Tuesday 26 November 2013
[Martin Caton in the Chair]
Transport Infrastructure (North Wales)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gavin Barwell.)
As can be seen from the attendance, there is quite a bit of interest in this debate. Six Back-Bench Members have already indicated that they would like to speak, so if Members can curtail their remarks as far as possible, we will get everyone in.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Caton. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I am pleased to have secured this debate on an important issue. I will mainly concentrate on north-east Wales, particularly its economic importance, the history of the area and why the transport links that we have now and that we hope to have in future are so important.
The area, whether people want to call it the Deeside hub or Mersey-Dee, covers Flintshire, Wrexham, Denbighshire, Cheshire west, Chester and Wirral, with a population of about 1 million and gross value added of some £17 billion a year. Some 83% of the area’s journeys start and finish in the area. More than 17,000 people commute across the border to England, and some 10,000 go the other way. There are also students who go to Chester, and students going the other way to Glyndwr university.
I am pleased to say that the area contains many modern and very successful manufacturers, with Airbus, Toyota, Shotton paper, Tata Steel Colors, ConvaTec and many more on the Deeside industrial park. On the other side of the border, we have Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, Bank of America and, again, many more. Indeed, north Wales accounts for more than 30% of the manufacturing output of Wales as a whole. I know that colleagues both in England and in Wales are surprised at the size and skill levels of some of those factories and at the number of jobs involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) will no doubt talk about the Technium in St Asaph, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) will talk about Wylfa in Anglesey.
Airbus employs more than 6,500 people, 60% of whom live in Wales, coming from as far afield as Anglesey. The other 40% live in England, coming from as far afield as Derby, or so I am advised—that seems a fairly long commute to me, but apparently it is the case. There is substantial spend in the local economy, but those people need to get to and from their place of work. The supply chain is beginning to site in the local area, which, again, is creating more jobs. The big danger is that we take all that for granted, as if it will be there for ever and a day.
I have told this story before, but I will tell it again because I think it is worth telling. When I entered Parliament in 2001, before giving my maiden speech—I am sure other colleagues did the same—I looked at what my predecessor did. My predecessor, who is now Lord Jones, talked about the two great powerhouses of the area, which were Courtaulds Textiles and British Steel. One of those companies has gone altogether, and the other is still important but employs only a fraction of the numbers it did back then. It still holds the record for the most job losses on a single day at a single plant, when more than 8,000 people lost their job. We cannot assume that, just because companies are big and employ a lot of people, they will be there for ever and a day.
Many other areas that suffered in the 1980s have still not recovered, but because of the efforts of Flintshire county council and others, including my predecessor Lord Jones, new investment was attracted to the area, and we have managed to build on that. Importantly, we want to attract companies that will stay, not just companies that come because they want grant assistance and that will then up stumps and move somewhere else. We want long-term investment not only in buildings but in the work force. Even in good times, we have seen that successful companies can still fail. I remember when we thought that the optical fibre market was doing extremely well, but it crashed overnight and the high-tech factory closed. We lost quality jobs in a relative boom period.
We are getting by okay at the moment, so why do we need to improve and update our transport network? To be honest, we are barely getting by. If we get the level of growth in the local area for which we hope, we will need to improve things, because our transport system is creaking at the seams in places. The Mersey Dee Alliance carried out research, which is included in both the Haywood and the north-east Wales integrated transport taskforce reports to the Assembly, showing that we can expect to get between 40,000 and 50,000 jobs in the next 20 years. That figure comprises Mersey waters enterprise zone, with 20,000 jobs; Deeside enterprise zone, with 5,000 to 7,000 jobs; 4,500 jobs at Ellesmere Port; Ince resource recovery park, with 3,200 jobs; the university of Chester’s Thornton site, with 2,000 to 4,000 jobs; central Chester business district, with more than 1,000 jobs; the Northgate project, Chester, with 1,600 jobs; Wrexham industrial estate and western gateway, with 2,500 jobs; 7,500 jobs in Denbighshire; Vauxhall Motors, with 700 jobs; and Bank of America, with 1,000 jobs. So we hope that a substantial number of jobs will come to the area during the next 20 years, which is positive stuff, but we need a modern transport system that works to ensure that that happens.
We are already over-dependent on car usage. In Flintshire, more than 80% of people use their car to travel to work, which is a very high figure—Flintshire had the highest car usage in the country, but I do not know whether it still does—and I am sure the figure is not much different in other parts of Wales. I do not think that is just because people like using their car; it is because there is a problem getting anywhere using any other system of transport.
The north-east Wales integrated transport taskforce report of June 2013 clearly highlights some of the problems that we are facing. I will illustrate them by referring to a few journeys to the Deeside industrial park. From Flint by car it would take an estimated 16usb minutes, and by public transport 43 minutes, which is not too bad. Rhyl is 39 minutes by car, or one hour and 25 minutes via a bus and a train with one change. Denbigh is 44 minutes by car, or two hours and 17 minutes by public transport—a bus and a train, two changes. Wrexham is 32 minutes by car, or one hour and 25 minutes by public transport—it is a bus and two changes, even from Wrexham. Frodsham is 24 minutes by car, or one hour and 14 minutes by bus and train, again involving two changes.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Two of the big centres that he mentioned, the Airbus factory and the Deeside industrial park, are on the north Wales line. Is there a case for building dedicated stations on the Deeside industrial park and at Airbus itself?
I think there is, and I will talk about why we need a dedicated station. It is important that we make it easy for people to move about, because there is a lot of anecdotal evidence showing that some people are not taking up jobs that are perhaps not well paid because the difficulty and cost of getting to that job outweigh the benefits of taking it. We need to address that.
What do we need to do? On road improvements, we have a pretty good system, but there are pinch points. Considerable work has been done on the M56 to sort out problems on the English side of the border, but there is a pinch point on the A494 and the A55 around Queensferry and Aston Hill. With the creation of the Deeside enterprise zone, that will probably get worse, rather than better. In saying that, I am certainly not arguing for the original proposal, which was totally out of proportion to what was required. At one point, it included 13 lanes—I think it could have been seen from space. It failed to take account of local issues, and there were serious local concerns about that.
I think we can do things relatively cheaply—we are in difficult financial times. As someone who uses the road a lot, I know that most of the problems are caused by lorries and, in the summer, caravans slowing down. A crawler lane could deal with a lot of those problems.
Whatever we do, we need noise protection measures. We also need to involve local people. The Assembly is looking at the issue, and I have written to the Transport Minister about it. The problem is that there is a lot of uncertainty, which makes it difficult for people to sell their houses or to know the size of the project they will face. I recognise that £70 million has been earmarked for improvements further into Wales. I read the other day that another crossing to Anglesey was being considered, depending on what borrowing powers deliver.
A further pinch point is between the A483 and the A55. As someone who has sat in traffic there on many occasions, I know that it causes a bit of a problem. Again, it could be sorted out relatively easily. I am always struck—this perhaps demonstrates that we need more joined-up government—by the fact that the A483 has tarmac on it on the Welsh side of the border. I actually know when I am entering England, because I drop off the tarmac and on to concrete slabs. I do not know why the two Administrations could not just have spoken to each other and sorted the whole thing out in one go, but clearly that did not happen.
As I said, we do not have a bad road network; it needs improving, but it does not need major surgery. The same cannot be said for our rail network, which is particularly poor—especially for people in the Mersey-Dee area who use it to commute to work. The Wrexham-Bidston line goes through the whole area, and it is an ideal solution to many of the transport issues I have talked about. There is great potential, but the service’s frequency and reliability are, unfortunately, not what the average commuter expects.
My hon. Friend has spoken about a variety of matters, but does he not agree that some small changes could have a real impact? He referred to the inadequate rail service. In my constituency, there are two stations—Chirk and Ruabon—neither of which has ticketing machines. If one wishes to print a ticket, one has to go to Wrexham General station, which defeats the whole point of advance booking and the like. There is also no disability access at the stations, so it is not possible to go from one side to the other. Those are small things, but they suggest the lack of a mindset favourable to rail usage in smaller areas.
I thank my hon. Friend. I agree there are lots of small changes that could be made. Someone came to see me who was blind. He said that few announcements are made on trains, so he feels unsure whether he is getting off at the right station. There are small things we can do to improve the situation, and they do not involve a big cost.
The hon. Gentleman has listed a large number of possible road improvements, and he is now talking about rail improvements. However, I was under the impression that transport is a devolved matter. I am not springing to the Minister’s defence, but would the hon. Gentleman’s comments not be better directed at his Labour colleagues in Cardiff?
I would say that I thanked the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but that would not be true, would it? He has made his point, but I was talking about joined-up government, which would make sense. The hon. Gentleman might realise that there is no Hadrian’s wall at the border; in fact, there is no border at all as far as most people are concerned. As I have tried to illustrate, people work on both sides of the border, and we do not want to be turning away jobs, although perhaps that is what the hon. Gentleman wants.
I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point.
The Wrexham-Bidston line does not work well, particularly for shift workers, for whom it does not start early enough or end late enough. We really need to modernise the service. In the first instance, we need to introduce a half-hourly service. In the longer term, we need electrification, although we must take on board any concerns among people living along the route.
We have to look at a cross-border service. In the past, when we thought we had made progress on the Wrexham-Bidston line, it came to nothing, partly because costs suddenly spiralled—I never quite understood why—but also, if we are honest, because the Administrations failed to work together for the benefit of those on both sides of the border.
I certainly support upgrading the service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned, we need a dedicated station on the route to serve the Deeside industrial park. The Hawarden Bridge station offers an opportunity, although we might want to build a different station. However, we need something on the site. To be frank, it is incredible that the industrial park was built without a dedicated station in the first place—that seems crazy to me. For those who do not have a car, the only way to get there is to use the shuttle bus. For a park with 7,000 or 8,000 jobs, that is completely ridiculous. We can look to the past, but we really have to learn the lessons of the past and not make the same mistakes again.
I welcome the improvements at Saltney junction, where line speed and capacity will be increased. I would also welcome the reinstatement of the Halton curve, which links the Chester-Manchester line at Frodsham with the west coast main line at Runcorn. That would allow the reintroduction of a direct rail service between north Wales and Chester, and on to Liverpool Lime Street and, importantly, to John Lennon airport. A study is looking at the viability of that, and I hope it reaches a positive outcome.
A service we tend to forget—it is seen just as an add-on—is buses. We need a more co-ordinated approach, and we need to look at the cross-border nature of bus services. As I indicated, even short journeys seem to take a ridiculous time—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd is indicating that I am doing a similar thing. As I said regarding the Wrexham-Bidston line, the public must have confidence in bus and train services if they are to use them. If they do not, they will see them as unreliable, and they will carry on using cars.
I will make one final point, as I know people are keen that I conclude. There has been some mention of having an airport in north Wales at Hawarden, effectively in Broughton. Broughton is vital for taking wings out of the manufacturing facility there to be assembled in France and Germany, and for a limited number of light aircraft movements. It is in a very built-up area, and we have two perfectly good airports at Manchester and Liverpool. We do not need to expand any service at Broughton; we need to ensure it is easier to get to and from the airports at Manchester and Liverpool. That makes far more sense than expanding capacity at Broughton.
In conclusion, we have a great opportunity in north Wales to grow and to create jobs, and to use the very skilled work force we have there to grow the economy for the future. We are only going to do that if we have the right transport infrastructure in place.
I want to do exactly as you would prefer me to do, Mr Caton, which is to speak for a very short time, because I intend to make only one point in this debate. My point builds on one made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) about the relationship between the Welsh and British Governments and how they work together to recognise cross-border links.
The issue of cross-border links applies to several areas in Wales, but as this debate is about north Wales, I want to speak specifically about Llanymynech. I will not go into the case for a bypass at Llanymynech today, because it has been made elsewhere and would take away from the point that I want to make, which I want to make on the basis of the strong case for that bypass having already been made. Part of that new road would be in Wales and part of it in England, so it would require a commitment from both sides. There is often a strong commitment from Wales in these cases, as there would clearly be access to markets in England—in mid-Wales, near Middletown, there is a very strong case, and only a little bit of the road would be in England. The case from Wales is very strong and the investment would be made, but the case from the English side is very weak, because there is little access to markets. Although the scheme would be hugely important to the benefit of Wales, it cannot go ahead. It has been stopped, by devolution, from even being considered. That is a negative aspect of devolution which will grow over time. As road links elsewhere in Wales improve, we will still find bottlenecks on the border that cannot be dealt with because of devolution.
I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but he ascribed the difficulties to devolution. Were there any moves to improve the road before devolution? As he identified, the problem comes on the English side, so if devolution is the problem, surely it is not devolution to the Welsh Government; it is something else, which people do not talk about here: devolution in England, possibly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Discussions about that particular road crossing in Llanymynech had been going on for many years, but my understanding is that it is now not being considered at all, because of the difficulty of coping with the constitutional problems. Cross-border links in other parts of Wales have fallen off the radar because of the difficulties of taking them forward. We must address that.
Devolution is not independence. It is not separation, even though some Members might prefer it to be so. We need the Governments in Wales and England to work together on projects in which they both have an interest and accept that sometimes the priority on one side must be considered alongside the priority on the other. With cross-border links—I have used the example of Llanymynech today—that is crucial. The English Government must consider the economic benefits of Wales when looking at the priority they might give to such schemes. I hope the Minister takes that on board and considers it in relation not only to north Wales, but to cross-border links from the north to the south of Wales.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for introducing this important debate.
My central contention to the Minister is perhaps contrary to what the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said. What happens to transport in England matters to my constituents and to north-east Wales. What happens in England with these projects—for example, the Halton curve, linking north-east Wales to Liverpool, electrification from Crewe to the north Wales coastal railway line, and the potential HS2 project and its Crewe link—matters a lot, and so does the speed with which people can get to north-east Wales. Transport is devolved to the Assembly in many respects, but the Assembly budget is set by the House of Commons, and important issues for improving transport links to my constituency rest partly with Department for Transport Ministers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside began his speech by stating the importance of the north Wales economy, which is linked to that of north-west England. As he said, north Wales business is now worth more than £10.4 billion to the economy, with 22% of the Welsh economy and 30% of its manufacturing residing in north Wales. He spoke about Airbus, paper, steel, wind farms and tourism. Only today, a report shows that the north Wales coast path has brought 416,000 visitors to the county of Flintshire, which he and I represent, since it opened. All those businesses and potential economic growth areas rely on an efficient and effective public transport system.
