Thursday 11 July 2013
[Katy Clark in the Chair]
Social Care Reform (Disabled People)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
I was pleased when I heard that you were chairing this debate, Ms Clark, as I know that you have strong views on this issue. Most of us ought to have strong views on it.
In everyday conversation, we tend to use the word “ability” to indicate that we believe that someone has a special talent. We mean that someone has the ability to play the piano or tennis or to speak in public rather well. That is an inaccurate way to use the word, but it can sometimes lead to the false view that a disabled person is seeking special attention. We have heard that for ourselves: “They’re always after something.” Such disparaging remarks are often made. The reality is that that is simply not true. What disabled people seek constantly is not special attention at all—as a good liberal, I would say this, wouldn’t I?—but the basic human right to a normal life.
Of course, that does not mean that people with disabilities cannot ascend the heights and cannot have unbelievable special abilities—we know that all too well, and history is full of countless examples—but the starting place must be the basic human right to access all life’s opportunities, such as work, leisure and family, things that non-disabled people far too often take for granted. As a good left-of-centre liberal, I believe that the state has an important role to play in supporting people, not necessarily through direct state provision but by helping them attain their rights.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me time for this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) for her support, as this debate is co-sponsored. I also congratulate her on the work that she has done on the issue—I am sure that she will refer to it—as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on local government.
I thank Scope for the great support that I have received so far on this campaign and for the partnership work that we are carrying out in Bradford, where we are preparing at this very moment for the launch of the “Bradford Cares” campaign, part of the wider national Scope campaign “Britain Cares”. The launch will take place next Monday in Bradford, and I am delighted to say that the former Care Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) will be speaking.
To add more power and force to our arguments when bidding to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate, we were rightly asked to justify the time devoted. We were given eligibility criteria, including topicality and importance. As for topicality, we know that social care is the largest remaining area of reform for the coalition Government in this Parliament, and the Care Bill is on its way through the legislative process. The crucial issue of eligibility, to which I will return, is extremely topical, not least for people in Bradford, where the council is one of the few remaining local authorities to use the moderate level of need when assessing support. However, the council is consulting as we speak with a view to moving to assessments of substantial need. That consultation will last until 4 August.
As for importance, we must acknowledge that much of the debate about meeting and funding care needs has focused on the elderly. We understand the reason perfectly, but we must also remember that one third of care users are working-age disabled adults. That one third equates to more than 500,000 people between the ages of 18 and 64. It is a big issue for us as a nation, and the numbers are projected to increase substantially. In addition, working-age adults have considerably different aspirations from the social care system. They are not more important, but they are different and must be clearly understood when developing social policy.
A report called “The other care crisis: Making social care funding work for disabled adults in England” was published in January this year by Scope, the National Autistic Society, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Sense. The report highlights the fact that, since 2008, there has been a constant move from moderate to substantial needs as the basis for assessment in local authorities. Since 2008, the number of people using care, at a time when we know need is increasing, has fallen by at least 90,000, or one in six of all people using care. We also know that there is a shortfall of £1.2 billion in the funding required to support social care for working-age disabled adults.
The report states that if social care reforms go ahead as planned, a further 100,000 people or more risk losing vital care and support. I know the Minister, and I know that if that is true, it will not be acceptable him. I am willing to admit that all the organisations that I mentioned and I must be wrong in our fears, but the trouble is that I cannot see how, which is why I wanted to have this debate.
On the first page of the briefing prepared for this debate by the Library, there is an article by Baroness Grey-Thompson, who apparently can see that we are all wrong. She states:
“The Chancellor announced a £3.8 billion investment”—
I know that the Minister will refer to it—
“including £2 billion of new money, in social care—the support disabled and older people get from their council to get up, get washed and dressed and live independently.”
My understanding is that setting the national eligibility threshold at the substantial level of need would mean that that was simply untrue. People would not get that support. The needs that Baroness Grey-Thompson refers to would not be met.
I know that the Minister will say that local authorities can provide support at what levels they choose. They could provide it, as many did for many years, at the moderate level of need, but the trend is moving in the opposite direction and at a rapid rate of knots, hence the figures that I gave earlier, which are getting smaller and smaller, on the number of people receiving support.
We all understand the need to avoid the existing confusion with the so-called postcode lottery—the differing levels of support in different parts of the country—but I must ask a question. What is the value of having the certainty, wherever I live in the country, of being guaranteed a level of support that fails to provide me with my basic human right to live an independent life? That is not a freedom: to be told that I cannot have the life that I deserve. It is not an improvement to provide the certainty of not knowing what care I will get, which we have at present, with the certainty of getting almost no support at all. I know the Minister and that that is not his intention, so I am in the Chamber today not to bury Caesar—not to criticise my hon. Friend—but to understand better how the planned reforms will work. I cannot work them out; we cannot work them out; and we desperately need to know.
I read the discussion document on the draft national minimum eligibility threshold for adult care and support and I do not get it. To me, there seem to be four crucial elements to the provision of care and support, and there may be more. First, without sufficient funding, there will be a problem, no matter how effectively and efficiently we deploy the available resources. Funding will always be vital. The other three parts are integration, eligibility and the actual care services provided.
We are told that £3.8 billion—£2 billion of new money—is there to help with that crucial integration, but good integration will improve the efficiency and quality of care and support at any level of funding. If we were given 1p, through good integration we could spend that penny better than by being disorganised and chaotic. Eligibility, however, will determine the level at which a person can access the wonderfully improved care and support that we will achieve through integration. Eligibility is the gateway, and the integration can take place at any level of care. We could remove all the postcode lottery uncertainty by setting the eligibility level at critical and yet integrate wonderfully, but how would the improved integration help the hundreds of thousands of people whose needs fall below the threshold level? I do not get it.
If my hon. Friend were to go somewhere such as Torbay, where completely integrated teams of health and care workers have been created, he would see that those teams can together make rational judgments about the people who need care and support, by identifying the individuals most likely to end up in hospital and allocating a worker from an integrated team to support them. I absolutely recognise that the eligibility criteria play a role, but the joint team can assess the needs in the area and do whatever is necessary to maintain people’s health and to prevent the deterioration of health and people ending up in hospital. Integration seems to be essential to what he seeks to achieve.
It is not an either/or, or a route from one to the other. We can integrate at any level of support, and greater integration would certainly improve the system with greater economies and, we hope, greater equality of provision. If the Government had planned to introduce a whole new system and remove all criteria—looking simply at people and their needs—I could possibly see, with a wonderfully well funded and integrated system, how that might work. What is planned, however, is not that but an eligibility threshold against which people will be assessed. At that point, even with the washing, the getting dressed and all the other things that Baroness Grey-Thompson was talking about, the decision might be made that the person is simply not at the required level—the threshold—to be given support.
In the foreword to the discussion document, the Minister stated:
“We are establishing a system that will place a greater focus on prevention, which will mean that the care and support needs of people will be considered earlier than is currently the case.”
That is good, and it must refer to the early identification of potential future needs through improved integration. From my own background—in particular, in the area of children with special needs—I am well aware that early identification, so that support can be given, even from mainstream provision, can stop those needs developing to a level at which additional funding and support are required.
I understand all that, but a working-age adult can, for example, have a stroke—something that we saw at the Stroke Association event yesterday—and move, within a day, from being perfectly healthy to having needs that might even be classed as critical. On the direction, however, this is not about progression for many working-age disabled people, because they may move from critical or substantial down to moderate, but about how someone who has had a stroke perhaps may never move back to a point at which support is not required and live a truly independent live. The danger is that such people might go down, in terms of the needs as assessed, and fall out of the system. Where will they then end up? Later, at greater cost, they will go back into the system. That is the concern.
The discussion document refers to the creation of a working group to take matters forward. My problem is that it also states that developing and evaluating the research carried out by the working group may take three to four years. Too many disabled people, however, may quite literally not have that long.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.
I warmly welcome this Back-Bench debate, which allows us the opportunity to discuss the findings of the joint all-party group’s important report on social care reform for working-age disabled people. I congratulate my colleague, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow him.
I take a moment to thank the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), the Baroness Campbell of Surbiton and the all-party disability group for joining me and the all-party local government group in writing our report, “Promoting Independence, Preventing Crisis”. I also thank Scope for all its superb help in facilitating the inquiry.
Social care reform is a cross-party concern and provides a clear example, notwithstanding what has recently been splashed across the media, of how all-party groups do good work in Parliament. I applaud the Government’s commitment to investment in social care, which they set out in the 2013-15 spending review—£3.8 billion is not a small sum. As our joint inquiry underlined, the social care system has faced decades of underfunding, and the Government’s understanding of the need to address the problem effectively should be recognised.
It was extremely important to me to be involved in the all-party group’s inquiry. For the first time, we managed to bring together the voices of working-age disabled people with those of local authorities. That represented a valuable and timely opportunity to continue to build on the Government’s positive vision for social change, and to develop the positive disability strategy, “Fulfilling potential: making it happen”.
We want to bring the focus of social care on to working-age disabled people. I praise the Government’s ambition to deliver a care system that is capable of meeting the needs of both the older population and working-age disabled people. The plans to improve integration and closer working between health and social care bodies have been a positive development. However, in the Chancellor’s speech on the spending review no reference was made specifically to the one third of care users who are working-age disabled people. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s commitment that the purpose of moving the money from the NHS to local government was to meet not only older people’s needs but those of disabled people of working age. We must ensure that this group remains in the spotlight when reforming the care system.
I want to reiterate the importance of addressing the national eligibility criteria that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East raised. Despite the intention that the current fair access to care services criteria should be a broadly national framework, councils have considerable leeway in setting the threshold for eligibility. That has resulted in significant variation throughout the country. Moreover, councils have been tightening their own local eligibility criteria in response to budget pressures. That is completely understandable, but the implications are that people are living with the fear that they will lose their support. The new eligibility framework and national threshold proposed in the Care Bill will therefore go a long way towards alleviating the lottery of care, and will be vital in ensuring more clarity and consistency in the provision of care for disabled people in England.
The Government published the draft regulations for the national eligibility threshold on 28 June and confirmed in the accompanying document their intention to set the threshold at a level equivalent to “substantial” in the current FACS system. People tell us that that means that, for more than 100,000 working-age disabled people, the bar has been set too high to receive the care and support they need to live independent lives. I hope that the Minister will respond to that.
I reiterate that the proposed eligibility level set out in the document to which my hon. Friend referred would maintain for the vast majority of people what already exists within their local authority area and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said, do absolutely nothing to prevent other authorities that choose to be more generous from maintaining that level at “moderate”, as currently exists in Bradford and about 15 other places around the country. Nothing will take away from anyone what they already have as an entitlement.
I thank the Minister for his intervention.
I turn to what social care means to our constituents when real help is given. It means that someone can get up, and be washed, dressed and fed each morning. Those are basic, everyday actions that many of us take for granted. When that level of support is offered comprehensively, the person may hold down not only genuine social interaction but employment. Real social care may also prevent social isolation. For example, a member of the National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society has said:
“I feel overly tired most days. Outside of work my participation in activities has been reducing. I don’t spend as much time as I used to socialising with friends and family. I used to be very active and go out in the evenings but now I have early nights instead.”
It is brilliant that, with help, that person feels able to remain in the work force, but we must ensure that the care offered is not at the cost of other factors, such as mental health or well-being.
