Wednesday 26 June 2013
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
Museum of Science and Industry
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady.
Let me set the context for this morning’s debate. The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester—MOSI, as it is affectionately known—is part of the Science Museum Group, which consists of five museums: MOSI; the Science Museum in London; the National Media Museum in Bradford; the National Railway Museum in York; and the National Railway Museum in Shildon, County Durham. The SMG has an international reputation. Collectively, its museums attract more than 5 million visitors every year—mainly school groups, but also individuals and families. I certainly remember taking my daughters to MOSI when they were little. I also remember my mum taking me to the Science Museum in London; that really brought science to life for me, and it was one reason why I ended up taking biochemistry and physiology as my first degree.
MOSI became part of the SMG in 2012. It is feared that today’s comprehensive spending review will announce a further 10% funding cut for the group, on top of the 25% real-terms cuts it has suffered over the last spending period. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who cannot be here today, because she is on maternity leave, has campaigned doggedly on this issue; she even visited MOSI last weekend with her family—they start young in the Powell household. She has determined that, in 2011-12, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport grant to MOSI fell to £3.9 million from £4.88 million the previous year.
The SMG felt that if that was to be the level of the funding cut for 2015-16, the only option would be to close one of its museums outside London and to scale back provision in London. The ratio of taxpayer to commercial funding in the SMG’s existing funding model is approximately 60:40, and reversing—in fact, more than reversing—that relationship in such a relatively short period threatens the SMG’s viability. I appreciate that, in the light of the high-profile campaign to save MOSI, which has support from, among others, fellow Oldhamer Professor Brian Cox, the Minister seemed to have a change of heart last week, and the threat to our regional museums has been lifted, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that in his closing remarks.
As past and current leaders of the museums said in a letter to a national newspaper last week, the SMG museums not only hold collections of international significance, but are vital to their host cities, providing cultural, educational and economic benefits across their regions. The economic importance of Manchester’s science and innovation base cannot be overestimated, and it is confined not just to the city centre. Greater Manchester is one of the fastest growing city regions in Europe, generating £47 billion of gross value added each year, and accounting for 40% of GVA for north-west England.
That recent growth has been driven by knowledge-intensive and high-growth firms. Manchester has been at the forefront of scientific development since the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Inventions such as Samuel Crompton’s spinning wheel, which was exploited by Richard Arkwright, helped to establish Manchester as the centre of the global textile industry. More recently, a small-scale experimental machine—nicknamed “Baby”—created by Alan Turing was the first stored-program computer to run a program, and it was the forerunner of the modern computer.
There are many other famous Manchester scientists I could talk about, but I will mention just a few. They include John Dalton, who did work around atomic theory; Ernest Rutherford, the physicist; and Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams, who commercialised Alan Turing’s work. Of course, the first commercial railway in the world also ran from Manchester to Liverpool, and MOSI is located on the site of the old Liverpool Road station.
Today is no different. With our excellent universities and the development, for example, of a regional science centre for 16 to 18-year-olds, in my constituency, Manchester is once again being seen as a world-class centre for research—a status reinforced by the Nobel prize-winning discovery of graphene. The translation from research to the commercialisation of such discoveries is aided by Manchester’s science parks. As we have seen with the development of industrial hubs, such as the digital sector in silicon valley, in California, the closer research and development are to industry, and the closer the links between them, the greater the opportunities for the growth of new, innovative knowledge-based industries.
Manchester has a world-class biotech cluster, and the digital, creative and information and communications technology sectors are growing faster than those anywhere else in the UK, outside London. The country’s second-largest media hub is based at MediaCityUK.
Those are our new industries. From those developments, our 21st-century manufacturing base will grow. MOSI is part of that. It showcases the city region’s economic and scientific strengths, as well as their development potential, promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
I strongly support the case my hon. Friend is making. Of course, I have an interest in this issue because the National Railway Museum is based in my constituency. She has, several times, made the important link between the museums and exciting the public—especially young people—about science. She has also mentioned the museums’ contribution to a science-based economy. The National Railway Museum has established a rail academy, which is basically a training school in craft skills for the railways. Will she join me in asking the Department to provide enough money not only to keep the museums’ doors open, but to ensure that the collections are properly conserved, added to and explained to the public?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend says. We must see our museums not as archaic, but as part of inspiring the next generation, and we must see the potential that has for our economic growth and the regeneration of our regions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is important to all of us, including you, Mr Brady. Does she agree that museums also need to be resourced to carry out outreach into communities that might be less willing and able to come through the museums’ doors? We would be very sorry if we lost the good work museums in Greater Manchester have done to reach out to disadvantaged communities.
Order. Before the hon. Lady replies, I should clarify one point for the record, since my status as a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament has been mentioned. While I may have my own strong views outside the Chamber, my only view for these 90 minutes is that we should have orderly debate.
Thank you, Mr Brady. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with her. Outreach work is one of the things MOSI is doing. The potential threat to the work done in our schools is a real issue.
The museum hosts a range of high-profile events promoting science and innovation. They include the Manchester science festival, which, in 2012, included MOSI’s first citizen science project—Turing’s Sunflowers. The project drew participants from 13 countries and generated the largest ever data set investigating Alan Turing’s hypothesis about the mathematical patterns in sunflowers—we will all know about that, and we will be discussing it over tea later. There is also the FutureEverything art exhibition and conference—a ground-breaking mix of cutting-edge digital technology, art and music. Those are the types of programmes MOSI puts on, and they are so accessible for such a wide range of groups.
MOSI also runs tailored programmes for schools and colleges, reaching 75,000 young people a year. Through MOSI’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics network contract, high-quality, innovative projects are delivered to volunteers and schools. Over the past year, the STEM ambassador programme has placed ambassadors in 140 schools in Greater Manchester, working with 450 teachers and providing at least 100,000 instances of engagement with pupils in face-to-face activity.
Of course, we must not forget the under-six programme, which allows the children of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central and others to explore and find out first hand about the magic of science.
I am looking forward to visiting the exhibition on the brain that is coming to MOSI next month.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. In our debate last week, we focused on the point that the funding threat to a much loved museum is a matter of huge concern to people in the region who work in science and engineering, such as the astrophysicist Tim O’Brien. He has said that he has no doubt that places such as the museum make our future scientists. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to our future productivity, as well as providing excellent learning outside the classroom?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The activities and exhibitions can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, as I have mentioned.
We must not forget that MOSI also directly makes a key contribution to the region’s economic prosperity. A recent study of its economic impact shows both direct and indirect impacts. It is one of the top two visitor attractions in Greater Manchester and generates a direct gross value added benefit of more than £7 million as an employer and through procurement, but there is also nearly £28 million in off-site expenditure, generating a GVA of £8 million. MOSI’s development plans have the potential to increase those impacts.
As I have mentioned, after the 25% real funding cut in the last spending round, there is the prospect of a further 10% cut in the comprehensive spending review this afternoon, and the SMG has made it clear that if that happens a tipping point will have been reached and activity will have to be cut dramatically. That will include the closure of one of its regional museums. SMG has proposed a different approach. It has suggested, for example, moving the group from the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and protecting the current funding level for both revenue and capital. That would provide a foundation on which the group would seek further major revenue and capital investment from the private sector. I should be grateful if the Minister commented on those proposals, as well as confirming that the CSR does not threaten MOSI or the free access to museums introduced by the Labour Government. To introduce such a threat would, as my hon. Friends have said, be myopic, to say the least, and bring into question the Government’s commitment to fairness, growth and the regions.
I am immensely proud of Manchester’s contribution to the world’s science knowledge base. Through our entrepreneurs and industrialists, the applications of that knowledge have changed how we live. MOSI not only inspires future generations to become the new Geim, Novoselov, Turing or Dalton, but, as curator of those achievements, protects our cultural heritage and contributes to our cultural identity. That is something that we should honour and celebrate, not destroy.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Brady. I accept your strictures imposed earlier—you are certainly independent—but you are also a Greater Manchester MP, and it is always pleasing to see one of those reach the heights of chairing Westminster Hall debates.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate. I first visited the then Greater Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in 1983, shortly after it moved to the historic Liverpool Road station site, in Castlefield. The museum visit was with 3rd Denton (Wilton street) cubs, and I remember being mesmerised as a 9-year-old boy by the big engines, the turbines, the wheels, the pistons, the smell of the smoke and the steam. It was really alluring and gave me a lasting interest in science, technology and innovation.
Over the years, the museum has grown, first encompassing the neighbouring Manchester Air and Space Museum and then gradually filling the whole of the Liverpool Road station site. For those who do not know, the Liverpool Road station is the terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, which opened in 1830, and the museum buildings are therefore those of the world’s first passenger railway station, here in Manchester—or rather there in Manchester, since we are in London, England’s second city.
Other Manchester firsts housed in the museum include, as my hon. Friend said, Baby, the first programmable computer, which is so large it would probably fill this Chamber, but is about as powerful as a pocket calculator. Nevertheless, it is a Manchester first. There are also Rolls-Royce cars. Of course, it was in Manchester that Mr Rolls met Mr Royce and founded the company that continues to produce those cars. The huge emphasis on science is fitting, in the city where the atom was first split. The museum commemorates king cotton: Manchester is of course Cottonopolis, because cotton was the industry that the city’s wealth was built on. However, it also recognises the downside to rapid, uncontrollable growth—particularly the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, with the campaign for clean water and proper sanitation. There is even an opportunity—I do not know whether you have done this, Mr Brady—to walk through a reconstruction of a Victorian sewer, with the smells included.
The Museum of Science and Industry, better known as MOSI to its regulars over the years, is a much loved local museum, and I have fond childhood memories of it. One of the best Christmas presents that I ever had was when I was 12. My grandad’s friend was a friend of the museum, and he bought me membership, so I, too, became a friend of the museum. Back then, people had to pay to get into museums, but a perk with the friend membership badge was to get in free, so I spent many a good time there. More recently, I have enjoyed taking my children there. I think that such experiences are the reason that Mancunians would consider it a tragedy for the museum to close; that is why we breathed a collective sigh of relief when Ministers assured us, last week, that that would not happen.
Not only is MOSI hugely popular with visitors in the north-west and across the north of England; it is also an iconic national museum. We should not be tempted to call it a regional museum, because it is not. It is a national museum based in the regions, and we should emphasise that. It has uniquely interesting sections about the history of the industrial revolution and has helped to garner the inventiveness of our science base in the north-west. That scientific base is not just a thing of the past. As my hon. Friend mentioned, graphene is a modern Manchester invention and an example of the important role that science has always had, and will continue to have, in the economy of Greater Manchester and the north-west of England.
It is therefore a matter of some concern that in the past few months sources inside the museum’s parent company, the Science Museum Group, have claimed that the future of MOSI is under threat because of funding problems. As a result of the previous Labour Government’s move to give free access to important national collections, visitor numbers at MOSI have shot up. Last year, the museum welcomed more than 800,000 visitors, and it is rightly regarded as a major national centre for industrial heritage and innovation.
It is beyond argument that MOSI is a vital part of Manchester and that it provides cultural, educational and economic benefit throughout the region. It is an invaluable part of the local and regional economy, attracting tourists and prestige, and, as we heard from my hon. Friend, it supports many jobs. Surely, there is a wider principle that the benefits of tax revenue gathered nationally should be spread, so that everyone across the country can benefit from them.
Everyone pays taxes, so surely there is a case for the benefits of tax revenue to be spread as far as possible around the country. That has been demonstrated by the BBC, with the excellent move of a large part of its operation from London to Salford, spreading more of its economic impact outside the M25. Surely, our national museums should operate on the same principle. Everyone should have access to our national collections—a point firmly made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley).
My apologies, Mr Brady; I would not for one moment impugn your independence, but it is a great pleasure for us all to see you in the Chair this morning.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Imperial War Museum, which of course has located the Imperial War Museum North in my constituency? It is a national museum in the regions, and it is very well visited and much loved.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Imperial War Museum North is another national museum based in the regions that is bringing into Trafford wharfside, and into an iconic building at that, visitors who probably would never have seen those collections in the Imperial War Museum in London. We enjoyed a visit a couple of years ago to see the “Horrible Histories” exhibition, which my kids found absolutely fascinating. We should continue to trumpet the benefits of having national museums and collections in the regions, so that we all may benefit from learning from our past and looking towards our future.
The speculation about MOSI’s future was met by uproar from residents across Greater Manchester and the north of England. As we can see from the number of colleagues here today, the speculation has been met by real concern from most Greater Manchester politicians. The suggestion that MOSI would be affected by the Science Museum Group’s problems led me to write to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. In my letter, I outlined that the acclaimed opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics included a stunning segment on Britain’s development into the global industrial power that it is today. Danny Boyle is rightly lauded for portraying the history of Britain not just as a succession of monarchs, but as a land built by proud working men and women.
Life during the industrial revolution may not have been pleasant for some—indeed, it almost certainly was not—but surely it is just plain wrong to allow access to that history to be lost. I pay tribute to all those involved in MOSI’s development from the early days in 1969, when the then North Western Museum of Science and Industry opened in a temporary venue on Grosvenor street. It was later linked to the university of Manchester institute of science and technology, and then through the superb vision and drive of the former Greater Manchester council, which was instrumental in moving the museum and developing it on its current site, the museum turned into what it is today. The museum, along with the transformation of the county’s once polluted river valleys, is probably the former Greater Manchester council’s best lasting legacy. I thank the many volunteers and friends of the museum who have worked hard to keep things ticking over in the good years and the bad.
People in Manchester and across the north-west, and indeed across the country, are incredibly proud of our free museums, so it is of some small comfort to hear the DCMS announcement on the funding settlement for 2015-16, as no museums should close. Clearly, like MOSI, we await confirmation of the actual details of the funding package, and until those details are received, we cannot be certain of the structural deficit that MOSI will face or of which options will have to be considered. Opposition Members certainly hope that the Government’s culture funding cuts will not result in the closure or downgrading of this outstanding Manchester institution or of parts of it.
There are a number of concerns about the Science Museum Group and MOSI that I would like the Minister to address. Whatever financial problems are facing the Science Museum Group, particularly the London Science Museum, most of my colleagues here today would agree that they should not affect MOSI.
Of course there remains the question of what to do with the structural deficit. The Science Museum Group is currently £2 million in the red, which is projected to go up to £4 million, and potentially even to £6 million, depending on the CSR announcement today. Recent figures show that between 2010-11 and 2014-15 Government funding for the Science Museum Group, including MOSI, has been cut by 25% in real terms. So far, the Science Museum Group has undertaken a number of cost-cutting initiatives, including redundancies across the entire organisation, to try to make the necessary savings. Although it now seems that there will be only a 5% cut to the Science Museum Group’s budget, not the 10% cut that was envisaged, it will still have a significant impact on the budgets and savings that will have to be found.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate.
The Minister’s announcement that the cut will be only 5%, rather than 10%, is very welcome, but it will clearly have an impact on the long-term financing of the Science Museum Group and, in our case, MOSI. Surely, we ought to be considering constructive ways to bridge that gap. Some 5 million people visited the museums last year, and the budget deficit is likely to be in the region of £4 million, which is the equivalent of 80p per visitor over 12 months. I am not suggesting for one second that we ought to be charging entry, but surely we ought to be able to generate more money from those 5 million people who are going through the doors, as well as generating more money, particularly in Manchester, from sponsorship by large businesses such as the airport. From Manchester’s perspective, that would be seen as businesses supporting our local museum.
I absolutely would not support anything that might lead to the introduction of charges at MOSI, because I think that would be a very retrograde step. Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is on the need for a longer-term vision for the museum, whether that is through charitable giving or through greater sponsorship. I am cautious about the airport, which is not a cash cow for every funding cut in Greater Manchester. Indeed, the Manchester Airports Group already contributes greatly towards the arts in Greater Manchester, most notably through its sponsorship of the Hallé orchestra. I am not sure that the Manchester Airports Group can for ever write blank cheques to fill every funding cut that comes Manchester’s way.
My hon. Friend is making a great case, and I support what he says about charging. I note that a parent from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) started the Facebook group “Save The Museum of Science And Industry Manchester.” In her appeal, she made this specific point:
“It is one of the few places left…suitable for everyone from babies to older people.”
She makes the important point that, because the museum is free
“this means that it is accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford to go on expensive days out.”
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) agree with her? In these days of cuts and austerity, when families are suffering and wages are going backwards, we must think of having such days out. Young people can learn a lot from a free day out, particularly one with their family.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only is the museum free, it is fun. That is why people want to keep going back. MOSI is a hands-on museum. There are not lots of exhibits in glass cases; there are lots of things that people can touch, feel, do and play with, which can spark imagination. MOSI is a great fun day out for children and adults of all ages. We must develop a clear vision of what the museum wants to do in the future.
On charges, the National Railway Museum has been part of the Science Museum Group since its inception and it is instructive to consider what happened there. When charges were introduced, the number of visitors fell to 300,000; when charges were removed in a number of stages by the previous Labour Government, attendances rose again and are now at the 1 million mark. When a museum does not impose entry charges, people pay much more in the cafeteria and the shop. There are marketing opportunities for museums, which are stronger and better if they remain free and open to the public.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Total visits to MOSI in 1997 numbered 235,000. In 2011-12, they peaked at 818,000. That shows the benefit of free access to collections at our national museums in the region.
On visitor satisfaction, 99% would recommend MOSI. Not only is it accessible to all, it is obviously enjoyed by all but the miserly 1% who clearly do not think it is a good day out. Who would dream of 99% visitor recommendations? In 2012-13, 63% of visitors to MOSI were families and 10% educational groups. Only 27% were general admissions of independent adults. I am sure that it is exactly the same in York. Our national museums benefit families who are struggling to make ends meet in the cost-of-living squeeze by giving them a free, fun day out on their doorstep in central Manchester, York or Bradford.