We are inexorably linked to Manchester, Liverpool, Chester and Crewe through the Mersey Dee Alliance. As my hon. Friend said, there is the potential to create 45,000 jobs in the next 20 years, including at the Wirral Waters enterprise zone, so it is the responsibility not only of the Assembly but of the United Kingdom Government and Parliament to help to develop the region’s transport system. We have great potential for business and tourism growth. Only last week I hosted a meeting at Flint town hall of Arriva Trains Wales, Virgin Trains, Flintshire county council and Taith, the local council-sponsored transport network for north Wales, to consider how businesses in the area, and in particular tourism, could grow.
My hon. Friend mentioned the north-east Wales integrated transport taskforce, which produced a report in the summer. I want to focus on the points it made, which the Minister should reflect on, from his perspective as the link between the UK Government and the Assembly. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside highlighted difficulties with public transport times versus car journey times and mentioned Flint, in my constituency. It takes 16 minutes to get from Flint to the industrial areas of Deeside by car, but 43 minutes by bus, with one change. The fact that people’s morning journeys would take so much longer by public transport is a disincentive for them to use it.
However, the taskforce focused on other key areas and made severe criticisms for Government to attend to, saying:
“The rail network does not link places where people live to employment sites effectively and does not offer sufficient service frequencies to allow seamless commuting where it does. Bus networks serve town and city centres reasonably well, but outside of the core network service frequencies are often poor… Marketing of alternatives to the car is poor and ticket arrangements across public transport networks are complex, not joined-up and are often not understood by consumers.”
Crucially—the Minister should reflect on this point—the report said:
“There is evidence that transport networks either side of the border are developed partially in isolation from each other, leading to gaps in service provision and difficulties in seamless cross border journeys.”
The report also made some strong recommendations, in particular on rail:
“The rail modernisation business case should consider how frequencies of service and journey times within North Wales and to/from key destinations in the North West can be improved. We would encourage the provision of new stations”,
which my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned. Another recommendation, which I want to emphasise, states:
“There is also strong support for the delivery of the Halton Curve to enable direct services to…Liverpool from the study area”,
which comprises our constituencies.
We have a unique opportunity in the next few months and years to look at those recommendations. What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in the Department for Transport about progress on the Halton curve to link north Wales to Liverpool—to Liverpool John Lennon airport in particular? What progress is he making with the business case, about which I know he is concerned, for electrification and how that will link between England and Wales for business and tourism purposes? Following yesterday’s publication of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill, will the Minister explain how he sees north Wales benefiting from that investment and the link to Crewe?
Although rail journey times from London to Crewe will be shortened after the project’s second stage—if we reach it following the long parliamentary process—I am interested in what discussions the Minister has had with Assembly colleagues about the long-term vision for north Wales following HS2. It has my vote and support, but, because it could outlive all of us in this room in terms of parliamentary procedures, what is the Minister looking at now to maximise the benefits?
With companies such as Airbus securing £30 billion of new-aircraft orders, which will be on its order books for 20 to 25 years, only last week, we need to examine business and commuter movement, the growing tourism market and the effects that HS2, electrification and improvements to the Halton curve and other rail infrastructure can have on north Wales. Those are challenges for the Minister now, and I hope that they will be challenges for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the near future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). I am pleased to be involved in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on not only securing it, but articulating a positive view of the future of the Welsh economy.
It is important that we should sometimes speak as Members for north Wales, rather than trying to make party political points, and the spirit of the debate has been positive. We are all extremely proud of the success of the north-east Wales economy, which, it is fair to say, is interlinked with that of the north-west of England. As a Member for a constituency further west, I want to see some of north-east Wales’s success move along the A55 and the railway line to ensure that more of north Wales benefits from the economic performance of north-east Wales.
The success of north-east Wales—I am thinking of Airbus in particular—is putting Wales on the map. A week and a half ago, when the announcement was made about Airbus’s success in securing further significant orders, I happened to be in Washington, and it is my pleasure to say that both Senators and Congressmen were aware of Wales, mainly because of the success of Airbus. For Wales to be known for the high-skill, high-technology industry in the area is an important development.
On the performance of our predecessors, I should say that before making my maiden speech, I read Lord Roberts of Conwy’s, but I felt depressed afterwards. He said that he wanted to do two things during his time in Parliament—first, to ensure that there was a dual carriageway from Chester to Holyhead, which was delivered—
Almost to Holyhead. Lord Roberts also wanted to ensure that Bangor had a new general hospital, which was delivered. When preparing a maiden speech, looking at a predecessor’s performance can be a sobering experience.
The road infrastructure in north Wales is actually fairly good, but we need to consider whether we can deal with some of the pinch points, not least those on the A55, which can create difficulties—in particular on summer Friday nights when people are heading into Wales for the weekend from the north-west and Yorkshire and any accident or problem can cause severe delays.
The A55 is a designated Euroroute and yet that dual carriageway has two roundabouts in my constituency—the only two roundabouts on Euroroutes in the whole of Europe. I can assure everyone that the caravans and tourists trying to get down to Anglesey or the Llyn peninsula make returning from my constituency office on a Friday night a difficult journey. The A55 does need some improvements, but we should be fairly pleased with the current road infrastructure.
We need to look carefully at the required investment in rail. Anybody who travels from London to north Wales is well aware that there is a two-hour service to Chester, where one must often change trains and enter what feels like a less effective system. The mere fact that it takes two hours to get from London to Chester, but then another hour and 45 minutes to reach Holyhead is indicative of the problems.
I warmly welcome the announcement of the £200 million- plus investment in signalling on the north Wales main line, but we need to keep up the pressure for electrification. It is to be welcomed that the Government are delivering electrification in south Wales—in particular on the valley lines—but we need to argue the case for north Wales. Signalling will make a huge difference to speed and capacity, but I acknowledge that we need to look at electrification as the long-term goal. The north Wales railway line can take high-speed rail, by which I mean a speed much faster than the current performance. Much of that can be achieved through signalling, but we must keep up the pressure for electrification.
Given the growth and renaissance of Liverpool, the fact that there is no direct link from there to north Wales is problematic. People in my constituency travel to Airbus, to Deeside and over the border for work, and I am sure that they would travel even further afield if the transport links existed. I would support a direct link into Liverpool.
We should, however, be confident of the fact that positive things are happening on the railway, and not only in signalling. Virgin Trains has plans to develop services in north Wales. My constituency is dependent on tourism, so a service from Llandudno Junction to London in three and a quarter hours, which is what Virgin envisages as possible, would make a huge difference. To be able to say that a constituency such as mine was within three hours and 15 minutes of London would be a huge boost to tourism in my area.
The Conwy valley railway has also seen significant investment into communication for the cabs travelling up and down the line. It is an important link, but we sometimes think of it as a line that happened to escape the Beeching cuts. I recently gave a hitchhiker a lift from Tal-y-Cafn back to Dolwyddelan when on my way to a surgery. The gentleman in question worked at the new Bodnant Welsh food centre. He catches the train down from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Tal-y-Cafn in the morning and then hitchhikes back in the evening, because he cannot afford the rail fare. He wanted to work, so he preferred to do that than be unemployed in Blaenau Ffestiniog. He cannot hitchhike in the morning, because he needs to be in work for 8 am, so the only way he can make it is via the Conwy valley railway.
Another important point about the line is that my constituency and that of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) have both seen huge development in outdoor sports, such as mountain biking. Market research in the area shows that many of those who visit for such sports would really like to travel by public transport, so the Conwy valley railway is important. My aspiration is that such people should go biking on the new tracks at Blaenau Ffestiniog while staying at Betws-y-Coed or other places in my constituency. The railways are getting some investment, but we need more.
Before I finish, I have a few points to make about infrastructure. When discussing infrastructure, we need to talk about broadband. The fact that 10% of the broadband fund has been spent in Wales is a real success for the Government and a great success for the partnership between Westminster and the Assembly. The important investment from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has been matched and supported by the Welsh Government, is most welcome.
If we aspire towards a modern economy, broadband infrastructure is just as important as any transport link. Frankly, in an area aspiring to have new businesses, saying that we have no broadband capability is not very persuasive. That is also true from a tourism perspective; time and again I am told by businesses in my constituency that the lack of broadband capability and of wi-fi affects them.
All that must be underpinned by the skills sector. We can talk about the need to invest in infrastructure—whether road, rail or broadband—to our hearts’ content, but we must also underpin all that by training our young people so that they can take the job opportunities. In that respect, the investments in Deeside college, Glyndwr university and, in my constituency, Llandrillo—including the support of Coleg Menai, which is part of Grwp Llandrillo Menai, for the energy sector—provide examples of the further education sector supporting the jobs that, without doubt, we hope to see in north Wales.
Infrastructure is important, yes, but unless we have the skills base in place, we will not be able to exploit the economic potential of the area.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). He started off by saying that there were no partisan points to be made, but I have to come back on a serious one that he made in trying to rewrite history: the A55 from Chester to Holyhead was not completed and there was a huge gap of 15 or 20 miles across my constituency for 15 years. That allowed the economy of my area to decline significantly, because of the logjam of traffic from Ireland.
It was all a huge mistake, and I was proud that one of the first things that the Labour Government did after coming to power in 1997 was to dual the A55, allowing us to join in the prosperity of the rest of north Wales. It is worth putting that on the record. I have a lot of time for the predecessor of the hon. Member for Aberconwy, an Anglesey man, but that was a failure of his in the Wales Office of the previous Conservative Government.
I want to concentrate on some issues that have not been touched on, and one that affects full integration is the ports. Britain is an island and the island of Ireland lies off Wales, so it is important to get gateways from Ireland to the United Kingdom. One of the best ways of achieving that is to have 21st-century ports.
Holyhead is the major port on the western seaboard; it is one of the busiest ports in the United Kingdom, but I feel that sometimes it has been losing out. I want to make this point again, as I did to the Minister’s predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State for Wales. When the Government put aside £60 million for investment in UK ports, which are a reserved area, they immediately made it for England only. English ports were allowed to share the £60 million, but Welsh ports were not allowed to bid for it—there was just a Barnett consequential and, as a result, ports in Pembrokeshire and west Wales shared only some £3 million. Everyone knows that we cannot get much port development for £3 million.
Meanwhile, because the £60 million was an England-only policy, other ports in England had the lion’s share, which meant that it has become difficult for Welsh ports to compete against English ports. The economies of areas around ports rely heavily on port development. Offshore wind development needs proper infrastructure to get goods to the wind farms. There is a great danger that, without the necessary infrastructure in Welsh ports, the equipment will be assembled in other parts of the United Kingdom—or, indeed, Europe—and be shipped to the wind farm locations.
I make a plea to the Minister. Let us look again at UK port policy and ensure that Welsh ports have an even and level playing field for investment for the future, because a huge number of skilled jobs are involved. People in my constituency are good at maintaining its offshore wind farms, which are some of the best in the world. Turbine Transfers works throughout the world, but it cannot work out of its own port, because of the lack of development.
Rail is also important. I agree that there have been some huge improvements over the past 15 years on the north Wales line. The investment in the west coast line—some £13 billion over that period—has given great benefit to north Wales, with faster and better trains between Holyhead and Euston. That is why I support High Speed 2; the same benefits could be derived from HS2, if we got those fast links to Crewe in the first place and then electrification along the north Wales coast. The issue is hugely important and we should look at it positively. Dublin and London can be linked via north Wales, which can be part of a huge European network between those capitals—with shipments on to Felixstowe, for example.
For ports as well, the carrying of freight by rail and ship is important to alleviate the problems on our roads. We need to invest more in the freight capacity of our railways. If we have faster speeds on the lines, we get more capacity on our railways for carrying freight across the United Kingdom and for the purpose of connecting continental Europe and the Republic of Ireland. We must concentrate on those issues.
I know what the hon. Gentleman is referring to—a little scaremongering by Jill Evans, MEP—but the European Commission and the Welsh Government say that that is not the case and that the priority will remain the existing TEN-T route, including from Felixstowe to Holyhead.
Opportunities have, however, been lost; if the hon. Gentleman wants to be partisan about the Tory coalition Government in Westminster and about the Welsh Government, I should say that one such wasted opportunity was between 2007 and 2011, when we had a Minister who was not of those colours, but did not put the case for the electrification of the north Wales line. As a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the hon. Gentleman knows that a Plaid Cymru Minister gave evidence at the time; when we were pushing for electrification for south Wales, he said that for north Wales it was only an aspiration. I would expect a Minister from north Wales to have greater priorities for north Wales than merely “aspiration”.
Rather than scaremongering about such routes, we should be dealing with the situation. We should put the case for north Wales—with HS2 and with all the European and British networks—because we want an integrated north-west Wales in an integrated United Kingdom. That is not supported by the hon. Gentleman’s party.
I could go on longer about rail, but I am conscious of time, so I turn to air links, which we have not mentioned in any great detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), whom I thank for securing the debate, said that we need to get proper air links. We are going to have huge investment in north-west Wales—a proposed £8 billion; among the biggest in the whole United Kingdom—in the development of Wylfa nuclear power station. We need to get people and goods to the area, so we need a proper, fully integrated transport system. I want to see the development of north Wales airports—yes, Hawarden and Anglesey airports—so that people can fly there.
The novelty in this country is that we think we have to go by the slowest and longest routes. In continental Europe and the Americas, people leap from city to city and country to country via air links. They do it to do business fast. Yes, we need broadband, but we also need people to get from A to B as quickly as possible, and air links are good way of doing that.
My constituency is only 40 minutes away from the capital city of Wales, because we have an air link. It is important that we are able to say to the rest of the world that we can get from capital cities to such locations quickly. We need to concentrate and improve on a western corridor that might include Cardiff, Anglesey, Belfast and many other areas. Such a corridor has not been explored, and Belfast is an important and growing city in the United Kingdom, so we need to get such air links to it.
On roads, we have heard about the potential for an extra bridge across the Menai straits, funded by extra borrowing. I do not dismiss that option, but the road infrastructure in Anglesey will take a pounding during the development of Wylfa power station. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has been signalling me to get me to halt my speech, but I have a final and important point to make. That Wylfa development is one of the biggest investments—it is not in north-east Wales, but in north-west Wales, which deserves equal weight with the rest of north Wales. The road infrastructure in Anglesey needs huge improvements. I would like to see some focus on that from Government across the United Kingdom.