Well-being is an unambiguous concern of the Government and is clearly addressed through the well-being principle in clause 1 of the Care Bill. That reflects the fact that it is, first and foremost, a human issue. The principle is the thread that runs through the whole of the Bill and ensures that the care system not only delivers basic support but promotes disabled people’s independence, allowing them to realise their potential by participating more fully in their communities. That is a bold vision for the future and will truly revolutionise the care system.
It has been stated that for some people social care means
“being able to have the same aspirations as others. I hold down a job, live independently and I am able to live life in the way that I choose. I believe this is a fundamental right, but it has also given me an immense sense of freedom and satisfaction as I am able to contribute to society.”
Those great quotes come from our inquiry.
Well-being and independence also means providing support when an individual moves from one local authority area to another. The Care Bill should ensure that the receiving authority has a duty to ensure that any social care provision for an individual will ensure the same outcomes as those of their previous local authority. I stress to the Minister the importance of that portability factor to our constituents. They live in a mobile world.
A preventative social care system not only has benefits for the quality of care and the lives of disabled people but represents a financially sustainable approach for the future. In addressing the concern about the eligibility threshold, local authorities will be in a position to deliver appropriate care at an earlier stage, reducing escalation of the crisis. As the British Red Cross told the all-party group’s inquiry:
“There must be a dramatic rethink to the way social care is organised in the future, with a focus on preventing crises before they occur and keeping people independent for as long as possible.”
Without a truly preventative system, councils will have no choice other than to intervene at crisis points when the personal and financial costs are already too great. The former president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Sarah Pickup, told the inquiry:
“Prevention is one of the very few things where you can get both a better outcome and a reduced cost.”
The Government have recognised that local authorities are delivering innovative solutions in social care provision, and have rightly chosen health and wellbeing boards as the mechanism through which social care can be delivered effectively. The boards have been implemented fully since April 2013. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 mandates a minimum membership consisting of one local elected representative, a representative of the local healthwatch organisation, a representative of each local clinical commissioning group, the local authority director of adult social services, the local authority director of children’s services and, crucially, the director of public health for the local authority. That will ensure a wide range of views and experience on the boards and will help with the implementation of preventative social care.
If the Government fully resource local authorities to implement preventative social care, the financial returns to local authorities, national Government and the NHS will be significant. Deloitte’s economic modelling in Scope’s report, “Ending the other care crisis”, has shown that a £1.2 billion investment in establishing a lower national eligibility threshold would lead to a £700 million saving for the Government and a £570 million saving for local authorities and the NHS. That is care and compassion at a better net price for the nation.
In addition, that money must be available to be used for care services within communities that are not exclusively health focused such as housing and employment. Such support would aid many disabled people in actively contributing to society as independent, participating, tax-paying citizens. As Sue Brown, head of policy at Sense, told our inquiry, the employment market currently risks losing out on the contributions that disabled people can make. That is the crux of the debate; we want to get disabled people living the lives that they want to lead, and being as independent and as self-sufficient as possible. Not only do they benefit from that, but the economy benefits too.
The National Autistic Society told me that new economic modelling by Deloitte published earlier this month shows that for every £1 invested in support for people with autism—and other disabilities—who have moderate needs, returns of £1.30 are generated. As the Government have rightly recognised, social care is not merely about allowing people to survive; rather, it is about enabling them to live full and independent lives. The Bill explicitly places a duty on local authorities to provide care that promotes the well-being of individuals. Let us now establish that the regulations fulfil the Government’s ambition and ensure that more than 100,000 disabled people with significant needs can live full, varied lives, with the basic dignity that we all take for granted.
To reiterate—and to be absolutely clear—I feel that the care provisions that we put in place need to be standardised between local authorities in order to promote portability. Those affected by the provisions are the most vulnerable in society. We do not want to make moving house an ordeal for people, with tensions and stresses about the level of care that they can expect to receive in the new area. Before the excellent changes to this groundbreaking, joined-up government measure can be implemented, we would like to ensure that a proper impact assessment is undertaken. We would like any administration costs, or other associated costs, to be known to local authorities before implementation. We want to ensure that costs do not force the most vulnerable in society to be left behind, because of new bureaucratic layers imposed on local government.
In conclusion, the Care Bill is a significant, welcome step in the right direction that acknowledges that reforms need to be made. Provided that they are properly resourced and supported, local authorities, working with the NHS, now have the opportunity to demonstrate their considerable experience of delivering social care in a financially sustainable manner. Funding preventative social care in the manner that the report recommends represents a win-win situation for the Government. I look forward to the Minister confirming the new way of working, by recognising that budgets between the NHS and local government, as announced in the recent spending review, will be used, not only for the elderly, but for working-age disabled people. Thank you, Ms Clark.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Clark. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on promoting this afternoon’s debate. Protocol would not allow me to join them in sponsoring the debate, but I am delighted to be able to participate by making a short contribution.
For the record, I also want to identify colleagues from both Houses of Parliament who took part in what was a groundbreaking inquiry in terms of our Parliament. It was cross-party and cross-House, so I want to recognise the contributions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), Baroness Eaton of Cottingley, the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), Baron Low of Dalston, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), Baron Tope of Sutton, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and the hon. Member for Bradford East, who gave up their time to participate. I also want to thank the all-party parliamentary local government group, under the admirable chairmanship of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, for joining with the all-party parliamentary disability group in promoting the inquiry.
It is also worth nothing that a distinguished group of people presented evidence to us, both as individuals—people who came from a variety of backgrounds—and as organisations, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sense, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the NHS Confederation, Inclusion London, Mencap, Mind, the National Autistic Society, and the president of the Association of Directors of Social Work. I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the Opposition spokesperson, will recognise that the evidence brought together a significant spectrum of expertise from organisations, but more importantly, that it brought to the inquiry the particular experiences of disabled people themselves. It was not only about talking to the organisations that are out there, either representing or delivering services for disabled people; it was also about listening to disabled people. To echo the comments made by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, I would like to thank Scope most sincerely, not only for servicing the inquiry, but for going beyond the bounds of what was expected to ensure that it happened—and happened professionally—and that our publication is both professional and challenging. I want to place that on record.
Disability can happen to anyone at any time. We could have an undiagnosed condition, a car accident, or we could develop a progressive illness. Last week, I attended a reception in the House of Lords for the management of bowel problems. I met a young man who became disabled in his early 20s when a rugby scrum collapsed on him. He never thought, in his wildest dreams, that he would be disabled in his 20s. He loved and played rugby, and one day, an accident happened. I hope that that would be the context in which we can discuss some of the issues that both my colleagues have identified today, because my benchmark for social care is what we would want to happen if it were us. If we start from that premise, we can build a picture of what we think should be the exemplar in terms of social care.
I want to identify why the inquiry took place, and why now. There is a momentum with the Care Bill, with both political parties—perhaps, in this company, I should say three political parties—coming together to recognise the importance of social care. As the hon. Members for Bradford East and for South Derbyshire highlighted, a third of those who rely on social care are, in fact, working-age adults. Sometimes, there is a great frustration among the disability community that working-age adults are not mentioned. We talk about care of older people—indeed, sometimes we use care of “the elderly”, which I think is somewhat disparaging, as we are talking about “older people”. That is only my particular pedantry, I suppose. However, working-age adults sometimes get forgotten, and I certainly welcome the focus that we are giving those younger people today.
As both my colleagues have identified, care cannot only be about basic survival. There is more to life than getting up, eating and drinking, getting into your pyjamas and then going to bed. Frankly, although the Minister mentioned Torbay, that, sadly, is exactly what social care means for many people around the country. For disabled people who want to live fulfilling lives, care is a facilitator for independent living, fairness and respect. It is an enabler to a social and family life and, thankfully, for an increasing number of disabled people, to participating in their own way in the wider life of their community through employment.
Frankly, social care for working-age adults cannot only be about fitting them into a pre-ordained system, nor can it be about a template that is pulled down, and then someone’s name is slotted into it. It is about ensuring that the individual disabled person has real independence, choice and control. Sometimes we talk glibly about independence, choice and control, without thinking about exactly what they mean; they can be different things for different people. There is no point in having someone come in to help a person dress at 11 o’ clock, when they need to get to their work at 10 o’clock. What is the point of that? That does not allow them to live a fulfilling life, and there is little dignity and respect in getting that person into their pyjamas at 6 o’clock when they might want to go out to the cinema, to visit their friends, or, indeed, to have their friends round to visit. Let us just imagine what that must be like. Their family, friends or neighbours are there, and the person is sitting there in their jimjams. That is not what we should mean by social care, but sadly it is what is happening in many parts of the country.
In addition, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire highlighted, social care should not just be another arm of the emergency services. It should not be a response to a crisis. That is where some of the difficulties in terms of preventive measures come in, but I want to make two or three points to echo some of the recommendations in the report.
First, I think that the current Government, like previous Governments, believe in principle in the right to independent living. We believe, I hope, as a Parliament, in breaking down barriers for disabled people and breaking down some of the Government silos that create those barriers. Disabled people do not live their lives according to the Department for Transport, the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions—we can add on whichever number of Departments we want. That is not how people live their lives and it certainly is not how disabled people live their lives, so it is important that we do not just talk about independent living, but look at how it can be delivered.
Both my colleagues identified the important issue of the portability of care, and I cannot emphasise enough how important that is to disabled adults of working age. I ask the Minister to think about this issue. Let us consider the case of a disabled person in the borough of Lambeth who has to move to Westminster but finds that they cannot take their care package—their support—with them. That is echoed across the country. If it is difficult within one city, just think how much more difficult it is if someone happens to live in Carlisle and wants to go and live in Bradford. Let us just think of the challenges that that poses for an individual disabled adult.
However, it is not just individual disabled adults who are affected. Let us consider the case of people who are the parents of a disabled child. The mum or dad gets a new job and moves from Bradford down to Birmingham. The disabled child has some sort of support mechanism. This starts in childhood and can develop into adulthood. I appreciate that we are talking specifically about working-age adults, but I think that we must recognise that the picture is even bigger than the focus that we have today. In many cases, this is an issue from the cradle to the grave.
I agree with the case that the right hon. Lady is making, but I want to ask her this. Presumably she is pleased that the Care Bill introduces the capacity to move from one part of the country to another without the care package collapsing and that it stays in place until the person has been reassessed in their new area. It may be that someone’s needs change if they are closer to a loved one, their home is different or whatever, but the care package stays in place until the reassessment happens.
Of course I welcome that. I think that the big challenge for the Minister, the Government and, indeed, any future Government that I hope will be there within 18 months or so is how that is delivered—how we break down those barriers. Although I can obviously speak about the silos within the UK Government, at Whitehall level, we must be realistic and recognise that there are tensions even between one local authority and another. The issue is how that policy is delivered, but of course I give the Minister due recognition for that comment.
I want to emphasise the issue of the eligibility threshold. I heard what the Minister said about that, but if the threshold is at the “substantial” level, many people will not qualify. I accept what he said—no one will lose out on what they have now, so if someone gets it at the “moderate” level, which I understand is the situation in Bradford, they will not lose out. But in the event that the provision is limited to those whose needs are at the “substantial” level, many people will still require that additional element of support, which would allow them to live independent lives.
The point was made by the Minister that no one will lose out. As I pointed out in my speech, 90,000 people have already lost out. They may be being told that they will not lose any more, but they have nothing more to lose, because they have already lost it. That is the big concern. We already have this level in 84% of authorities, which means that people have lost the provision; it has gone from them for ever.