I press the Minister to give firmer reassurances about the future of MOSI. Surely, we must make the case for national museums across Britain, not simply focus on the ones based in the capital city. As we have heard, MOSI is a world-class museum. Surely, we should fight to protect a cultural asset not just for the north of England or for Greater Manchester, but for Britain as a whole.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. As ever, she reminds us that all those cold, chilly evenings canvassing in the Saddleworth snow for a by-election were worth every minute, because of the role that she plays in championing our area. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Brady. I must ask your indulgence and that of Front-Bench Members; I may not be able to stay for the whole debate, due to my Wednesday responsibilities for Prime Minister’s questions, to which we are all looking forward today.
Along with many of the Members here today, I spoke about MOSI in last week’s Opposition day debate. The passion in the Chamber that day demonstrated the strength of feeling about the preservation of one of our most treasured cultural institutions. I will not repeat that speech—it is a particularly good one, if anyone has not had the chance to read it—but I will summarise it by saying that for me, MOSI is the soul of our city.
I received a huge response to that speech. Many people e-mailed me to tell me that reading it made them want to go visit MOSI. It made me want to visit MOSI as well, but the duties of a Member of Parliament during summer and spring weekends meant that I could not get there this weekend. However, my wife and daughter visited MOSI this Monday. I rang them on Monday evening and spoke to my two-year-old daughter, who is usually obsessed with iPads and other modern technology. She had been captivated by a typewriter and a rotary-dial telephone.
My hon. Friend highlights how important it is for girls as well as boys to be able to enjoy the experience of visiting MOSI. We have a huge wish for more girls and young women to enter science and technology careers. MOSI can be a good early introduction for them.
I absolutely agree. I mentioned in my speech last week that I take Bess to MOSI and tell her about invention and how she can be an engineer because of the opportunities available. One can see a flicker of inspiration in children’s eyes. It is fantastic for boys and girls, and it is a particularly good way to illustrate to people the kinds of career and opportunity that everyone should be able to follow.
MOSI also illustrates how far contemporary technology has come and gives people a sense not only of where we were in the past but of where we are now. I welcome what the Minister said last week to guarantee its survival. To be honest, though, I think that most people are bewildered that there should ever have been any doubt about the future of such an important asset. MOSI is particularly important to my constituents and me, and the questions about its future highlight the struggle for survival and the worry of many museums throughout the country. It is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) here making those points too.
Government figures released earlier this year show that local authority funding for museums fell by 11% in 2011-12. As local government grants make up half of all public funding to the arts, that is particularly alarming. If the cuts to local government announced today are the 10% reported, given that things are already at breaking point, there must be doubt about the long-term survival of some of our most treasured national museums. It illustrates how big and painful the cost is of this Government’s failure to get the economy going over the past three years.
My hon. Friend is supporting and extending the case that we are making for MOSI. He is right to highlight the role played by local government. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who was instrumental in establishing the museum. Manchester city council bought part of the site for £1. When I was a Trafford councillor, Trafford also established the Imperial War Museum. Salford council has taken the risk of buying the docks to establish the Lowry. If not for that, our cultural heritage in Manchester would not exist as it currently does. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) agree about the importance of local government? Those who cut local government are pulling the rug from underneath our city council leaders and other leaders in Greater Manchester, who may not be able to do such things in future.
I could not agree more. As an MP and a former councillor, I always say that local government should be just that—not local administration, but local government. The legacy that we can point to in Greater Manchester, and some of the exciting work that we are doing for the future, is a strong sign of that, but I worry that soon councils will be able to do nothing but try to deliver their statutory responsibilities, because there will not be enough funding to go around.
To follow on from that point, it is not just about our national museums in the regions. It is also about places such as Bolton Museum and other museums in our various towns that have been supported largely by local authorities over the years. They are crucial to young people’s understanding, and particularly their involvement in science and technology, as well as to expanding their views of the world and their heritage.
I agree. They are so important to us that given the financial situation, I think that we will have to consider different ways of funding them in the long term to guarantee their existence. However, I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne): I am completely opposed to bringing back charging to enter museums. Free museum access has been an outstanding success, and there should be consensus that it must always continue.
I have done a little bit of research in advance of this debate. As the Minister knows, the Opposition are always here to help with constructive suggestions about this Government’s problems. It appears to me that increasingly, a lot of institutions are turning to the internet to supplement their funding. A range of organisations from start-up businesses to non-profit organisations, and even councils, are turning to what is known as crowd funding as a cheap, easy and accessible way to raise funds. Clearly, crowd funding is no silver bullet, but I am glad that our shadow Culture, Media and Sport team has said that it will examine what opportunities it might present.
Two of the world’s most famous museums have used crowd funding successfully to raise money to buy specific pieces or fund exhibits. The Smithsonian in Washington, for example, is looking for $125,000 to put on the world’s first exhibition of yogic art. To be honest, I have no idea what that is, but it sounds extremely exciting. Similarly, the Louvre runs an annual crowd-funding campaign known as “Everyone’s a Patron” to ask members of the public to help purchase particular pieces of art. Since the campaign started in 2010, it has funded the purchase of “The Three Graces” and a collection known as “The Treasures of Cairo”, and this year it raised €800,000 to complete a set of 13th-century ivory figures, which now form the only complete set anywhere in the world. Given the huge amount of public support generated by the campaign to save MOSI, maybe we could harness some of it to bring our people even closer and get them more involved in MOSI’s future to secure its long-term success.
Clearly, that funding model would not solve every problem, but I wonder whether there is a role for the Government to support such campaigns. It could be a way for the Government to support not just museums but a whole range of the arts, start-up businesses or practically any other project that we could imagine.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth for securing the debate. I also thank my constituents for the way in which they have got behind the campaign, the Manchester Evening News for its leading role in the campaign to save MOSI and the Minister in anticipation of what I am sure will be his reassurance. In my speech last week, I said that it would be unconscionable if we ever lost MOSI, and I stand by that entirely; I am grateful for the platform given to us as Members of Parliament for Greater Manchester to assist in some way in the campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the debate on the future funding of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. She has clearly articulated the relevance and importance of MOSI in Manchester, and I am sure that people throughout the country share her passion for this award-winning museum. It has real historical, scientific and educational value.
We have had a good debate, with several useful contributions. We should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), although she is not present today. She has been an articulate and determined campaigner for MOSI, so it is right to place recognition of her work on the record.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned his first visit to the museum while still in the Cub Scouts in 1983. He spoke with passion about the scientific and industrial heritage of Greater Manchester. He rightly pointed out that MOSI is a national museum that is based in the regions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) again stated his strong support for MOSI. He said that it was part of the soul of Manchester, and he rightly pointed out the important role of local government in supporting our cultural heritage, a theme to which I shall return.
We had some useful interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Hugh Bayley), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), and from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech).
Today’s contributions and those made in recent weeks as part of the wider debate are testimony to the importance of culture and heritage throughout the country. Last week’s Opposition debate, with contributions from Members of all parties, illustrated clearly the economic, social and educational worth of culture, in addition to its intrinsic value. Significantly, we received assurances that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will remain in its existing form, as well as assurances from the Minister, which we accept in good faith, that the Science Museum in London should not have to close, and nor should the National Railway Museums in York and Shildon, the National Media Museum in Bradford or MOSI in Manchester.
Last week, I also asked the Minister to confirm whether the same assurances applied to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, which is also funded through the Science Museum. I would be grateful if he clarified today whether he is able to extend his recent assurances to include the National Coal Mining Museum. Such assurances would be most welcome and greatly appreciated.
In spite of the Minister’s recent and welcome assurances, I am sure that all Members agree that the devil will be in the detail. As I am sure the Minister acknowledges, our museums face challenging times, which is why we must continue to emphasise just how important culture and heritage are to our society. More needs to be done to secure the long-term financial stability of our museums. If we do not do something, the accumulated loss of income could seriously damage our culture and heritage sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central last week described our museums as
“like fantastic flowers in a garden”—[Official Report, 19 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 960.]
and said that we must “keep feeding their roots”. I agree with him. Museums inspire and educate while they entertain; beyond that, they are of course of important economic value. More than 4 million people visited one of the Science Museum Group institutions last year, attracting tourists from inside and outside the UK to places that they might not normally visit, and benefiting local economies, even where museum entry is free.
MOSI is a prime example of the importance of universal access to museums, and it is an integral part of Manchester’s cultural offer. During the industrial revolution, Manchester was at the centre of the textile industry in this country, and MOSI celebrates that history and the city’s technological development. MOSI provides an estimated £8 million in gross value added to the local economy and attracts more than 800,000 visitors each year, including more than 100,000 school visitors.
Is it not important to recognise as well that MOSI is an integral part of the Castlefield urban heritage park in Manchester city centre? The park is also the home of Manchester’s Roman fort, Mamucium, the birthplace of the city, and the site of the Bridgewater and Rochdale canals, which brought coal into the city to fuel the industrial revolution.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that MOSI is part of a wider collection of cultural and heritage offers in Greater Manchester. In the near future, I hope to have the opportunity to go and see some of the incredibly important cultural and heritage institutions in that part of our country.
It is also important to highlight MOSI’s work in education, which is instrumental in inspiring young people to consider careers in science and industry, fields that are crucial to our country’s future scientific innovation. As already mentioned, since 2009, MOSI has hosted science, technology, engineering and mathematics ambassadors in schools. The museum provides valuable scientific inspiration to the young people of Greater Manchester and much further afield.
A great supporter of museums as a platform to motivate and educate, Professor Brian Cox, has stated recently:
“Knowledge and inspiration are classless.”
I agree, and, even more so, that access to the institutions that provide such knowledge and inspiration should be classless, too.
It is right that society should invest in museums. They are of real social benefit, but we must help them to develop practical, dynamic and innovative ways to ensure the future success of such organisations. That must include funding. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington discussed that in his intervention today and in his speech last week, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde mentioned crowd funding and other potential sources of revenue. Museums and government, national and local, need to look at innovative ways of securing funding for museums such as MOSI.
Private and public funding are not mutually exclusive, and much can be gained from the diversity of multiple funding streams, as our cultural sector already shows. In difficult economic times, however, DCMS, local government, the Arts Council and the museums themselves must focus on creating an innovative offer, one that will sustain our museums not only for now, but for the next generation. Museums have done great work in recent years to reinvent themselves, integrating new technology, new experiences and attracting new audiences.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to look for alternative sources of funding, but does he agree that it would be a retrograde step to revert to some form of charging at museums such as MOSI, even at a level of 80p, as suggested by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)?
I assure my hon. Friend that I completely agree that it is not in our interest—the interests of museums and of the people we represent—to go back to what were, frankly, the bad old days, when only those people who could afford it went to our museums. That is why it is vital for us to campaign to safeguard the right of all people, and of young people in particular, to be able to visit those incredibly important cultural and heritage sites. I believe that the Minister agrees, though I would be grateful for his assurances. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the introduction of free entry to museums was a significant achievement that we should never row back from.
It is important that museums look innovatively at what they can offer the public. They have done great work on that in recent years and have integrated new technology and new experiences to reach out to new audiences. They must work in a wider and stronger network of partnerships with other cultural and educational bodies, such as libraries, schools, colleges, universities, and arts and community centres. They also need to work with the people who visit them and those who do not yet do so—the 50% of the country that did not go to a museum or gallery last year.
Museums help create a sense of history, a sense of community and a sense of place by preserving our culture and as a visible sign of our civic pride and social values. That is why maintaining and developing our regional museums should be a priority for any Government. In that context, I would like to take the opportunity to ask the Minister an important question that I have asked him before, and which I asked the Secretary of State during parliamentary questions last Thursday. In these challenging economic times, what work is the Department for Communities and Local Government doing with the Arts Council and local authorities in the regions to support the arts, culture and heritage? I would be grateful for a response when he winds up the debate.
Artistic and scientific brilliance can flourish anywhere, but talents need to be honed and people need to be inspired. That can happen only if people are given the opportunity to experience and explore their own history and culture. This week, a new Lowry exhibition opens at Tate Britain and displays some of the distinctive northern industrial landscapes that the Stretford-born artist painted over his lifetime.
Lowry may have been Stretford born but, as my hon. Friend may know, for a substantial portion of his life, he lived in Mottram in my constituency. We are extremely proud of him.
My hon. Friend is right to be extremely proud and I am grateful for his important clarification. He will agree that we need to ensure that the next generation of children has every opportunity to succeed. It will never be acceptable to tell a child that they were born in the wrong decade, and that is why a new museum will open tomorrow in my constituency. Experience Barnsley will enable visitors to discover the history of our town through local perspectives. Such initiatives can help ensure that each person’s potential is fulfilled, and that no future L.S. Lowry, Barbara Hepworth, Marie Curie or Stephen Hawking is missed because they did not have cultural and educational opportunities near where they grew up.
Protecting free entry to our museums and securing the future of our regional museums should be a priority. Equal access to museums should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few. That is why the Labour Government ensured that entry to museums and galleries would be free for all. In the 10 years following the introduction of that policy, visitor numbers have more than doubled to 18 million a year. We must continue to encourage people to visit these wonderful institutions.
Our museums are essential to people all over the UK—socially, educationally and economically. To continue to thrive, they must continue to reinvent themselves, drawing new crowds through their doors. They must work with national and local government and others to develop innovative methods of funding. Our museums can continue to go from strength to strength and our society with them. We must help make that happen.
I am pleased, Mr Brady, to speak under your chairmanship in this important debate. As many hon. Members have said, it is a huge honour to be presided over by a Greater Manchester MP and chairman of the 1922 committee. You are the shop steward of our Back Benchers, which adds to the lustre of your chairmanship this morning.
Many hon. Members have talked about the impact of the Museum of Science and Industry on their lives and those of their constituents. Before I go into the detail of some of the excellent contributions, it may be worth pointing out that my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who was here this morning as the Whip, told me before the debate started that there is a photograph of her aunt, Connie Varty in the museum, taken when she was a young woman working as an engineer for Beyer Peacock & Co. Almost everyone has had some impact from the wonderful museum.
I shall begin in the traditional but no less heartfelt way of thanking the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate on the future funding of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. I welcome her contribution and those of the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), all of whom are concerned about the museum’s future.
There has been a strong reaction in the last three weeks to reports that the museum may be in danger, and it is clear how much it is valued. I will use my contribution to scotch the rumours that have swirled around. First, the Museum of Science and Industry is in no danger of closing, nor are the museums in York or Bradford. At lunchtime, I will meet the chairman and directors of the Science Museum Group to discuss the future. I have made the point in many debates that we cannot be complacent. The challenge—I will come to this in a moment—is not simply to keep the museums open but, as was echoed in many of the contributions to the debate, to ensure that they are enhanced and improved to sustain their future for many years to come.
I come to the “scotching the rumour” section of my speech. A few weeks ago, someone—I do not know who—tweeted that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would be abolished as part of the comprehensive spending review. I want to scotch that rumour. The Department is a metaphor and an adornment to the Government. We have moved to better offices, and they cost £2 million a year less than previously. One gets more for less with DCMS. We are also delivering the main growth programme for the Government by rolling out superfast broadband.
Rumour No. 2 concerns the introduction of charging for our national museums. I was berated in no less an august journal than The Spectator for a mildly flippant remark saying that when tourists visited our museums for free, we would fleece them in the cafes afterwards. The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) said that more elegantly, and the point was well made that visitor numbers have doubled at the Museum of Science and Industry, and many visitors who enter free spend money within the museum. The commercial case is that charging would enable museums to raise revenue, but they would lose a significant amount of income from cafes, shops and other areas where visitors spend money. It is not a zero-sum game, and charging would not simply increase revenue by the amount charged. That is the commercial reason for introducing charging, but I accept the moral case that museums are national collections that should be open to the public free for all.
I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification and greatly reassured. Do I take it that he completely rules out the suggestion of his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) that people should perhaps pay 80p to visit MOSI in future?
I do not want to enter a row between the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech). I have made the Government’s policy as clear as possible.
I turn to rumour No. 3. There is no intention of transferring the Science Museum Group to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I certainly welcome that Department’s interest and think there is an opportunity for a deeper and more profound partnership between the two Departments in supporting the Science Museum Group. There is no mystery to the fact that the Minister for Universities and Science is a huge admirer of the Science Museum Group, and he recognises that it is without doubt the most formidable attraction for young people in drawing them into the world of science. It is therefore important, for a Government who take science seriously and want to increase the number of young people who choose careers in science, to clearly support the Science Museum Group’s education work. I will be holding discussions with BIS to see what support it wishes to bring to the organisation.
On rumour No. 4, I scotch any suggestion that we would allow the National Coal Mining Museum to close. That is certainly not our position, and it, too, will remain open. The point of bringing the Museum of Science and Industry and the National Coal Mining Museum within the Science Museum Group was to enhance their offer.
An important point of principle to get across—I thought of this when I was hearing the excellent contributions by the hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth, for Denton and Reddish, for Stalybridge and Hyde and for Barnsley Central—is that we have to get out of the mindset that somehow the regional museums are second class, or that the national museums in the regions are somehow second class to the national museums in London. In principle, if a museum had to close, there is no reason why the London branch of the national museum should not be on the same page. It is really important to say that the museums in York, Bradford and Manchester have as much status and right to survive and thrive as the museums in London.
As has been pointed out time and again, the visitor numbers and attractions at MOSI are second to none. The museum is home to many important buildings from our industrial heritage, and it is uniquely placed to explore the meeting of science and industry and the beginnings of the modern world—the industrial revolution, of course, started in Manchester—in a way that has meaning locally, nationally and internationally. It promotes the best of new technology and curates the Manchester science festival and the FutureEverything conference and exhibition, which I visited last year and experienced a groundbreaking mix of cutting-edge digital technology, art and music. MOSI is at the forefront of science education. It delivers innovative projects and a high-quality service for schools and volunteers through the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network—STEMNET.
Since MOSI joined the Science Museum Group, investment has been made in the public programme and events, in improving the retail and catering offer and in attracting visitor donations. SMG’s long-standing relationship with the Wellcome Collection has also established a new relationship with MOSI that will culminate in the opening of a special exhibition next month.