I make one final point to the Minister. We need to work together on this matter. The UK Government, the Welsh Government and local government need to work together to get the best out of our infrastructure and create the prosperity that we all want. North Wales is a place to do business. We can do business better and faster if we have better and faster infrastructure—sea, air, road and rail.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and echo much of his introductory message about the strength of the economy in north-east Wales.
I want to start in a bipartisan spirit by quoting the Secretary of State for Wales—not something I do very often—who said:
“Together, Deeside and Wrexham make up one of the most important industrial areas in Europe”.
That is absolutely true. In fact, I would go further: we could say that together they form one of the most important industrial areas in the world. At the Dubai air show last week we heard the fantastic announcement that 50 A380 jets have been ordered, the wings for which will be built at Broughton in north-east Wales.
We need to be a voice for north Wales on a cross-party basis, to create strong infrastructure to support our industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, there is no guarantee that that industry and those businesses will remain in north-east Wales. It is important to construct that infrastructure across north Wales and into north-west England—that link is crucial—so that we can compete with international businesses and competitors that would love to have those businesses and industries in their own countries.
In north-east Wales the infrastructure in my view is really from the 1990s, but is trying to cope with industry that is developing towards 2050, so we need a far-sighted approach. We welcome the investments in infrastructure that are now being made in the region. The Welsh Government have promised to invest £44 million on the line from Wrexham in Wales to Chester in England. That is crucial to the people of Wales; many people go every morning from my constituency of Wrexham across into England, to work for businesses such as General Motors in Ellesmere Port or the pharmaceuticals centres in Daresbury. They have high-quality jobs there and need to have contact with those areas. The businesses that employ those people want to ensure that they have access to a skilled work force.
We are also seeing developments in infrastructure in north-east Wales. Yale college in Wrexham has merged with Deeside college, creating Coleg Cambria, which will be a world-challenging organisation and will build support networks for competitive businesses. In Deeside and Wrexham we need a linked-up transport system, so that the fleet of buses that now travels from Deeside down to Wrexham and back is replaced by a modern, integrated transport system.
We have heard a lot about the Wrexham-Liverpool line, which goes right through this hugely important industrial area. The Wrexham industrial estate and Deeside industrial park have both been extremely successful in attracting important international businesses. We need to link those industrial estates; as has been said, it is extraordinary that a new estate such as the Deeside industrial park was built without a real public sector transport connection. I am afraid that it is also extraordinary that in the 1980s, the Wrexham-Chester railway line was reduced from a dual to a single track, one of the most short-sighted decisions I can remember a Government making. Fortunately that is going to be addressed.
We also need collectively—it is important that north Wales MPs speak collectively on this matter—to stress the importance within Wales of north-east Wales. We have colleagues who are eloquent in promoting different areas within the country. Only yesterday I saw a report that the south-east Wales local authorities are pressing for a metro system in their region. It is true that there has been massive investment in the past 10 years in the valleys lines and the Vale of Glamorgan line in south Wales. That sort of rail investment has not happened in our area in the past. It is coming now, and I have referred to the cross-border investment in the Wrexham-Chester line, which will lead to a big improvement and create a great deal of additional capacity. We need to say to our colleagues in the UK Government and the Welsh Government that if our tremendous industrial area is to sustain jobs and be internationally competitive, we need to work collectively to provide an infrastructure, in both skills and transport, that makes the area too good for any globalised company to leave. North Wales has to be the place where people want to be.
We have world-beating industries in our area—not just Airbus, but Toyota and JCB; Sharp is also based in my constituency. Those companies are at the cutting edge of research. We established a university in north-east Wales for the first time in 2008, when Glyndwr university was established; that needs to be part of a support network for our businesses. Businesses need to work together with our educational institutions to put together proposals for the Government on building an integrated cross-border system of transport, so that people who are now travelling across the border can do so more easily and far of them can use more public transport than at present. Wrexham and Flintshire are two of the counties in the UK with the biggest proportion of people who travel to work by car. That is creating pinch points in that 1990s transport network that I have referred to.
We need to look ahead to 2050 and construct a transport system that uses the tracks we already have for a modern rail system linking Liverpool, Manchester and north Wales. Liverpool and Manchester have extremely successful air transport networks, but we have dreadful links to those airports. Anyone who travels to those airports from the west would be insane to travel by train, so they travel by car, which will create additional pressure on the road network in the years ahead. We have to look at how we will link to those international hubs, given our international businesses.
We also need to look at High Speed 2, thinking ahead to its construction and how north Wales will benefit from that. As north Wales MPs, we need to press the Wales Office about HS2 to see how it will specifically benefit our area, and we need to press the UK Government to ensure that there is a plan for north Wales with regard to HS2. We have seen enormous improvements in the rail network down to London and down to Cardiff in recent years, mainly through investment in the west coast main line but also through investment in north-south networks within Wales. That has happened only because of insistent pressure from north Wales. We need to keep that going and look much more closely than we have in the past at the public transport system within north-east Wales, especially the rail system. We need local authorities, AMs and MPs to work together to speak out loudly on behalf of the region that we should all be proud to represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who secured this debate for us, for his good work in promoting north Wales and his constituency in Parliament.
I will talk first about rail transport in north Wales. In the 19th century, rail transformed north Wales. My home town of Rhyl had a population of 1,000, but when the train came in 1849, it turned Rhyl into a premier tourist destination. Rail also opened up the port of Holyhead and the train route to Ireland, bringing great wealth to north Wales.
In the mid-20th century, rail took a dip with the advent of Beeching. Many smaller lines in north Wales and throughout the UK were closed, but in the 21st century we are looking at a rail renaissance. North Wales MPs must ensure that we receive our fair share of the UK transport budget. London and the south-east have had massive input into their transport infrastructure. They have had Eurostar; Crossrail, one of the biggest construction projects in Europe, is being built; and Heathrow airport has been extended. Many people in the south and London do not want what they believe is over-intensification.
MPs must look at the regional impact of transport investment. There should be a rebalancing towards Wales and north-west England, and we in north Wales must ensure that we tap into that transport infrastructure. We must also ensure that we do not get just crumbs from the table, as we did when Virgin’s rolling stock was upgraded and we ended up with Voyagers instead of Pendolinos. We must ensure that we are not short-changed on electrification of the north Wales line, and that we get transport links to the Manchester end of HS2 so that we have the proper investment to attract tourists and manufacturers to north Wales.
The road infrastructure in north Wales is also important to bring in tourists and manufacturing as well as research and development. I pay tribute to the work of Glyndwr university, which called the A55 a “knowledge corridor”. In my constituency, it has invested in the optic research and development centre, which won a £200 million bid to create the optics for the extra large telescope that will be located in the Atacama desert. That is the sort of 21st-century investment we need in north Wales.
There is a proposal for an A55 science corridor from St Asaph business park in my constituency all the way to Daresbury near Manchester, taking in Airbus and the optic research and development centre to bring that science corridor alive with jobs and investment. That is important.
Airports are essential for us in north Wales. Our regional airports are Liverpool and Manchester, and public transport links to them are very poor. If investment is coming, we must ensure that we have coach and rail links direct to those airports. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—Ynys Môn is fair old distance from Liverpool and Manchester—that there is a definite need for an airport in north-west Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned the jobs growth in his constituency at the Deeside industrial estate and at Airbus. There are already tens of thousands of jobs there, and tens of thousands are to come. We must ensure that workers from the unemployment hot spots on the north Wales coast at Holyhead, Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Flint can get on the train in their home town and get off at dedicated stations for the Airbus factory and the Deeside industrial estate, where the jobs are. Will the Minister look at the Department for Work and Pensions transport grants that were available about 10 years ago to help to link people to jobs?
As well as speaking about the big stuff—airports, rail and road—I want to speak about cycling in my constituency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) referred to the north Wales coastal path, which brought 416,000 visitors to his county last year. It is a fantastic facility for north Wales and I pay tribute to Sustrans for attracting millions of pounds of lottery funding for the UK coastal footpath and cycleway. A £4 million dedicated cycle bridge, Pont Dafydd, was opened in my constituency two weeks ago, and I am grateful to the Welsh Government for their investment in that, to the European regional development fund, to Sustrans and to Denbighshire county council. Cycling is an important form of local transport. My constituency has the finest off-road cycle networks in Wales, and I pay tribute to Adrian Walls, the cycling officer for Denbighshire, Gren Kershaw, who set up a cycling attraction in my constituency, and Garry Davies and Howard Sutcliffe from Denbighshire’s countryside services, which have provided fantastic cycling facilities.
Finally, the first hovercraft passenger service in the whole world was from Rhyl to Wallasey in 1963. Is a future transport link possible across the Dee estuary to link the hundreds of thousands of people on the Wirral and Merseyside directly to Rhyl?
I certainly will, Mr Caton.
I may surprise everyone in the Chamber by agreeing almost entirely with everything that has been said. It is not the border that worries me, because, as the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, what happens in England is important. Anyone who has travelled from Caernarvon to Crewe knows that they get to the border quickly, but then the road between Chester and Crewe is appalling. What happens in England is important for Wales, and I agree with him entirely about that. I also agree entirely with the points about Manchester and Liverpool airports.
Two factors frame this debate. Historically, transport links go through Wales to Ireland rather than to Wales, and transport is largely a devolved matter. In the short time left to me, I will consider matters that are the responsibility of the UK Government rather than the one down in Cardiff. However, I must break that promise almost immediately by agreeing with the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) that the two roundabouts on the Dublin to Moscow route are both in north-west Wales, which is an anachronism that must be looked at immediately.
The Welsh and UK Governments have spoken about A55 improvements, and I would be very happy indeed if the Minister could tell us what they might entail. I hope that the two Governments have been talking deeply about that, and that we will see a new crossing from my constituency to that of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). That is important.
Another point is the one I made earlier about the trans-European transport networks—TEN-T—corridor to Ireland. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn said that I was scaremongering on behalf of my colleague, the MEP Jill Evans, but everyone knows that the quickest and easiest route to Ireland is through north Wales from Holyhead to Dublin, yet the TEN-T route currently goes through Liverpool, which is complete nonsense. I would not mind hearing from the Minister about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) asked the Department for Transport about that, and it gave the game away when it said that the UK Government’s priority was to ensure that member states rather than the European Commission remain responsible for transport planning and investment decisions on national networks. It seems that the Commission wanted the route to go through Ynys Môn—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ynys Môn says “no” from a sedentary position, but I did not hear him explain that in detail in his rather longer speech. Perhaps we can debate that in future. It seems to me that the Commission wanted the route to go through Ynys Môn, but the UK Government wanted it to go through Liverpool.
Wales still does not have a single millimetre of electrified rail in Wales, and I am pleased about the possibility of that on the south Wales line, but I must ask about the north Wales line. As other hon. Members have said, it is vital.
Finally—you will be glad to hear that, Mr Caton—there has been some talk about HS2. Yesterday, I came down on the train through Crewe, and I recommend that any hon. Member who is travelling through Crewe station looks, as they go over the bridge from platform 3 to platform 5, at the very large poster extolling HS2. There are several arrows pointing up from London to Runcorn, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester, and Wales is a very large blank.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this important debate. We can tell by the number of Members who are here—a 100% turnout from Labour MPs in north Wales—just how important infrastructure is, and transport infrastructure in particular. As he rightly pointed out, although we have one of the most vibrant economic areas in Europe in north-east Wales, we cannot be complacent. Even big household names can go bust or move elsewhere. If we want to keep investment there, retain existing firms and attract new investment, we need to be continually upgrading our transport infrastructure to compete in the modern world. He highlighted the over-reliance on cars because of the lack of availability of public transport and pointed out that some people face a real dilemma, in that they hesitate to take up low-paid jobs, particularly if they are part-time or split-shift, because of the high cost of transport to get to them.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) talked of cross-border bypasses, saying that although there is enthusiasm for road improvements on the Welsh side of the border in order to access markets, there is no real commitment from the UK Government to back up the English side of the project.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) emphasised the need for better services not only to London but to Liverpool. He highlighted the success of the Conwy Valley rail line and pointed out that rail is vital to bringing in tourists, particularly those with mountain bikes. He also stressed the important success of local FE colleges in helping to upskill local people.
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) referred to the status of Holyhead and whether it was the top priority for the TEN-T European scheme. He also mentioned the importance of electrification and the need for better transport links when crossing over from Wales into England.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) held a local summit to bring together partners, showing how infrastructure is part of the business community’s priorities and something that everybody needs to be involved in. He talked of the importance of long-term commitments and projects such as HS2, which will outlive all of us. He also mentioned the growing importance of tourism, such as that brought by the completion of the all-Wales coastal path.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) stressed the importance of Holyhead as a port, particularly as part of the route from continental Europe through to Ireland. He pointed out that ports are a reserved matter, and that although £60 million of funding was made available for English ports, Welsh ports had to make do with only £3 million. I ask the Minister what he will do to secure a better funding deal for Welsh ports. I am sure that he will be only too aware of the issue, from Milford Haven in his constituency, and I hope that he will be able to respond to my hon. Friend on the subject of Holyhead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) pointed out that new industrial estates need to be fully integrated and served by public transport. There needs to be proper joined-up thinking, as the phrase goes. He again stressed the need for better connectivity to the international airports in England—obviously, Manchester and Liverpool are absolutely vital to north Wales—and for a link with HS2. He also stressed the need to keep up the pressure for better rail transport in north-east Wales and, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, stressed the importance of working together with the local business community to keep that pressure up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) praised the vision of the A55 science corridor, and he stressed the importance of railways and rolling stock. He talked, again, of the connectivity to Manchester and Liverpool airports and mentioned the importance of infrastructure to tackle unemployment. He would like an answer to his ambitious vision for a hovercraft project from Rhyl to Wallasey and suggested that the Minister might instigate some sort of feasibility study to look at how that might work out in practice. Perhaps we can hear the Minister’s views on that project.
I turn to how we will fund the infrastructure and, in particular, what measures the Government can take to facilitate funding for infrastructure in north Wales. We have heard the Secretary of State for Wales telling us that £2.25 billion of new infrastructure will benefit Wales, but the reality is that we will see little of that—possibly none of it—in this Parliament. Government Ministers have boasted frequently about electrification, but in fact, only 50 miles of rail track will be electrified by the time of the election across the whole of Britain.