I hope that the Minister has heard his hon. Friend’s comments.
The report clearly identifies the issue of preventive care. That issue has bedevilled the health service, probably ever since it was established. People think of the health service and the social care service as providing solutions at the point at which they need them, as opposed to being innovative and looking at how some of those situations can be prevented from arising. As the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said, there is a saving in the long term if we get that right.
It is perfectly true that many disabled people who fall out of the system have to re-enter it and probably at a higher level of support and therefore expense. Of course, the crucial element in all this is that closer integration of budgets is needed to ensure that “health and social care” actually means health and social care. I do not think that any of us can run away from the issue of financial austerity. It is about getting the best value for money and recognising the funding gap, but I hope that we can reach agreement across the political spectrum about how we deliver this. I would hope that hon. Members in this Chamber would share many of the frustrations that certainly we had in the last Parliament about the fact that we could not reach cross-party consensus on funding.
I want to address a couple of remarks to the Minister. One has to do with a gap in the Care Bill. There is no mention of the role of the DWP in any of this, yet the DWP holds the purse strings, in some respects, for many individual disabled people. Some of us were quite surprised in the debate yesterday in the main Chamber when we discovered that the Minister leading the debate on behalf of the Government, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), said that he had not read the Care Bill. That was quite a shock. We do not know whether his officials had read it, but there is a strong element that I think must be taken into account. I am referring to the role that the DWP can play in this. I would be interested if this Minister had any comments on what he believes will be the impact of the closure of the independent living fund in terms of the wider area of health and social care.
I want to finish my speech by offering very special thanks to Baroness Campbell—Jane Campbell. One of the idiosyncrasies of this place is that although we can share agendas with our colleagues in the House of Lords, we cannot share with them, even in the slightly less formal environment of Westminster Hall, some of the discussion and debates. Baroness Campbell was a pioneer of independent living and a driving force behind this agenda for many years. She has her own piece of legislation, a private Member’s Bill, and I understand that much of what was in that private Member’s Bill has probably been taken on board by the Government. Individuals such as Baroness Campbell, who depended themselves on the health and social care system, were not prepared to let that system drive them down. She has been a powerful advocate for this agenda over many years. I wanted to pay a particular and special tribute to her this afternoon as we have the opportunity to discuss the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time to debate this very important issue, and I congratulate the hon. Members for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) for sponsoring the debate. It is a great pleasure—this is the first time that it has happened to me—to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who made a very powerful speech.
This subject is hugely important. One in five adults in Britain has a disability of some kind, and that figure is rising due to medical advances and better survival rates. As my right hon. Friend says, it could happen to any of us, so this is not a side topic but an essential issue. Britain will not be a fair country if disabled people are denied the opportunities that many of us take for granted, and we will not be a successful country if we miss out on the talents and contribution of disabled people, not only in economic terms, but in our communities and wider cultural and social life.
Good social care is essential to enable disabled people to be full citizens and live full and fulfilling lives. As hon. Members have said, that is about not only the basics of life—help getting up and getting washed, dressed and fed. It is about what I call the very stuff of life—ensuring that disabled people can spend time with their family and friends; learn and get new skills; find a job; contribute to their local community; take part in sport, art, culture and music; and have fun. In other words, it enables disabled people to have the same aspirations as every other citizen. That is why today’s debate, the joint report from the all-party groups on local government and on disability and “The other care crisis” report are important.
This is not about a particular public service, but about what kind of society and country Britain should be in the 21st century. Despite all the economic challenges, we are one of the richest countries in the world. What kind of country and society do we want, to ensure that we have genuine fairness and opportunity for people of all kinds? The debate is therefore about not only social care, but wider life, which is why it is so important.
As hon. Members have said, there is a growing crisis in social care for working-age adults with disabilities, and services have now reached breaking point. That is eloquently spelled out in the joint report of the all-party groups and “The other care crisis”, the report by Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Sense and the National Autistic Society. It rightly says that social care does not only affect older people: one in three people who use social care are working-age people with disabilities. It also says that local authority budgets for adult social care have been under pressure for many years, but have now reached breaking point, as councils have lost a staggering 28% of their budgets so far under this Government, with even greater reductions announced in the latest spending review. As a result, councils are reducing the number of disabled people eligible for free care and support.
The report says that 40% of disabled people are failing to have their basic needs met. They are unable get the help that they need to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house, and their mental health suffers. There are some terrible, upsetting and distressing quotes from people with disabilities. Disabled people’s families also suffer huge stress and strains.
I agree with the points the shadow Minister makes, but she mentions cuts to local government budgets and I hope that we can all be realistic and honest about the situation that we face. Is she saying that a future Labour Government would substantially increase funding for local government? Alternatively, does she recognise that, collectively, we must all think about different ways to make the money go further?
I believe that we must fundamentally rethink how our care and support system works. The Minister knows that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and I have called for a far bigger and bolder response, by fully integrating the NHS and social care. I shall come to the Government’s proposals for the £3.8 billion of pooled resources. With the greatest respect, I think that the Government should be bigger and bolder in their response, with full and true integration that goes beyond the NHS and social care. If we really join up local services and support and bring together support from the Department for Work and Pensions, there is huge potential to do much more to give better care, better outcomes and better value for money. I will say more on that in a moment.
In “The other care crisis”, organisations raised concerns about the number of people—105,000 in total—who will lose out if the Care Bill goes ahead as it stands, given where the eligibility criteria will be set. The report warns that the huge strides made over recent years in promoting independence and personalising care and support will go backwards, as councils and other providers revert to more traditional service models—salami slicing services separately—thus restricting peoples’ independence. That specific crisis in social care for adults with disabilities will lead to a far bigger crisis: a crisis in opportunities for disabled people to live the life they want, which other citizens have; a crisis for taxpayers, because failing to invest in up-front preventive social care services will lead to more expensive NHS and social security bills; and a crisis for our country as whole, as Britain misses out on the talents and contribution of disabled people and we all end up paying more as the price of failure.
What should happen instead? The Care Bill could and should be a profound opportunity to establish a framework for social care that could be truly transformational for disabled people. The Bill is the result of the Law Commission review of adult social care legislation, initiated by the previous Government.
I give much credit to the Minister, but the Bill is the continuation of a process that Labour established when we were in government—I want that on the record. [Interruption.] I fully and readily acknowledge that local council budgets have been under pressure for many years. He knows better than anyone that towards the end of Labour’s time in Government we tried to reach an agreement on a social care funding system, which I will come back to in a moment. [Interruption.]
I never mind interventions in debates; I warmly welcome them.
I shall make five specific suggestions to the Minister about how the Care Bill could be developed. First, the definition of well-being in the Bill is important. I welcome how broad it is. It covers mental, physical, social and economic well-being; personal relationships; and a person’s ability to contribute to society. The definition also includes ensuring that individuals have control over their day-to-day living, but I question whether the definition is as strong as it could be. The joint report from the all-party groups asks why it could not specifically include promoting independence, to strengthen the definition further.
An issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling relates to my point about definitions. The duty to co-operate in the Bill says that local councils will need to work with a range of partners. I understand that Ministers usually do not want to specify lots of organisation types, but I am concerned that although local councils would, we hope, know that they had to co-operate with the NHS, there is a real issue about the DWP. There is not that link-up locally, and if people’s ability to get training and to participate in the work force is so important, will the Minister consider whether, either in the Bill or in guidance, there needs to be more detail about who local councils should co-operate with? I am concerned that that local relationship might not be there.
Secondly, the eligibility criteria are, as the hon. Member for Bradford East said, the most crucial aspect of the social care system because they determine who is and is not eligible for social care support. We absolutely welcome the commitment to clear national eligibility thresholds, but the Minister knows that disabled people, organisations that represent older people and many of the groups involved are hugely disappointed that the draft regulations have set the thresholds at substantial rather than moderate. I am fully aware of the cost pressures on the system, but has the Department done a true cost-benefit analysis, to consider the potential saving? The hon. Member for South Derbyshire made a point about how investing up front can save money further down the line. Has the Minister discussed with his Treasury colleagues whether, if a longer time frame were used for assessing the costs, we would end up saving money for taxpayers if the moderate level was set?
My third point relates to the so-called capped care costs model—aka Dilnot. The Minister knows that I am concerned that the so-called cap on care costs is not really a cap. I am concerned not only because it does not cover hotel accommodation, but because it covers only what someone’s local authority would pay rather than the amount they might actually pay in residential care and because no one will benefit from the cap until 2020.
The Minister will know that my point is that I warn Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that going around the country strongly saying that it is a cap on care costs will create confusion—that is the best word I can use.
I do not want to focus on older people; I want to come to the point that the APPGs raised. The joint report states that the majority of working-age people with disabilities will not benefit from the so-called capped social care costs model, because they will not have had the chance to acquire assets. How many disabled people will benefit from the model? Why does the Minister believe that it is more important to put in excess of £1 billion into implementing the Dilnot model rather than into the current system, which is being increasingly squeezed?
My fourth point is about personalisation. I am a huge champion of personal budgets. I have seen them transform many of my constituents’ lives, not just because they promote genuine independence by giving people a say in how they live their lives rather than the system telling them how they should, but because they are essential to integration. The people themselves know best about how to join up their needs and support, because they do not see the two things as separate. However, I have heard the concern expressed in many different places across the country that personal budgets are getting a bad name. People feel that they are increasingly not based on their needs and that less money is being given than is needed, because of how the resource allocation system works.
Another important recommendation in the joint APPG report is about considering whether the resource allocation system should go on to a statutory footing, supported by new duties on councils to be transparent about decisions. I do not want personal budgets to get a bad name, with people feeling that they are a cover for cuts, rather than being based on what people need.
My final point is on the absolutely essential issue of prevention and integration. The Government announced in the spending review that there will be pooled budgets across health and social care totalling £3.8 billion, including £2 billion transferred from the NHS. The joint APPG report states that much of the previous transfer of money from the NHS to social care never reached the front line, and there is a concern that just continually transferring money in that way is not sustainable. How will the Minister ensure that the money gets to the front line? Will it be available, as I think the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said, for working-age adults with disabilities, rather than just for older people? Finally, will the Minister acknowledge that if this keeps happening year after year, it would be far better to have much fuller integration, such as the whole-person care approach proposed by Opposition Members?
I join others in saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and I apologise again for my rudeness earlier. I noted that the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) said that it was a “genuine pleasure” to serve under you. I am not sure what it means when on other occasions she leaves out “genuine”; none the less, it was clearly a tribute to you, Ms Clark.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate. This is the second time this week that the two of us have discussed and debated care issues, and I know that he cares passionately—and genuinely—about the subject.
I want to make a number of points at the start. I very much welcomed the fact that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) highlighted the absolutely central importance of the principle of well-being in the Care Bill. The Bill has the potential to be transformational in how it challenges culture—how the system works and how it treats people. In part, it is about a big shift from a paternalistic system in which people get done to, to a personal one in which their needs and priorities come first.
The right hon. Member for Stirling made the point, absolutely correctly, that there is more to life than getting up, being washed, eating and going back to bed. I am not sure who focused on the important issue of social isolation, but the truth is that many people in this day and age live miserable lives. If someone lives on their own and has substantial care needs, and the extent of their life is getting out of bed, getting washed, sitting in a chair and going back to bed, with no one to see during the day, that is a miserable life.