I hope that I have left hon. Members in no doubt as to my personal support for the museum in Manchester, but I have to thank the director of the Science Museum Group. Since he made his concerns known on my birthday, on 5 June, I have had a meeting with MPs from Bradford and an Adjournment debate, and many contributions were made during the arts debate in the main Chamber. We now have the Westminster Hall debate, and I am still looking forward to my special appearance in front of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, so he has certainly helped me fill my time and build up valuable experience in parliamentary debating.
To summarise what has happened, on 17 June, I met the hon. Members representing the Bradford areas, and my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), as well as the director of the Science Museum Group, in advance of the Adjournment debate held by the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway). We had a productive discussion and agreed that a working group representing the Science Museum Group, local MPs and Bradford council should come together to look at securing a sustainable future for the National Media Museum. That has now become known as the five-year plan. During the Opposition day debate on the arts and creative industries on 19 June, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport also made it clear that the reduction in resource funding for national museums in 2015-16 would be held at 5%.
There is also an important additional development that will affect the Science Museum Group positively. Recognising the unique business model of the national museums and their innovative approach to generating income, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has offered new measures that will make it easier for the museums to manage their budgets independently and reduce administrative burdens. That will include an exceptional power for the sector to borrow up to £40 million a year from the Government; authorisation to invest in non-grant income; access to reserve funds, so that museums have the flexibility to spend donations that they receive; the freedom to set pay, to attract the best expertise; and exemption from Government procurement policy, so that museums can make their own choices about key contracts.
As I think most hon. Members would agree, that is a significant step forward and something that the national museums have long campaigned for. Combined with the favourable funding settlement, it is clear that there is no reason why the Science Museum Group should close any museum based on a lack of funding. The new administrative and financial freedoms will also boost income generation and create a more dynamic operating model.
As hon. Members will appreciate, the outcome of the spending review will shortly determine the Government’s capital support for the national museums, so I cannot speculate on that at this point. However, I can mention the support for capital improvements provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the DCMS Wolfson Fund and the Catalyst match-funding schemes, which we have established with the Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
During the Adjournment debate last week, I paid tribute to the constructive way in which hon. Members representing Bradford, Manchester and York have worked with me and the Science Museum Group to forge a sustainable future for the regional museums. I would like to thank them again for their continued commitment to that endeavour. Looking ahead, we will continue to work with the Science Museum Group, as it examines a range of options across its operation to increase the income that it generates from exhibitions, events and corporate sponsorship. We will also look at potential partnerships at regional level, both public and private, working with local government, education and business.
I do not think the Minister appreciates just how lucky he is. He has visited the Museum of Science and Industry at Liverpool Road station, and he might not be aware that an earlier Member of Parliament was not so fortunate. The Liverpool Member of Parliament, William Huskisson, was killed at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, when he was run over by Stephenson’s Rocket, which is a fate that, thankfully, the Minister avoided.
I went on a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket when I made the visit. It is well known that the first railway fatality involved a Member of Parliament, which may still resonate through the ages.
I pay tribute to the way in which hon. Members have approached the issue. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central has also contributed significantly to the debate. He and I sparred with each other at last week’s debate, and I probably got slightly carried away—I am not used to debating in a full Chamber, so it was a novel experience for me. It was an interesting debate, and the Labour party is making a powerful case for the importance of supporting arts and culture in the regions.
There was a slight paradox—I felt, obviously, being biased—in that Member after Member got up and talked about how well culture was doing in their constituency, so we are not having an arts emergency, but the issue is worth looking at. That is why I am pleased, for example, that the Arts Council has, under this Government, looked seriously at how it supports arts and culture in the regions using lottery money, which we increased.
As hon. Members know, we significantly raised the proportion of lottery funding going to the arts. An additional £100 million is going to the arts every year under this Government. Some of that money has been used to significantly increase the amount of funding available for touring, so national arts organisations have the opportunity to tour their work around the country. The Arts Council has also set up what it calls the creative people and places fund—off the top of my head, it is worth about £30 million—which is designed to support arts and culture in areas that are, to use the jargon, under-represented in terms of arts and culture, where perhaps the quality of offers that one might find in other parts of the country is not available.
The issue is serious and important, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth for raising it, but I hope that she will also acknowledge that a lot of work is being done to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from our arts and culture. We will listen to any further suggestions that she or other hon. Members may have.
Non-geographic Telephone Numbers
Thank you, Mr Brady. I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this important issue. The matter is of concern to many people—all our constituents, I think. It is a complex and controversial issue, but the term “non-geographic phone numbers” generally covers numbers that start with 08, 0845, 087, 09 and 118, and which are used for everything from contacting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to voting on TV shows.
All the evidence shows that people find the numbers extremely confusing and expensive. The so-called freephone 0800 numbers are guaranteed to be free only when phoned from a land-line—they are not always free from mobile phones—and it is people on low and fixed incomes who are undoubtedly hardest hit. Poorer people often do not have the security of a land-line, and they are unable to get contracts.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He rightly says that 0800 numbers are free only from a land-line. Does he agree that the warning signal, or the acknowledgment that it could be very costly to use such numbers from a mobile, is often in such a tiny—almost insignificant—font size, either on the screen or in newspaper print, as to be illegible, particularly for elderly people?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is important that the information is clearer, but perhaps what is more important—and this is the case I will advance today—is ensuring that the calls are free rather than just pretending to be free for certain people.
As I was saying, people on low and fixed incomes do not have access to land-lines, and they probably do not have access to contract mobile phones either or, sometimes, to the internet. They rely, therefore, on prepay mobile phones and phone boxes, and as the former have higher call costs than contract phones poorer people end up paying more to use the telephone than those on higher incomes. A study by Save the Children, in fact, found that they could be paying about 22% more.
What is particularly unfair, and this is one of the major subjects of today’s debate, is that it is not just businesses and game shows that charge people a fortune; the Government’s own use of the numbers is a matter for concern. I have been contacted by constituents who are justifiably irate that ringing essential public services, such as HMRC, results in them having sky-high bills. The answers I have received to parliamentary questions to Departments have revealed not only the shocking scale, but the scope of Government use of high-cost phone numbers. Six out of 10 Government phone lines are high cost. The Home Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs all use a high proportion of high-cost phone lines. The Department for Work and Pensions alone has 200-plus 0845 numbers. Vulnerable people are being charged rip-off rates for contacting essential services, including pension, work and welfare services—when talking to Jobcentre Plus, the Pensions Advisory Service, about disability living allowance and attendance allowance, and so on. The waiting times for the services can be long, and that drives up bills even further.
The 0845 and 087 revenue-sharing numbers are the major culprits. Calling the numbers can cost anything up to 41p a minute, and a service charge is included, which is paid to the Government. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) is here today because he has done some very important work on what he has rightly termed a telephone tax, and the National Audit Office is also looking into the scandal. It is simply beyond belief that people calling taxpayer-funded phone lines are taxed again. Some Departments have been making money, and phone companies are clearly making a fortune. It is illogical and unfair, and it cannot continue. The use of revenue-sharing numbers by the Government and all associated public agencies must stop, and it must stop now.
I welcome the success that my hon. Friend has had in securing the debate, and also the fact that he is campaigning hard on the matter, as am I. It is important to expose the rip-off rates that some people have to pay to access essential public services and information.
My hon. Friend mentions the revenue sharing, which is part of the deal for 084 numbers. Both he and I have tabled parliamentary questions, and I have had seven Departments say to me that they do not get any financial or non-financial benefit from the lines. That, however, contradicts what Ofcom believes to be the case, and I have, therefore, had to write to those seven Departments. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a follow-up to the debate, something the Minister might usefully do is ensure that attention is drawn to other Departments that use the numbers but do not appear to know that they should be gaining a financial benefit—at a cost to many of the poorest, who pay the extra charges?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it is true that many Departments, or the people who make the decisions, did not know that they were making money out of the numbers. They assumed that something starting with 08 was free, just like the 0800 numbers. It is important that that message gets across. There are one or two Departments that, when they found out, were fairly horrified and said that they would change. The key thing, therefore, is that they make that change quickly.
I suggest that revenue sharing is particularly unfair, but that it is part of a wider picture. Calling any public service on a geographic or a non-geographic number means that people with very little money—those with prepay mobile phones—get bills they simply cannot afford. That covers accessing central Government services and those of other public bodies, agencies and local authorities and, until very recently, even GP surgeries. I was made aware of the case of a homeless family in my constituency who clearly did not have a land-line or a contract phone, and were trying to reach Birmingham city council a couple of years ago. They were kept hanging on for ages, just trying to find out if they had any chance of getting a home. How can we seriously expect people calling a homelessness helpline to maintain regular direct debits or have been able to negotiate cheap phone tariffs? We need clear criteria for all public services—in central and local government—if we are to overcome the problems.
I sought to have this debate because there is a chance for the Government to change, and to initiate change. I understand that, in July, Ofcom will make clear recommendations for simplifying the system. It will make 0800 numbers free for all, including from mobile phones and, going back to the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) made, it will ensure that the costs of calling 084 and 087 numbers are clear. It will also encourage greater use of 03 numbers, which are priced the same as the traditional 01 and 02 geographic numbers, and they will not have a revenue-sharing element.
Of relevance here is article 21 of the EU consumer rights directive. An amendment to the directive, which could stop businesses using a service charge when consumers call under certain circumstances, is under consideration, and more work needs to be done on that. I therefore ask the Minister: will the Government continue to charge what has been rightly termed a telephone tax when they begin to regulate businesses in that regard?
There is already best practice in some Departments. HMRC has been one of the worst culprits, but it has now rightly responded to the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendations and is switching to 03 numbers, which will save many people a fortune. That must be linked to the more recent PAC recommendation for improving waiting times so that people are not left in a queue for hours.
We need more clarity and co-ordination, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne said. That is not a new idea; it has been on the agenda since 2006, when Sir David Varney called for change in his Cabinet Office report, “Service transformation.” He called for clear public sector telephone number strategies that would end confusion and provide a better service to people, as well as a better deal for the taxpayer. Seven years on, Ofcom is now providing the Government with a framework to achieve that.
I have some questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. First, does the Minister agree with me—and, I am sure, countless members of the public, and campaigners, such as the fair telecoms campaign, which has done a great deal of work—that it is fundamentally wrong to place a service charge or, to put it another way, a telephone tax on calls to phone lines that are already funded from taxation? If so, what is the Government’s time scale to end its use across all Departments and agencies?
Secondly, what progress has been made on implementing the recommendations on contact centres in Sir David Varney’s “Service transformation” report, which was taken over by the Cabinet Office’s Contact Council? The report called for an exploration of the scope for single access numbers for all non-emergency public services, which would provide complementary support for the 999 service; more urgently, for the implementation of a clear public sector numbering and tariffing strategy using the 03 number range; and for the establishment of a set of cross-Government benchmarks, such as calls answered per minute, to improve the performance of public sector call centres.
If no progress on implementing those recommendations has been made since the abolition of the Contact Council, will the Government now take the opportunity provided by Ofcom’s consultation and its results to establish a whole of Government solution? Such a solution would need to be clear and comprehensive, and it would need to make access to all public sector services less confusing and more cost-effective for the taxpayer. It would end the use of revenue sharing—the telephone tax—and establish clear numbering criteria for different services, with essential services using freephone for all 0800 numbers and all other services using 03 numbers.
Thirdly, will the Government enforce Ofcom’s recommendations that the costs of revenue-sharing numbers must be declared, which goes back to my right hon. Friend’s point? What is Ministers’ time scale for such an implementation? Ofcom has outlined an implementation period of 18 months from when the recommendations are published, which means organisations would not have to declare their charges until at least 2015. We know the costs, and we know that many people are currently confused about the price of the numbers, so why delay? The Cabinet Office should issue directions to enforce transparency now, and I invite the Minister to agree with me.
The success of the gov.uk website—it provides one point of access for all Departments and public bodies—demonstrates that better Government co-ordination in communications can be done simply and effectively. As face-to-face services are cut back—not all of us think that that is a good thing—and more people are directed online and on to the telephone, it is important that the Government do not ignore those sections of the population that find it difficult to access the internet and do not have access to contract phones or land-lines. We know that they are the people most likely to need the Government’s help and advice.
Finally, we need to ensure that people’s contact with the Government or local government is not just that of being transferred from one Department to another, while watching their phone bills go up and up as they hang on the line. As the Government introduce huge changes to the benefits system, with universal credit and so on, we know that there are likely to be very big increases in the number of inquiries. That underlines the fact that we need an efficient system, which recognises that people calling Government advice lines have complex concerns and problems that need to be dealt with sensitively and effectively.
The idea of today’s debate is to invite the Government to seize this opportunity drastically to improve public services and end the scandal of rip-off rates that hit the most vulnerable in their time of need. I invite the Minister and the Government to take up that opportunity.
It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, for the first time, at least in this Chamber.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) not only on securing the debate, but on how he presented his argument. I extend those congratulations to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), because they have together done an excellent job. They have taken a forensic approach to using the parliamentary question process to expose some, frankly, awkward and inconvenient truths about a system that, as Ofcom has said, clearly does not work for anyone at the moment. It is quite right to raise that substantive issue.
The right hon. Gentleman, who was a distinguished Minister, will recognise that I feel, in coming to this for the first time, that this is one of those situations in which Departments have been allowed to do their own thing, without very much effective co-ordination from the centre, over many years and during different Governments. We have reached the point at which we have to acknowledge that the current system does not work for anyone. Ofcom was quite right to make that point, and it is also right that the National Audit Office should look at the issue. My congratulations are therefore quite genuine.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield mentioned that the Cabinet Office previously had a role, but it has not been directly involved in recent years. We are now reviewing whether there is a case for central control to play a more proactive role. The reason for that is straightforward: we see ourselves as champions, first, of transparency across Government—there is a failure of transparency here—and secondly, of the taxpayer in ensuring that those who supply services to the Government and the public deliver best value.
Through the Efficiency and Reform Group, we take great pride in ensuring that historical contractual arrangements with large corporates are much less cosy than they were. I refer the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman to its recently published report, which demonstrates that, through a much more rigorous and robust process, we saved the taxpayer £10 billion last year—this is serious money—by doing things that we consider to make hard commercial sense but had not been applied. For both those reasons—as champions of transparency and of driving a hard deal with the taxpayer and the public—we are taking an increasing interest in this area.
The timing of the debate is slightly awkward in the sense that we are all waiting for the NAO report. As a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne will know that Ministers sometimes read a brief that is not quite what they want to have to say, and this is one of those moments. Having looked at what is happening, I sense that there is frankly a substantial problem, as I have said. It is not just about the cost, which is real and of course massively relevant at a time when our constituents are very stretched; there are also big issues around complexity and transparency, and the system does not work.
There is clearly a real problem, but I see some encouraging signs of movement and transition. It probably needs to go further and faster, but there is clearly movement in some areas. One area is around transparency, which matters a lot because it is the great disinfectant. The Ofcom policy proposals are all about simplifying the matter and making it less complex and more transparent. Responding to those proposals is now under way.
I also see progress in the action taken by Departments to reduce costs. The hon. Gentleman did not mention this, but we should recognise that HMRC, which is a hugely important Department in the context of this debate, has already moved two of its helplines, the tax credit and Welsh language helplines, from 0845 numbers to 03 prefix numbers to reduce the cost to callers. It is also committed to moving all of its personal tax, expenses and benefits helplines to 03 numbers by the end of the summer, which was welcomed by the Public Accounts Committee and the voluntary sector in particular. Clearly, there has been movement both on transparency and to reduce costs.
Another area, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is about reducing the need for the public to use the phone in engaging with the Government. He makes a fundamental point that we will always be in a situation in which a proportion of the population will not be online or comfortable with being online and will need what we call in our clunky Government language “assisted digital”. The Government will shortly announce plans to invest taxpayers’ money in a radical, ambitious process to go digital by default, which will ensure that no one is left behind and which should transform the experience of dealing with Government—online as often as possible and practicable. We all know the benefits of online communication, and success on that mission will mean that we reduce the need for people to use the telephone and be exposed to some of the vagaries, complexities and costs that we are debating here now. It is important for that to be registered, because the Government digital strategy, which was published last November, sets out how we intend to redesign digital services to make them straightforward and convenient so that all who can use them will choose to do so while those who cannot are not excluded. That channel shift, as we call it, will result in a reduction in the use of call centres, telephones, post and in-person centres, thereby reducing the problem of higher non-geographic phone charging, which is the subject of this debate.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he is responding to this debate. I am intervening before he returns to his brief, because his response so far has been genuine, open and welcome. He recognises that there is a significant problem, which is very welcome. He says that the Government are now reviewing the area, which is also welcome. He talks about a problem of timing. May I perhaps help him with that? The NAO has indeed now agreed to carry out a cross-Government review of the use of non-geographic numbers, some of which have these rip-off rates. The Comptroller and Auditor General tells me that he expects that report to be completed next month, in July, so the Minister may not have to wait long before he considers action. I invite him to tell the Chamber how he intends, from the centre of Government, to respond to that NAO report and the findings that it may have.
I am grateful to the Opposition for any offer of help, but I approach such offers with some wariness, and my instinct was right on that one. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the NAO report is imminent; I do not have an exact date, but July seems to be the month. My awkwardness comes from trying to give the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman as robust a response as they would like. None the less, we must wait for that report and its recommendations to see to what degree they encourage a higher level of central co-ordination and control, which both Members are instinctively calling for.
We will also have to wait to see whether the NAO gives the Cabinet Office some sense of mandate to play a more proactive role in this exercise, which is a move towards not just greater rigour and transparency, but a great deal of commercial awareness when it comes to conversations with the suppliers of services, who, as the hon. Gentleman has said, might have benefited disproportionately in the past with regard to the charges that they have effectively made to the public. The point that I was labouring is that we now have a real body of experience that is saving billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in negotiating and renegotiating, often in flight, these contracts with suppliers to ensure that the taxpayer gets a better deal.