When we left office in 2010, we already had plans for the electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea, but this Government have had a stop-start approach. The project was cancelled, and then there had to be a campaign to reinstate the plans for the line through to Swansea. That electrification project will not start until 2015, so what about north Wales? The Welsh Government have been looking at plans for rail electrification in the north, but when are we likely to see the funding mechanisms for that put in place?
The reality of investment in Wales is very different from the rhetoric. The truth is that the Tory-led Government in Westminster have cut the Welsh capital budget by a third, as part of an overall budget cut of £1.7 billion, hindering the Welsh Government’s ability to invest in transport, housing and other essential infrastructure.
I cannot allow the hon. Lady to get away with what she said. Where were the Labour Government for 13 long years, when not a single millimetre of railway in Wales was electrified? Where were they? It is not a stop-start process—it is a stop-stop process.
I want to point out, first, that we had all the plans in place for electrification, and the Tory Government wasted time by cancelling them so that we had to campaign to reinstate them. Secondly, as my hon. Friends have already pointed out, there was a certain Minister from Ynys Môn who was the Transport Minister in the Welsh Government from 2007 to 2011, and who seemed to think that electrification in the north was just pie in the sky. Perhaps if he had fought a little harder for it, it would have been higher up the agenda.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s comment.
Turning back to funding for infrastructure in Wales, borrowing powers are absolutely vital for the Welsh Government to invest further in transport infrastructure in north Wales. However, I am concerned not only about what seem to be considerable delays in the introduction of borrowing powers, but about the fact that the goalposts on borrowing seem to be being moved.
We had the announcement back in October 2012 about borrowing powers. UK Government Ministers have indicated that devolution of the minor taxes is a sufficient independent income stream against which the Welsh Government can borrow for capital expenditure. We therefore need clarity on how much borrowing will be released when the minor taxes are devolved.
However, in the UK Government’s response to the Silk commission, we read that “appropriate short-term borrowing powers” will be given to the Welsh Government to manage lower-than-forecast tax revenues, but it also says that capital borrowing powers will be given and that:
“The precise levels of capital borrowing will…depend on the outcome of the income tax referendum”.
I should remind the Minister that in Scotland, borrowing is not linked to income tax powers in that way. The Scotland Act 2012 gives the Scottish Government the power from April 2015 to borrow up to £500 million for current expenditure to manage volatilities in tax revenue when they gain responsibility for stamp duty and landfill tax. They will also be able to borrow for capital expenditure, with a limit of 10% of the capital budget up to a maximum stock of £2.2 billion. Both those powers are coming into effect prior to income tax-varying powers. According to a similar formula, that would mean that the Welsh Government could borrow about £150 million for capital expenditure. Will the Minister clarify exactly what borrowing powers will be given to the Welsh Government based purely on the devolution of minor taxes? If some borrowing powers are to be linked to the devolution of income tax powers, that is a very different situation from the previous understanding that they were linked to the minor taxes.
Will the Minister explain why there are still delays on the issue of borrowing for the M4? We know that there may be some borrowing powers purely in respect of the M4, as has been mentioned today. First, will he explain what is preventing the Treasury from immediately permitting the Welsh Government to use their existing borrowing powers to finance the much-needed M4 upgrade? Secondly, and more importantly for this debate, as the Welsh Government are being given specific borrowing powers for the M4 first, with a more general borrowing power to follow, what will happen to any north Wales projects? Will they have to wait for a more general borrowing power, which could be until the end of the decade, or will the Minister confirm that borrowing might be available sooner for specific north Wales projects, along the same lines as the M4 borrowing, should the Welsh Government ask for it? Will he please tell us what infrastructure can go ahead in Wales, what extra borrowing powers there will be and what sort of time scale he envisages for all this?
It is a pleasure to serve again under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Caton. I thank the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for securing the debate and congratulate him on that. It has been a very good debate, largely free from partisan tribal politics. During the past hour and 20 minutes, we have had a very good discussion about some key issues for people and businesses in north Wales. I commend the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he addressed the issue, for the strategic oversight that he brought to the debate and for his detailed knowledge. He has proved himself to be an effective voice for economic development in his constituency and region.
Transport infrastructure plays a vital role in the economy of Wales and in north Wales. It enables people to access job opportunities and is a key determining factor for the attractiveness of a location for business investment. As the debate has demonstrated, there is a great deal that we can be proud of in north Wales. The north Wales economy, and particularly what we see in Wrexham and Deeside, is a jewel in the crown of the Welsh economy at this time. Opposition Members have demonstrated their pride in what is happening in their constituencies and in the region. It is right that they should take pride in that but want to go further.
I take four broad messages from the debate. The first is the recognition on the part of all hon. Members present of the huge economic importance of north Wales, as a region, for the economy of Wales, but also for the United Kingdom. It is a strategic location for business investment. What we have there with the likes of Toyota, Airbus and all the other companies that hon. Members have mentioned is an engine of job creation in north Wales. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside that we should not take any of that for granted. He has been around long enough to have seen huge economic change in his constituency and region. Companies that were once huge employers there have disappeared altogether to be replaced by other companies, so we cannot take that economic success story for granted.
Key to underpinning that economic success story is continuous investment in transport infrastructure. That is the second conclusion that I take from the debate—a joint recognition, on the part of all hon. Members present, of just how important transport infrastructure is in securing the future economic development for north Wales that we all want to see.
The third conclusion is the recognition that, because of the nature of the cross-border issues and economic development in the region, there is huge interconnectedness between what is happening on the Welsh side of the border and what is happening on the English side. There is a shared interest on the part of the UK Government, who are responsible for transport in England, and on the part of the Welsh Government, who are largely responsible for transport on the Welsh side; and because there is that shared interest, there is also a shared responsibility.
That leads to the fourth conclusion that I take from the debate, which is the need for far better and more effective working together. The point about devolution is not that suddenly the UK Government here in Westminster become uninterested in what the Welsh Government are doing on transport priorities and vice versa. Actually, this debate has demonstrated that the need for the two Administrations to work together becomes even greater. That can be difficult. Hon. Members have highlighted some of the complexities in relation to the devolution boundary. I am thinking in particular of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the issue of the bypass in his constituency that he mentioned. That highlighted a specific issue that we need to overcome to get the Administrations working better together to tackle some of those cross-border transport priorities.
That brings me to the fourth and final broad conclusion that I take from the debate, which is about unity. Yes, we need far better working together between the Administrations, but one of the things that can help that, and which has come to the fore this morning—largely—is north Welsh MPs working together and speaking with a united voice as champions of further economic development and further transport investment in their region.
Will the Minister take a fifth point from the debate? I am referring to the development of Welsh ports and the importance of their having a level playing field with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a reserved matter; it is the responsibility of the UK Government, although economic development is devolved.
I wanted to use the last five minutes to highlight a number of specific points that different hon. Members raised, so let me deal first with the issue of ports. I absolutely recognise the point that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) makes. He is a powerful voice for and champion of port development. Yes, ports are a reserved matter, but many of the decisions about the infrastructure that supports the development of ports are of course devolved, so this is a classic case of the two Administrations needing to work together.
During international shipping week recently, we at the Wales Office hosted a function for the Welsh ports and shipping sectors. It proved to be a very successful opportunity to bring together different interested players, and involved the Department for Transport as well. There is no intention on the part of the UK Government—ourselves at the Wales Office and colleagues at the Department for Transport—of ignoring the needs of Welsh ports. We absolutely want to see Welsh ports share in the future success of all UK ports.
What else are we are doing at the Wales Office? One thing that I do is chair the Wales Office infrastructure working group. Transport infrastructure is just one component of the body of work that we are taking forward. I am pleased to say that the Welsh Government are represented on that working group, as are a number of key private sector players and a number of public sector agencies and organisations. We try to focus our mind on some of the big strategic infrastructure priorities for Wales for the future—the things that will make a difference to the Welsh economy in the years ahead—and start to identify hurdles and barriers that need to be overcome in order to see Wales benefit from the larger infrastructure projects that we know are so important to it.
Moving on to some of the specifics that have been mentioned, I shall deal first with HS2, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. HS2 is a hugely strategically important project for the UK, and for north Wales in particular through the new station at Crewe. That will unlock the opportunity for businesses and individuals in north Wales to benefit from access to high-speed services. Crucially, HS2 strengthens the case for electrification of the north Wales main line, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. If we are interested in building the business case for that electrification of the north Wales coastal main line, HS2 strengthens that case. I see a number of hon. Members nodding their heads, and I am pleased by the level of support for HS2 that has been expressed here this morning.
The other thing that HS2 will do, of course, is bring north Wales closer to other parts of the north of England. I think that it was the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside who talked about commuters coming to his constituency from Derby, and said that he was surprised at the distances that some people were travelling to come to there. With HS2, we will see the journey times to other parts of the north of England coming down even more and there will be even more commuting, both from north Wales into different parts of England and from England into north Wales, so there is a huge economic opportunity there.
With regard to the Wrexham to Bidston line, I do not want to throw out too much excitement and optimism, because, as I think the hon. Gentleman recognised, a number of intermediate improvements could be made to the service on that track before we get to thinking about electrification. From a Wales Office perspective, we are looking at the business case for electrifying the line. It is part of the package of transport infrastructure improvements for north Wales that we are keen to progress, and we are in dialogue with the Welsh Government and the Department for Transport about that.
With regard to the Halton curve, I cannot offer any immediate cause for optimism. It has been looked at previously. Again, it is part of the package of improvements that, in the longest term, we want to happen. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, as I will to other hon. Members who have mentioned specific projects.
We have had an excellent debate about the transport infrastructure needs of north Wales. There is a lot of work to be done if we are to see all those projects realised and bringing about the economic benefit that we want to come to north Wales, but I thank all hon. Members for their contributions and I will write to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) about his desire to see a renaissance of the hovercraft on the Mersey estuary.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Caton. I am pleased to see at least a few other hon. Members taking an interest in recent developments on the common agricultural policy, and in particular the convergence uplift.
Common agricultural policy funding secures the vitality of farming in Scotland, and it is instrumental in the sustainable development of our rural economy. I represent one of the most rural constituencies anywhere in the UK, where farming underpins a healthy food production sector and a range of successful agricultural industries, and supports vibrant towns and villages. The investment we make in our farming sector through the CAP generates jobs, creates sustainable livelihoods and ensures effective land stewardship. Without it, our environment, economy and communities would be immeasurably poorer.
Earlier this year, agreement was reached on the future shape and direction of the CAP. There will be some substantial changes, but most significant for the purposes of today’s debate is the requirement for more equitable distribution of CAP funding, known as external convergence, across the EU. That has enormous significance for farmers in Scotland, because historically Scotland has had very low levels of support relative to the area of land in agricultural use. Scotland receives an average of €130 per hectare, compared with an EU average of €196 per hectare. In the UK, the English average is €265 per hectare, the Welsh average is €247 per hectare and the Northern Irish average is €335 per hectare. Compared with other parts of the EU and other parts of the UK, Scotland has been short-changed on the CAP for a long time, which has put our agricultural sector at a considerable competitive disadvantage. In that respect, moves towards convergence are an important step in the right direction.
Last week, when I questioned Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the matter, I received a response that was based on average farmer payments, which concerned me because it betrays either a worryingly poor understanding of what the convergence uplift is or a shameless attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. Average farmer payments are completely irrelevant to the calculation of the convergence uplift. I appreciate that the Minister is quite new to his role and might not yet fully understand the technicalities of how the convergence mechanism is calculated and what it is intended for. That is why it is so important to clarify that the convergence uplift has nothing whatever to do with individual farm size, which varies across Europe, depending on the landscape, climate and model of farming. The convergence uplift is calculated on the basis of average payments per hectare and nothing else. It is intended to benefit those whose support per hectare falls below 90% of the European average.
The convergence uplift is a mechanism introduced by the EU to ensure that member states with payment rates of less than 90% of the EU average rate per hectare receive an uplift designed to close the gap over the next six years. Although England, Wales and Northern Ireland are all above that threshold, Scotland is well below it —so far below, in fact, that it brings the UK average down. That is why the EU has awarded the UK a convergence uplift of €223 million. That is money designed to level the playing field, calculated on the basis of the average payment per hectare across Europe. It is money earmarked for Scottish agriculture.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has laid out a conclusive argument for Scotland getting its fair share of the money. Does she agree that it is essential for the Scottish and UK Governments to get together and deliver a coupling deal for the benefit of Scottish farmers?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. There has been an unprecedented degree of co-operation in the Scottish Parliament on the matter. DEFRA has succeeded where many have failed in creating unity among the warring tribes in the Scottish Parliament.
There was a sense of disbelief in the Scottish farming community on 8 November when the UK Government announced that they had decided to split the convergence uplift four ways, rather than using it for its intended purpose. That disbelief has quickly turned to anger and a sense of betrayal. Last week’s Scottish Farmer called it an “act of grand larceny”. Last week, when I met with Scottish farming leaders—some of whom, I believe, are here today—we discussed what representations they might make to Ministers to look again at the issue and, at the very least, bring forward the promised review from 2017 to deliver progress towards convergence over the next six years. Yesterday, along with other Scottish MPs, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Scotland, which appears to kick that possibility into the long grass by reiterating that no changes will be introduced until after 2020. I appeal to the Minister to look again at the need for convergence in the UK. Will he consider his review timetable and get round the table with stakeholders to work out how the convergence uplift can be used for its intended purpose?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I agree that the review is very important, and I am sure she agrees that the UK Government must map out how they will achieve the EU target—which I believe will be implemented in 2020—of convergence towards the EU average of €196 per hectare.
I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my concerns from a constituency perspective, because his constituency, like mine, is set to suffer some of the worst impacts of the Government’s approach. He makes an important point, and I hope the Government are listening.
The UK seems to be saying that it will simply ignore convergence until the next round of CAP negotiations. We are asking the Government to listen to the voices of the farming community and to work with stakeholders to ensure that convergence happens as the EU intended and that the convergence uplift comes to Scotland. The coalition parties have enjoyed an enviable degree of loyalty over the years from parts of the farming community, but that loyalty is not blind. Trust is a precious commodity in politics, and the Minister would be wise to listen to the farming community, even if he will not listen to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) and me.