One point I want to make today is that this is not just about care services. If we are talking about a good society and about giving people a good life, there must be collaboration between statutory services and communities, families and the streets on which we live. I have floated the idea of neighbourhood watch groups applying to provide care. We have a national movement that looks out for whether our houses are being burgled, so should we not be thinking—all of us stepping up to the plate—about whether there are people on our streets who have care needs, or who might just be very lonely and could do with a bit of companionship?
If we are to have a civilised society, the focus has to be not just on statutory services but on collaboration within the community. That is all the more important given the extraordinary strains which the public finances are under now and will be under in future. All political sides in the debate must face up to the extraordinary financial challenge and how best to meet it.
Reference was made to setting the eligibility criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East argued cogently for the level to be set at moderate, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), asked whether there had been a cost-benefit analysis. The problem faced by any Government is that the up-front cost for both working-age and older people is £2.7 billion. I absolutely buy into the case for preventing ill health and the deterioration of health and into making another fundamental shift from repair to prevention—the whole system must reflect that—but Governments should be very careful about committing themselves to that level of up-front cost. That would be exactly the same if Labour were in power.
The shadow Minister and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire asked whether the £3.8 billion pooled sum applied to working-age disabled people as well as older people. Absolutely, yes. My passion for integrated care and for preventing ill health and deterioration in health applies to people of whatever age. We have a particular challenge with frail elderly people, but we also have an understated challenge with people of working age who have disabilities, because often the focus is not enough on them.
In relation to the impact on people, “The other care crisis” report states that we must look at not only what may happen but what has already happened over the past two years up and down the country, and the impact there has already been and no doubt will continue to be on people. I understand that the legislation is due to go through in 2015, and there is talk of having a working group over three to four years. That seems an awfully long period before we will have an assessment of what has happened and what may occur as a result of the legislation.
I will come on to the work that we intend to do on a more sophisticated way of assessing eligibility and responding to assessments. I absolutely accept the current danger that the system in effect says, “Go away, become more ill or more disabled, and when there is a real crisis, we might help you.” I want us to be more sophisticated and to intervene in ways that will help to build capacity and resilience and to stop the deterioration of health. I genuinely believe that the Care Bill will give us the foundations for a much more rational approach.
May I take the Minister back to the £3.8 billion pooled budget? He said that it was absolutely available for care and support for working-age people with disabilities. Will he explain, when the money goes down to clinical commissioning groups and local councils, first, where it will go to, and secondly, how he will ensure that it actually goes to working-age people with disabilities? I know how the NHS works, and all the focus is on the frail elderly because they are in hospital. The NHS wants to get them out of hospital—that is its prime focus—so unless there is something specific in what the Minister sets up, the money will not go to working-age people with disabilities.
Well, it is. To bring health care and social care together structurally would be a massive re-organisation, and there is no way of avoiding that. The smart way is to focus on the care that an individual receives. The issue is not just about bringing health and social care together and integrating those two systems but about the health service itself and the fact that, institutionally, we have separated mental health from physical health and primary care from secondary care, which is crazy. The whole thing is fragmented, but we should shape services around the needs of patients. The Government’s approach, based on the duties to integrate in the Health and Social Care Act, is the smart, fast way of achieving much more joined-up care for the patient, whether individuals are elderly or of working age. I want to make some progress with my speech.
The Government are committed to improving the lives of disabled people and to supporting them in their independent lives. In very difficult financial circumstances, we have done much to achieve that through the disability strategy, welfare reform—it is incredibly controversial, but any Government would have to pay attention to the extraordinary growth in welfare spending—and a whole raft of condition-specific initiatives.
One outstanding issue still needs to be addressed—social care reform. The importance of care and support for disabled adults cannot be understated: it is the enabler of independent living. We hear much about the ageing population as the driver for care reform, but a third of all health and care users are working-age disabled people, so it is vital that the social care reforms address their needs. The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East and his colleagues have secured this debate is valuable because it ensures that we focus on the needs of working-age disabled people. I repeat that there is a risk of their being forgotten, which must not happen.
Earlier this year, I read with interest the “Promoting Independence, Preventing Crisis” report into making social care reform work for disabled adults. It was a joint inquiry by the all-party groups on local government and on disability. I congratulate them on an important piece of work, and I will attempt to address some of the points raised in a moment. I first want to talk about some of the things we have done.
We know that disabled people face a number of challenges. They are far less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people. In fact, shockingly, only 46% of disabled people are in employment compared with 76% of their non-disabled counterparts. Some 19% of individuals living in a family with a disabled member are in income poverty, although I am pleased to say that that has been falling over time. Progress is being made, but much more needs to be done.
The first thing to say about all the Government’s reforms is that we are committed to the UN convention on the rights of disabled people, which includes the right of disabled people to independent living. The Department of Health has been working closely with the Office for Disability Issues on the new cross-Government disability strategy, “Fulfilling Potential”, which was published last September. It is about making the UN convention a living reality for disabled people in Britain. It describes the rights that disabled people—just like anyone else—have in all areas of life, and the duty on Government to ensure that those rights are met.
The shadow Minister made a point about co-ordination with the DWP. There is scope for much more joined-up working at a local level to bring disparate public services together and to achieve far more bang for our buck than we presently manage.
I do not wish to embarrass them, but I suggest that both the Minister and his officials look at the disability strategy report based on the “Fulfilling Potential” report that he mentioned. That update was published last week. I think the jury is out on what it says, but in the interests of joined-up government, he should have the most up-to-date picture.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that intervention. What remarkable timing she shows. On 2 July, the follow-up document, “Fulfilling potential: making it happen” was published, which sets out the indicators that will show where we are making progress and where more work needs to be done.
In my Department, we have been working to ensure that we can hold the new health system to account for the quality of services and outcomes that they provide to disabled people. The NHS outcomes framework includes a number of measures that relate specifically to disability, including, critically from my point of view, mental health, which is an area that is sometimes forgotten. Talking about an outcomes framework sounds like horrible jargon, but it is actually about focusing on results for people—the impact on people of what we spend. If we can measure that and then measure the changes that happen over time, we can focus the whole system’s attention on the need to achieve outcomes for people rather than on process. Essentially, we will expect to see a reduction in premature death among people with a learning disability and people with serious mental illness. It is a scandal in this day and age that such people die so much younger than others. We will also expect to see an enhanced quality of life for people with mental illness and an improvement in their experience of health care.
This matter is not just about the NHS. We will also be holding to account the adult care and support system through the adult social care outcomes framework for ensuring that
“people are able to find employment when they want, maintain a family and social life and contribute to community life, and avoid loneliness or isolation”.
We will be measuring that through the proportion of adults with a learning disability who are in contact with secondary mental health services, who are in paid employment and who live in their own home or with their family.
We have responded robustly to the challenges posed by the really dreadful events at Winterbourne View hospital and to the way in which people with learning disabilities, autism and behaviours described as challenging are viewed and treated. All too often, society has treated them as second-class citizens. I take a simple view that people with learning disabilities have exactly the same rights as anyone else, and we have to ensure that the whole system respects that basic position. By April 2014, every area will have a joint plan to ensure high-quality care and support services for this group of people in line with best practice. By June next year, everyone inappropriately in hospital will have moved to community-based support.
We are reviewing the national autism strategy to assess how it is addressing the barriers that people with autism face, and how care and support services are responding to their needs. However, that is not something that the care and support system can do on its own. As a Government, we are also aiming to make the benefit system fairer, more responsive and more affordable to help reduce poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency, and to reduce levels of fraud and error. For many, that will include support to work, which is the best route out of poverty and is very often beneficial for those with long-term health conditions. It is worth reiterating that severely disabled people who need support will always get it, and we will provide unequivocal support for those who cannot work.
I mentioned care reform. Many people have told us that today’s care and support system often fails to live up to the expectations of those who rely on it. Although many have good experiences, the system can be confusing, massively disempowering, paternalistic and not flexible enough to fit around their lives.
Our White Paper, “Caring for our future”, which was published last year set out a vision for a reformed care and support system. Yes, it was based on the Law Commission report, but it was implemented, I am proud to say, by this coalition Government. We need a modern system that promotes people’s well-being by enabling them to prevent and postpone the need for care and support, and puts them in control of their lives to pursue opportunities, including education and employment, to realise their potential.
The Care Bill, which we introduced in Parliament in May, is a crucial step in delivering that vision. It represents the most comprehensive reform of social care legislation in more than 60 years, creating for the first time a single, modern statute for adult care and support. The existing law that underpins care and support is outdated and confusing. It is rooted in the post-war period and must be overhauled, as the Law Commission concluded after its three-year review. Our new statute will be clearer, fairer, and will empower people to take control over their care and support. It has been done in the most collaborative way, with pre-legislative scrutiny and widespread consultation with the sector and the wider community.
The current legal framework is narrow and paternalistic; it is built around the idea of providing state-defined services, rather than of meeting and responding to the needs and goals of individuals. The other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East talked very movingly about the brilliant community work on dementia care that is under way in Bradford. That is where we see this collaboration between ordinary people who are good citizens and who care for one another and the supportive role that the state always has to play to back that up. The Care Bill will help to shift the focus of care and support from paternalism to a much more personal approach. It will place personal budgets on a legislative footing for the first time. I agree with the shadow Minister about the importance of personal budgets being real; they must empower people and not mask a cut in support or provision.
We want to extend the greater roll-out of personal budgets to give people who are assessed as needing care and support more choice and control over how their care is provided. Where personalisation has taken root it works—people get better results and it is popular with users and carers. That is particularly true for working-age adults; take-up is relatively high compared with that among older people. This great reform came about through working-age disabled people demanding that they have more control over their lives, and local government responding to them.
The current law fails to reflect the importance of supporting people in caring roles. The Bill, for the first time, puts carers on the same legal footing as those for whom they care, with expanded rights to assessment and new rights to support.
The Care Bill also implements historic reforms to the way in which the care system is funded, by introducing a cap on the care costs that people incur. Of course, as I said in an intervention on the shadow Minister, people can choose to spend more than that if they wish, but if we were to do what I think she was implying it would mean giving enormous financial support to wealthier people, which cannot be justified in times of real financial constraints.
The current care and support system offers little financial protection for the cost of care. As the Commission on the Funding of Care and Support said, because care needs are unpredictable, individuals and families are unable to know what care costs they might face in the future. We recognise that some working-age adults may face having to pay for care earlier than most elderly people do, so we have therefore said in our funding reform proposals that people who need care before they reach retirement age will pay less. In addition, the changes we are proposing will mean that people who are assessed as having care needs before they turn 18 will have their cap set at zero. We will be consulting on those changes very shortly.
We have made it clear from the consultation and publication of the White Paper through to the publication of the Care Bill that the same principles apply to all who need care and support. That applies equally to an adult with a physical disability, someone with a learning disability, an adult with mental health issues or an elderly person needing care. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East is particularly concerned about eligibility criteria. We have published draft regulations setting out national eligibility criteria for discussion. They are set at a level that will allow local authorities to maintain the same level of services for service users when they move from the current framework.
Let me end by saying that I would prefer to have a more sophisticated system. Work is under way on developing that. I invite Scope to participate in that and work with the Government to achieve a much more rational system in which we can intervene earlier, provide some support and help to build capacity and resilience so that people get help when they need it rather than when they reach a crisis.
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.