What I am asking of hon. Members is patience. Let us see the NAO report and what signals it sends in terms of the deficiencies of the current system and the need for a bit more central control, and then the Cabinet Office will respond. We are now a great deal more interested in this subject than in the past because we recognise that the system is not working for anyone. I just hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman on that.
Like my right hon. Friend, I am sure that the Minister is being absolutely genuine in what he is saying. We are waiting for the NAO report and the Ofcom recommendations, both of which will be published in July. I completely understand that the Minister needs to wait for them. There will be complex negotiations with suppliers. There is one thing on which I should like to push him a little further. On behalf of the user of services, the public, would it not be reasonable to say that there are certain principles here to which we aspire? The first is that an essential public service should be free to the public. Secondly, phone lines should be as cheap as they can be for other Government services. The obvious way of doing that is using something like the 03 numbers. How we get to those points could be the subject of detailed discussions, but, presumably, we should be able to agree that if the call is essential, it should be free, and if it is non-essential, it should be as cheap as it can be.
If we are trying to create a culture of greater simplification, transparency and trust, principles are important in terms of bringing people together, communicating and building that trust. Some Departments need to think through quite carefully the implications of some of the changes that the hon. Gentleman is proposing. For example, if they cannot make a particular charge for a service, they have to consider how they can continue to provide it. It is reasonable to build into the process some time for them to think through that carefully, because, presumably, the services are valued by the people using them. The principles of transparency and of keeping it simple and as cheap as possible are ones that we endorse, along with the commitment to try, as far as we can, to move people to a situation where most of this stuff is done online. We also want to make sure that all the services that we provide to people who are not online and who are not comfortable with that—we hope the number of those will be smaller—are as easy to navigate as possible.
The hon. Gentleman usefully made the point—we know this from our own constituencies—that it drives the public nuts to be transferred around the system, not get answers and be kept waiting. A large part of what we do as MPs is to try to disentangle such things. The onus is on us to try to make that process of engaging with Government as easy as possible, because we know that, on too many occasions, it is far too difficult.
In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman has raised a substantial point. It is something that the Cabinet Office is taking increasingly seriously. We are waiting for the NAO report. We see encouraging signs of transition towards greater transparency, and a desire to reduce costs and the need for telephony services. We also recognise that there is value that we can add in ensuring that the taxpayer is not ripped off.
Beef Cattle and Sheep (Carbon Footprint)
[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this timely debate on the report on the carbon footprint of the cattle and sheep sector by the all-party parliamentary group on beef and lamb.
I also thank my fellow committee members, especially the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for attending the oral evidence sessions that we held as part of our four-month long inquiry and for their assistance in compiling the report.
The all-party group wanted to examine the methodologies currently used to calculate the carbon footprint of the sector in the UK and globally and how the data are used to inform the measures being taken to reduce emissions.
The report, which we launched in Parliament earlier this month, found that more robust scientific data and a standard model to measure carbon sequestration were needed to help the beef and lamb sector meet the twin challenges of sustainable food production and of reducing the environmental impact. It also found that the positive environmental impact of grazing livestock must be taken into account when trying to mitigate the sector’s carbon footprint.
Our inquiry found that a large number of models are used to assess the carbon footprint. Professor Nigel Scollan of Waitrose told the group at the evidence session that 16 methodologies for measuring the carbon footprint of livestock have been developed since 2007 alone. The PAS 2050 model, which was developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institute, is the standard model used by DEFRA. However, in the evidence session, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which acts as an advisory body to the Government, stated that its accepted method for calculating production emissions is set out by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
There is a clear lack of consensus or consistency, which raises two crucial points. First, there is a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions. Secondly, any debate going on at an international level is not based on comparable data. For example, in England, the footprint of beef cattle, according to the PAS 2050 used by DEFRA was 12.65 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and for sheep it was 11.86 kg.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research that has been carried out in Northern Ireland? The greenhouse gas implementation partnership seems to agree with him that there is still a body of research yet to be carried out. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast, which is working with DEFRA and the department of agriculture and fisheries for Scotland, says as part of that research that the ongoing challenges of the inclement weather present a problem.
Thank you for that. We will keep interventions a little shorter in future.
The hon. Lady is right, because climatic conditions will make a difference. The amount of time that an animal takes to finish grazing to become fat also makes a difference, as does the time taken to finish an animal for meat production. All such things have to be taken into consideration. Of course there are a number of ways to measure carbon.
In my hon. Friend’s calculations, will he make reference to the transportation of meat once it has been processed through an abattoir? For example, moving beef from South America to Europe using aviation fuel enormously increases the carbon footprint.
Indeed. When we import meat from South America, Australia or New Zealand, we should take into account the length of time that it takes to get here, especially if it comes by air. Of course, if it comes by sea, it is argued that the carbon footprint is not as large, but it is there none the less. That is why local home-produced food that travels very little distance to the abattoir and that is grazed nicely on good permanent pasture must be of great benefit to all the United Kingdom.
I applaud both the fact that we are having this debate and the work that my hon. Friend and his committee have done. Does he agree that, while this is a legitimate debate for us to have, our fundamental job in the House is to stand up and support our beef and sheep farmers?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The purpose of this inquiry and report is to look at the benefits of producing grass-fed beef and lamb, to keep sustainable grass pasture and to produce very good meat. We would not necessarily want or be able to plough such land, and a huge amount of carbon is captured within the soil. We took some evidence that showed that over years of permanent pasture the carbon actually increases, so there are many good reasons for producing this high-quality beef and lamb.
I will, if I may, continue with my contribution. The footprint of sheep, according to the PAS 2050, is 11.86 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight. The comparative figures for Wales were 7.51 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and 8.6 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight.
As that has demonstrated, even within a country, there is significant variation in the statistics and no way to determine whether they were driven by different efficiencies or by different ways of producing data. That makes any form of comparative assessment of carbon footprint challenging and poses major difficulties for policy formulation. There is no international consensus on sequestration—the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by pasture land through a process of absorption and deposition in the soil, which acts as a carbon sink. In essence, that is a natural form of carbon capture and storage.
The importance of including carbon sequestration is highlighted by Mr Bill Grayson, a producer who gave evidence to the inquiry. He ran four models on his farm’s emissions. The PAS 2050 model, which does not include sequestration, concluded that his farm was a net emitter. The other three methods, which include sequestration, put his farm as a net absorber of carbon. Evidently such significant differences make sensible policy development almost impossible.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I hope that he recognises that we need to view this matter globally. It makes no sense to allow UK farmers to plant trees and remove land from beef production to then allow South American farmers to tear up rain forests to produce beef and to ship it around the world, so that it sits on supermarket shelves next to UK-produced beef.
My hon. Friend raises another important issue. I have visited Brazil, where people are ploughing up a lot of the savannah and planting soya bean and sugar beet and driving cattle towards the rain forests and allowing them to partly destroy the rain forests before people cut down the trees. So it is absolutely essential that we produce in this country high-quality beef and lamb, so that we do not need as many imports; that is absolutely clear. I will go on to talk a little more about those examples shortly.
I want to highlight the methodology used to produce the figures. Achieving consistency in the figures used should be viewed as one of the top priorities for the industry and the Government, who should work in partnership. We urge Ministers and officials at DEFRA to accelerate work at both the EU level and with international bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, to seek global consensus in an agreed methodology.
For example, if we compare the impact of livestock in the UK and in France using nationally-produced data, our producers will be hugely disadvantaged because French data will include sequestration. It is not very often that I ask a Minister to look at a French system, but on this occasion I will. We urge him to look into this issue as a priority and—if we are to see greater co-operation between nations in our effort to respond to environmental and food challenges—to migrate to the model accepted in France. If the Government do not view this as a viable course of action, they need to make a robust case to say why not. The disparity built into the status quo is no longer acceptable in a global debate, because we debate carbon across the whole world and we need to measure it in a similar way.
The report also highlighted other weaknesses in the current life-cycle analysis in the model that DEFRA uses, in addition to its exclusion of sequestration. It is well documented and understood that grazing livestock plays a major role in the management of our landscape; I think that all hon. Members from all parties in the House would recognise that. That view is supported by the English National Park Authorities Association and Natural England, which rightly point out that the landscape value generated by upland farming has an economic benefit to the area, owing to the tourism and business revenue extracted, and that grassland management is important to maximise upland areas’ efficiency as a carbon sink.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene, and I do so only to ask him to agree that that issue is particularly relevant to Wales. There is almost no cereal growing in Wales that is worth talking about; in Wales, farming is almost wholly livestock farming. Livestock farming in Wales is so important that it completely dominates the agricultural scene there.
My hon. Friend refers to the amount of permanent pasture in Wales. Much of the land may well be too steep to be ploughed, and from an environmental point of view, we would not want to plough it. I do not wish to over-labour this point, but if we are not going to graze livestock on that pasture, what are we actually going to do to manage that land successfully? So livestock farming is not only important from an aesthetic point of view; it produces great meat and it does a great service for the landscape. So I very much agree with him. Parts of the west country and the north of England likewise have much permanent pasture.
May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to something that he might find interesting, which is the reintroduction of the little-known Welsh White beef cattle up on the Plynlimon hills with the Wildlife Trusts? The reason that those cattle have been reintroduced in those areas, which are vital for holding carbon emissions in peat bogs, is that they trample the right sort of way—better than sheep—in that environment and they eat the right sort of vegetation to keep the biodiversity right as well. So the Welsh White cattle are doing a good job up there.
The shadow Minister raises an interesting issue about not only carbon sequestration but the management of grassland, but not only Welsh White cattle are important in that regard; there is an argument that sheep do not do the same job on certain pasture land as suckler cows and beef cattle do. That is perhaps the subject for a debate for another time, but it is relevant to the fact that, if we are to have good-quality grassland, we need the right type of stock to graze it.
The inquiry found that no current methodology exists to include this factor in an assessment of carbon footprint, despite the fact the loss of hedgerows and pasture land, for example, would evidently impact on the amount of carbon removed from the air. Of course, more carbon would also be emitted if that pasture land were to be destroyed.
Grazing livestock, particularly on uplands, makes a valuable contribution to biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems. For example, hedgerows provide wonderful habitats for many species that are vital for the diversity of fauna and flora. As numerous witnesses pointed out, it is important to bear that in mind when considering the overall environmental impact of agriculture. Quantifying the carbon value of biodiversity is incredibly difficult and is not something that life-cycle analysis takes into account. The evidence suggests that it will be a major challenge to find an agreed way of quantifying this benefit in the short or medium term. This exposes the weaknesses of simply looking at carbon footprint as a measure of environmental impact, and we urge the Minister to consider this point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Like me, he was a farmer before first entering the House and as farmers we are used to getting the blame for a lot of things. There are certainly environmental consequences to certain farming practices, but does he share my disbelief that farmers are in the dock for—of all things—causing climate change and being responsible for it, given that we all know that the real problems with carbon come from the transport sector, energy generation and general industrialisation rather than from farming?
My hon. Friend and I should probably both declare an interest; I should certainly do so as I am a farmer, and proud to be so. He is absolutely right, because what we have with methane gas from ruminants in particular is a very natural gas. It may come out perhaps too much for people’s liking, but it is very much there. We are taking lower-quality proteins—I had better be careful what I say—and developing them into high-quality meat. Therefore, the animal is doing a great deal of good, and I want to balance the amount of methane gas that the animals might produce compared with the amount of carbon that is kept in the land. I repeat the fact that if we do not keep that land as permanent pasture and plough it up, we will release an awful lot of carbon.
Farmers feel that the real basis of livestock farming is almost under threat. The whole idea of this report is perhaps to try to flag up in advance where the world might go to in a few years’ time, and that scenario is what I am particularly keen to avoid. People need to know the benefits of livestock farming.
I will move on to the next paragraph of the report. Food security is one of the most pressing issues for Governments across the world. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9 billion, and food production will need to increase to meet growing demand. However, that has to be achieved using the existing agricultural land, while making more efficient use of water and mitigating the existing and future impact of farming on the environment.
The challenge is no less great on the home front, with the UK population set to increase by 10 million in the next quarter of a century alone and after the percentage of agricultural land in the UK fell from 39% in 1989 to some 25% in 2009. This means maximising the value of available land, by getting the best possible outcomes in terms of food production. British agricultural land comprises many different land types, and not all are suitable for the production of arable crops. This point was eloquently made by the food climate research network in its evidence to the all-party group:
“Not all land can support crop production and the question then arises—what should be done with this poorer quality, more marginal land? Traditionally the answer has been to graze ruminants which then provide us with meat, milk and other outputs. This represents a form of resource efficiency—the land is being used to produce food that would otherwise need to be produced elsewhere”
That is particularly important.
Almost 65% of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass where sheep and cattle are grazed. We should be utilising this marginal land, which cannot be used for arable crops but can grow good grass and provide good biodiversity and environmental benefits. Beef cattle and sheep play a vital role in food production, because of their ability to turn non-human food into edible proteins and nutrients. Limiting the role of British livestock will reduce the efficiency with which we use our land for food production and will therefore reduce our ability to be self-sufficient.
These points are often neglected, or at least not adequately considered, by those who advocate meat-free diets. If, for argument’s sake, we were all to switch to a diet free of meat, much of our agricultural land would be unfarmed and we would see a considerable drop in the efficiency of our land to food conversion, in addition to the negative impacts on biodiversity, as outlined above.
When the developing world is eating more meat, and choosing to do so, there is a greater need to produce meat across the world. Therefore, Britain should do its fair share of meat production, and grazing both sheep and cattle on grassland is essential, in my view. Grazing cattle and sheep are often given disproportionate blame for carbon emissions from agriculture, and there is not enough recognition among some conservation groups of the role that livestock farming, particularly of grass-fed beef and lamb, plays in storing carbon, protecting biodiversity and utilising marginal land that cannot be used for arable crops.
I thank you for listening to this debate, Mrs Brooke, and open it to colleagues to join in.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this matter to the Westminster Hall Chamber. Those hon. Members who represent agricultural areas will be aware of the importance of the carbon footprint in relation to beef cattle and sheep. I declare an interest as a farmer, although not a working farmer, and as someone who has lived in the countryside for some 40 years. The land that we have is rented out by adjacent farmers, who look after it well. I have spoken to the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland, which has given us a bit of a steer—if I may make a pun—and it has, along with the all-party group’s recommendations, given us some indication of where we want to go.
I am sure that I am not the only person here who watches adverts for cars with a low carbon footprint, who has read reports by environmentalists regarding our footprint as a country and has even been made aware of issues by children and grandchildren, coming home and telling us what they were taught in school. They tell us things we do not know and seem to have great knowledge and expertise.
It is incumbent on us all to be aware of the world that we live in and to do our best to leave a planet behind which our great-grandchildren can enjoy. One aspect of this is being told that we need to cut down our carbon emissions, otherwise global warming will wreak havoc on our country and our world. One of the main greenhouse gases is methane—we are aware of that—which is produced in large quantities by cattle. Agriculture is responsible for 22% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, but that must be set against the fact that it has moulded landscapes, encourages biodiversity and brings money into the local economy by providing employment. I want to give a farmer’s perspective on the issue, and a Northern Ireland perspective as well.
Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for 3.5% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is responsible for 7% of the UK’s methane and nitrous oxide, because Northern Ireland relies a lot more on agriculture than other parts of the UK. Therefore the carbon footprint is of greater importance for Northern Ireland than for other regions of the UK.
Regarding the importance for Northern Ireland, does my hon. Friend agree that on this issue, like a number of others, it is important that the Minister, DEFRA and the responsible Departments in Westminster liaise closely with the regions—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland —to ensure that best practice is adopted by all those concerned, throughout the UK, in trying to tackle a serious problem?
I thank my hon. Friend for a good intervention. I am confident that the Minister will give us some indication of that—I have no doubt that that will happen—but the regions my hon. Friend mentioned must work together with DEFRA.
As I have often said in this Chamber, agriculture in Northern Ireland is under pressure because it is being strangled by EU regulations. Young farmers go to college and learn new ways, then they come home and cannot afford to implement changes that would be beneficial, due to red tape and regulations. However, that is a debate for another day. European legislation dictates carbon emission reductions, but the support offered is sparse. For example, in some countries carbon sequestration is included, but in our current model it is not included, so our farmers would be at a disadvantage in a global market if a tax were to be imposed.
In the grassland used to graze cattle and sheep, carbon is stored in the soil, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, therefore less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere if we farm along those lines. That information could have major repercussions and calls into question our understanding of the carbon footprint of livestock. Although that might be a little bit technical and hard to understand, perhaps, for those who do not have knowledge about the land, it is a serious issue.
It is difficult effectively to evaluate the carbon footprint of raising livestock, because many different variables affect the amount of methane produced, such as the feed system it is raised on, pasture type, rearing time and genetic make-up. People may believe that a meat-free diet is the future because crops have a lower carbon footprint, however far from the truth that may be, but some issues are raised by such a way of life. When land is ploughed, carbon is released that would otherwise have stayed trapped in the carbon sink and that in turn makes it difficult to compare the benefits of growing crops. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, 65% of UK farmland is suitable only for growing grass and would not be a viable option for growing crops. Some land would have to be in pasture all the time, because it cannot be used otherwise.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this welcome debate. Is the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) aware of the impact of the cost of fertiliser on crop production and the impact of that on the debate on greenhouse gases?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am aware of that. Certainly, the Ulster Farmers Union and the farmers on the land in the Ards peninsula and mid-Down are all aware of the costs of the fertilisers and their impact on the land and the waters round about Strangford lough and the Irish sea.
If we ceased to graze cattle on these pasture lands, they could not be used to produce more food and the productivity of our land to food conversion would stop. Biodiversity would also be negatively affected. Land used for grazing livestock provides habitats for animals, which creates biodiversity. Biodiversity has a positive impact on the environment, but that is another factor that is not included when calculating carbon footprints. Many factors that need to be considered when calculating carbon footprints are not considered, and that could negatively affect our farming industry here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Calculating the exact amount by which biodiversity benefits the environment is also difficult. To combat our greenhouse gases, we need more investment in research into farming practices. For example, how big a role does carbon sequestration actually play? We also need to educate our producers to better understand the various issues so that they are able to run their businesses more efficiently.
