting diesel particulate filters to London buses and other measures have all made important contributions.
However, we also know that particulate matter pollution especially has health impacts beyond EU standards, and local hot spots such as Horn lane provide a continued challenge. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the London borough of Ealing has overall responsibility for air quality in the area, and for developing management plans to improve air quality and to meet other environmental concerns. I remember from our previous debate on this issue that the council has maintained a monitoring site at Horn lane since 2005, and her frustration that this continual monitoring does not seem to be delivering benefits is understood.
The Horn Lane site is particularly plagued by high levels of particulate matter pollution, or PM10, which is composed of dust and other fine materials from transport sources and other sources. However, I absolutely concede my hon. Friend’s point that it is industrial processes, such as waste management, construction and demolition, that she is concerned about in this area. PM10 is not visible to the naked eye, but it can be monitored and it impacts on human health, particularly vulnerable groups with respiratory problems. She made a very good point about the number of inhalers that are being sold locally.
The UK has set national objectives for levels of particulate matter and these should not exceed an annual mean of 40 micrograms per cubic metre. The UK has also set a level of 50 micrograms per cubic metre for daily mean levels of particulate matter. It is recognised that on some days this daily level might not be achieved because of particular local circumstances or weather conditions, and we therefore allow up to 35 days’ exceedances at those sites to take account of these instances.
In 2005, the Horn Lane monitoring site recorded levels of dust in excess of the national daily objective on 205 days. These levels were unacceptable and it was clear that rapid and urgent action was needed. In 2012, thanks to action by the EA and site operators, no more than 53 days were recorded as being over the daily objective. This is a significant reduction on the 2005 figure, but it is still too high. So far this year, there have been 36 days recorded in excess of the daily objective.
I want to outline what action has been carried out by various agencies since 2010, when we last spoke, and what action is being taken now with the Mayor, who is the strategic lead for air quality in London, and my Department. The Horn Lane area and the industrial site comprises several industrial processes adjacent to residential properties and a number of arterial roads and railways. These present several potential sources of PM10 close to the monitoring site at Horn lane, including waste transfer, scrap metal, aggregate supply and a concrete batching process. In addition, there are various key transport pollution sources in the area, including traffic on Horn lane and on the western A40; buses along Horn lane; and trains on the adjacent railway. But I concede my hon. Friend’s point that, although those may be part of the problem, they are not the significant driver, because plenty of other areas in her constituency with the same transport issues do not have this problem. One does not have to be a scientist or to have any particular knowledge about PM10s to know where the problem is coming from. Major construction works in the form of Crossrail and, recently, roadworks in the vicinity of Horn lane may have contributed.
We must remember that all these activities are important for growth, ensuring waste is recycled and construction materials are produced. I know that my hon. Friend is mindful of this for the benefit of Londoners as a whole and for the wealth of her constituency, but it is about where we locate such activities and the practicalities of doing that. These activities provide valuable employment opportunities, both locally and across London, and return money to the local economy. However, this combination of factors has also contributed to a perfect storm of pollution potential, making this location among the most challenging for operators to control and for the Environment Agency and the London borough of Ealing to regulate. This control must be achieved and it is the responsibility of operators, with support from other agencies, to ensure that their activities are properly managed.
I am staggered that a major change has taken place without planning permission. In an area as contentious as this, that seems to be an extraordinary state of affairs and it is right that my hon. Friend raises it.
At Horn lane, the Environment Agency regulates part of the aggregates site run by Yeoman aggregates, the waste transfer station of Gowing and Pursey, and Horn Lane Metals scrap merchant. The London borough of Ealing should also regulate part of the Yeoman aggregates site and a concrete production site, with Transport for London having responsibility for reducing pollution from transport sources.
The Environment Agency produced an amenity action plan in 2010, which is regularly updated with details of the actions taken to reduce emissions from the sites it regulates. These measures have significantly contributed to the reduction in levels since 2005.
Enforcement action has been taken against sites that are not performing appropriately and further legal enforcement has been taken and further enforcement remains an option. Since 2010, the Environment Agency has issued several notices to ensure waste transfer operations at the site are properly controlled. We rely on my hon. Friend to continue to keep us informed, where she thinks that this is not happening fast enough and where her direct dealings with the Environment Agency do not yield the correct answers. I remain on hand, and my colleague in the House of Lords, who has direct responsibility for these issues, will certainly follow up matters, as and when she informs us.
The agency has worked with Gowing and Pursey to install monitoring equipment and alert systems, so that the operators can respond to instances when dust levels are approaching dangerous levels; it is important to be able to monitor it before it becomes a major problem, and that is what is sought. The agency has also worked with those responsible for other sources of particulate pollution on the site, to promote improvements.
In 2012, the EA worked with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to introduce a programme of deep cleaning, including the use of calcium magnesium acetate dust suppressant, to control dust levels at the site. The work was successful and showed a 36% reduction in the level of particulates in the area. Following a brief period where the site appeared to be contributing to dust in the area, an enforcement notice was served to bring the site back into compliance with its permit within one working day. This has been effective and at the time of the last inspection on 22 May, the site was clean and all waste was contained within the shed. Although particulate matter has reduced, all the parties recognise that levels continue to be above national objectives and continued action is needed to ensure the gains made are sustained and further reductions achieved.
The GLA represents the Mayor’s interest in improving air quality. It does this working with national Government and with London boroughs and the Environment Agency, as well as other stakeholders, such as business. Last week, the Environment Agency and the GLA co-ordinated a meeting, which my hon. Friend mentioned, of the key regulators responsible for this site, together with Department officials. A number of key actions were identified from that meeting and these will be taken forward by the key players concerned. We really want to make sure that these work and that a quantum leap is made in trying to resolve this problem.
The Environment Agency and the London borough of Ealing, as the main regulatory bodies, agreed to intensify their inspection regime to ensure that permit conditions were being met. I understand that this will include joint inspections, to be held monthly, and further action by the London borough of Ealing, agreed to reduce emissions from the wet concrete batching facility and the private haul road. There is similar action by the Environment Agency at the local metal waste site, and manual and mechanical sweeping, and further use of CMA spray, on the site to control dust. These and other detailed measures will help ensure that pressure is imposed to reduce particulate pollution. This site continues to concern us and we will continue to monitor it and my Department will continue to take a close interest in ensuring progress is maintained.
As we can see, this site presents a complex challenge. It is necessary for the local authority, the Environment Agency, the GLA and operators to work together to identify and control pollution sources. The regulators must also ensure that the responsible operators on the site comply with the control measures and monitor levels of pollution. Outside the site, ongoing action is being taken by the GLA to reduce transport emissions.
The continued action from my hon. Friend and local residents has been helpful in ensuring this. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue again today. I would have to be obtuse not to get the frustration that she feels on behalf of her constituents who live in this area. It is a complex site—an industrial site—that, in an ideal world, would not be in a location surrounded by residential accommodation. I assure her that this issue is on our radar. We want to ensure that the leadership that she has shown is reflected by leadership from all the agencies, some of which we are responsible for, such as the Environment Agency. However, we are not responsible for others and we look to my hon. Friend to continue to hold their feet to the fire on this.
We want this matter to be resolved. We do not want my hon. Friend to have to bring this back to the House, but I commend her for doing it.
Question put and agreed to.