I will start by making it clear that I am not here to deny the pressing need for alternative energy sources, and I am in no doubt about the threats that we face from the twin hazards of peak oil prices and rising greenhouse gas emissions. I also want to acknowledge the work of Rob Hopkins and Transition Town Totnes in my constituency. They have inspired not only a national movement but an international movement that is leading the way in taking practical steps towards more sustainable and resilient communities.
There is widespread support, in my constituency and nationally, for roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems. Projects such as Transition Streets in Totnes, which the Minister very kindly visited in April, bring communities together, and they look at energy saving as well as microgeneration. I hope that the Minister can set out in his response to this debate how he plans to support community energy projects such as this, which have the potential to be rolled out at scale. However, I will not dwell on that issue in detail, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) will elaborate further on community energy when she speaks.
I thank the Minister for his response this morning in oral questions, because it went to the nub of this issue. We do not want to resist solar PV as such; we want to resist inappropriate solar PV. I was immensely relieved, as all my constituents will be, to hear that he is working so closely with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to bring forward a change to planning regulations, in order to make it very clear to planners and local councillors that local opinion, the need to protect our heritage and our rural landscape, and all the other factors that matter so much to local communities, cannot automatically be overridden because of the need to go forward on renewable energy.
Perhaps I can just set out the scale of where we are and say why communities are so worried. At the moment, we have 1.6 GW of solar capacity within the UK, and almost all of that is in microgeneration. The average scale is 4/1,000th of a megawatt and only 71 of the current 369,912 sites that are listed on the renewables obligation and feed-in tariff database are more than 500 kW in size. To put that in context, that would be a site of more than 2.5 acres. These sites contribute just 203 MW of that total 1.6 GW of installed capacity. However, if we look at the Department of Energy and Climate Change planning database, we see that 1.7 GW is in the planning pipeline or under construction, which is even greater than the solar capacity that we currently have installed. The point is that most of that 1.7 GW is completely different; it is not microgeneration but large-scale generation. In fact, more than half of it is very large-scale; we are talking about projects that are more than 5 MW. To put that in context, 1 MW requires around five acres of land, so more than half of that 1.7 GW that is in the pipeline will be of a scale greater than 25 acres. That is the nub of this issue.
I will put that figure in context again by looking at the impact on Totnes. My constituency covers an area from Holne on Dartmoor down to the sea; it takes in an area of outstanding natural beauty, several sites of special scientific interest and several special areas of conservation. South Hams district council has received 28 applications for large-scale solar projects: 25 have been approved and they are either in construction or awaiting construction; one is at appeal; and just two have been withdrawn. It is hard to convey the scale of these projects, or how much they cause devastation to the landscape; people have to see them to understand why communities are so worried about them. Anyone who travels north from Diptford, which is a tiny community in a beautiful rural setting, will come over the brow of a hill and see the development at a place called Blue Post, and they will be in no doubt whatever about what the future holds if we do not do something about this issue. There are more than 20 acres of densely packed, ground-mounted panels. Anyone who wants to see this site can look on my Twitter feed and there is a photograph of what these things look like close at hand. Effectively, the site is an industrialised desert, and it is a world away from the misleading and I have to say—frankly—fraudulent impression given in some of the glossy advertising that is being targeted directly at farmers.
However, I must say that farmers are the one group that I do not blame for any of this development. If farmers’ cattle are suffering from the devastating effects of bovine TB and the farmers repeatedly see their beautiful herds of South Devon cows being culled, while they are also under pressure from falling milk prices and face losing their family farms, and through their letterbox they receive a deluge of advertising that promises them up to £1,000 an acre per year for having solar panels installed on their land, together with a maintenance contract, who on earth would not decide to do that?
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are a tremendous number of farmers in the south-west at the moment, particularly in her constituency and my constituency of South East Cornwall, who may be land-rich but cash-poor, and that that is possibly one of the problems?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The collapse in farming incomes is extraordinary and both of us know that, having worked closely with farming communities. There used to be a dairy farm on every hillside in the South Hams area, but I am afraid that we are losing that vital part of our heritage.
Far from the rural idyll of grazing sheep and wild flowers that we see in all the glossy literature about these sites, the reality is that where the panels are closely packed and close to the ground there is very little grazing land. There may be a margin around the edge of these sites, which of course is where the photographs are taken, but those photographs give a very misleading impression. We are often told that these projects will be sensitively screened. Well, anyone who has driven past Blue Post will see very high and very ugly wire fencing, often with security cameras and humming transformers. That is a very different world from the one that is portrayed in the literature. The industry guidelines talk about sensitive siting, consultation with communities and sensitive screening, but I am afraid that this process does not appear to be about renewables and saving the planet; instead, it appears to be about big money.
Diptford, the small community I referred to earlier, has already felt the impact of the arrays at Marley and Blue Post, and there are already two further large sites along the power line corridors nearby. Now, AAE Renewables is in the pre-planning stage for a further 83 acres directly bordering the AONB. There is a visceral sense that something is very wrong. I know that the community in Diptford will be immensely reassured that the planning guidelines will be updated by the Minister in the next few weeks.
However, I will just sound a note of caution, because we often hear the term “prime farmland” being used. Agricultural land is graded between one and five, but the grade is determined by a number of factors, such as gradient, flood risk, versatility, the yield and so forth. If the Minister looks at the map of agricultural land grading in my constituency, he will see that almost the entire area is grade 3 or 4. If we restrict the protections to prime farmland, and that is interpreted as being grade 1 or 2, that will be no protection whatever to the South Hams. I was relieved to hear this morning that landscape and rural views are also issues, because it is important that we focus not only on land type.
There is a wider point about food security, which has been made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who would have liked to contribute to the debate. The projects in Suffolk Coastal are taking over not only areas of outstanding natural beauty, but valuable agricultural land. In summing up, therefore, will the Minister tell us whether any assessment has been made of the impact on food security, because we, as a country, are already unable to feed ourselves? There is also an issue about the impact on local food webs. The disruption to local food webs will be important in areas such as south Devon. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
Another real grievance relates to subsidies. We see from the correspondence between AEE and the planning department that it is not necessary for an 80-acre area of desecration—that is what it is, I am afraid—to have an environmental impact assessment. Small-scale, sustainable, self-build projects from the Land Society are held up, sometimes for years, by the need to have environmental impact assessments, but the real environmental impact is from inappropriate large-scale solar developments. In summing up, will the Minister refer to the need to have environmental impact assessments? Often, the image we are given is of projects that will be high off the ground and widely spaced—we all recognise that that has less of an environmental impact—but if Members go to look at the project at Blue Post, they will see that there is a major environmental impact when these things are densely packed and ground mounted.
Another issue is, how temporary is temporary? The planning officer referred in her correspondence to “temporary structures”. In 25 years’ time, I will be 76—
Yes, it is hard to believe, colleagues.
By that time, a whole generation of children will have grown up and left home in the community of Diptford, so 25 years does not sound very temporary. Furthermore, who will be responsible for decommissioning? What is to prevent these industrial wastelands from becoming tomorrow’s brownfield sites? That is another area I hope the Minister will address in summing up.
These developments have little to do with saving the planet; they are entirely about profit. The subsidies go to a tiny number of people. When I speak at public meetings, people who are in fuel poverty often ask why they are paying more to subsidise people who can afford the up-front costs of some of these developments. Indeed, these people might even have the entire cost—often including the entire planning cost—paid for them. As a result, literally nothing needs to be paid for by the person who will then have all the profit from the project.
As the Minister will know, there are many community-owned projects, and he will be aware of TRESOC—the Totnes Renewable Energy Society—in my constituency. I was proud to open its first community-owned array, which is on the roof of the local general practitioners. That is the kind of place these projects need to be. TRESOC has 502 members, who share the dividends. The point, however, is that people have to be able to afford the shares in the first place, so that automatically excludes those in fuel poverty. Will the Minister put some flesh on the bones as regards subsidies, because there are probably a lot of misunderstandings about how they operate and who benefits from them?
Will the Minister also review the system for distributing profits, so that those who suffer loss of amenity—particularly those in fuel poverty—can directly benefit from a reduction in their fuel bills? When I met AEE, it told me that Diptford residents could all benefit from the project because they could have a discount from the supplier, but only from a more expensive supplier, so it was no discount at all. That is what is fuelling a lot of the resentment about these projects.
In a recent speech, the Minister stated his ambition to have 20 GW of solar, but given the impact the 1.7 GW I mentioned will have, I hope that he will tell us, in summing up, how he will make sure that future solar, which we all feel enthusiastic about, is rolled out through community projects and brought up to scale, and that community-owned projects are supported.
Will the Minister also touch on how the national grid will cope? Another problem is that solar arrays function best at times such as this—in the middle of hot, sunny days in the middle of summer. However, peak demand will be on winter evenings, when these arrays have little, if any, input into the grid. I know they still function on cloudy days, but at times of peak demand—on dark winter evenings—they will be of no benefit at all. Another issue is that when they are functioning best—when demand is at its lowest—we also have background forms of energy generation, such as nuclear, which cannot be turned off. At the moment, our grid does not have the capacity to do that.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I will respond to most of her points when I sum up. However, on the issue of demand on sunny days, if she goes to any of the buildings in the centre of London on a hot day such as this, she will find a great deal of air conditioning belting out chilled air produced almost exclusively using electricity. Increasingly, office buildings, commercial buildings, public buildings and even homes need cooling on hot days such as this in the summer.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I quite agree, but if we look at the statistics from National Grid, we will undoubtedly see that demand is at its lowest when solar produces its maximum output. At the moment, we do not have the capacity to store or export that energy, and nor do we have the kind of smart grid that can easily turn systems off. It would be helpful to understand a bit more about the investment that is going into the grid, so that our constituents can have the confidence that we will not be subsidising large-scale solar arrays and then turning off the electricity supply to the national grid. We want to make sure that the grid has the capacity to deal with these things.
The south-west understands that it has a responsibility to contribute to energy generation from renewables. It is encouraging that Regen SW’s figures show there has been a 50% growth in that contribution in the past year. Capacity in the south-west is now 1 GW, and 7.3% of that electricity generation comes from renewables. Devon is the major contributor, closely followed by Cornwall. Between them, Devon and Cornwall are responsible for the lion’s share of renewable energy generation in the south-west.
The real enthusiasm in the south-west, however, is for marine renewables. Those are a fabulous resource, and we have the potential to become world leaders in marine renewables. Will the Minister update us on his support for them? Other countries have taken the lead on technologies such as solar and wind, and they tend to hoover up the profits from those technologies, but Britain has the potential to be the world leader in marine renewables. I really hope, therefore, that he will be able to update us on how he plans to support marine renewables. Perhaps he could even look at a project in my constituency. Searaser was invented by Alvin Smith, and it is supported by Ecotricity. The university of Plymouth is standing ready and could carry out the tank testing of the technology, which looks very encouraging, if it had assistance to help it do so. Will the Minister look at that?
My constituents understand the need to keep the lights on, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on imported fossil fuels, but they maintain that the greatest gains are in powering down and reducing energy use. We are about to spend £42 billion on High Speed 2, and I wonder what a fraction of that investment could do to transform cycling, for example, throughout the UK; to transform and electrify the entire railway system; and to invest in our vital future in marine renewables. I hope that our legacy will be in such developments. I am confident that with the Minister’s support, working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, it will not be industrialisation and a wasteland across rural Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has made the case strongly. I want to reiterate what she said, but I will stick mainly to discussing my constituents’ views.