There is a lot of work to be done. The competitive farming systems team spends a third of its money on sustainable and competitive farming systems, yet most small farmers cannot think of that amount of their income leaving in that way. In Northern Ireland, we have many small farmers. The average size of a farm in Northern Ireland is between 65 and 70 acres, but there are many hobby farmers and part-time farmers. The impact on such farmers is greater, and the impact on us in Northern Ireland is greater still.
Sustainability is crucial. Raising livestock sustainably is not solely the responsibility of producers; retailers also play a pivotal and vital role, which I hope the Minister takes on board. Retailers must enable consumers to make informed decisions about the products they buy so that they can take into account animal welfare, nutritional value and environmental impact before purchasing the product. There has been much talk in the press over the past week or two about the green, amber and red system that tells consumers about a product’s fat content, nutritional value and so on. That, too, will have an impact on farmers, through the retailers.
Retailers can make deals to source meat only from farms with lower emissions, which are better for the environment and are more cost-efficient, but they must stop squeezing the farmer with lower prices while maintaining or increasing prices in their shops, thereby putting pressure on farmers while increasing their own profit margins. Let us be realistic about achievable goals, rather than squeezing the farmer every time we try to achieve specific targets. That is a different story for a different day, but it comes off the back of this debate.
The question that we need to answer is simple: how will we produce enough food to feed a worldwide population of 9 billion by 2050? The answer lies with finding more efficient ways to raise livestock that do not compromise the needs of future generations. Enforcing a vegetarian diet would be unsustainable because the fertilisers used to increase yields, particularly nitrates, pollute water supplies and lead to other consequences. We are endangering the already fragile fishing ecosystems, and the carbon footprint of cattle and sheep is too high. Those issues must be fully considered.
Although I fully understand the need to reduce the carbon footprint, it cannot be done at the expense of farming in the United Kingdom and, more specifically, Northern Ireland. In any consideration of the topic, the farmers’ views and opinions must be paramount. No system will work without their co-operation. Any enforcement of new regulations must be informed and subsidised and cannot be allowed to affect the cattle or the land. The Ulster Farmers Union recently highlighted an interesting figure:
“A recent European Joint Research Centre (JRC) study, highlighted that Brazilian beef has the largest carbon footprint of imported animal products, and with this in mind it is clear that it would be extremely difficult for the EU to achieve its CO2 emission reduction objectives.”
It is all very well to point the finger at our local farmers and to tell them what they should do, but other producers across the world are riding roughshod over the emissions objectives.
Any importation of animals with a high carbon footprint defeats the purpose of any targets set, and the local agriculture industry must be allowed to produce, sell and achieve reasonable aims. I urge great caution when considering the enforcement of a further burden on our agriculture sector. As one farmer said to me, and this is important,
“there are only so many targets we can reach before we realise that we haven’t had time to actually produce anything at all—just time spent filling in forms and working at machinery.”
Let us farm and help those who farm to do their best.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) not only on securing the debate but on all his work to drive forward the all-party group’s report.
The impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is complex and highly contested. The report does an admirable job of highlighting some of the difficulties associated with carbon footprint modelling, particularly on measuring the impact of carbon sequestration, but that is only one aspect of a much bigger picture.
We need greater recognition of the urgent need to address climate change, and we cannot escape the reality that cattle and sheep produce a lot of methane, but it has become increasingly evident that that is not a zero-sum game; there is an increasing body of evidence showing the significant environmental benefits associated with livestock farming. When we look at both sides of the carbon balance sheet, we see that, overall, methane emissions from ruminants are only one part of the footprint of agricultural production and that cattle and sheep farming, which have been central to our culture for millennia, play a positive role not only in enabling sustainable land use but in maintaining our carbon sinks, protecting biodiversity and creating livelihoods in rural communities.
Those issues are extremely pressing in Scotland, because livestock farming accounts for a high proportion of land use—significantly higher than in other countries of the UK. More than 82% of our agricultural land is grassland, some 70% of which is rough grazing. Those are huge carbon sinks—the Scottish Agricultural College estimates that they represent 80% of the UK’s carbon stocks—so the extent to which carbon sequestration takes place on grassland is very important. We do not yet have enough consistent evidence to reach definitive conclusions, but we know that changing the use of that land could have very adverse consequences, not just for greenhouse gas emissions but for biodiversity and the livelihoods of our farmers and rural communities.
In the past, I have heard simplistic arguments for switching from livestock to arable production, which is a total non-starter in most of Scotland. Some 85% of Scottish land is less-favoured area, and much of it, especially on higher ground, is not suitable for crops. Our climate, combined with marginal land quality, makes arable farming an unviable proposition in many parts of the country. As much of that land is a carbon sink, bringing grasslands and rough grazing into cultivation would, frankly, be destructive and irresponsible in climate and environmental terms; it would increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.
By contrast, a great deal can be done to maximise the sustainability of livestock farming without compromising livelihoods. Research by Scotland’s Rural College as part of the “Farming for a Better Climate” initiative shows there are lots of simple, practical steps that farmers can take to minimise and mitigate the impact of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions, from how they manage grazing land to how they use fertilisers and manage waste and slurry; there is also the kind of energy, bedding materials and feed that they use, and even the breeds of sheep and cattle that they rear. Let us not forget that that account cannot end at the front gate—the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who is no longer in his place, made a point about transport costs—it is also about other aspects of the supply chain, such as packaging and processing costs, all of which potentially have an environmental impact that can be reduced to bring better produce to consumers.
I represent a constituency famous for producing some of the finest beef anywhere in the world. Indeed, Buchan was known as the stockyard of Britain in the days when we still had trains. We are proud of the beef and lamb that we produce in the north-east, but livestock numbers have fallen across Scotland in recent years. As several colleagues from Northern Ireland have said, this has not been an easy time for livestock farmers, who face a range of challenges that are outwith the scope of today’s debate.
When people stop farming, the land stops being stewarded and communities start to diminish. Before we make rash policy decisions, it is important that we have a much better understanding of the role of carbon sequestration. We do not have enough of an evidence base yet, but policy should be based on knowing what we are dealing with and how we can best use our land sustainably. We should recognise that livestock farming is one of the most sustainable ways to manage, maintain and steward grassland and land that is not suitable for cultivation.
I hope the Minister will take on board the all-party group’s concerns about the methodologies used by DEFRA to measure the climate impact of beef and lamb production. I also hope he will recognise the contribution that cattle and sheep farming make to sustainable land management, food security, biodiversity and the well-being of our rural communities.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—I very much enjoyed her speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on calling the debate.
I should mention that I keep Hereford cattle, which are the finest, tastiest, most adaptable and most popular breed in the world—no need for any of these Welsh Whites.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would be delighted to give way after challenging the hon. Gentleman.
Welsh Whites are a very small breed, with little panda eyes that look up at you. It would be very difficult to eat them, because they are gorgeous little creatures.
It is difficult to justify having these wonderful animals if they have no purpose. One key point is that if we did not have a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, largely from meat, it would be hard to justify having these wonderful breeds, from many different parts of the United Kingdom, which would be a great loss.
There are two primary causes of climate change: one is chopping down trees in our rain forests to plant soya beans, and we are doing what we can to mitigate the impact of that industry; the other is emissions from the front and the back of the cow, which release methane into the atmosphere. While the emissions from our cattle are regrettable, we have taken steps to control the phenomenon, and we are currently taking further action.
A report called “The English Beef and Sheep Production Roadmap—Phase 1”, from 2009, states:
“Steady improvements in beef and sheep production efficiency have taken place over the past decade, with 5% fewer prime animals required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998.”
Emission levels from British cattle have therefore been reduced due to lower cattle numbers.
Regardless of where the emissions come from, however, the inquiry undertaken by the all-party group has clearly highlighted the fact that there are specific issues surrounding the way in which we in England measure carbon emissions from grazing livestock on our farms. In some cases, we go so far as to disadvantage our farmers, our industry and even our country, in terms of its ability to meet the agricultural industry’s global targets. It is outrageous that there is no international consensus on sequestration, and I am sure the Minister will want to see one. Having a consensus is absolutely fundamental; indeed, there is an old saying: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” We have to move forward on that.
Britain excludes sequestration from its assessments, whereas France and Wales, which is next to my constituency, include sequestration. That means that when we make comparisons between the three countries and measure how close each is to reaching its targets, we in England find ourselves at a disadvantage. While the inquiry by the all-party group, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, has told us many things we already knew, it has also revealed sequestration to be the primary issue of contention.
England has one of the most efficient livestock production systems in the world, in the form of our rain-fed pastures. Yet, grazing cattle and sheep comes in for undue negative criticism, with the focus fixed firmly on emissions from animals. Those animals actually have a positive part to play in landscape management and the utilisation of land that cannot, as many colleagues have said, be used for arable crops. Many fellow Members would support us in the view that our sheep and cattle contribute meaningfully to our environment, and the all-party group report rightly acknowledges that. One of the contentions revealed by the report is that if we, like France and Wales, took such issues into account, our carbon footprint could be significantly lower, and our farmers would be at less of a disadvantage.
The report suggests we need more robust scientific evidence and data to move the debate forward constructively. National Farmers Union climate change adviser Dr Ceris Jones acknowledged that the report highlights the exclusion of sequestration from the majority of our calculations of greenhouse gases. As the report recalls, “a number of witnesses” supported the idea that pasture land had the ability
“to sequester carbon from the atmosphere”.
It goes on to point to research being done in France by Professor Jean François Soussana on carbon sequestration, which may point to why several countries now include carbon sequestration in their calculations.
In my constituency, farming is a major employer and a huge part of the local economy. I therefore find very troubling anything that hampers my constituents or that might prevent their businesses from growing or from being as successful as they could be.
Carbon sequestration is set to be a significant issue for the industry, particularly because of the different attitudes towards it in different countries. As I explained, those differences could have a significant negative impact on our industry. If we could offset the methane emissions from grazing livestock, as happens in France and Wales, that could have a positive implication for our understanding of our livestock’s carbon footprint. Additionally, as the report explains, that
“would render the current PAS 2050 model incorrect and would mean we should move to a model closer to that used in France.”
Before such a drastic move is contemplated, and with the science unresolved, further investigation should, of course, be our first course of action. Dr Luke Spadavecchia, of DEFRA, has explained to the all-party group the complexity of the sequestration calculation. Even if the science on sequestration was unanimous, however, the inquiry would still have raised several valid and vital points on, for example, sustainability and the role our cattle and sheep play in feeding the world’s growing population.
Ultimately, there is still much debate to have on this matter. I hope the inquiry and our subsequent debate will enable us to find common ground so that we can move forward and give our farmers the best opportunity to succeed.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.
It is probably masochism that brings me here to debate with a room full of farmers. People are well aware of where I come from on this issue, but I hope to convince them that I am speaking not from an emotive perspective, but on the basis of a significant number of reports from eminent experts in the field, which have convinced me of the environmental danger posed by the livestock sector.
In 2009, I introduced a debate in Parliament on the environmental impact of the livestock sector—as I recall, it was just me and the then Labour Minister, who was not particularly impressed. [Interruption.] Actually, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) may have been there.
It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) is not here, because he introduced the Sustainable Livestock Bill in Parliament a few years ago as a private Member’s Bill.
When the hon. Lady refers to the dangers of livestock production, is she differentiating between grass-fed livestock on permanent pasture, which is good for the landscape and biodiversity, and other forms of livestock? It is an interesting point, and I would like her to clarify it.
I will get on to that in a moment. It was one of the first points I was going to make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South is by no means a vegetarian—he enjoys eating meat—but he made a persuasive case at that time for looking at the environmental impact of the livestock sector. It is a shame that he could not be here, because he perhaps has more credibility on these matters than I do in the eyes of the farmers present.
However, let me turn to my first point and respond to the intervention from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). The problem with today’s debate is that it has, for understandable reasons, focused very much on farming in the UK. I understand that Members are keen to support the industry and the farmers in their constituencies, but that has led to a bit of a distortion, with a focus on grazing and grass-fed livestock, although I entirely agree that their environmental impact is less serious.
I had an interesting meeting with the Campaign to Protect Rural England on Friday and was told how in some areas of Wales the land previously used for sheep grazing was being used to grow blueberries, or given over to forestry, which were both more profitable. I accept that the areas at the top of the hill would not be suitable for that, but the CPRE made the case for alternative uses. Given the price of blueberries in the supermarket, perhaps people would gain from venturing into growing them.
The hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have focused on local farming, but I think every one mentioned farming elsewhere in the world, where the impact and the carbon footprint are greater. Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that if livestock farming plays a role—and we believe it may—other countries need to do their part? Does she feel that that is something she should focus on?
I entirely support the move, if people are going to eat meat, towards locally-sourced, sustainable, grass-fed cattle. That is far more environmentally friendly, in view of issues such as food miles; and, in the case of organic meat, issues of pesticides and fertilisers are also addressed. I support that. It is not the ideal solution, but it is a lot better.
I had a piece published on the topic in the New Statesman last week; 97% of the world’s soya crop goes to farmed animals. As to the question of how to feed the world without a partly meat-based diet, it is estimated that we could eliminate most of the worst of world hunger with about 40 million tonnes of food, but at the moment nearly 20 times that—760 million tonnes—is fed to animals each year. My article was to an extent a criticism of the Enough Food IF campaign, which is about feeding the world and lobbying the G8 to address global hunger. The campaign criticises the fact that 100 million tonnes of crops go towards biofuels, and says that biofuels are a bad thing; but, as I have said, 760 million tonnes go towards feeding animals and it seems completely silent on that point. That needs to be addressed when we consider the devastation of the rain forest and its environmental impact.
The hon. Lady is making an important point about the substitution of animal feed for human food, but she must understand that—even if the crop is wheat or soya beans—not all that food would be suitable for human consumption. Therefore, even in the ideal world that she hopes to live in, what she envisages would not mean we could not have animals.
I understand the nuanced argument that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but I still think that there is a compelling case, and I want to deal now with some reports.
It seemed to me that during the debate there was a herd of elephants in the room, which hon. Members were not mentioning. No reference was made to other very authoritative reports, which have said there is a serious issue to be addressed. In my 2009 debate, I cited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report of 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, which makes compelling reading. It concluded:
“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”
I will not cite all the figures that I quoted in my debate, because people will be familiar with the fact that it takes 8 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I do not think I can take any more interventions, because I suspect the winding-up speeches will begin soon, and I have been generous in giving way.
Raj Patel wrote in “Stuffed and Starved”:
“The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million”.
I also cited figures about the water footprint. It takes 100 times as much water to produce 1 kg of beef as it does to grow 1 kg of vegetables. It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein. It takes almost 21 square metres of land to produce 1 kg of beef, if we factor in animal feed, compared with 0.3 square metres to produce 1 kg of vegetables; I could go on. That was a 2006 report, but more recently Professor Mark Sutton, the lead author of a UN environment programme study published in February, entitled “Our Nutrient World”, called for people to become what he called demitarians, and eat half as much meat as they do now. He said:
“Unless action is taken increases in pollution and the per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity”.
In 2009, a report was produced called “How Low Can We Go?”. It was co-authored by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Food Climate Research Network set up by Dr Tara Garnett, who is now at the university of Oxford. It gave scenarios in which cuts in food system emissions would mean we could reduce the total UK carbon footprint by 20%—that is, make a 70% cut in the UK food carbon footprint, which is currently about 30% of the UK total. It concluded:
“A reduction in consumption of livestock products could play a significant role in any deep and long-term abatement strategy”
to cut greenhouse gas emissions
“from the UK’s food chain.”
Another relevant paper was called “Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture” and was published in The Lancet in December 2009. It was a collaboration between the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, Canberra, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Food Climate Research Network and the London International Development Centre. I am sure that hon. Members do not need me to tell them that work published in The Lancet is peer-reviewed. I would say that that is a considerably more rigorous process than the all-party group inquiry that we have heard about. The paper concluded:
“Agricultural food production and agriculturally-related change in land use substantially contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. Four-fifths of agricultural emissions arise from the livestock sector. Although livestock products are a source of some essential nutrients, they provide large amounts of saturated fat, which is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We considered potential strategies for the agricultural sector to meet the target recommended by the UK Committee on Climate Change to reduce UK emissions from the concentrations recorded in 1990 by 80% by 2050, which would require a 50% reduction by 2030. With use of the UK as a case study, we identified that a combination of agricultural technological improvements and a 30% reduction in livestock production would be needed to meet this target”.
The final report I want to mention is “Setting the Table”, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and published by the Sustainable Development Commission in December 2009. It found that eliminating waste, cutting fatty and sugary foods and reducing meat and dairy consumption would make the biggest contribution towards improving health and reducing the environmental impacts of the food system. The SDC’s research found evidence that consuming only fish from sustainable stocks, eating more seasonal food, cutting out bottled water, shopping on foot, and some other things not directly related to the meat industry would contribute towards a more sustainable diet. However, it concluded that the most significant health and environmental benefits were from reducing meat and dairy, cutting food and drink of low nutritional value and reducing food waste.
I appreciate the intention of hon. Members who are present today to defend the UK beef and sheep industry; but I do not think it is helpful, in doing that, to ignore much of the other evidence. We cannot look at the issues in isolation. We should begin by acknowledging that there is a problem, and address that. I am slightly concerned that EBLEX, the organisation for the British beef and sheep industry, supports the all-party group, and is thanked in the report. I also note that Weber Shandwick provides the secretariat for the group, and has been thanked for its help in compiling the report. I do not know quite what clients it has that have led to its interest in the issue, but I think vested interests are clearly at work. I was going to say they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes—I have managed to make an entire speech without sheep or cow-related puns until now; I am not sure that the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) will manage that. He already has a twinkle in his eye. I think that there is, to an extent, an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes, and I urge Ministers to consider the issue in the round, rather than looking only at the narrow points made in the report.