The issue has prompted a great degree of cross-party co-operation and collaboration at Holyrood. Will the Minister commit to meeting the cross-party representatives of the Scottish Parliament—the SNP, Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokespeople—who wrote to the UK Government recently requesting a meeting? As they pointed out:
“These receipts only exist because of Scotland’s current position. All other parts of the UK are above the threshold set by the EU for external convergence, and it is only because of Scotland’s extremely low average level of Pillar one payments per hectare that the UK as a whole fell below the threshold and qualified for an external convergence uplift.”
They made the important point that
“Passing on this uplift to Scotland will also not entail any deductions at all for farming colleagues in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.”
They went on to say:
“The European methodology focused entirely on per-hectare levels of payment, and the within-UK decision must be on the same basis.”
It is important that Members of this House understand how support for farmers in Scotland compares with support for farmers in other parts of Europe, so they can see that Scottish farmers are asking not for special treatment, but for parity of treatment with their neighbours and competitors. In Denmark, for example, the area eligible for pillar one funding is less than two thirds the size of Scotland’s eligible area, but Denmark receives more than one and a half times as much pillar one funding—€964 million, compared with Scotland’s €596.6 million. That means that Denmark’s per-hectare pillar one rate is almost three times the Scottish average pillar one rate. Denmark’s pillar two rate of €31 per hectare is more than two and a half times as high as Scotland’s rate of €11 per hectare. The Czech Republic also has a smaller eligible area than Scotland does, but the Czech Republic gets one and a half times as much money to fund pillar one. Its average pillar one rate per hectare is almost twice that of Scotland, and its pillar two rate is more than 10 times higher, at an average of €116 per hectare.
Even closer to home, our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, who have a similar amount of eligible land under pillar one, get twice as much funding as we do, which means that the average Irish per-hectare pillar one rate is more than double the Scottish average, while its average per-hectare pillar two rates are more than 10 times the Scottish average. I could go on and list every single European Union member state, because each and every one of them, without exception, will receive a higher per-hectare rate than Scotland in both pillar one and pillar two by 2019. Let us be clear: if the average rate of payment in Scotland had been increased to €196 hectare, in line with the EU average and the objective of all member states by 2019, Scottish agriculture would have benefited to the tune of €1 billion over the next six years. Instead, as a peripheral region of a member state that places a low priority on the rural economy, Scotland’s per-hectare rate will drop to €128 by 2019 and could fall as low as €108 if all the eligible land comes into the system.
The same is true for pillar two. Although our rural development budget will rise by 7.8% in cash terms, in real terms that amounts to a 5.5% cut over six years. By contrast, 16 member states argued successfully for uplifts in their rural development funding. Ireland has secured nearly €2 billion, compared with Scotland’s £478 million. Finland has secured even more. With that kind of rural development funding, we could make transformational step changes to Scotland’s rural economy. We could create more jobs, help farms to diversify, improve amenities in our rural communities and strengthen environmental sustainability. Instead, Scotland will continue to have the lowest rural development allocation per hectare in the whole European Union.
Quite frankly, it is an insult to the intelligence of our farmers to pretend that the deal is anything other than profoundly lousy. For the Government to claim largesse, by suggesting that 2% additional flexibility on coupling in some way compensates for the failure to deliver adequate core funding, has been described to me as “quite pathetic”. As one farmer put it to me, “We’re supposed to be grateful to get the crumbs from a cake that should be ours by right.” Just to clarify, the 2% flexibility on coupling brings with it no extra money. It would merely allow us to divvy up the pot differently, to target more resources at the livestock sector, where they are most critical. The serious point is that an extra 2% coupling makes a negligible difference to beef farmers in Buchan, some of whom are set to take sizeable hits under the new regime. What they want and need is the option to go up to 13% coupling, like those member states that face similar challenges and that have successfully negotiated the ability to do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being generous with her time. She sets out a compelling argument for the Minister to meet the cross-party group, which supports her position, from the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible. Would she say that he needs to give the date on which he will do so?
I hope that an outcome of today’s debate will be not only meetings with the Scottish Parliament, but meaningful engagement with the National Farmers Union and other stakeholders. The farmers and crofters of Scotland desperately need a resolution. The sense of outrage is palpable in rural communities, going well beyond the farming communities that are the primary producers in the agricultural economy.
The convergence uplift has come to the UK only due to Scotland’s woeful position, languishing at the foot of the international table for pillar one and pillar two cash receipts. Scotland has the lowest levels of agricultural support in the European Union, yet the Secretary of State for Scotland believes he has delivered
“a fair, positive and stable package for all parts of the UK”.
He is demonstrating plainly that, far from being Scotland’s man in the Cabinet, he is the Tory’s spokesman in Scotland, defending an utterly indefensible decision. I will be interested to see whether the Minister can stand here today—an historic day in Scotland, when we consider our future and the future of our country—and repeat the Secretary of State’s claim with a straight face.
I thank the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for securing the debate, which is important to all parts of the UK, but particularly her constituents in Scotland, because as she says, she has a very rural constituency.
As hon. Members are aware, the Government have recently announced the allocation of €27.6 billion in funding from the common agricultural policy between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the period 2014 to 2020. The vast majority of those funds will come to the UK as direct payments under pillar one of the CAP. In total, between 2014 and 2020, the UK will receive €25.1 billion in the form of direct payments and €2.6 billion in funding for our rural development programmes under pillar two. Although these are significant sums, the UK will receive less CAP funding in the next seven-year EU budget than it did from the current EU budget. The fact that the UK will receive less funding from the CAP in the future is in line with the reduction in the EU budget that the Prime Minister secured at the February European Council. That position was overwhelmingly supported earlier this year by the House of Commons and will be to the benefit of all UK taxpayers.
The Minister says that there is a reduction in overall funding, but he does not address the fact that the convergence uplift was specifically due to the difference between Scotland and other parts of the EU. The money was given in the budget for a specific purpose. Should it not be used for that purpose?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I am one minute and 50 seconds into my speech and I have another 12 or so minutes in which I might get to those issues.
Across the EU, most member states will see reductions in their CAP budget and receipts, and it is only appropriate that the UK shoulders its share of the cut. It is worth noting that we have done better than many other member states. With a shrinking pot of money, how we allocate the funds between Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland was always going to be a difficult decision for the Government. In reaching that decision however, the Government consulted extensively with the devolved Administrations. We have had to be fair to all parts of the UK; I shall explain why I think we have been. Through a collaborative process, the Government decided on the most appropriate way to allocate the funds. There was an equal and proportionate reduction in funding to each Administration. That is fair.
I was going to move on to the uplift, which is the main topic of the debate. I have heard the views of hon. Members who say that the additional funds should have been made available to Scotland, but quite simply the UK’s direct payments will fall over the next seven years and there are no additional funds to allocate. Compared with 2013, the UK will receive around €500 million less in direct payments over 2014 to 2020. It is important to note that the convergence uplift does not mean that there is an additional pot of money to allocate. It simply slows the rate at which we have to make reductions for everyone across the UK. To give more funding to Scotland—or any one region, for that matter—would have required deeper cuts to the other parts of the UK.
I want to make progress; I will get to the point that I think the hon. Gentleman will address in a moment.
The point has also been made that Scotland has the lowest per-hectare payment in the UK and that, by virtue of that, Scotland should have received additional funding. There are a number of points to make about that argument. First, the so-called convergence uplift was calculated based on a UK average payment. Secondly, the lower per-hectare payment in Scotland is due to Scotland’s extensive moorland, which has yielded lower levels of production and, therefore, has historically attracted lower subsidy payments than other parts of the UK. Thirdly, it is important to note that Scotland still makes payments based on historic subsidies received by farm holdings in 2001, which means that those areas of land that had been most actively farmed, and generally still are most actively farmed, receive more money than the unfarmed moorlands.
Scotland’s low per-hectare payment also needs to be viewed alongside the fact that Scotland has the highest average per-farm payment in the UK, at about £26,000, compared with just £17,000 in England, £16,000 in Wales and £7,000 in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that she has no respect for that argument, but it is legitimate. Scotland has bigger farms, and the land there has historically been less intensively farmed. I think that the public will realise that if Scottish farmers are getting payments of almost £26,000 a year, they are getting far higher payments than the UK average, which is currently only about £16,000.
It all depends how one cuts the figures. In fact, the majority of Scottish farmers—50% of them—receive CAP payments of less than £10,000. Obviously farming is more extensive in upland areas of Scotland, which can skew the figures, but it is important to understand the median average payment, rather than the mean average payment. Either way, it is irrelevant to the convergence uplift.
I do not think it is irrelevant. As I said, the reason why Scotland has historically had a lower allocation is that there is much more moorland, which is not farmed as intensively. One can make the argument that there are differences within that and that some small farmers get less than £10,000, but that is also the case in Northern Ireland, England and Wales. The principles are set, but Scotland’s average farm payment is among the highest in the EU. In fact, only in the Czech Republic, where there are still huge collective farms, is the average payment received per farm higher than in Scotland.
Finally, it is important to note that there have always been wide variances in the per-hectare rate paid, both between member states and within member states. Countries such as Latvia and Estonia receive less per hectare than Scotland. I should also point out that the Government’s approach in allocating the cut equally across the UK’s Administrations is consistent with the approach that we adopted earlier this year when allocating the UK’s structural funds. Of those, Scotland received €795 million, which represented an increase of €228 million compared with the amount it would have received if the EU’s formula had been used, so Scotland received an uplift of sorts when it came to the allocation of structural funds, because the UK was willing to depart from the EU formula and adopt the approach that we have taken historically. We must accept that if we are to be consistent and take the historical approach, Scotland might lose in some areas, but it might also win in others. It has undoubtedly won from our adoption of the historical approach to structural funds.
In announcing the allocation of CAP across the UK, the Government have also committed to undertake a review of the allocation of CAP funding in 2016, at the same time that the European Commission will be undertaking a review of the 2014 to 2020 EU budget. The president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, Nigel Miller, has made a strong case for us to do the review early, and I am keen to meet him to discuss some of his concerns.
Let me say to hon. Members who have raised points that I speak regularly—almost weekly—with the devolved Assembly. One thing about the farming and fishing ministerial brief is that we deal extensively with all our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. The next time I visit Scotland or other devolved Administrations, I am more than happy to discuss the issue with politicians there. I am a great believer that we in the UK are stronger working together. DEFRA has a good track record of engaging closely with our partners in the devolved Administrations.
I am pleased that the review will take place in 2016, but my understanding is that the Government have given no commitment to implement its outcome quickly. Will the Minister leave open the option to implement the review’s outcome in 2017, rather than waiting until 2020?
A number of other things must happen at about the same time as the review, not least, particularly in Scotland’s case, moving from the current approach, which is based on historical payments in reference to 2001, to an area-based approach. Scotland will have to think about that carefully in order to get it right. One would not necessarily want a single, flat rate for all land areas; there will be a difference between lowland rates and moorland or upland rates.
It will be a big exercise for Scotland to get the rates right for different types of landscape. Only after we have seen how the transition from historical payments to land area-based payments will work can we make decisions about it. There may also be legal issues about whether things can be changed before the next financial perspective, post 2020.
I know that Nigel Miller, the president of the NFUS, has made a strong case and wants us to consider the issue. The Secretary of State has already discussed it with him, and I am keen to discuss it with the NFUS when I go to Scotland, to ensure that we engage fully with the Scottish farming industry on this important issue. The review, concluding in 2017, will be an opportunity for us to consider domestic CAP allocations and reflect on wider developments across the EU and UK as a result of CAP implementation. We might also be able to see how the different approaches taken by various devolved Assemblies are working in practice.
Throughout the CAP negotiations, which have only just concluded, the UK fought hard to ensure that Scotland and the other home nations could deliver the CAP in a manner that suited their needs and those of their farming industries. The UK has used its size and influence to deliver a series of wins for Scotland and Scottish farmers, including securing greater regionalisation of the CAP, ensuring that the national reserve is flexible enough to provide continuing support to new farmers, clarifying that farmed heather is a form of permanent grassland and extending to 2016 the designation of areas of natural constraint, which are particularly numerous in Scotland. Finally, although the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was sceptical about the value of this, we have also secured for Scotland the ability to increase the use of coupled payments—I know that there is a strong view in the Scottish industry that that is particularly important for beef production.
Now that we have negotiated all those outcomes for Scotland, it is up to the Scottish Government to decide how they want to proceed in implementing the CAP. The UK Government have ensured that Scotland and other devolved Administrations have the ability to implement the CAP as they see fit. I know that consultations are under way in all the constituent parts of the UK. The agreement that we secured includes significant flexibility for Scotland to direct funding to those parts of the rural economy and environment that it deems appropriate. With the budget settlement recently announced by the Government on the CAP across the UK, all the devolved Administrations now have the certainty they need to start making those important decisions.
The Minister has not addressed the point I raised earlier. He said that there was less money in the budget from Europe, which may be true, but the UK Government argued for a lower budget. The budget coming to the UK has been increased by the convergence uplift specifically because of the Scottish situation. That money was given because Scotland had a particular problem, and it is not coming to Scotland. Surely that is not right.
I think I did address that point. I made it clear that the calculation for the convergence uplift was UK-wide, not Scottish, that there are historical reasons why Scotland has had less and that Scottish farmers receive more on average per farm unit than farmers anywhere else in the UK. I do not accept that I did not address that point. We are taking a consistent approach by sticking with the historical approach, as we did on structural funds. We have achieved a lot for Scotland and other devolved parts of the UK, in terms of giving them flexibility to implement the CAP as they see fit.
Perhaps I can take the question asked by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) in another direction. Does the Minister understand Scottish farmers’ frustration and anger that moneys specifically targeted at Scotland have not arrived in Scotland but have been distributed elsewhere?
As a UK Minister, I must be fair to all parts of the UK, and I think we have been fair and consistent in how we have applied this, for all the reasons I have set out. As somebody who worked in the farming industry for 10 years and who comes from a far corner of the UK, I am a firm believer that, as a UK Government, we can achieve more for all parts of the UK by staying together. It would be regrettable, for instance, if Scotland did not have the muscle that it gets from being part of the UK in European negotiations. If Scotland left the UK, it would be in danger either of being outside the EU altogether or of having negligible voting weight and being one of the smallest countries in the EU, which would not be in Scotland’s interests.
Fly-Grazing of Horses
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to see that so many hon. Members, including the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), have come to debate this important issue.