A thermal map of the UK shows that Cornwall is the best place here for solar arrays, but it is therefore also the best place for tourism. The tourism industry plays an important role in the duchy’s economy. Many of my constituents, from the beautiful Luxulyan valley in the west to the towns of the Tamar valley in the east, have contacted me about their growing concern that their beautiful landscapes and productive farm land are being covered in solar panels. The landscape is a prime visitor attraction, and they are concerned that the duchy’s economy will suffer.
Local councillors, who know the area best, refuse many of the planning applications, only to find that the planning inspector, based in an obscure location, with no knowledge of the locality or its topography or landscape, overturns the decision. Such interference in local decisions is a disgrace. Some constituents have expressed concern that local planning officers are now informing councillors that it would cost the local authority millions of pounds if they refused an application and lost an appeal. That cannot continue.
Many of my constituents are also concerned that the council’s planning portfolio is held by a member of the largest group on the council. They have expressed concern that the Liberal Democrat green agenda has the potential to cover our beautiful countryside and productive farm land in massive solar fields. We must not allow that.
I just want to volunteer a thought about some of the alternatives; Hinkley Point power station is not exactly the most beautiful building to adorn the south-west coast. There are probably some much more unattractive alternatives to solar panels.
I was going to come to the alternatives, but I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.
I am not against solar panels—in the right place, with local approval. I pay tribute to a business in South East Cornwall, Trago Mills, whose managing director, Mr Bruce Robertson, has massively invested in a solar array on the roof of his building. I understand that his other, very large facility, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), also has solar panels fitted. I discussed that with my hon. Friend and he, too, pays tribute to that gentleman. The arrays produce a third of the electricity consumed in those popular out-of-town shopping centres, where, of course, the main energy consumption takes place during daylight hours. The benefit to one of South East Cornwall’s largest employers and to its economy is maximised. Using a company from the south-west to do the installation was a further benefit.
I applaud the recent written statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in conjunction with the Minister, about the national planning policy guidance on wind turbines. I think that I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes confirm today that we can look forward to further planning policy guidance to local authorities on other sources of renewable energy. I hope that the Minister will confirm that.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the suspension, I was just about to conclude my contribution.
We must ensure that local authority planning officers and planning inspectors are immediately made aware of any new planning policy guidance on solar arrays and other renewable energy sources to ensure that local councillors who make decisions locally have the best opportunity to adhere to the new guidance.
I fully support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, and I know that if the Minister is able to confirm a change in the national planning policy guidance, it will reassure many of my constituents who have great concerns.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for initiating this debate.
I think that we can all agree that solar power is a real option for producing energy in the very near future, not only to meet our renewable energy needs and targets, but to keep the lights on. Solar arrays are swiftly installed and can balance the supply from more intermittent sources of generation, such as wind.
I was intrigued by the hon. Lady’s comments earlier, when she said that she would prefer to have solar panels than Hinkley Point, which will fulfil 8% of the country’s total energy needs. We would have to plaster the whole of the south-west and probably most of the farm land of the south-east to get anywhere near that amount of power. I am absolutely intrigued if that is actually Liberal Democrat policy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but of course my comment was on the beauty or otherwise of Hinkley Point, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) discussed. My point was that I do not believe that Hinkley Point is in any way beautiful, nor could it be considered attractive from any point of view. I accept that it produces power, and I certainly was not speaking for my party. I accept that there has to be a mix and that I cannot possibly stop Hinkley Point on my own, much as I possibly would like to do so. It is a valuable part of the mix, but I do not think that it is a very attractive blot on our landscape.
I am a keen environmentalist, and I believe that we have to make huge strides on energy saving, as well as on renewable energy generation, to ensure that we meet the targets that we set ourselves in the Climate Change Act 2008.
Using solar PV on domestic roofs is not the whole answer, and there are compromises to be made between orientation and the difficulty sometimes fitting in with architectural constraints. None the less, there is an opportunity to use commercial roofs for solar PV, too. I cite the cow shed roof of Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury festival, who hosted 200,000 people the weekend before last at a highly successful and very sunny festival. I understand that he is the biggest private solar power and electricity provider in the UK. He has 1,116 panels on his cow shed roof at Worthy farm, and he produces 200 kW of power and saves 100 tonnes of carbon per annum. He uses that power to charge the generators used for long periods during the festival.
The hon. Lady is obviously unaware that there are two facilities—one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) and the other in my constituency—that I am absolutely certain are much larger solar arrays than the one she mentions. Perhaps she would be well advised to check whether her information is a bit out of date, because those two facilities are recent installations.
My understanding is that Michael Eavis is the largest private provider, but if I am incorrect, I stand that comment aside. None the less, he is a significant provider of solar energy, and it is to his credit that he has taken that step. Looking from the top of the Mendip hills or across the Somerset countryside, it is not unattractive to see the solar panels on those cow shed roofs. From a distance, most of the solar panels actually look like lakes, bits of water and, in some cases, the reflection off the polytunnels where strawberries are grown at Cheddar and where various other vegetables and produce are grown in the area. The visual impact can sometimes be quite attractive.
Of course, the good that is done is comparable and sometimes preferable, when we look at the money that goes into subsidies. Using subsidies for solar panels compares favourably with using subsidies for nuclear energy—that technology is certainly not new and should stand on its own in the market, but that debate is for another day.
In my part of Somerset, we are no stranger to solar arrays being planned and built. Up to 10 are planned or are in the planning process in my constituency alone. Locally based generation clearly reduces the use of the fossil fuels that often fuel the national grid at carbon-intensive fossil fuel power stations.
Electricity generation is moving to a model in which we can use a wide mix of technologies to provide power, and solar power is undoubtedly a significant contributor. Ground-mounted solar can come in a range of scales and sizes. In my part of Somerset, some proposed plans are suitable to the area, although some may be too big and intrusive. On the impact of solar arrays, I agree that wherever possible, they should be placed on brownfield land. In my area, though, it is equally feasible for agricultural land to be used for two purposes: farming and energy production.
The issue should be considered in respect of the wide benefits that solar arrays can bring to communities. I wish to place the themes of community and community energy at the heart of this debate. There are models for large-scale solar schemes that are appropriate and in scale. For example, in my patch is the Wedmore community power co-operative—a 1 MW scheme of 4,000 panels on about five acres of land, edged with hedges and a tree-lined road. The site, a little way outside the centre of the village of Wedmore, will power 300 of the 550 homes at the centre of that community. It is on a smaller scale than most of the larger arrays, but that is all the better, as it is a model for other villages in rural areas.
The Wedmore community power co-operative is encouraging as many local people as possible to invest in the scheme. As it is a community-led co-op set up by local people, every penny of the profit will flow back into the community. The scheme has a 27-year life, and the co-operative estimates that £605,000 will pour into the local area for all manner of projects to help the rural fuel-poor and help people with energy efficiency and insulation, particularly in hard-to-heat homes, which are common in my part of Somerset.
How does the project overcome the common difficulty that people must buy shares to benefit from it? How do those who are fuel-poor and unable to buy into the scheme benefit directly from it? Does the rest of the community directly make their fuel bills cheaper?
As I understand it—I hope to become a member of the co-operative—the threshold is £250, a moderate investment for those of us who might be able to afford it. I cannot remember what the maximum investment is, but I think that it might be something like £10,000 or £20,000, which is certainly out of my aim. For those who commit to the scheme, the co-op will use the profits created by the feed-in tariff to assist those who are identified as fuel-poor within the community. It might look at houses that are particularly hard to heat; there are a number of properties with very thick stone walls where people have particularly high bills.
For my part, I have been working with a charity organisation examining the amount of money spent in the community of Wedmore on electricity bills, gas bills and domestic heating fuel. They can see exactly how much is spent within a parish. Then the co-operative will move to reduce bills in the properties that are most expensive to heat for those who have the least funds to do so. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope that that answers some of her questions.
To return to the details of the scheme, sheep will graze in the solar paddocks, as they have been called. The energy will not be intensively farmed; there will be space, and sheep will be able to graze. At the end of the 27 years, the panels will be removed and the land returned to its original use. I understand that the investors can expect a pretty healthy 7.2% average rate of return on their investment.
I hope that the Minister will consider speaking to his counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government, because there is an opportunity to take localism to the next degree by ensuring that communities start to aim for self-sufficiency in their energy needs. Communities should be able to consider their energy needs and how they might help reduce them by ensuring that buildings are built in a more energy-efficient way and by using all sorts of investment to ensure that people have lower bills.
It would be a good solution if communities could consider how they will take responsibility for the power that they use. My sense is that there has been enormous resistance to wind turbines in two or three parts of my constituency. The answer that I would always like to give to people is that they should be able to approach their district council and say, “Look, if you don’t want wind turbines, what are you going to offer instead?” We have to deal with the question of energy and energy production. We cannot just throw our hands in the air and say, “We don’t want that, that or that,” while carrying on using energy at the same intensity as before. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) making a formal intervention?
No, that is throwing one’s hands in the air. There is an opportunity for people to consider how they might take responsibility for their communities. As a second example, the isolated village of Priddy sits on top of the Mendip hills. When the weather is bad, the village is pretty much cut off. The children of Priddy have requested on a number of occasions that their parish council install photovoltaic panels. Originally, they wanted to put them on the school roof, but it turned out that the school roof was angled the wrong way. Happily, the village hall, just across the road, was absolutely suitable, and it was fitted with solar panels in 2010. Those cells generate 4,400 kWh of electricity and prevent the production of nearly 2,400 kg of CO2 each year.
To generalise, Regen South West’s latest progress report for 2013 shows that the south-west region now supplies about 7.3% of its energy through renewable means, but at current rates of installation, we will not meet the target of 15% by 2020, which is worrying. I would love to see more projects like the Wedmore scheme that work with and for communities. Community schemes benefit not an individual but the whole community, and there are ways to spread the wealth around. There will always be room for corporate players in the market, especially in industrial areas and on brownfield sites, but in rural areas, the community and co-op model is far preferable. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on bringing this debate to the fore.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I echo my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing this opportune debate. It is not anti-solar panels, but it is about ensuring that solar panels are installed on barn roofs, industrial buildings and individual residences, not in huge arrays.
The hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) mentioned solar paddocks of four or five acres. The problem in my constituency is that we virtually have whole farms—I am not exaggerating—of 70, 80 or 90 acres in individual applications. I assure Members that anyone who has bought their house or lived there for years and who looks out on a beautiful hillside does not want 90 acres of solar panels in front of them. There is nothing pretty about them. They have huge industrial fences around them. They are not part of the countryside. People do not come to Devon and Cornwall—or even Somerset, dare I say—to see solar panels; they come to see beautiful countryside and wonderful farming. They do not want to see solar panels; they want to see sheep and cattle. As for the number of sheep that will graze under the panels, I assure the Chamber that it will not be very many. If the light is being taken to produce electricity, how much grass will grow, given that it needs to photosynthesise? A lot of what is being discussed is complete and utter myth.
We have 7 billion people and want to feed the world, and our nation, but all we are doing is taking out acres and acres of good farmland. Solar panels are being proposed for grade 1 and 2 farmland in my constituency; we have proposals for Bampton, Morebath, around Tiverton and around Cullompton. Mid Devon appears to be the solar panel farm capital of the world, and the council is inundated with the number of applications.