It is a delight to serve in a debate under your stewardship, Mrs Brooke, and to respond briefly, before the Minister takes the stage. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and other members of the all-party group on beef and lamb for their work on the report. I note for the record my membership of the group, although I can take no credit or praise for this report. I was absent from the proceedings during witness statements and so on. My absence in no way diminishes the report; in fact, it probably strengthens it.
I will mention the contributions before I make some detailed points. The chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, went in some detail through the report, which I will discuss in a moment. I should make it clear that I used the example of Welsh White cattle for a particular reason. He made the point ably in his contribution that we should consider not only issues such as carbon reduction, emissions and sequestration, but the wider benefits of particular livestock in certain landscapes and environments.
The reason why I gave the curious example of the fairly rare Welsh White—a small beef animal—is that its footprint is slightly lighter than other cattle but slightly heavier than sheep. It does a perfect job of breaking up the upland peat bogs of the Plynlimon hills, but not breaking up the ground too much. Combined with excellent work done by local farmers and the Wildlife Trusts to re-block some of the drains dug during the second world war to dry out the land so crops could be planted, which never quite worked successfully, the breed is now yielding great dividends. The right creature in the right habitat helps biodiversity as well.
The hon. Gentleman made the point well in his contribution that there is a wider range of issues, some of which are interlinked. Often, we talk about carbon on this side and biodiversity on the other side. We need to pull the strands together intelligently.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a varied contribution. He always speaks well, and not only about the interests of Northern Ireland and his constituents. He rightly raised food security and food production, as did other Members. We are focusing increasingly on meeting the need for good nutrition and affordable food on the tables of a growing population both within this country and in terms of exports. Export markets are growing for Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and English produce.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) added an extra dimension to the debate when she said that we need to consider both sides of carbon. Again, that came out in the all-party parliamentary group’s report: this is not simply about carbon emissions, but about sequestration within different types of landscape. The point was well made, and I will return to it.
The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) made a good contribution, although I should pick him up on one point. He referred to Wales, “which is next to my constituency.” It is a little larger than simply being next to his constituency; it is next to a few others as well. I understand that Wales is often used as a unit of international measurement, but I would not want to think that it is only the size of North Herefordshire. It is a little larger.
It is definitely still next door to my constituency, though.
It is, but it is next door to a lot of others as well. We may be slightly smaller than other countries, but we are a proud nation, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) rightly challenged the farming sector with its responsibilities in terms of climate change and carbon emissions, saying that it could do more. She was eminently reasonable on the contribution that farming could play as part of the wider UK and global drive to tackle global emissions. She also widened the debate to the issue of biofuels versus food, which other hon. Members also raised, and to diet and other reports that challenge or contradict what we are debating. Those reports were useful for this debate and probably deserve separate debates, which I am sure she will seek; it is right to have challenge.
This is more than simply an applied academic argument about how we measure and compare the carbon footprint of livestock. It is about effective measures to improve the performance of different types of farms in different farming sectors, and we can seek that improvement only if we measure the right thing in the right way and make like-for-like comparisons both within the UK and its devolved Administrations and internationally. As hon. Members have said, it is also a matter of food security and providing for the demands of a growing global population, and as I am sure other members of the all-party group are aware, it is a matter of reputational importance to the livestock sector. It recognises the work that the sector can do and its role in reducing carbon emissions, while putting good, wholesome British food on consumers’ plates in all parts of the UK and increasingly in other countries, which demand outstanding produce from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The all-party group’s report raises questions about the accuracy and appropriateness of measurement, the lack of consensus on standard methodologies of measurement and the lack of comparability between measurement approaches domestically and internationally, as well as about how carbon sequestration can and should be taken into account with a standard approach. The all-party group has done a great service to the House by raising those issues, so that the Minister can respond to them domestically and internationally. I will turn briefly to some of the specific issues.
I am grateful for the information provided to all hon. Members by the National Farmers Union and others. One interesting dilemma within the discussions on carbon emissions and sequestration is illustrated in upland hill farming, which is part of my family background. The NFU makes the good point that such farmers could be particularly disadvantaged by how we currently measure, assess and compare carbon impacts. Some of the hill farms are on poor land without any real alternative uses. Such farming is also extensive in nature; it takes far longer to raise lambs to carcase weight. The finishing period is far longer, and generally, the vegetation and forage are of a much lower standard. That has a significant impact. When we look at the farming sector as a whole and say, “You’re not doing well enough,” the question comes back, “What alternatives do you have for that environment?” It is an interesting question. I am glad that I am speaking up for sheep, rather than cattle, after my earlier intervention. As we mentioned, it is also a question of the benefits for landscape management and biodiversity of having the right livestock in the right place.
On the international comparators raised by the all-party group and others, can the Minister give us an update on what progress has been made towards standardising international measures? What is happening on the common carbon footprinting methodology for the lamb meat sector? What is happening on the slightly earlier-stage beef life-cycle assessment white paper by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef? How are those things progressing? They and similar transnational interventions might provide some solutions to what the all-party group seeks.
Some issues raised by the NFU include the uncertainty still associated with agricultural emissions—it existed while we were in government, and it is still ambiguous now—the need for good data about the wider aspects of on-farm activity, the choice of unit used to assess on-farm activity and carbon emissions, where the boundary lies and whether farm-specific mitigation measures should be part of the overall measure of a farm’s carbon impact. If a farm takes measures, including on renewable energy and so on, should they be included?
Finally, the NFU has broadly welcomed the recent call by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board to develop and deliver a computer-based environmental impact calculator for use by UK farms. It sees that as a way to achieve less ambiguity and more confidence. Will the Minister give us an update on that as well?
I thank the all-party group for its report and for securing the debate this afternoon. The right questions are being asked, and I am sure that the Minister will give us some assurance on them. Much more work needs to be done on measurement and comparability, but while recognising the real issues of food security and affordability, there are also things on which the farming sector—if we can get the measurements right—will want to deliver. Such work will show not only what a good job farmers do, but what more they can do to help us in our drive to tackle carbon emissions and climate change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and I think that this is the first time I have done so, so it is a particular pleasure. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), not only on securing the debate and his contribution to it, but on the work of the all-party group for beef and lamb, which he chairs, and its report.
I am going to introduce a few figures, which are important to the debate. It is a fact that man-made greenhouse gas emissions represent a serious threat of climate change. Inescapably, agriculture directly accounts for about 10% to 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. More widely, including other emissions associated with agricultural production, such as land use change, energy for fertiliser production and fuel for transport and refrigeration of products, emissions from global food production are far more significant, perhaps totalling 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the figures are rather different. Agriculture accounts for about 9% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and overall emissions from the agriculture sector have decreased by 20% since 1990, while we expect them to decrease by 12% from 2010 levels by 2025. I hope that that puts the issue into context.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, as well as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), stressed the importance in discussion of such matters of recognising balance—there are downsides, but also upsides. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) mentioned, for example, the value not only of biodiversity but of having a thriving and positive economy in the country. Getting the balance right is important, therefore, and is exemplified in specific cases. The hon. Member for Ogmore told us about his little, sad-looking White cattle in Plynlimon. I seem to remember that Plynlimon is the wettest place in the United Kingdom—it has the highest rainfall—so perhaps that is why the cattle look sad: they are sitting at the source of the great River Severn and feeling sorry for themselves, because it is raining. Nevertheless, he made an important point about needing the right animals in the right places to achieve the right results.
To return to our carbon footprint in this country, UK beef and lamb producers are among the most efficient globally. In 2010, the EU Joint Research Centre published a report showing that British beef is produced with less than half the emissions per kilogram than beef from Brazil. Those results are supported by research undertaken by Ricardo-AEA and Cranfield university, which reported that beef from Brazil is produced with 33% greater emissions than beef from the UK. The point I am making, because many Members have been concerned about what carbon footprinting is all about, is that it can be a useful tool to help businesses identify inefficiencies and emissions hot spots in order to improve not only environmental performance, but business efficiency and competitiveness.
I was slightly concerned by the contributions of some Members, who suggested a serious detriment to agricultural producers in this country, which carbon footprinting is not. Carbon footprints are not used in international policy making; they are tools for the benchmarking and marketing of products. In England and Wales, we do not have Government targets for mitigation in the agricultural sector. International emission comparisons are made using greenhouse gas inventories that are compiled under strict guidance issued by the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change. It is important to recognise that carbon footprinting can help the industry to meet not only our societal needs, in dealing with greenhouse gases, but its business needs, in doing the right thing. Carbon footprints are not intended—I can certainly foresee no such intention—to be introduced as targets or as something that individual producers must fulfil.
Nevertheless, the industry wants to do better. The UK beef and sheep industry, therefore, is seeking further emission reductions through the EBLEX product road maps, recognising that measures to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions generally increase business efficiency and competitiveness. My Department welcomes such developments as part of the wider growth strategy for the sector.
The APG made some specific points. Its report draws attention to the problems of standardisation for carbon footprinting of the beef and sheep sector. Under the previous Government, DEFRA worked with the British Standards Institute and the Carbon Trust to develop the PAS 2050 standard for carbon footprinting and to encourage best practice. PAS 2050 aims to simplify carbon footprinting so that it can be carried out by a wider range of practitioners, and provides guidance to ensure greater consistency in approach.
The report is right to point out, however, areas of uncertainty where flexibility is needed, so PAS 2050 is not prescriptive for individual products, although it includes the potential for industry to develop product guidelines known as “supplementary requirements” to ensure that consistent approaches are used and to improve comparability of results. The dairy sector, for example, has produced such guidance via DairyCo, in partnership with the Carbon Trust. DairyCo has also worked with the International Dairy Federation to promote international standardisation. EBLEX is, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore, discussing international standards for carbon footprinting beef production systems with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative or SAI Platform, a food-industry initiative supporting the development of sustainable agriculture worldwide. Similarly, EBLEX is exploring options to develop international standards for lamb production.
The APG report also calls for improved accounting of soil carbon sequestration in carbon footprinting. PAS 2050 provides for the optional inclusion of soil carbon sequestration in carbon footprinting, but we might have a misunderstanding about the terminology, which I want to address. There is a distinction between carbon storage and carbon sequestration: carbon storage is carbon that is held by permanent pasture or any other land management system; and carbon sequestration is a process by which carbon is captured in that system.
Scientific understanding indicates that UK pastures represent a significant store of carbon, but do not tend to sequester additional carbon from the atmosphere. That is where the distinction needs to be drawn. If we change land management, of course we have a change—perhaps a positive one, perhaps a negative one, but one that could be either sequestration or release of carbon—but, in a steady state, we do not have a movement of carbon on that basis. Where management practices are employed to increase soil carbon sequestration, the benefits are often small, uncertain and difficult to measure. Nevertheless, DEFRA has invested £390,000 in a project to improve carbon accounting under agricultural land management, including work to assess the extent to which agricultural land management can enhance carbon sequestration in the UK, the findings of which will support carbon footprinting studies. We expect the results to be published in the spring of 2014.
My understanding of what the Minister said is that grassland is better storage than a sequestration process. However, the business of farming for cattle and sheep means that the carbon is captured by the grass and then moved along the food chain as the cattle eat the grass and become food and manure. That is the sequestration process, and that is why it is important to measure it.
There is a constant store in any land management system. Any landscape feature, if it is not changed, will have a constant store, so there is a zero-sum gain. If the land is ploughed up or a different crop is grown, the equation may change and the position will be different. That is the simple point that I am making.
We want to continue to fund research into improving the sophistication and accuracy of carbon footprinting methods to support the industry and we have engaged actively in the production of internationally agreed standards for carbon footprints. Research under the UK’s agricultural greenhouse gas research and development platform is a £13.5 million initiative which, in response to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is not in his place at the moment, is shared with the devolved Administrations, so it is also relevant to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. Its purpose is to improve the understanding of greenhouse gas emissions from UK agriculture, and it will also provide underpinning evidence to improve the quality of carbon footprints.
Given the wide variety of production systems and processes in beef and sheep farming, carbon footprinting inevitably becomes part of the marketing mix, but as with other product information, the industry has a responsibility to be transparent about what it has and has not included in the analyses.
Will the Minister address the point that was made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about methane emissions? I believe that 37% of methane emissions are attributable to the livestock sector, but the hon. Gentleman argued that because they come from a natural source they may not be as environmentally damaging as emissions from other sources. My understanding is that emissions are emissions and cause the same harm regardless of where they originate.
The hon. Lady is of course right. A greenhouse gas is a greenhouse gas and has an effect on climate change. I do not accept entirely the argument about some being natural and others are not. That is transparently the case, but it is not a distinction that should affect our consideration of emissions. Some processes and activities are more avoidable than others, and some have a societal interest. The hon. Lady’s contention is perfectly respectable and she is entirely consistent in what she says about not using pasture land to produce animals as we do at the moment. However, society generally does not agree with that view. Society in this country generally wants to eat meat and wants the most efficient and effective processes, which is why we provide research support to help the industry to make those processes as beneficial and as least harmful as possible, but that does not mean that people do not want to eat meat. In the same way, people want to move around the country despite the fact that doing so has a demonstrable effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
I thought I made it clear at the beginning that I was concerned primarily about soya and grain production and its impact, rather than grass-fed animals in this country.
I understand. I am not trying to misrepresent the hon. Lady’s point of view. She opened her comments by saying that she was somewhat masochistic in expressing her view in a debate populated largely by people with agricultural interests.
If we can do anything to mitigate effects on agriculture and any other sphere, we should do so. If we can provide help with research and help the industry to help itself in reducing those effects, all the better. We want to put all those factors into the equation with the other undoubted benefits of extensive pasture and the societal changes in parts of the country where other forms of agriculture would be exceedingly difficult, or in areas where there is huge expertise, for example, in beef production. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) prayed in aid his Hereford cattle, and I thought there might be tension between those with Herefords and those with Aberdeen Angus cattle, but that did not arise. Let us join together in saying that this country is blessed with not only some of the best breeds of livestock, but some of the best livestock husbandry anywhere. I am proud of that, and it makes my job that much easier.
My final point is about industry development and supplementary requirements, and responds in part to the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton’s all-party group. Getting development of supplementary requirements under PAS 2050 and product rules under the greenhouse gas protocol product standard will help to bring consistency to carbon footprinting in the beef and sheep sector. EBLEX has taken the lead, and is a very effective levy-funded organisation. It is working on a UK-wide basis, which is relevant to some of the arguments about levy funding in the red meat sector, to produce the best possible advice and support for all producers throughout the United Kingdom, and I support it in that.
My hon. Friend and his all-party group have made some important points about the lack of consistency and the interpretation of the information we have to date. We accept that there is a lack of consistency. We want to improve that and to make the information as useful as possible because that will help the industry to move in the right direction in reducing as far as possible the emissions from agriculture and ensuring that we contribute as much as we can to our overall reduction in greenhouse gas. I hope we all support that. It is a principal feature of Government policy.
I thank the Minister for his response. I want to put on the record the benefits of grass-fed beef and sheep production, and the fact that the amount of carbon stored in the soil balances the methane gas that the animals release. That is the particular point that I wanted the report to emphasise.
I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend to make that final comment without running foul of the procedural rules. This debate has been extremely useful and interesting. The argument will continue to engage us, but we have made a valuable contribution today.
Legal Aid (Rural Wales)
It is a particular pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. We have an extra minute or so, for which I am very grateful.
I sought this debate to highlight the increasing number of concerns about the proposals to reform legal aid, following publication of the consultation document, “Transforming Legal Aid” by the Ministry of Justice on 9 April. I hope to obtain some reassurance from the Minister that, at the very least, the impact of the reforms on our constituents will be fully considered before changes are made.
The consultation, which closed on 4 June, outlines a number of reforms to the provision of legal aid across the England and Wales that are causing a great deal of concern. I responded to the consultation, as many other colleagues did, and tomorrow’s Back-Bench debate provides another opportunity to speak on the issue—if hon. Members only have a small bite of the cherry today, there is the opportunity for a bigger bite in that debate.
I wanted to focus on the effect of the reforms particularly in rural areas—in constituencies such as mine and in rural Wales generally—because I believe that that has been lamentably overlooked in the consultation. I worry that, if enacted, the proposals will have a devastating impact on access to justice for my constituents and on solicitors’ practices, and we must be aware that the significance of the reforms is such that, if enacted, there will be no going back.
Before addressing the proposals, I want to raise concerns about the consultation itself. First, as mentioned by the Welsh Assembly Government in their submission to the consultation, there was no mention in the consultation document of the Welsh language in accordance with the Welsh Language Act 1993. The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, states in her submission letter:
“There are several references in this consultation to assessing the impact of the proposed changes on various groups as well as assessing the impact in accordance with the MOJ’s duties under the 2010 Equality Act. With regard to the Welsh language, there is no mention of it in the consultation’s documentation.”
What discussions have there been so far between the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Office? I am glad that a colleague from the Wales Office, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), is present today. It strikes many of us that the specific concerns of Wales have been low down the pecking order.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I declare an interest, having practised legal aid work as a solicitor and barrister. I support everything that he is saying, but it is worse than he described. As the consultation document was sent out in English only, the Ministry of Justice thereby has broken its Welsh language policy. It is only a mere afterthought, as, I am sure, is getting rid of all these firms. The proposal is for four legal aid firms alone to deal with legal aid in the whole of north Wales, and I am sure that it is just as bad in mid-Wales.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which illustrates the huge degree of concern. The Government embark on consultations, and we can have a debate about whether they are genuine; I hope very much that this one is, as much needs to be said and changes need to be made. However, I have to raise the treatment of the Welsh language in this case. I see, as an English speaker representing a majority Welsh-speaking constituency—50% of my constituents do so, and in large parts of my constituency, larger percentages speak Welsh as their first language—that what has happened is an insult to those people. All Departments across Whitehall need to be mindful of that when they produce any documentation.
The hon. Gentleman is making a hugely important point to many of us who represent rural parts where the Welsh language is strong. Does he agree that the consultation simply has not been acceptable, and the principal reason is the attitude towards the Welsh language, not only in the consultation, but in the fact that there will be four firms, making it impossible for them to deliver the service and pay proper account to the Welsh language?