In September, in Alton in my constituency, 46 horses were left in a field off the New Odiham road. On that occasion, they had been left with permission, but their owner had not arranged for them to be fed regularly and their welfare deteriorated to the extent that they were taken by the police under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and given over to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
A couple of weeks later, in the same field, another 18 horses appeared, belonging, apparently, to the same owner. If I quote briefly from the Redwings charity, which subsequently cared for a small number of the horses, that will give an indication of the extent of the cruelty imposed on them; I know that I must not quote at length, Mr Hollobone. I should explain that Redwings named the horses after characters from Jane Austen novels, as they were rescued from Alton in my constituency. Redwings said:
“We very tragically lost Georgiana, only two weeks after her rescue. Georgiana was suffering with salmonella - which several of these horses have - and also an horrendous small redworm burden.
Mr. Darcy is also an orphan foal and must have lost his mother at Alton. He was so hungry that he had actually been chewing the tails of the other horses in the group.”
I know that this issue and similar ones have been raised before by, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Dudley South (Chris Kelly). Many hon. Members will recognise this kind of case, where horses are on farmers’ fields, local authority land, grass verges or common land.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he recall the absolutely appalling case of Spindles farm in my constituency? In January 2008, the police and the RSPCA finally gained access to the farm and found the most unrepeatable cruelties being perpetrated on horses and donkeys. If he does remember the case, will he acknowledge the great work that the RSPCA did in obtaining a conviction against James Gray—a life ban on keeping horses and a 26-week sentence of imprisonment, which was richly deserved?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend brings up one of the most terrible cases. I think that 2008, when the horses were seized in Amersham, was a high point for RSPCA horse seizures, and I pay tribute to the organisation’s work. I should also say that it has been of great assistance to me as I have prepared for this debate.
There are four senses in which the practice of fly-grazing is a terrible problem. First, of course, there is often the terrible condition of the horses themselves, which suffer neglect and malnutrition. Secondly, when a farmer’s field is being grazed on, it is also a problem for the farmers. Grazing, where it is not authorised, is theft; it is theft of a farmer’s livelihood. Quite often, of course, the farmer is left to deal with the problem. Although they are the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime, they assume some responsibility for the horses. Thirdly, fly-grazing is a burden for those who must enforce the law, and for the charities that care for the horses. Currently, those charities find themselves significantly over-burdened as a result. Finally, fly-grazing is a great problem for the public—there are issues of public safety if, for example, horses get on to the public highway.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the great problems is the traceability of these ponies and horses? We must ensure that we know where they are. We have 70 or 80 passport-issuing agencies; there is no central database. We need to know where the horses are and who they belong to if we are to take action to stop fly-grazing and the welfare problems.
My hon. Friend rightly raises one of the significant underlying issues, and it is one that I will return to later.
There are three key pieces of legislation in this arena. First, there is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, that applies only where there is significant suffering; I am told that quite a “high-hurdle” test must be passed for it to be used. Secondly, there is the Highways Act 1980, which relates to cases in which animals are on or by the public highway. Thirdly, there is the Animals Act 1971, which is a means of getting horses off private land, although the process involved is quite onerous; I will discuss that process later. Significantly, there are also a number of private Acts that apply in different parts of the country, including the Mid Glamorgan County Council Act 1987 and, in my own area, the Hampshire County Council Act 1972.
What is the process if a farmer discovers that, say, a dozen horses have appeared on their land? They should call the local authority, which may check the horses. In doing so, it often finds that there is no microchip to allow traceability. The local authority then puts up a notice to say, “Contact us if these horses are yours.” The owner then has two weeks to come forward. Then, just before the two weeks are up, the horses miraculously disappear; hon. Members will be familiar with the situation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling for and securing this important debate. Does he have experience of an issue that I have in my constituency? Once horse bailiffs seize horses, or council employees are involved in bringing in horse bailiffs, people are then intimidated by the owners of the horses—the owners who have neglected them and left them in such a sorry state.
It is indeed a recurring problem. I know that the presence of uniformed police on these occasions often helps, but people worry about intimidation a great deal.
If the horses do not miraculously disappear just before the two-week period is up and no one comes forward to claim them, the only option for the local authority is to auction them—but, of course, if a horse is to be put up for auction it must first be properly documented and microchipped. There is another situation that I think hon. Members will recognise. The horses go to auction but are often bought back by the same person who was responsible for abandoning them in the first place. Afterwards, of course, they have acquired a more valuable animal, because it has been microchipped at a low price.
The scale of the problem of fly-grazing is both large and growing. No one knows exactly even how many horses there are in the country, let alone how many are neglected, abandoned or fly-grazed.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I assure him that concern about this issue is not confined to rural areas; I have been struck by the number of my constituents who have contacted me about it.
Is not the need for a national strategy underlined by the fact that a piecemeal postcode lottery approach will ensure, in the end, that those who abuse animals in this way simply move them from the areas that are taking action to the areas that are not prepared to take action—a problem exacerbated by the action being taken in Wales? Does not every area need to be prepared to deal with the problem?
Indeed. I think that is one of the themes that we will hear a number of times during this short debate.
Best estimates suggest that perhaps 7,000 horses are at risk of welfare problems, with upwards of 3,000 on land without consent. In the year to date in my own county of Hampshire, the RSPCA has received calls about 14 incidents of fly-grazing; in the first quarter of 2013, the British Horse Society saw complaints about horse welfare go up by 50% on the prior year.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), I have had many letters from constituents about this issue. However, I want to clarify one thing with the Minister. Is it the case that racehorses are not in this situation because of the fact that they are microchipped as a matter of course, so they do not become part of the problem?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. My wife keeps horses and recently rehomed two from animal charities that receive abandoned horses. Might not part of the solution be for the horse-owning public with capacity for extra horses to receive and rehome abandoned horses rather than breeding their own?
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Members will be pleased to know that I intend to accelerate my speech somewhat, because I know that several people want to speak.
As I was saying before the interruption, the problem is large and growing. Ten years ago, the RSPCA had 100 horses in its care; that figure now stands at 850, and the charity has to spend £3.5 million a year on food, board and care. The number of horses taken in has increased hugely since the peak year that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) referred to earlier. Prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 have also risen. The debate is so important now, however, because of the risk that the problem will become much greater in England in 2014 following the enactment of the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill that is going through the Welsh Assembly.
It is my understanding that the circumstances are no different in England and Scotland, whereas Wales has that new legislation. It is necessary to put on the record that Scotland should also consider changing the law to prevent the same situation from arising.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. In response to the awful problem of fly-grazing and the intimidation of farmers in areas such as mine, the Welsh Government have introduced the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill in an attempt to get consistency right across the country and to give local authorities sweeping powers to deal with the horses immediately, rather than having to wait. Will the hon. Gentleman be seeking similar legislation for England?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Welsh Bill will not make the problem disappear, but it will make dealing with it somewhat easier, which may help to disrupt and discourage sharp practice. The worry, however, is that it may also displace the problem across the border. As I understand it, the Bill cuts the waiting time from 14 days to seven; reverses the burden of proof, so that an owner coming forward must actively prove that they own the horses; and, crucially, increases the options available to those who seize horses. Auction is therefore not the only option. Horses can also be rehomed, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)outlined earlier, or—when necessary in the worst cases, and with sadness—euthanised.
As I said, the Welsh Bill will not make the problem disappear and it is worth reflecting on its root causes. The main reasons seem to be a relatively small number of irresponsible dealers and the excessive breeding of horses. There is an over-supply, with horses changing hands at auction for as little as £5. Following the horsemeat scandal, there is also less abattoir capacity, although given the cost of put-down and disposal, that option is, arguably, unlikely to be high on the list for owners of £5 horses.
All that explains to some extent why horses are abandoned, but it does not explain why dealers come to pick them up again or why they would buy them back at auction. To some extent, dealers perhaps believe that the market will bounce back and that the value of horses will rise again. It also seems that some sections of some communities attach status to the volume ownership of horses.
What, realistically, can be done? Eventually, we need to rebalance the supply of, and demand for, horses. It has been suggested that if there were a market in horsemeat, animals would be better cared for, and there is a great deal of logic in that. However, there is a cultural issue about that in this country, and there is no likelihood any time soon of there being a great appetite for horsemeat.
I do not have the answer, but I suggest to the Minister that we need to find ways to ban irresponsible people who should not own horses from doing so. That is made more difficult because such people may not own the horses directly, but through proxies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject to the House. Historically, my constituency has had a huge population of horses, but we have seen an explosion in their numbers in the past year or two, with horses on almost every conceivable available blade of grass. However, we need to be careful in dealing with this issue, because there are some extremely good people in my constituency who have owned horses for generations. Just two days ago, the county council, which is leading the way in the country on this issue, lifted more than 20 horses in my constituency, and among them were foals and other horses whose owners had looked after them very well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is important not to generalise. Many people have owned horses for generations, and they do so responsibly.
I suggest to the Minister that our priority in the immediate term must be to disrupt irresponsible and cruel practice where it appears. Part of that may be about further propagating and encouraging partnership working, based on the best practice that exists in some parts of the country. The National Farmers Union points to south Wales and Durham as examples of places where there is good co-operative working between the police and local authorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). Does my hon. Friend agree that the ultimate solution would be to amend the Animals Act 1971, strengthening this area of the law and empowering local authorities and the Government to address this issue? However, we must be careful not to transfer the burden immediately on to farmers.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will come to the legislative points in a moment.
I wonder whether further guidance on best practice would be useful for local authorities and police constabularies. There might also be innovative and different ways of utilising publicly owned land to keep seized horses.
I wonder whether I might, through the hon. Gentleman, implore the Minister to consider having discussions with his opposite number at the Ministry of Justice? There are prison farms on prison land, and prisoners at a few of them are given the duty of looking after horses as part of their outside work. There are two advantages to that: one is that the horses are cared for, and the other is that the prisoners take responsibility for caring for an animal. This is often the first time they have taken responsibility for caring for anything or anyone, and they develop new skills. That might be a slightly innovative way of looking at the issue.
I raised the question whether there might be different or innovative ways of using publicly owned land, and I am sure the Minister will have heard that suggestion.
Earlier, we talked about the challenge of traceability; large numbers of horses are not microchipped. Clearly, more enforcement is needed in that regard, and I ask the Minister whether he has any thoughts on how traceability can be better enforced, especially given that free microchipping is available to many people today but is not taken up.
It appears that the existence of a national equine database of some sort is important—it could, at least, make the current system work better. It might be possible to find a simpler, less costly version of the former national equine database to make traceability possible while minimising the attendant additional costs.
Most importantly, we need to make enforcement less onerous; that is the most critical immediate-term challenge, especially given the legislation across the border in Wales. We need to make the removal of horses more straightforward, and there are two, and possibly more, ways we might do that. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) outlined, we could amend the 1971 Act to bring it into line with the best of the private Acts.
Alternatively, we could replicate the legislation going through in Wales. Either way, there needs to be a way to reduce the waiting time, during which owners can claim ownership. In Wales, it has been reduced from 14 days to seven—although seven is not a magic number; we could have another number. Whether the holding period is seven days or whatever, we also need to stipulate that horses do not have to be held on the land they were found on and that they can be held on the enforcer’s land, which puts the onus on the owners to come forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that problems are often exacerbated by travelling communities that allow their horses to go on land where they should not be? Plenty of travelling communities, however, do control their horses and ponies very effectively and graze them in the right places.
What advice would my hon. Friend give councils regarding better liaison with travelling communities? Will he also join me in paying tribute to two organisations that have been very busy in Norfolk? One is World Horse Welfare, at Snetterton, and the other is Redwings, at Hapton. They do an absolutely tireless job in helping to solve this problem by taking in many horses that should never have been abandoned.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in those commendations. I echo what he said, which in turn echoed what the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, about the large numbers of people who look after their horses extremely well. It seems that these irresponsible practices are concentrated among a relatively small number of individuals. As to my hon. Friend’s point about giving advice to local authorities, I am sure the Minister will pick it up.
On objectives for a legislative solution, we somehow have to break the cycle of horses being seized, going to auction and being bought back, with the result that the problem never decreases. Whatever the legislative solution, there must be options for rehoming and, sadly, for euthanising, where that is unavoidable in the worst cases.
This is an important issue, and we should all thank my hon. Friend for raising it. On the things we can do apart from changing the law, does he agree that the RSPCA must make absolutely full use of its existing powers to prevent foals and horses from dying in winter floods, as happened in Sandhurst lane, in Gloucester, last winter? My overwhelming sense is that the RSPCA moved too slowly. Has my hon. Friend come across other instances where it could have done more within its existing powers? We should not necessarily expect the law to do everything.
I do not know the specifics of that case, so I cannot comment on how quickly things were or were not done. On fly-grazing, I do know that the RSPCA and other charities are heavily overburdened and struggle to cope with their case load, which may be part of the issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, not least because I hope it will raise public awareness. The public are really appalled at some of the welfare abuses that have taken place, but the strong message to them today is that they can be part of the solution by reporting cases. Quite often, welfare situations are exacerbated because of the time it takes for someone to identify where horses are and to report them. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I hope it will help get that message out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right that such incidents must be reported and that the public play an important part in that. It is frustrating if offences are reported and there either is not the capacity to deal with them or proceedings are started but end up in a shocking circular process.
It strikes me that one practical thing we can do, which I have done myself, is to refer to the RSPCA those in the area who run stables, particularly for livery purposes, and who have gaps because of the expense of raising horses. Where people have taken their animals back into their own home paddocks, or whatever, and there are spaces, the best thing we can do is to ensure the RSPCA and its various centres are aware of where there are spaces at livery. It is often cheaper to keep a horse at livery than to do anything else. We should encourage people to identify the spaces in livery to ensure that they are used by the RSPCA, as is done very well in my area.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am sure the Minister will have heard that point.
To conclude, I know that the Minister is seized of the importance of the issue and its urgency. Given the growth in incidents and the imminence of the Welsh legislation, I hope that he will be able to give us some indication today of what can be done to assist hard-working charities, the police and local authorities to ease the burden on farmers and alleviate the suffering and cruelty inflicted on the poor animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing such an important debate. I would also like to explain that I might not be able to stay for the full length of the debate, as I face the not unusual House of Commons problem of having to be in two places at the same time. However, I would like to use the minutes that you have allotted me, Mr Hollobone, to make a few points.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire rightly said, although the problem of abandoned horses might be thought predominantly to affect rural areas, that is certainly not the whole case. I can assure the House that it is a significant problem in some urban areas, such as my own black country constituency. In many parts of the black country, specifically around the Bilston and Bradley areas of my constituency, it is common to see horses grazing on abandoned former industrial land or small plots of common land. The state of the horses varies. Sometimes they are in a decent state and looked after, but sometimes they are not and are in a very poor state. Sometimes they are tethered, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they can break free and be found wandering round housing estates, going into people’s gardens and causing at least a nuisance and in some cases real danger.