I suggest that the grass and the wonderful flowers in the picture my hon. Friend has shown me were there before the panels were put up—the panels can only just have been put up for the advertisers to get such a picture. The whole thing is—but perhaps I had better not say what I was going to say.
I echo the words of my hon. Friends: do not blame the farmers for what is going on; blame the companies. Basically, the companies are using a scattergun approach. If they apply as many times and for as many sites as possible, they will not get many applications through, but they will get one or two of them, so they keep going. All they do is terrorise the population of those areas, who see planning application after planning application, costing Mid Devon a fortune to process. The council is now asking for environmental impact assessments, but everything still has to be processed.
The Minister wants the money that we are using to subsidise solar panels—we should not forget that panels can only get into place with vast amounts of subsidy—to go on community projects and individual households, so that people get real benefits. The problem is, however, that the money seems to have landed up in the vast numbers of field projects, because the price of panels has halved. A year or so ago, the Minister got lambasted for reducing the tariff on solar panel production, but in the meantime the cost of the panels has dropped and they have become lucrative. In the end, it is all about producing money, and the panels are too profitable. That is the problem.
I urge the Minister, therefore, to reduce the tariff further, especially for the field panels, although I am sure he is not keen to do so after his previous experience of reducing it. That will ensure that the money goes where he intends it to go. The planning process is good, and I welcome what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles), and his Department have done, in that local authorities will now have a great deal more say. My argument, however, is simple: if the panels are not profitable, we will not get them. We will not get 90-acre farms covered in solar panels if they are not profitable; if such undertakings are profitable, the companies will try to get them up and running.
Just over the border from me, I have industrial buildings that are covered in solar panels, which is a great place to put panels, and as other hon. Members have said, there are some large farm buildings around the area. That is absolutely right, because farm buildings on the whole are not things of great beauty, and putting solar panels on them might even increase their beauty, and they certainly would not detract from it. Do not take the panels out into acres and acres of land. Where would it stop? If we take all that grade 1 and 2 land out of food production, we will be short of food, and we do not actually need the solar panels.
I take huge issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells. The Hinkley power station is already there; I am the first to admit that Hinkley A and B are not things of great beauty, but they are already in place. If we add two new reactors that will produce 8% of the country’s total electricity needs in the same place, no one will notice. In fact, the new power stations will be marginally better looking than the previous ones. They will certainly produce electricity for the whole country—some 8%—and we would have to cover virtually half the country with solar panels in order to produce a similar amount of electricity. Furthermore, during dark times of year when little solar energy is produced, we would not get that electricity, whereas a nuclear power station is a base load, which is there and producing electricity all the time.
People are getting cross, because they feel that they are being sold green energy as a total solution, but I am sure that the Minister will admit that we need all types of green energy in order to balance. We have got the balance wrong. I do not blame him for that, because he has done his best to ensure that the money goes to community schemes and individuals, but we have to do much more. My local council in Mid Devon was successful in putting solar panels all over council and social housing, which has been a benefit of about £3 a week to many of the tenants, who are hard-pressed for cash—that is a great way of using the subsidy.
Finally, I ask the Minister to look at the issue again. All through the valleys of east and mid-Devon we have large power lines in many places. The companies follow the power lines all the way through the valleys, which are right out in the open. Even quite large farms can be accepted in places—if they have trees around them and are reasonably well hidden, that is fine. The companies will carry on following the power lines all through the south-west, because the region—Devon and Cornwall in particular—is especially good for panels, on account of the light and the amount of production possible, making them lucrative. I wish the Minister well, but I want him to do much more than make the DCLG changes to the planning system; we need to alter the tariffs to ensure that those huge solar farms are no longer profitable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing what has been an interesting debate. Hon. Members have made many important points, and I hope to touch on a number of them.
May I begin my remarks with something a little different? I want to talk about the American inventor, Thomas Edison, who will need little introduction to hon. Members. He was one of the great pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His achievements include the patented system for electricity distribution and the practical electric light bulb. The crux of the debate is that over the next decade a quarter of our power supply will be shut down or switched off for good. We are talking about how to keep the lights on. It is therefore appropriate to look at something Edison said about the future of energy more than 80 years ago. Shortly before his death in 1931, he told a friend:
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Ever the visionary, Edison understood the value of planning ahead, making the most of our natural resources and investing in a low-carbon future, and that was before scientists had discovered that our climate was changing.
The solar opportunity is not a new one, therefore, but it is one that we desperately need to seize with both hands. Fifteen per cent. of our energy is targeted to come from renewable sources by 2020, but there are some big question marks about whether that target will be achieved. If we are to have any hope of meeting it, solar needs to be a vital part of our energy mix in the years and decades ahead, and many Members have acknowledged that in their contributions. I also welcome the question that the hon. Member for Totnes asked about the role that marine and tidal might play in the future energy mix.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I will go through all her points in my contribution. If she has further questions, perhaps she will wait for my response, and I will be more than happy to come back to her.
Solar has numerous benefits to offer, and some have been picked up in the contributions that we have heard. It can complement other, less predictable renewable technologies. We do not always know how windy it will be, but we know to the minute what time the sun rises each morning and sets in the evening, so we can work out exactly what the minimum output will be.
Research shows that solar produces electricity at times of year when wind and hydro power generate less. Solar parks can help energy suppliers to balance supply from other forms of generation. Crucially, that helps to reduce the cost of supply to the bill payer because suppliers are less reliant on the short-term energy market, where power is more expensive. The time when electricity is generated from solar technology is a good match for demand, especially in daytime factory production, office and retail spaces. It would be misguided to put all our renewable eggs in one basket. This debate is a reminder about why it was folly for the Government not to commit to setting a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill to clean up our power sector.
Looking at what is happening globally, the rest of the world is moving fast with solar. For example, the United States has today become the fourth country in the world to break through the 10 GW barrier for solar PV capacity, and it is not only large countries such as China that have broken through that barrier but Germany and Italy. In comparison, the UK currently deploys around 2.5 GW of solar PV capacity.
The Minister said recently that he wants to make the UK the destination of choice for any solar company looking to invest in Europe. I recognise and acknowledge that solar is a core technology in the revised debt renewables road map. He has also said that it is his ambition to deploy up to 20 GW of capacity by 2020. That is a fantastic ambition, which I would like to see realised urgently. Does he believe that it can be met solely on brownfield and roof top sites?
I understand that around one in 70 homes currently has a solar panel on its roof, and I hope that that number will increase. I acknowledge the contributions about community energy projects. I visited an energy co-operative in Brixton recently. It is using the roofs of social housing and reinvesting money raised from that project into the local community. However, we must acknowledge that roof-mounted solar projects often have to compromise their output to fit the architectural constraints of the building, and many people do not have the choice of having a solar panel. I would love one on my roof, but unfortunately it faces north so I cannot.
Ground-mounted projects can be orientated for maximum output, and many hon. Members have raised the planning and environmental issues associated with them. First and foremost, it is absolutely right that we take care to protect our rural landscape and our natural environment, in the same way as with all energy generation. Consent for generating stations of 50 MW or smaller is a matter for local planning authorities. Some applications will be for appropriately sited installations and will receive planning permission; others will not be appropriate and will not go ahead, as with any development.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and I will respond to that point in a moment.
Hon. Members have views about individual developments and applications that are being considered in their own constituencies. It would not be correct for me to comment on them. However, national policy guidance is that local planning authorities should avoid prime agricultural land for large-scale solar projects.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady heard my speech, but I have asked the Minister to confirm that national planning policy guidance will be amended in the same way as that for wind turbines. The guidance in place at the moment is not stopping the increasing use of good, productive farmland for solar arrays. The hon. Lady may not be aware of that because I believe that she does not represent a rural constituency. It might be good if she went back and tried to find out exactly what was happening in the countryside.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I do not represent a rural constituency, but I have spent a lot of time in rural constituencies throughout the country when visiting different projects. I understand the concerns that she raises, and having spoken extensively to the industry, I know that the Department is developing, and has been for a while, a charter on how some of the issues can be overcome. I hope that the Minister will refer to it. I will not speak for him, because I am not the Minister, but I expect that we will hear more about that and what the sector has been working on extensively with the Government to overcome some of the challenges that have rightly been raised by hon. Members.
I also know from speaking to the industry that many, but not all, solar companies voluntarily focus on lower-grade agricultural land where crop cultivation is unlikely, but I take on board the comments and representations from hon. Members. As they have said, many farmers are facing the challenge of tough times. It is not their fault, and we must do everything we can to support them. They are being offered opportunities to diversify their income and to keep farming.
On some projects, sheep can graze beneath the panels, and it is possible for solar parks to play a role in encouraging greater biodiversity in our natural environment. I understand that land can be resown in a way that provides food and habitat for pollinating insects, and that just last week a scheme was launched by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to establish wild flower meadows across Solarcentury’s solar park sites.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions, and I will conclude with this final thought. Just a fortnight ago, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change reported that the UK had fallen behind in meeting our carbon reduction targets. If we are to get back on track we need an approach that makes the most of all our renewable energy sources, and that must include solar.
I began by with some old words of Edison about the untapped potential that solar technology presents. This has been a fine debate, but it is not one that I would want our successors to quote in 80 years. Clearly, there are issues to be aware of and we must tread carefully when necessary, but we must look at the opportunities for solar and I hope that we can make the most of it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
This has been an interesting and worthwhile debate, although I was slightly surprised at the interesting segue into the debate taken by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) with her little eulogy for Thomas Edison. It was enlightening, but I remind her that he also invented the electric chair. I suppose one must take the rough with the smooth.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). This debate is not only important, it is extremely timely, and she has put her finger on the spot of a growing concern. I hope that this debate and the comments that I will make will nip in the bud what could be a very big problem and avert the loss of public support. I was fortunate to visit my hon. Friend’s beautiful constituency in the spring as part of a visit to Cornwall and Devon, and Transition Town Totnes is a genuinely inspiring community. What they have done and are planning to do there is a model that I hope will be rolled out in many communities across the country. Not only are they doing great things in their area, but they plan to share that with other people around the country.
I also know the hon. Lady shares my absolute conviction about the need to act against dangerous man-made climate change and about the imperative of growing the stock of renewable energy as part of our energy mix, but we have to do that in a balanced and careful way, and the two are not incompatible. Therefore, I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss what we might term the menace of inappropriate large-scale arrays, and hopefully, to allay some of the concerns that have been raised during the course of today’s debate.
As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree suggested, I am a great supporter of solar. I like to think of myself as a champion of the technology. Certainly, while I have been Minister, over the past three years, we have deployed an unprecedented level of solar; almost 2.5 GW has been deployed during that time, which is quite a record. Solar PV is a genuinely exciting technology of the future. It is flexible, intuitive, and it can be deployed in a wide range of applications and locations as part of a mixed energy economy. Whether in domestic installations, on commercial roofs, or even, on a large scale, generating for the grid, it has a strong role to play in our energy mix of the future. However, make no mistake: I am keen to see more deployment and for the UK economy to maximise the benefits that a vibrant solar PV sector will bring.
I will, but I am afraid I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend.
I am on record as stating my ambition, which has also been mentioned in the debate, of seeing up to 20 GW of solar deployed in Britain, building on the terrific 2.5 GW we have deployed since the coalition came to power. Let me put that in context: if we converted only 16% of suitable commercial and industrial rooftops, or only 8% of suitable roofs on our homes, or a mix of the two, that would be sufficient to meet my big 20 GW ambition.