I agree with my hon. Friend completely on that point, and I am grateful for both interventions. They illustrate points that I will make a little later in my speech.
I intervene briefly, simply to say that in answer to a question of mine the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), stated that
“any criminal legal aid contract holder would be required to meet the obligations of the Welsh Language Act.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 280W.]
That sounds all right on paper, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that it is something of an afterthought?
As I shall say later, the delivery in practice will be a different story. There is concern that the consultation period of eight weeks is too short and does not allow people fully to analyse the proposals, particularly when reflecting on the Government’s ambitious timetable not only to get the proposals authorised, but to start tendering the contracts by the autumn. Consultation is particularly critical in this case, given that the proposals can be enacted without further primary legislation, which is why it is opportune that we discuss such matters now.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. In April, the Government cut some civil and family legal aid, the consequences of which I am seeing in my office, with many parents fighting custody battles where one parent can get a solicitor and the other parent cannot. Therefore, justice is denied and courts are getting clogged up. In light of those changes, does it not make sense for the Government to slow down and have a look at what is happening already where they have cut legal aid, before rushing into further changes?
I concur with much of what the hon. Lady says. This is about process, and what her constituents will find more difficult when they are faced, I think, with nine solicitors’ practices in the whole of Gwent is physically accessing legal aid, if it is available to them.
On the proposals themselves, the model is inappropriate for rural areas. The geography of our country is such that defendants will be allocated a solicitor whom they will find it extremely difficult, physically, to meet sometimes. The proposals do not take into account the vast distances and travel challenges across my area of Ceredigion and the rest of rural Wales. If a defendant from Newtown was allocated a duty solicitor in Llanelli, a meeting would require the defendant or solicitor to make a round trip of more than five hours—not to mention, of course, the challenges with transport links that we face in rural areas.
The reduction in firms that are able to bid for contracts will lead to huge delays in solicitors attending courts, or possibly a police station, and that has serious implications for the defendant. I understand from a local solicitor that, just before Christmas, GEOAmey—one of the private companies—transported a constituent of mine from Manchester to Aberystwyth but was unable to take the constituent off the prison van. It had to take him back, as it had brought only two members of staff, and at least three are needed to escort a prisoner. That vast journey, at huge expense, was a wasted opportunity. A future with a criminal defence system providing that level of service is a worrying one.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way for the last time—[Interruption.] Sorry, nearly the last time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that affording that transport is virtually impossible for many clients and that, if they were allocated different people on different occasions, which can happen with repeat offences, they could end up with several different firms representing them at one court hearing? Again, that would be massively wasteful.
The hon. Lady pre-empts another of my later remarks. The relationship between solicitors and those repeat offenders is critical, and we risk losing that.
It is asserted that there would be four providers across the whole of Dyfed Powys. There would be real access issues, and are the proposed consortia feasible? As we have heard from hon. Members, the proposals plan to have four providers across the whole of Dyfed Powys, four across the whole of north Wales—sorry, I correct myself—and four in Gwent and nine across the whole of south Wales. By contrast, 37 contracts are planned for Greater Manchester, which has a similar population to south Wales. Again, will the Ministry of Justice, and the Whip speaking for the Ministry today, outline how that was calculated? How was rurality factored in? Although my hon. Friends from south Wales and the M4 corridor will have strong feelings about the provision of access there, for those of us who work, live and function in mid-Wales and north Wales, the picture is disastrous. We lose out yet again, and we are put at a real disadvantage compared with other people across the country.
My next concern is that competitive tendering at 17.5% less will drive solicitors out of business. The competitive tendering proposed for contracts remains a major cause for concern. It will simply drive solicitors out of business. Those remaining will be firms that are willing to cut costs, possibly to unworkable levels. That would lead to tenders being awarded to less able and potentially less experienced firms, which may find themselves unable to deliver on the prices promised to secure the tender. I am clear in my mind where I would like to go if I needed legal advice. However, there is the spectacle of Eddie Stobart or Tesco providing the service. The Co-op has been mentioned recently, and I am a great supporter of the Co-op. It is an admirable place to go to buy food and it has a fine record of burying people—the Co-op funeral service is very good—but we should not be using such examples to justify changes to the legal system.
I am greatly concerned about the capacity of companies such as Capita, GEOAmey, Serco and G4S—and whether they are best placed to represent my constituents. My colleague in another place, Lord Thomas of Gresford alerted us in a Queen’s Speech contribution to Stobart Barristers—an offshoot of Eddie Stobart trucks. Lord Thomas noted that the Stobart Barristers legal director, Trevor Howarth, had confirmed that the firm would bid for the new criminal defence contracts and had said:
“We can deliver the service at a cost that’s palatable for the taxpayer… Our business model was developed with this in mind. We at Stobart are well known for taking out the waste and the waste here is the duplication of solicitors going to the courtroom. At the moment there are 1,600 legal aid firms; in future there will be 400. At Stobart, we wouldn’t use 10 trucks to deliver one product”.
As my noble Friend concluded, the problem with that is that criminal law is not a unit and justice is not a product that can be delivered like a load of bricks. That is the contrast in terms of what we are facing. There is a real fear that many of our high street solicitors will be lost; many will go out of business. The firms with the most cut-throat prices and cut-throat tactics will be the most successful, but I believe that liberty should be in the hands of the best, not the cheapest.
I come now to the loss of specialisms.
My hon. Friend is making many very good points, but surely one of them is that the people who supply these legal services will be given a financial incentive to get their clients to plead guilty. Surely, that is a characteristic of a totalitarian state, not the liberal democracy to which we aspire.
My hon. Friend and I agree. He uses a very emotive word to describe what I think will be the reality on the ground.
Under the proposals, a call centre will allocate a lawyer from any background—an impersonal experience in itself—who might provide a minimal service to meet the requirements of the contract. People will not be able to select a firm by reputation, by personal recommendation or, sadly, by past experience. That discourages good practice and good performance among professionals, as those who gain a contract will get clients regardless of performance. Therefore, clients will be unable to choose a firm according to the nature—sometimes, the specialised nature—of their case. I have said this before and it is worth repeating: let us not understate the importance of the relationship between solicitors and clients and the trust that has been built up.
Solicitors in my constituency are concerned that the consultation document encourages solicitors not to provide a good service—not to provide the best service. The aim is to be “above acceptable levels”. That is a worrying prospect.
There will be a lack of choice. Owing to the call centre allocation of solicitors, clients will be left with no choice of representation. They may have a lawyer who does not know them or the area in which they live and who certainly does not know the background to their case. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, a different company could represent them at different stages. I think that that is bad.
The consultation document suggests that the same fee will be paid—this is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams)—whether or not the matter is contested. Those firms that are awarded contracts will have a financial incentive to do minimal work to make their business sustainable, to the detriment of the client’s case. That could lead to a perverse incentive for legal advisers to recommend that clients plead guilty, as they would receive the same fee regardless of plea—a conclusion that certainly the solicitors whom I have spoken to are concerned about. They believe that suspicion may be created between client and lawyer.
I want to end where I started, with the effects on language. When we are talking about the consultation, there remain serious issues surrounding the provision of language services. I have anecdotal evidence that the large firm Capita is regularly unable to provide interpreting services to courts in a timely manner. In my constituency, as I said, Welsh is the first language of about half the population. In many parts of Ceredigion, it is overwhelmingly the language of everyday use, so the issue to which I refer is a worry and a barrier preventing many people from accessing the representation to which they are entitled.
I want to ask the Minister and particularly those behind the scenes in the Ministry of Justice about their awareness of Wales and of the Welsh language. As the Welsh Government pointed out in their submission to the consultation, the Ministry of Justice’s own Welsh language scheme—a point that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) mentioned—declares the Ministry’s commitment to the principle of treating the English and Welsh languages on the basis of equality. The current system of more local provision means that someone is more likely to satisfy Welsh language needs. These proposals mean that it is much more likely that a provider will be based outside the relevant area and even outside Wales, allowing no provision for Welsh language services at all.
The proposals are socially divisive, as only the wealthy will be able to afford to choose their own lawyer. Only those who can afford to will be able to determine how they are represented. Everyone else, if they are eligible for legal aid, will be allocated a lawyer via a call centre.
Some of the public narrative on the issue has characterised it as one of fat cat lawyers acting in their own interests, although if we talk to solicitors on the ground, the story is somewhat different. In reality, it is far more worrying. It is about universal access to justice, the credibility of our court and justice system and the responsibility of Parliament to ensure the continued efficacy of our justice system.
Overall, what has been billed as a simple money-saving measure will have far deeper ramifications for society. The proposals take the fundamental principle of access to justice away from anyone who cannot afford it, but it is a right, not a commodity to be bought and sold.
The Minister knows that this is a consultation, and the deliberations will go on about the various submissions. I sincerely hope that it is a real consultation and that the Government will look at the submissions, particularly those from us in Wales and the concerns that we have raised; and I hope that the Minister and the Ministry of Justice will therefore reflect favourably on the needs of rural Wales.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate. I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Ministry of Justice by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I will of course ensure that he is aware of the representations and comments made this afternoon by my hon. Friend and by other hon. Members present. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), is able to be with us at this important debate. I am well aware that the Wales Office has received many representations from Welsh MPs on these matters. I would like to point out that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has discussed these issues with the Lord Chancellor and we are sensitive to the interests and needs of the Principality.
I apologise for not being present at the very beginning of the debate. Is the Minister saying that he is looking favourably at a Welsh dimension to the whole consultation process? In addition to that, we are talking about rural areas that are on the periphery—areas that have lost court services and lost other forms of access to justice.
I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, we are aware of and sensitive to the issues that are being raised. We will obviously take into account everything from the debate and the consultation.
The Government must always be mindful of the impact of their policies on those affected by them. Debates such as this are most welcome, as they help to strengthen and improve Government policy by ensuring that hon. Members’ expertise and local knowledge are fully considered. Before I respond to the substantive parts of the debate, I would like to make three general points about the changes that have been consulted on in respect of legal aid.
First, the Government will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial. We do, however, have a duty to look at how the system is working, taking into account the taxpayer, legal aid applicants and the legal profession as a whole. Secondly, access to justice and access to taxpayer-funded legal aid should not be confused. We have a duty to ensure that all public expenditure is justified. Thirdly, the Legal Aid Agency would ensure, as part of the tendering process, that all providers were capable of delivering the full range of criminal legal aid services under contract across their procurement areas. Quality-assured duty solicitors and lawyers would still be available if these changes were implemented, just as they are now.
I would like to outline the rationale behind the legal aid proposals and their potential impact in Wales. In its programme for government, the coalition set out its intention to undertake a full review of the legal aid scheme. Following consultation, the Government’s final proposals culminated in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. As well as reducing the scope of the civil legal aid scheme, the Act made sweeping reforms to the central administration of the legal aid system. Through the introduction of the Legal Aid Agency, we have strengthened accountability and introduced a more rigorous approach to financial management. We estimate that those and other reforms will save about £320 million per year by 2014-15, but our legal aid scheme remains one of the most expensive in the world. Legal aid spending in Wales has increased, as it has dramatically in England.
First, spending is in the median area of the league; it is not being compared with like common-law jurisdictions. Secondly, the Act to which the Minister refers has a specific section that says, “Of course, people will always have an entitlement to choose their own lawyer.” That is now being swept away.
The right hon. Gentleman does not highlight the fact that the cost to the taxpayer of criminal legal aid is still around £1 billion a year, which is a phenomenal amount of money.
It is going down.
And yet we are talking about a phenomenal amount of taxpayers’ money.
The Government’s latest reforms, published in the “Transforming Legal Aid” consultation in April this year, tackle the cost of criminal legal aid, as well as finding further savings from the civil legal aid scheme. In particular, the proposal to introduce price-competitive tendering into the market for criminal litigation services has attracted a number of comments, such as those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and others this afternoon. If our proposals are implemented, the number of contracts tendered by the Legal Aid Agency will reduce from about 1,600 to about 400.
For the record, I would like to dispel a few myths, which have been highlighted this afternoon, about the model on which we consulted. The 400 figure relates to the number of contracts the Legal Aid Agency would tender, not the number of firms in the market or the volume of work available. The proposals on which we consulted do not prescribe how many lawyers would be available or how those who have the contracts can divide the work allocated to them. The proposed model would result in a consolidation of the market, but that does not mean that smaller firms of solicitors will go out of business. Some may choose to join together to bid for contracts. Others may decide to act as agents.
I would like to make a little progress, because otherwise I will not answer my hon. Friend’s points.
Importantly, specialist services—vital for niche areas of law and for clients with particular needs—will be able to continue. We received approximately 16,000 responses to the consultation, many of which address the competition model in detail. We are carefully considering all responses before final decisions are taken. This afternoon’s debate will go forward as part of that consultation and will be fed back to the Lord Chancellor and Ministers in the Department. It will be examined in the pot with the other considerations.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not be able to answer the questions and points raised if I take lots of interventions, but I will take one in a minute.
Among the particular needs to be met in the provision of legal aid is of course the provision of services in Welsh for those who want them. The Government have no intention of changing the requirements placed on legal aid providers operating in Wales to offer a bilingual service—I can nail that concern for my hon. Friend. That that issue, alongside many other practical considerations, is not expressly addressed in the consultation document reflects the fact that it will be, as at present, given effect through the Legal Aid Agency contracts with providers. The document does not propose any change in current practice, but that issue has been raised by some respondents to the consultation and we will provide simple reassurance when we publish the Government response. As well as raising the provision of services in Welsh, a number of legal aid providers have set out their concerns about the operation of the proposed competition model in rural areas, including rural Wales. Some of those concerns have been echoed here this afternoon, and I propose to raise them, highlighting the points made, with the Lord Chancellor to inform his decision making when the consultation concludes.
The consultation sets out a model of competition to cover the whole of England and Wales and seeks to address the needs of both urban and rural areas. In the cases of two regions—the areas covered by West Mercia-Warwickshire and Avon and Somerset-Gloucestershire—it makes an exception to the rule that procurement areas will be based on current criminal justice areas, by combining each pair into a single area. That proposal, however, is based on the volume and type of work, rather than the areas’ rural geography. The consultation in fact sought views on whether the geographical arrangement of contracts it set out was the right one and sought alternatives. We are of course open to good suggestions and urge the profession to work with us to come up with the best solution. The appropriateness of the model to rural Wales was raised during the engagement events held by the Ministry of Justice during the consultation period. We will consider carefully the views raised, before finalising our proposals.
Concerns have been expressed about the Government’s decision to publish the transforming legal aid consultation in English before the Welsh translation was ready. I shall address that issue directly, because it is unfair to suggest that the Ministry of Justice has not taken its commitments under its Welsh language scheme seriously. The Department has committed to treating English and Welsh equally, as far as is reasonably practicable, and that is what we did. Translating a document of that length and complexity takes time, and it was published as soon as it was available. In translating the entirety of the document, we have gone further than the previous 2010 legal aid consultation. In deciding not to delay publication of the English version until the Welsh version was ready, we were conscious that the majority of the target audience in Wales comprises legal aid providers required to provide services in English, as well as Welsh. Moreover, when the previous legal aid consultation was published in 2010, only the executive summary was translated; the Department did not receive requests for a full translation in Welsh and we did not receive any responses in Welsh. We have so far identified about 10 responses to the current consultation in Welsh. That we have had responses in Welsh reflects, I hope, that legal professionals working in Wales have shown their own expertise in responding to our proposals.
Officials are in the process of studying all the consultation responses received and will consider carefully all views on how Wales’s particular rural geography should be accounted for before final decisions are taken.
I have two questions. The first relates to remarks the Minister made some time ago. The consultation ends on 8 June and we have a short time to get the system up and running. How optimistic is he that that can happen and in particular that the consortia he mentioned, of small solicitors, practices coming together, can be realised? Finally, he mentioned a consultation event in Cardiff, where I know some of my local solicitors were keen to ask Ministry of Justice officials about the extent of their detailed knowledge of rural, north and mid-Wales and the challenges of rural transport. How much detail has gone into the assessment of rural Wales, or for that matter rural England?
I will have to write to my hon. Friend, because I do not have that information to hand. All I will say is that we have engaged with many professionals and received lots of consultation responses in the Department. We are very aware of the difficulties and the particular issues he raises.
Time is ever so short, but I want to mention the Government’s compliance with the Equality Act 2010. We are mindful of the importance of considering the impact of our policies on different groups. In accordance with our obligations under the 2010 Act, we have considered the impact of the proposals, in order to give due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful conduct, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations. Our initial assessment was published with the consultation paper, and we will update it in light of responses, before final decisions are taken on the equality issues.
I am aware that a half-hour debate is not long enough, but there is of course a debate tomorrow on the Floor of the House, where issues can be developed further. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion for securing this important debate and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for the contributions that they have made. I am confident that, after long discussions and a long thought-out process, which will include the consultation information, the Ministry of Justice will publish final proposals that command the confidence of those who provide and use legal aid-funded services in Wales. Final decisions have not yet been taken, and today’s debate will certainly be read and noted by the Lord Chancellor and his ministerial team. I have listened to the views raised. I again commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friend the comprehensive views that have come up this afternoon. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I will discuss the issues raised. I am grateful for the opportunity to put forward the Government view.
Kettering General Hospital A and E
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the future of Kettering General hospital’s accident and emergency services.
Kettering General hospital has served the people of my constituency for 115 years. It is where my children were born, and where my granddads received care at the end of their lives—where I said goodbye to them—and today it is a place that is relied on by my family and my constituents. I declare an interest in that it is where my mum, like many thousands of local people, works. Kettering General hospital is a huge part of the community, because of the care it provides and because it is one of the major local employers. Many of my constituents are employed there, as nurses, doctors and auxiliary staff, and I take this opportunity to thank them, in whatever capacity they work. Working in our health services is demanding and, for most health workers, not particularly well paid. The hours are long and the demands are great, but the overwhelming majority of my constituents receive good care, and for that we are all grateful.