The hon. Gentleman is right that sometimes the horses die, particularly in winter when they are not fed during harsh weather. The problem is difficult to tackle on two different levels because of what I call the ownership issue. By ownership, I mean that it is difficult to establish who owns the horse. Even if you can establish that, it is difficult to get that person to accept responsibility for the horse’s welfare. In theory, under the law, horses should be microchipped and have passports that enable them to be identified, but the Minister will be aware that the law is routinely breached and ignored. I have been told by the animal welfare officer at Wolverhampton city council that, in her estimate, the vast majority of abandoned horses in my constituency have no microchip. The system is therefore simply not operating.
The first ownership problem is that it is difficult for the authorities to know to whom the horses belong. The other problem is that they are moved around at short notice, leaving a place and returning to it, which makes it difficult to track them. Another aspect of the ownership problem is that it is not clear who, in law, is responsible for policing the issue, removing horses and dealing with the problem. The police tend not to get involved unless the horse is on the highway, and practice among local authorities varies greatly. Some try to tackle the problem with energy and resources, but some do very little. The owners are aware of that and can take advantage of the situation by moving the horses around from one piece of open ground to another. Horse owners know that councils’ attitudes differ in that way.
The part of my constituency that is most affected by the problem is close to the boundaries of Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell. It is quite easy for horses to be moved, and that makes enforcement more difficult. Sandwell is next to Wolverhampton, and its council estimates that the cost of a removal—for bureaucracy and transport, as well as legal and animal welfare costs—can be up to £1,500. Some councils have tried to tackle the problem by providing grazing space and charging owners to put horses there. For responsible owners, that may work. However, irresponsible owners currently get a free good by putting horses where they should not; they are unlikely to queue up to pay £10 a week or more for what they currently get for nothing.
Another issue is the resources of local authorities. I am not making a partisan point, but we know that money is tight for councils. Wolverhampton city council has one animal welfare officer, who works part time. She is responsible for pet shops, domestically kept animals, the few farms in the city council area and the huge issue of abandoned or illegally tethered horses. I spoke to her earlier today, and by lunch time she had had three reports from the public of concern about abandoned horses. To expect her, on her own and working part time, to deal effectively with the issue alongside her other responsibilities is clearly absurd, and it will not work.
Even for officers who have enough time, another issue is at play, which we should be honest about: fear. Although the horse owners may not want to declare themselves, those involved in removing horses fear reprisals by them. It cannot be right that those who are empowered to deal with the situation, albeit on an imperfect and incomplete legal basis, should be inhibited from carrying through their powers by fear of reprisals. We would not tolerate that state of affairs in other walks of life, and we should not tolerate it in the one we are debating. The effect of what I have outlined is a problem that has gone on for years without a proper solution and without anyone getting a proper grip on it. It is a significant animal welfare problem that causes the public disturbance and distress. We cannot go on as we are.
What, then, is to be done? The current law is inadequate. There is a right of removal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but only if the horses are in poor or severe condition, which is not always the case. Different provisions apply to public and private land, and there are different approaches for the highway or common land. All that needs to be straightened out and simplified. I do not know whether what the Welsh Assembly Government are doing is perfect, but at least animal welfare groups, landowners and the general public have welcomed it. The Minister should endeavour to clarify and simplify the law to make it easier to remove the animals.
The simplification should include introducing easier powers of removal from common land; minimising cost and delay in dealing with some of the issues that the hon. Member for East Hampshire raised; and removing the problem of proving ownership—in fact, why not reverse the burden of proof and ask those who claim ownership of the horse to prove it, rather than charging local authorities with running around trying to find out who owns it? The changes should also include improving animal welfare and giving confidence to the public. The problem is growing, and may grow further because of what has happened in Wales. The fact that solving it has been too difficult so far should not prevent us from putting our heads together and trying to come up with a better system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) on his contribution. This is a huge issue of not only welfare—bordering on criminality—but antisocial behaviour. We need to look at both aspects if we are to come up with a solution.
I first came to terms with the subject when a constituent came to me in despair, having found a number of horses in a field that she owned and been told by the local authority that there was nothing she could do to remove the horses; that there was no way of identifying whose they were; and, what was more, that she was now liable for the welfare of the animals, with third-party liability should anyone be injured crossing her land on which the horses now resided. She was quite rightly extremely upset that that should be the case. I looked into it further and found that it was not an isolated problem, even in my own area—I was told, anecdotally, that one gentleman owns 80 horses, but not one square foot of land on which to graze them, so was using everyone else’s land—and throughout the country.
As has been suggested, the situation has been exacerbated by what to some extent has been a crisis in horse ownership. The recent difficulties in the economy have meant that an awful lot of people who bought horses with the firm intention of looking after them properly now find that they are unable to do so, so a lot more horses and ponies are either abandoned or sold cheaply than would normally be the case. Had I any doubts about that, they would have been dispelled by visiting the Glenda Spooner farm in my constituency, in Kingsdon, near Somerton. It is run by World Horse Welfare, which has already been mentioned and does a superb job of looking after abandoned animals and getting them back into shape so that they can be rehomed. I applaud its work.
I was trying to address the issue when I was in the Minister’s position, and it is not without its complications—I will not pretend otherwise. It boils down to a number of clear areas in which the Government could perhaps have an effect. First, on intervention, the Government can help to prevent animals from entering the stream, as it were, by supporting horse charities and perhaps by considering what they can do directly to help people who get into difficulties to find a new home for their horses.
Secondly—a lot of the debate will be about this—there is the possibility of new powers. I discussed that at length with the Home Office, which assured me many times that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill would be capable of remedying the nuisance. Potentially it will be, through the injunctions in the Bill and community protection orders, but we need guidance to be issued to local authorities and others as to how they can use the powers in the Bill to provide help in the area we are discussing. I hope the Minister will help me with that. Failing that, we need to look at the Welsh proposals. I spoke to Alun Davies, the Minister in Wales, some months ago about the subject, because I knew that he was working on his proposals. What is being suggested in Wales—providing a range of disposals to local authorities and others—seems to have an awful lot of merit.
Thirdly, I want us to consider liability, which I remember discussing many years ago during consideration of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, when it became clear that people had an absolute liability for animals on their land. That cannot be right. If it is not their animal, they did not ask for it to be there and they do not want it to be there, how on earth can they be liable for its actions? Yet that is the situation in law.
Lastly, we need to deal with identification. Microchipping needs to be enforced, of course, but that applies only to horses under four years old. There is a misconception about the national equine database, which was abolished by my predecessor, in that it did not provide traceability. We need a hugely better passporting system that ensures that we can trace a horse back to its owner. Serious discussion was going on with the Irish and French Governments on the issue, and I wonder whether the Minister can bring us up to date on where precisely we are.
I wish to raise a final, not uncontroversial, issue, which I remember discussing with the Irish Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney. I am not betraying any confidence, because he has since discussed it with his Select Committee in the Dail, but he told me about the possibility of widening hugely the euthanising of horses in the Republic of Ireland, because of the overpopulation. We have to give serious consideration to that. No one wants to kill horses, any more than anything else, but if we have huge overpopulation, we will never get to grips with the welfare issues. We first have to reduce the population, bringing it back to the sort of level where we can find enough good, careful and sensible owners to look after the horses.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is somewhat poorer since he left as a Minister, but we have had the joy of hearing his words of wisdom today. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is a good friend of mine, on securing the debate, for which the whole House has come together. Like many Members, I have received a great many representations from constituents who have expressed concerns about fly-grazing, and 10 of them asked me to attend the debate specifically because of horse welfare.
Fly-grazing of horses is illegal, but the legislation makes it difficult for landowners to remove horses from their land. Fly-grazing poses risks to people when horses wander the roads, going through school grounds, digging up sports fields or damaging nature reserves. In June 2013, animal welfare charities released “Left on the Verge”, which reported that more than 7,000 horses were at risk of needing rehoming or rescuing.
This issue was recently brought home to me by a constituent, Mr William Jenkins, who grazes his horses on Manmoel common, in the heart of my constituency. He relies on common-land grazing to feed his stock in the spring—more so than ever this year. However, when he turned his flock on to the common in May, after one of the harshest winters he can recall, there was little grass to graze, because it had already been eaten by dozens of abandoned ponies—unsurprisingly, many had already perished in the prolonged freezing conditions, dying of starvation or exposure. This has been an issue on Manmoel common for a number of years—although not only there—robbing farmers of their historic rights to graze the common, an important food source for livestock.
In a recent case, more than 100 horses were destroyed after being kept in detrimental conditions. They were among 400 horses found in a neglected state by RSPCA inspectors. In another recent case, a breeder was sentenced to 10 weeks in jail and banned from keeping horses for 10 years after being found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering when nine horses had to be put down and another 51 placed in sanctuaries.
There are a number of reasons why fly-grazing throughout England and Wales is increasing—primarily, the economic downturn combined with too many horses being bred. The result has been a horse market in which horses at every level have dropped in price. At the lowest end, they are being sold at auction for as little as £5. Farmers may advertise a horse and sell it after 14 days to cover their costs, but if the pony has no passport or microchip, that animal cannot be sold, costing the farmer more than the cost of raising the horse. There are also reports of some dealers cutting the cost of animal welfare and disposing of their horses by abandoning them on other people’s land when the horse has no further value to them.
The issue is made worse by the confusion about who has responsibility for fly-grazed horses. Is it local authorities, landowners or animal welfare charities? The Government need to take action to clarify the situation. Dealing with abandoned horses is a problem further complicated by rescue centres being under severe pressure and close to capacity, local authorities struggling with the numbers of horses left on their land, and landowners having to engage in costly legal action to have abandoned horses removed safely.
Another reason for the proliferation of fly-grazing is that the mechanisms in place for prosecution are insufficient and perpetrators are finding it easy to get away with—the benefits to them far outweigh the cost. The present law is insufficient, as it makes pre-emptive action impossible, and is insufficient when attempting to trace horse owners. Indeed, the inability to trace ownership is the fundamental reason why current laws do not work. Fly-grazers do not comply with horse identification legislation, and horses are often not microchipped when they should be.
The problem comes down to the complex mix of legislation relevant to removing fly-grazing horses. It includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Animals Act 1971, the common law of lost or abandoned property, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, the Highways Act 1980, the Equine Identification (Wales) Regulations 2009 and the Horse Passports Regulations 2009—makes sense that, if you are a farmer or a horse owner, Mr Hollobone. All situations are different and require different elements of legislation to resolve them. Enforcers such as the police and local authorities will get involved only in incidents that violate criminal law.
On local authorities, is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in places including Bassetlaw where, when the local authority takes action for good reason, the horse owner simply moves the horse to a non-local authority-owned piece of land, and if the owner of that land takes action, they move the horse back to the local authority land? In other words, they can never be nailed down under the law.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Horses are being moved round in a cycle. People are wise to the law and know that unless a criminal act has taken place there is no violation.
As a Welsh MP, I think we should look to the Welsh approach. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said, that approach might not be perfect, but it is at least a start and is getting a grip on the problem. Wales is now taking action to rectify the problem. Ministers there are introducing a new Bill to tackle fly-grazing, the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill, which will take effect from early 2014. Conservative estimates are that 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in Wales and 2,500 in England. Given the tough approach being taken by the Welsh Government, the Westminster Government need to highlight what measures they are taking to ensure that those 3,000 horses in Wales do not simply become England’s problem, which follows on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Fly-grazing is also a cross-border issue. My constituent, Mr Jenkins, supports the Welsh Government and has said:
“I think the new legislation will go a long way to help stop the problem, it will make people think twice about fly-grazing. The legislation is not perfect, a lot more could be done, but it is a step in the right direction and something we can work off moving forward.”
That is the issue.
The Westminster Government need to take action on the issue of fly-grazing, which has been getting increasingly worse over the past two to three years. They must simplify the legislation dealing with fly-grazing, whether they opt to make small amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, or introduce new legislation, as the Welsh Government are doing. While streamlining the existing legislation, the Government also need to enforce the equine identification legislation, including the requirements to microchip and register horses.
There are several key areas that need to be addressed in any action taken by the Government. The first is easier removal of horses. It should be possible to remove horses immediately and dispose of them after seven days if the owner does not come forward. Secondly, we should reverse the burden of proof of ownership. Owners should have to prove ownership of horses they have sought to claim, which would reduce costs and the time currently spent by local authorities. Thirdly, we should make it easier to dispose of horses. Currently, horses can only be sent to auction or sold at market. Authorities should authorise options such as rehoming or, in worst-case scenarios, disposal.
I have two key questions for the Minister. We have seen in Wales that to enforce the legislation we will need multi-agency co-operation between local authorities, the police and charities. What support will the Government give to enable forward planning and the prioritisation of resources? Secondly, will the Government provide guidance to landowners and local authorities on how to handle cases of fly-grazing so that costly legal advice need not be taken to determine exactly which of the seven or eight pieces of relevant legislation apply?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.
My hon. Friend may remember that I secured a similar debate back in July last year, on the connected issue of illegally tethered horses and the steps we need to take to clamp down on that problem. I said then that the problems that my constituents face on the edge of York with fly-grazing and illegally tethered horses are not restricted to York or the Yorkshire region. The problem is found throughout the country, predominantly —although not exclusively—in rural areas. I hope that the number of Members attending this debate has sent a clear message to the Minister about how important the issue is to constituencies around the country.
It must be remembered that fly-grazing not only blights the lives of the horses that are subjected to it, but impacts on farmers who grow crops that are destroyed and puts road users in jeopardy when animals stray on to the highway. I have had various meetings with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the local National Farmers Union and constituents about the issue of fly-grazing, and the message is clear: no one group can solve the problem alone. It is essential that we all work together on this growing crisis. The only way we can do that is with the support of the public, the Government agencies, the police and local authorities. If we all work together, we can stop the abuse once and for all.