I had the pleasure of an invitation from the all-party parliamentary group for the roofing industry but a couple of days ago. I wonder whether the Minister might consider ensuring that the green deal includes all sorts of solar roof tiling, and building that in, so that every time anyone’s roof is repaired or buildings are re-roofed, they use shaped pantiles or whatever. All sorts of products are out there that can create power as well as stop the rain coming in.
I have thought of my hon. Friend in many ways, but I have never really thought of her as a roofer. However, I take her point: there are some interesting technologies. Building-mounted solar, and particularly, building-integrated solar—roof tiles fall under that category—is interesting. Encouragingly, the cost of the products is continuing to fall. Building-integrated solar is still relatively expensive, so it is unlikely to meet the golden rule of the green deal, but of course, green deal assessments will prompt people to consider such measures for their homes. Building regulations will also prompt developers to think about including them in homes of the future. I think there is huge potential for home-grown products, and my vision of the future is for everyone’s home to become, at least in part, a power station, and for a much more decentralised, distributed energy economy.
However, although I have big ambitions for the solar sector, let me be equally clear: deployment will not—and must not—come at any cost, nor in any place, and certainly not if it rides roughshod over the opinions of local communities. Solar has huge potential, and unlike some renewable technologies, it still enjoys huge popular support in many places. We must not allow a few badly sited or inappropriately scaled solar farms to undermine broader public support and effectively ruin it for the whole industry. I am determined to stop that happening.
Deployment of solar PV, like any other major renewable energy source, must be thoughtful, sensitive to public opinion, and mindful of the wider environmental and visual impacts. That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)made in her excellent speech, really speaking up for the beautiful countryside in her constituency, and that point was also made by my other hon. Friends. I fully appreciate people’s worries. As my hon. Friends have described, the deployment of large-scale solar farms can have a very real, negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in very undulating landscapes. However, it is also important to say that the visual impact of a well-planned and well-screened solar farm can be properly accommodated within the landscape if done sensitively. Projects such as Powis castle and other National Trust sites are great examples of that. I was hugely impressed by the vision for a large-scale local energy park when I visited Kettering this week. It was a well-thought-out mix of onshore wind, biomass and solar, done with the consent and sympathy of the local community.
I also understand concerns about changes in land use away from agricultural use at a time when so many of us are increasingly concerned about food security and food production. We simply must not—and will not—allow prime agricultural land to be taken out of active food production. I am sensitive to people’s worries and have taken note of the specific cases highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for South East Cornwall, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I will come back to that in greater detail, because fundamentally, I think we are on the same page.
Where are we now? What are we doing about this issue now? The fact is that my views are by no means exceptional. In fact, they are part of a broad consensus. The importance of getting the balance right and the imperative of retaining popular public support for solar is recognised by the vast majority of responsible solar companies as well. That is why the Solar Trade Association is well advanced in producing its own code of conduct for its members. I greatly welcome that initiative, which is likely to address head on the need for sensitivity to local concerns and visual amenity—so important in my hon. Friends’ constituencies; the importance of community engagement; the encouragement of dual land use; community benefits, including education and employment; and importantly, the need, at the end of its life, to return the land to its former use.
In addition, the National Solar Centre, which I was very pleased to open earlier this year, has produced detailed guidance for developers and planners, giving strict parameters to ensure that large-scale developments are sustainable. The National Solar Centre will be promoting the use of those guidelines to local planners and developers through a series of roadshows around the regions.
As welcome as those voluntary initiatives are, they are not enough. The Government have a role to play, too, so we are taking action. I have created a Government and industry taskforce to look at land use and the sustainable deployment of large-scale solar PV. The first meeting of the taskforce was just yesterday, but I have taken on board the points that my hon. Friends have made about food security, and I will ask the taskforce, which is chaired by the National Farmers Union, specifically to look into the issue and report back. The taskforce will look at how to ensure responsible and sustainable deployment and make sure that it works with communities and local planners to a localism agenda.
This complex issue requires an effective and well-considered solution. For example, we could just demand that large-scale development occur only on brownfield sites, but the simple statement “Brownfield good, greenfield bad” does not stand up to scrutiny. A brownfield site could contain a site of special scientific interest or be contained within an area of outstanding national beauty. It could be in a part of the landscape—on a hill or the side of a hill—where it can be seen for miles around. Likewise, even plots of the highest-grade agricultural land could have areas that are lower grade and could be legitimately used for solar PV deployment.
That is why—this is most important—I want to see these decisions taken locally, within the framework of sensible, robust planning guidance from the Government and strong sustainability criteria. However, as I said in a speech to the solar sector earlier this year, in general, we do have a strong preference for commercial, industrial and brownfield development. The Wheal Jane solar farm at an old tin mine in Cornwall is a very good example of where brownfield land has been used to create a solar farm.
I have set up a second taskforce, using the industry and other sectors, with the aim of maximising the quantity of solar deployed on rooftops across the country—not just for domestic households, as it will consider how to maximise deployment on industrial buildings, supermarkets, Government buildings and car parks and in other sectors. This is a huge potential resource, and we must ensure that it is exploited. As I said, just 16% of these non-domestic roofs could yield my big ambition of 20 GW.
I understand the argument, however, that some solar farms currently being deployed can scar our beautiful countryside. We need to ensure that all developers are sensitive to countryside and community. It is a fallacy to say that the deployment of ground-mounted solar PV must necessarily come with a negative visual impact, even in potentially sensitive and designated areas. The solar array at Powis castle, which I mentioned, is effectively shielded from the main visitor approach and the wider view not by industrial fencing, but by hedging. I have seen other larger arrays that sit comfortably in the landscape, and many others that do not.
We rarely hear mention of the spin-off benefits of sustainable solar PV deployment. Developers should always be encouraged to install natural visual screening such as hedges, which in themselves encourage biodiversity, by providing habitats for bird and insect life. The fallow land under solar PV panels can also encourage bird, insect and reptile life back to the fields. However, I certainly take on board my hon. Friends’ comments about the ridiculous notion that so many sites can be compatible with high-quality grazing land and the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes makes about some of the pictures that are displayed in the advertising materials. That needs looking into.
I am mindful of the other side of the coin. Indeed, one responsible major PV developer, Solarcentury, has just entered into a partnership with the British Beekeepers Association to enhance the prospects for the great British bumble bee, which, I think, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) alluded to.
Absolutely spot-on. This goes to the heart of the problem and is why we need, and will bring forward in the autumn, sustainability criteria. As my hon. Friend says, there is a very big difference between well spaced panels that are high off the ground and panels that are low to the ground and densely packed. It is almost like chalk and cheese. We must be clear what the reality on the ground is, not what it looks like in the brochure.
My right hon. Friend says that he will bring forward proposals in the autumn. May I reinforce to him the fact that we cannot wait until the autumn for something to be done about the planning situation? There is already a race to get a planning application in and through now. We will see our countryside destroyed unless something is done immediately.
I do take on board that sense of urgency. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the DCLG—we have been working very closely with colleagues in that Department—will bring forward, in a matter of weeks, the revised planning guidance. I believe that flexibility is already there for local authorities to exercise discretion, but we need to make that crystal clear, because as hon. Members have pointed out, there is some concern, and too often local authorities, out of fear of being challenged in the High Court, just roll over, rather than looking at the balance of community interest and visual impact, which they are quite properly able to do. We need to spell that out in a crystal-clear way that ensures that localism—local opinion—is reflected in the planning guidance.
I realise that some people treat agriculture and solar as going hand in hand with some scepticism, so I have asked my officials specifically to look into this issue directly, to look at the photographs and the materials that have been provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and not to rely on the word of developers alone. That brings me to the localism agenda.
Localism remains a fundamental keystone on which the coalition has built its policies. It runs through the coalition like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock. We remain completely committed to ensuring that the voice of local communities is strongly heard in matters that directly affect them. The deployment of renewable energy is a perfect case in point.
I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to a subject that he knows is one of my favourites. Many communities would feel slightly sceptical about this, particularly with regard to energy. As he knows, there is a desire on the part of communities to have power lines undergrounded through areas of particular beauty in this country. Despite the fact that 8,000 constituents of mine and other hon. Members whose constituencies neighbour mine have submitted their objections, National Grid has taken no interest whatever and there is no way to prop up that very strong community view.
The hon. Lady makes a very valid point. Let me reassure her: Ofgem does provide additional funding for the undergrounding of overhead cables in sensitive areas. I think that it was a great shame that the previous Conservative Government did not adopt the proposal that was lying around to underground so many pylon lines as a legacy for the millennium and instead opted to build the millennium dome. It is not that I do not like a concert—I certainly do—but I cannot help thinking that, as a gift to future generations, undergrounding the complete pylon network might have been something that we could all cheer for long after Beyoncé has departed.
The difficulty is that all of us here are experiencing problems in areas that are not areas of outstanding natural beauty; they are just naturally beautiful landscapes. If an area is not designated, there is no protection. Nothing is written that is strong enough to stop such ignorance of the local view.
I do not want to be drawn too far down that road, but there are clearly planning issues. Planning must go through due process. We are mindful of the impacts. There is a balance to be struck. Undergrounding obviously comes at a cost. In the Department, we constantly have to wrestle with the desirability of our policies versus the impact on consumer bills. When so many families are struggling with the cost of living and rising electricity and energy bills, we have been mindful of delivering cheaper bills, as well as cleaner energy and an energy infrastructure that respects our landscape.
I reiterate that I strongly believe that a local planning process, backed up by strong community engagement and robust best-practice guidance, is the most appropriate vehicle for decisions on the siting of large-scale solar PV. The national planning policy framework is clear: an application for renewable energy development should be approved only if the impact is, or can be made, acceptable. However, the framework needs to be reformed and what is and is not acceptable needs to be made far clearer. I am pleased to say that, after excellent cross-Government working, the DCLG will shortly issue new guidance setting out that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections or the planning concerns of local communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes voiced concerns that the way the planning process treats applications could cause parts of her constituency, which are lower-grade agricultural land—pasture and land for other non-food uses—to be unduly targeted for development without considering their wider place in the local environment. That is precisely why our policies do not rely on a simple, coarse definition but require proper consideration of all the factors surrounding the siting of renewables infrastructure. The revised planning guidance for renewables, which the coalition Government will issue in the next few weeks, will state:
“The need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”
“Care should be taken to preserve heritage assets, including the impact of planning proposals on views important to their setting”.
All the actions that I have mentioned that we are taking are important, but we accept that concerns remain and that we can do more to address concerns over the sustainability of large-scale solar arrays. I want the solar PV strategy, which we will publish in the autumn, to be informed by my solar taskforces. I also want it to be enriched by the evidence that is being provided for our forthcoming community energy strategy. I encourage all hon. Members to encourage their constituents in turn and the stakeholders to whom they are close to feed their views in to that call for evidence, to get the widest possible evidence base.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for raising this timely and important issue. I reiterate that I am committed to solar PV taking its rightful place in a 21st century renewable energy mix and the UK reaping the carbon savings and economic benefits that that will bring. I remain committed to my big 20 GW vision for the UK, but not at any cost. It will come only if we continue to drive down the cost of solar towards grid parity, work with the grain of public opinion and develop solar in a way that works with local communities and does not detract unduly from our beautiful countryside.