However, we have to face some hard truths. The quality of care at the hospital is not good for everyone. It is not realistic to think that 100% of my constituents will get perfect care every time, but it is something for which we should surely strive. All the evidence shows that too many people do not get the care they need. Kettering General hospital employs more than 3,000 staff, and has more than 600 in-patient and day-case beds and 17 operating theatres. The hospital has a consultant-led level 2 trauma unit in its 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week accident and emergency department, and there are currently two locums and five consultants who are on site until 11 o’clock in the evening and on call until 8 o’clock in the morning. Some cases, such as severe burns and head injuries, are transferred, often by air ambulance, to Coventry, which has a level 3 trauma facility, but Kettering General hospital is where most trauma patients go. It serves the accident and emergency needs of a wide population across north Northamptonshire.
The hospital’s location, right next to one of the busiest arteries in the midlands—the A14—makes it the most accessible accident and emergency for many people, not only in north Northamptonshire but across the whole county and in neighbouring counties, particularly Leicestershire. The core of the hospital’s patients, however, is from my constituency and that of my two neighbours, the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).
Today, I want to speak about the challenges that our accident and emergency services face, and to seek Government support in meeting them. The context is highly political, and the Minister and I will strongly disagree on some health policies, but I would much prefer us to have as constructive a debate as possible today. Much of what I have to say will be supported by the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough who are unable to be here, but with whom I am working closely and regularly in support of the hospital. We have formed a campaign group, consisting not only of the three of us, but of the local media, the local authorities and many other interested local organisations.
As three Members of Parliament, we meet regularly with the chair and the chief executive of the hospital, and I am pleased to say that, as of last night, we have a meeting arranged with the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). We are also in dialogue with the local clinical commissioning groups. A and E services are our top priority.
The Minister will be aware of the Healthier Together proposals for the south midlands area. Last autumn, there was a hurried timetable and inadequate consultation on the proposals. The public gradually became aware of them, the thrust of which was for five hospitals to go into three for some of the services, particularly full accident and emergency, obstetrics and maternity, and in-patient paediatrics. The detailed model underpinning the proposals stated that the best option, according to their criteria, was that Kettering lose its full accident and emergency.
I am pleased to say that, in response to a strong cross-party community campaign, Healthier Together and all those involved, including the clinical commissioning groups and the hospitals, recognised that communities in my constituency and across the north of Northamptonshire would not support the proposals. Our nearest accident and emergency would be at Northampton general, and anyone who knows the county and understands its geography will recognise that that is not acceptable. We do not need the independent experts—as they were called—employed by the Healthier Together team to tell us that it is almost impossible to get from Corby to Northampton along the A43 during peak times without coming to a standstill. There is no rail link between the towns in the north of the county and Northampton, and the bus service is intermittent.
The Department says that it expects proposals for local health service changes to meet four key criteria: support from GPs; strengthened public and patient engagement; sound clinical evidence; and that the proposals support patient choice. I do not believe, nor do the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough, that those four criteria were met in the Healthier Together work. And it is not just in my area. Councillor Hannah O’Neill, the deputy leader of the Labour group on Milton Keynes council, told me that Healthier Together caused uncertainty across Milton Keynes, that neither communities nor the council was properly consulted, and that they were left with no information about the future of the programme for their hospital. A critical issue for the whole south midlands Healthier Together area is that we do not know where the proposals will take us next.
The final Healthier Together report, published in March, states:
“Current A&E staffing levels do not meet national guidance, which recommends a minimum of ten consultants for a medium-sized A&E department.”
It also raises concerns about the long-term viability of retaining five acute surgical rotas:
“Concentrating A&E and general surgeons onto fewer sites could improve sustainability, but there would still be a need to recruit further A&E consultants to provide consultant presence.”
The report proposes an alternative model of four fully supported accident and emergency sites, with the fifth being a “warm” site, managing and transferring some patients under protocols. In the north of Northamptonshire, the worst case scenario is that we would have to assume, based on the previous detailed proposals, that Kettering would be in line to be that “warm” accident and emergency. That is simply not on, not just because of the geography, but because of the demand from the area that Kettering serves.
We recognise, however, that there is a challenge to improve accident and emergency at Kettering. The hospital had to save £11 million last year, and has to save a further £12 million next year, but the answer lies not in taking away our proper accident and emergency and maternity services but in improving the health system. We need a more integrated health and social care system. I will study the detail of today’s spending review announcements, and if they reflect the integration policies that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) have been championing, they will have my support.
We need local authorities to act more quickly to get elderly patients out of hospital once they have been treated, so that they can have the care they need in the community and so that hospital beds are freed up. That happened just last year with my nan, after she had a stroke. A critical issue is how primary and acute care will work together in the future. It is also about prevention, about which I heard the Minister speak last week at an event organised by Cambridge Manufacturing, a great Corby-based company that exports across the world and helps people become fitter. If the Minister is wondering, the event was at the National Obesity Forum, and Cambridge Manufacturing was the partner organisation. The issue is also about the hospital itself becoming as efficient and effective as possible.
I am sorry to tell the Minister that instead of moving towards an improved service, there are very serious issues at Kettering A and E. This is a very worrying time. The hospital simply cannot cope with demand; we have rising demand, and an ageing and growing population. There are issues relating to the local doctor services and the out-of-hour services, and twice this year the general hospital had to close the doors of the A and E to patients other than those arriving by ambulance, announcing it to the media and asking local Members of Parliament to tell patients not to turn up. We have been told that the principal factor in that was the 111 changes.
Corby is the fastest-growing town in the UK and has the highest birth rate, but there is population growth right across north Northamptonshire. The number of people attending the A and E department at Kettering General has doubled over the past 20 years, from 40,000 in 1992 to 80,000 in 2012. That 100% increase is far greater than the rate of population growth, and growth continued last year. We have continued growth in Northamptonshire’s elderly population, so an increase in acuity, for example, is to be expected, with more people with more complex problems who really do need A and E care. The trust’s emergency department was not designed to see that many patients. In the hospital’s own words, it is now “not fit for purpose”: it is too small and does not have enough rooms to provide appropriate care.
There are significant issues around the inappropriate use of accident and emergency. A recent patient education project in Northamptonshire showed that 70% of patients did not try to contact out-of-hours GP services before going to A and E. The trust is currently investigating and pricing ways in which it could expand its emergency care department’s footprint to make it more suitable for patients and to make it more efficient to help reduce waiting times.
On accident and emergency waiting times, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people waiting for more than four hours. In April 2012, 262 people waited more than four hours, but in April 2013 that figure stood at 1,530 people. A year on, we can see how significant the rise in the number of people waiting for more than four hours is. Breaches of the target are largely because of patients waiting in A and E for hospital beds to become available. Kettering General hospital’s bed base runs very hot: 95% to 100% of beds are full. It is therefore often bed availability in the whole hospital, rather than issues in A and E, that leads to breaches of the transit time.
The hospital has launched a transformation programme, which local MPs support, by creating new direct access services for GPs, putting in a new discharge team to improve discharges and expanding the A and E department—for example, with an observation bay for patients needing short-term observation and tests. The hospital is investigating the creation of more of its own step-down facilities in the community.
There are other positive developments. The Corby urgent care centre has improved facilities, particularly for my constituents in Corby. It is not the hospital that Corby people really wanted, but it brings many services closer to my constituency. It is open from 8 am to 8 pm, and it reduces the need for patients to travel to A and E. It is only now coming fully into use, so it will be some time before it takes significant pressure off A and E at Kettering.
I went to the opening of the new foundation wing at Kettering, which is a fantastic new facility. It will improve some of the problems in the hospital, and it increases the number of beds. The hospital is to be congratulated on developing the proposals for that wing. It has been 10 years in the making, and there was a delay in its opening, but it is a significant improvement.
In a few weeks, with the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough, I will meet the local clinical commissioning groups to discuss GP out-of-hours services. A key issue relates to people using a GP where appropriate, rather than presenting at accident and emergency.
I hope that the Minister will comment on the seriousness of the Care Quality Commission report published in March. It stated that action is needed on cleanliness and infection control, on supporting workers and, in particular, on assessing and monitoring the quality of service provision. In fact, so severe were its findings that it has taken enforcement action against the hospital.
The report makes mixed reading. Most patients seen by the CQC generally commend the hospital. As I said at the outset, most people’s experience is good, but where it is not good, it can be very disappointing. For example, because of that huge rise in demand in accident and emergency, the CQC found open storage of needles and syringes, containers overflowing with syringes, and noisy and rusty bins in areas of the department, and it observed that the public toilets were dirty and that floors appeared dirty and stained.
As the CQC has stated, that situation was not because the hospital staff were not working incredibly hard—it observed that the staff were working with clear protocols and trying to do the right thing—but the facility is now frankly too small for what is really needed to serve the north of Northamptonshire. It is cramped, which really affects the quality of care.
The CQC specifically mentioned long waiting times. I have heard cases of people waiting up to 10 hours, which is clearly unacceptable. Not only are there the waits in accident and emergency, but, having been seen in A and E, there are the waits to be transferred to wards in the hospital. There are also knock-on effects. The CQC highlighted issues in orthopaedic and surgical wards, where other medical admissions from A and E have become a way of life, because the beds are needed, but those wards do not have the staff, the expertise or the capacity to meet the needs of the patients transferred.
I want to hear from the Minister an understanding of the pressures facing us in Kettering General hospital’s accident and emergency, and support for initiatives that the local chair, chief executive, trust and staff are taking and which we are trying to support. We want to support this incredibly important hospital. We also want a commitment to capital improvements in accident and emergency. Whether that comes from what I understand is a dedicated fund in the Department of Health for capital improvements for A and E that is underspent or from the general NHS underspend, I hope that we will hear about it today. I also hope that she will comment on the issues about how the health system works locally.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing the debate. He quite properly brings forward his constituents’ concerns about their hospital. I am delighted that he is working with two other Members of Parliament whose constituencies are served by the hospital.
I am especially grateful to the hon. Gentleman, if I may say so, for having contacted my office and spoken to my officials before the debate. If only all hon. Members took such a positive step, because it assists hugely. He is quite right to make the point that this is not the stuff of party politics. I fear that I may not be able to answer some questions that he quite properly asked. If that is the case, I or my officials will write to him to ensure that all the matters he raised and all the questions he asked are given proper and full answers.
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), on 16 July, with my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I am sure that there is no connection, but having said that, a frog has entered my throat. I am going to stop for a minute.
That would be wise.
I am sorry.
The hon. Member for Corby has raised important issues about accident and emergency services, although I will not be dealing with the national situation. As we know, there have been some issues and problems in emergency departments throughout the country, many of which have been well rehearsed in this place.
Underlying themes and problems are often common to all our accident and emergency departments. Undoubtedly, many of the problems at Kettering’s accident and emergency are exactly the same as those that have caused so much difficulty in other A and E departments in this country. I am pleased that huge progress has been made and that overall performance is improving across the country as might be expected, especially given my Department’s efforts.
The hon. Gentleman has pointed out how health services are under pressure in his constituency and having a knock-on effect at Kettering, and those pressures are being experienced across the whole system. He quite properly identified that the reasons for that are complex. Dealing with those pressures means looking at the underlying causes, which the Department has been doing by working with NHS England.
The hon. Gentleman pointed out that Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is experiencing many of the issues that I have highlighted. I am aware that, as he told us, the trust has not met the A and E standard. It has struggled with that difficulty for some time. He will know that Monitor, as the regulator of foundation trusts, has unfortunately found that the trust is in breach of its licence in relation to its A and E performance, as well as wider financial and governance issues. That will cause concern not only to the people who use the hospital, but to its outstanding staff.
Monitor has required the trust to implement an urgent care action plan to ensure that it can return to compliance against the A and E standard. The deadline for that is 1 July, so it will not be long before the trust has to implement it. Monitor is working with local commissioners and NHS England to support the trust to meet that requirement.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman feels that further investment is needed to expand facilities at the trust to improve its position. It is right that, as I understand it, he has had meetings with the chair of the trust and other Members of Parliament, and that letters have been written, to request assistance in securing extra capital funding. Some £5 million to £10 million has been requested, so that the trust can redevelop and expand its A and E department.
Of course it is for NHS foundation trusts to develop and take forward their own capital investment proposals, and trusts such as Kettering can apply to the Department for a capital investment loan. We understand that the trust has allocated some of its capital budget this year to make improvements within A and E, and it has worked with commissioners to redesign what we call pathways to improve flow. Hot clinics and ambulatory pathways have been developed, which divert patients away from A and E and avoid GP admissions, which, as we know, often stack up in the Department.
On the matter of whether Kettering has ever closed its doors, I am told that its accident and emergency department has never done so, and it is important to put that on the record. I am told that there was a period in February when the hospital trust effectively advised members of the public—I think that this sounds like a sensible piece of advice—to ensure that they only went to A and E if they had had an accident or an emergency. In other words, to use the jargon, they were told to use the department appropriately, because the trust had become aware of a sudden and acute rise in people using A and E. Actually, that is a good message for all of us to take back to our constituents. The department is not called “accident and emergency” for no good reason; it is for accidents and emergencies.
When we had a debate on A and E in the main Chamber, Members from both sides told stories about people presenting at A and E when they could have gone to the pharmacy or just taken a paracetamol. The point I am making is that, often for understandable reasons, people attend A and E when they cannot get the appointment they want at the GP surgery. There is this wider issue that perhaps we do not do what we used to do in the past, which was to self-administer, take advice from our brilliant pharmacies or ring the GP surgery for advice before simply turning up at A and E.
As I have said, meetings have taken place, and, as I understand it, the trust has been working with local commissioners in the way that I have described. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new Corby urgent care centre. I think I saw it before I was in this position—I was there for other reasons which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand—when it was in the process of being constructed. I am delighted that it is now open. It is called an urgent care centre. To be frank, we do not always use the best language when it comes to naming places where patients can go. In fact, the review, which is being conducted in the Department of Health, is looking at the sort of language that should be used, so that people understand where they have to go when they have a particular problem. I am delighted that the centre has opened in Corby and is providing additional urgent care services to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, which should help to ease the unnecessary attendances at the A and E department of Kettering General.
I also want to mention the East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust, because it is of concern to all of us who represent seats in the east midlands. I know that the hon. Gentleman has rightly talked about how problems with EMAS have affected services in his constituency.
I wanted to cover more issues in my opening remarks. The Minister is absolutely right to say that EMAS is a huge concern for all MPs across the region. I am sure that she is aware that the proposal is for the hub that would serve my constituents now to be at Kettering and for the level of service to be reduced at Corby, which is a concern for us.
Indeed, and it is right that the hon. Gentleman should raise that concern. I think I am right in saying that Earl Howe, who is the Minister with responsibility for the ambulance service, has agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman. If he has not agreed that, then he just has. In any event, Earl Howe will be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about the various issues.
The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the NHS Trust Development Authority has intervened at the East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust and is working with local commissioners to ensure that it has robust turnaround plans in place to improve its performance. The fact that the ambulance service has not been meeting the high standards that we all expect of it has been a long-standing problem in the east midlands. It is now implementing proposals to improve the way it delivers services across the east midlands through its “being the best” programme. That includes the replacement of some ambulance stations, including the one in Corby. It is creating 108 community ambulance posts, 19 ambulance stations and nine purpose-built hubs or superstations to enable ambulances to be dispatched from strategic points across the region to meet demand. I know that the “being the best” proposals have been referred to the Secretary of State by Lincolnshire county council. I do not know whether Northamptonshire will now take the same course, but it may not need to as Lincolnshire has already made the referral. As a result, the Independent Reconfiguration Panel is due to advise in the next few days, so it would not be right for me to make any further comments on that matter.
I will conclude now unless of course the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene again, which I am more than happy about because we still have four minutes.
I thank the Minister for giving way again and I am delighted to take up the opportunity to use up a little more of the time we have available. It is of course very welcome news that those proposals have been referred to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. However, I must say to her that, irrespective of how those proposals proceed, I have no confidence in the trust board of the East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust or in its leadership and management.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about what role, if any, the Department of Health can play in intervening when there are concerns about the management of an ambulance trust. I know that hon. Members from across the eastern region ambulance service, which also serves some of my constituency, have—frankly—successfully changed the leadership of that service. I feel that we may need to make some progress in that regard ourselves.
The diplomatic answer to that is to say that, yes indeed, east of England MPs have quite rightly taken their concerns to the highest level and there has been some serious intervention. There has been a report; we had a 90-minute debate here in Westminster Hall only yesterday on it. I have to say that apparently most members of the board of that ambulance service still remain in place, but the board has a new chair. There has been a full report into the service and there is hope that many of the report’s recommendations will now be put forward.
I must say that the Care Quality Commission, notwithstanding some of the comments that were made last week, can play a hugely important role in looking at the performance of ambulance trusts. I speak now as a constituency MP when I say that I myself have been in contact with the CQC and I urge the hon. Gentleman perhaps to take the same course, because the CQC can really play an important role in ensuring that ambulance services and indeed many other providers of health care are absolutely up to standard and providing the services that they should be providing. That may be of some assistance, but I must say that I think things have improved.
The Minister says that there are issues at Kettering General hospital’s A and E department that are in common with those in other hospitals. Finally, I draw her attention to the exceptional case for investment in Kettering General hospital, because of the growth in population locally. Corby has the highest birth rate in the country; it is the fastest growing town in the country; and the Northamptonshire area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, so this is an exceptional case.
That is a good point well made, and no doubt this will all be discussed at the meeting to be held on 16 July and the hon. Gentleman will make that point again with all the right force that he should.
I was going to say “in all seriousness”, as if I was being flippant, which I was not being. However, I hope that Kettering General hospital continues to work with Monitor, NHS England and its local commissioners to put in place robust plans for improving its position. That should also include working with all the elected Members in the area, so that we can be sure that the hospital delivers absolutely the best services to the people it seeks to serve and should be serving.
Question put and agreed to.