At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle that I believe in: no one should be above the law. Nor should people’s lives be negatively affected by those who have little regard for such laws. This is a horse crisis. That is exactly how the charities concerned regard the issue, in the excellent report “Left on the Verge”. The RSPCA, Redwings horse sanctuary, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld and the British Horse Society have all reported an increase in the number of cases of neglect and abandonment that have been brought to their attention.
Local newspapers are also reporting huge numbers of cases of tragic horse deaths. In my constituency, the Express & Star, the Stourbridge News and the Dudley News are regularly filled with stories about horrific cases of horse death and neglect. Has my hon. Friend had a similar experience?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Those sorts of issues have been reported regularly in local media in my area. Also, there have been reports of issues on the highway, with cases of horses that were illegally tethered or were being fly-grazed on the highway escaping on to it and causing serious road accidents. We have to remember that this issue has a wider impact than just illegal fly-grazing.
My understanding is that ever since the horsemeat scandal, which devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process, the price of horsemeat has plummeted. Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses as the market has become saturated. As has already been mentioned, a horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can often cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly. Irresponsible dealers are importing horses from France and Ireland under the tripartite agreement that allows for the free movement of horses without health checks.
As the market for horsemeat in mainland Europe is depressed, dealers are left with a surplus of horses, much of which, sadly, can been seen along the roadside and in other people’s fields, or even in people’s gardens. One particular case from my postbag, which I would like to touch on briefly, highlights the vast amount of damage that fly-grazing can do and the way it affects farmers. My constituent, Mr David Shaw, farms land in Osbaldwick that is located in close proximity to the local Traveller site. Mr Shaw’s land has been regularly overtaken by horses belonging to the Traveller community, which has caused a great deal of damage to his fences and crops, and to the land itself. Just recently, in October, Mr Shaw found approximately 14 horses in his fields. He turned them out, repaired the fences and spoke to the Traveller who owned them, requesting that he keep them off his land, but l5 minutes later the horses were back in his maize field again.
To me, that sounds like intimidation of landowners, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend and neighbour has had similar experiences to me. A constituent of mine came to one of my surgeries in tears because he had found horses in a paddock that he owns, with a sign asking him to ring about them. When he did, he was told that if they did not stay on his land for a certain period, he could be in trouble. The police should surely take serious action about that sort of intimidation.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and neighbour. That is a worrying development; indeed, I now want to talk about some of the intimidation that my constituent has suffered from.
The following Sunday, Mr Shaw again found the horses in his field. He spoke to the owner once more, and it turned out that the owner was banned from keeping animals, following a previous cruelty case brought against him. Mr Shaw was subjected to the most horrific verbal abuse. Despite that, he carried on. He removed the horses and mended the fences. That evening, he again found them back in his field again. This exhausting exchange continued for a further four days, in which Mr Shaw spent well over 12 hours of his time dealing with the issue, all the while trying to run his dairy business. He removed the horses from his field a total of nine times and mended the fences the same number of times. That is a lot of expense for a problem that the council can do little to help him with.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire touched on the problems of the existing law. He also touched on the need for an equine database, and I entirely agree with that. The action that the Welsh Assembly is taking has been well rehearsed. I start from the simple principle that fly-grazing should be a criminal offence, to ensure that action can be taken swiftly and offenders brought to justice. The culprits are too often simply banned from keeping horses for a period, but the easy way round that is for animals to be transferred into the ownership of a relative. When horses are starving on the roadside, justice dictates that a custodial sentence should be brought to bear for such a horrible abuse.
It is essential that horse traceability is improved, because rules are routinely flouted, with few if any sanctions for non-compliance. It is important for everyone locally—the police, the local authority, animal welfare charities, the NFU and Traveller representatives—to work together for a long-term solution. I intend to hold a round-table meeting in my constituency in the new year to add impetus to the issue. Sadly, fly-grazing affects and touches many people in different ways—
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.
I am secretary of the all-party group for the horse, which is well aware of the extent and depth of the equine crisis. It has been caused by the cost of keeping horses, which has increased at a time when many family incomes have come under pressure, with people finding themselves less able to look after their horses and ponies properly. The people involved in fly-grazing are many and varied. Some keep horses commercially and their incomes have decreased. Rather than disposing of their horses responsibly, they have tried to keep them irresponsibly. There was a terrible example in Wales of someone who kept many coloured horses and bred from them, but slaughtered every colt foal, keeping only filly foals. It was one of the worst examples of animal welfare abuse I have come across.
Some people who keep horses for personal or recreational purposes can no longer afford to keep them. However, because they cannot afford to put them down—doing so responsibly is quite an expensive affair nowadays—they let the horses out on any available ground. That ground is variable, as we have heard. Sometimes the land is owned for proper purposes by the local authority, on verges beside roads, and sometimes it is owned privately—we have heard examples of that. However, one example we have not heard about—although the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned this—is that when people cannot afford to keep horses and ponies, it has sometimes been the practice in south Wales to turn them out on common land. That land is often extensive and remote. If a horse is turned out there, it is out of sight and out of mind, but it will suffer greatly, particularly as winter approaches.
Some commoners’ associations act responsibly, and at this time of year will gather all the horses and ponies from the common and establish who owns them and whether they are fit enough to go back on the common for the winter. Welsh mountain ponies are bred to survive difficult conditions and are fed only when conditions are extreme and there is snow on the ground. The commoners will bring in all the horses and dispose of them humanely if they cannot establish who an owner is. I congratulate commoners’ associations that act in that way—I have experience of one common, the rights of which are owned by the Duke of Beaufort, who acts responsibly.
The problem is not the fault of the horse or the pony, and dealing with the horses or ponies is not the way to ensure that such practices stop. Therefore, we must take action against the owners. I know the difficulty—many hon. Members have rightly emphasised the need for a proper identification process, so that we can establish who is responsible—but action must be taken against owners who have caused or are likely to cause harm to the horses.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke about people who are already banned from keeping horses who are then found to have committed the offence again, but suffer very small penalties. As far as I am concerned, there is only one penalty for anyone who is banned from keeping animals but then found to be doing so without looking after their welfare properly and responsibly, and that is imprisonment. If that was the case, the message would go out that people cannot abuse horses or any animals in their care, and the situation would improve. However, only when magistrates courts understand the severity of such actions will such people be sent to jail.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) not only for securing it, but for introducing it, covering the issues and touching on some sensitive matters in a way that brought all the parties together.
The problem is significant in Wales, and exceptionally so in the Vale of Glamorgan. Just two weeks ago, the BBC reported on the network news that 45 horses were tragically destroyed as a result of animal welfare issues. That case involved the excellent work of charities such as Redwings and World Horse Welfare. I pay tribute to those organisations for the compassionate work they conduct in difficult circumstances. However, a constituent contacted me to say that it was not just 45 horses destroyed, but ultimately hundreds. That demonstrates the scale of the problem just two weeks ago.
Over the last year alone, hundreds of horses have regularly been moved, throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies, and on scores of occasions. The police recently reported to me that they were involved in 1,500 horse-related incidents in the last 13 months alone. Animal welfare must be our driving focus in this debate, but we must bear in mind the significant financial cost. The police estimate the cost to be around £1.2 million, and they can point to £745,000 spent directly by them, the local authorities and the RSPCA. One example, from a range of services that have to spend money to protect themselves and ensure safety, is Bryntirion comprehensive school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). That school had to spend £61,000 on a fence to protect children in the playground because horses were so regularly breaking the boundary fence and grazing on the playing fields. Not only were they breaking the fence, but they were causing damage to the school and preventing children from participating in physical education and using those facilities. Landowners also face significant costs. The average farmer in my constituency will face a cost of between £1,000 and £1,500 if he is involved in fly-grazing in any way. Some 56% of farmers responded to a survey saying that their land had been involved in fly-grazing.
I can cite those factual data, or accurate data, because of a co-ordinated effort led by the police force. In particular, I pay tribute to South Wales police and Superintendent Paul James, who worked extremely closely with the local authorities in Bridgend, the Vale of Glamorgan and Gwent, where Operation Thallium led to a focused approach to ensure that every organisation, including the charities, were co-ordinated in trying to bring about an end to the problem throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies.
I remember that Superintendent Paul James said to me this time last year, “Unless we resolve the problem on this occasion, I simply don’t know where we can go next year”. That was because of the resources being taken up. It was not only about the financial issues that I have highlighted, but about the time, which would not be costed into the figures that I mentioned, that he and all his colleagues had to spend trying to bring an end to the problem. There was one prosecution, but I fear that we are entering a situation in which the problem is simply being moved from my area to other areas.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I have a similar issue in some parts of my constituency, which may surprise people. In Bedfont, a number of residents have approached me about similar situations. Does the hon. Gentleman share the growing concern of charities, which now say that they are running out of resources to help horses and other animals that are being neglected?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and support her in that. She has also highlighted that it is not only rural areas that are affected. The problem has become so great that it affects urban areas and particularly urban fringes, where horses end up close to towns whose large populations are put at risk because of the problem.
Operation Thallium, a joint effort by the police and the Welsh Local Government Association, identified three key themes. One was about the identification of horses and the need for proof, and how difficult that makes things. The second was the delay that the landowner, having identified the horses or ended up with horses fly-grazing on their private land, experiences before they can act to dispose of the horses. People end up being almost forced or encouraged, on some occasions, to contribute to the problem. Scores of horses can be found on domestic properties, and strictly speaking, according to the law, people should be looking after the horses according to welfare standards, rather than driving them out on to the road to move the problem forward.
It is a shame that I cannot expand much more on that, but I want to underline the third theme, which is how the horses are handled thereafter and their disposal. The delay that I touched on is significant, with the current legislation restricting the agencies to acting in a humane, responsible way and considering the auction obligation. However, the euthanasia issue also needs to be addressed. I pay tribute to the Welsh Government and the way in which they are approaching the legislation. It is an important start—it is not perfect, but I hope that the Department will take it on board.
It is great to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this timely debate, and I want to thank all the other Members who have spoken. I will not be able to note their contributions in full, but I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). I shall turn to the Vale of Glamorgan in a moment. It has been a very good, wide-ranging debate with expert thought and analysis.
I also thank the organisations that have campaigned long and hard on the issue to force the growing crisis—and it is a crisis—of horse and pony fly-grazing up the political agenda. Those organisations include the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings, which came together to produce a damning report called “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”. It catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses in London and Gravesend, Tyne and Wear and Blackpool, County Durham and Norfolk, and Bristol and Leicestershire —in short, in all parts of the United Kingdom.
I also thank the local authorities such as Durham, Cardiff and Bridgend and the coterminous police authorities who have taken a positive lead in developing joint-working protocols and memorandums of understanding to tackle the problem. I pay tribute to the leadership shown by the Labour Government in Wales and the National Assembly for Wales, who, as we speak, are fast-tracking new legislation as an early Christmas present. Where Wales leads in tackling fly-grazing, we hope that England will follow.
The past three years have seen a crisis develop in fly-grazing in the UK. Horses are suffering and dying in increasing numbers. Local authorities, police and highways agencies are navigating through legislation that is, frankly, out of date and not fit for purpose. Farmers, conservation bodies, other landowners and commoners are seeing their land trashed. Horse and animal welfare organisations, along with the public, are dismayed at the seeming inability of authorities to act promptly and decisively. However, their hands are tied. Minister, we must seek to resolve this issue in Parliament and in Government, and in collaboration with those affected.
It is worth saying that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the travelling community and others for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. We should remember that. However, this debate is not about the good owners or even about some romanticised valleys culture, as portrayed in the quite wonderful series, “Stella”, in which the neighbour in the terraced house opposite keeps a horse in the house as part of the family—I am not sure whether the RSPCA would approve of that. It is also not about whatever the equivalent is in Tyneside or Gravesend.
The issue is about the increasing horse welfare problems associated with fly-grazing and the tethering of horses. It is about the dumping of those horses in the light of over-breeding, the drop in the value of horses and the lack of passporting and micro-chipping or easy identification of horse ownership. It is about the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows frankly unscrupulous owners to dance, at great taxpayer expense, around the authorities and the enforcement agencies. It is also about criminality.
The Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare notes the rapid rise in reported incidents over the past three years as the cost of responsible care and disposal of horses has outstripped their commercial value; the 20% rise in calls to the RSPCA for tethered horses in 2011; the rise in welfare concerns to Redwings over fly-grazing, from 160 reports in 2009 to 500 in the first six months of 2012; and the huge rise in reported incidents to local authorities. That crisis has grown remarkably in the past three years and has shown, as it has grown, the legislation to be sorely wanting.
My constituency of Ogmore in south Wales includes the local authority of Bridgend, which, along with neighbouring authorities such as those in the Vale of Glamorgan, represented by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, has seen some of the worst excesses and abuses of horse and pony welfare in recent years. Labour-run Bridgend county borough council and the neighbouring coalition council in the Vale of Glamorgan are to be commended for their strenuous efforts alongside South Wales police and animal welfare organisations to resolve the situation, although it has been tortuous and unnecessarily complex and costly due to outdated legislation.
In January this year alone, South Wales police reported nearly 500 calls from the public about nuisance, damage and animal welfare issues because of fly-grazing. Much attention centred on one individual and his family, a well known horse trader in south Wales, who regularly denied responsibility and ownership. That lengthened the time-consuming and costly farce for taxpayers, local authorities, and police and animal welfare agencies with those responsible ducking and diving to evade their responsibilities.
In such cases, public areas such as school playing fields, which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned, and common land are trashed. Private land becomes temporary corrals for apparently ownerless horses that appear there overnight through broken fences and disappear just as quickly when enforcement measures are eventually taken. There are risks to public safety and to highways—and all the time, horses and ponies suffer and die through wilful neglect. Outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers allow criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice, and the horses suffer, as do the public, private landowners and commoners who find themselves enmeshed in this cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.
The individual whom I mentioned, Thomas Tony Price of Wick, was found guilty in June of 57 offences of causing unnecessary suffering and failing to meet the needs of 27 horses. His two sons were also found guilty of related offences. RSPCA Inspector Christine McNeil, commenting on the 12 horses found locked in a barn with no space and no access to food and water—she believed they had been left there to die—said:
“These horses turned out to be the most poorly and diseased horses I have come across.”
She then turned her comments to the wider, UK issues. That individual is now in custody, but that is not the end of the matter. The RSPCA, which was intimately involved in the original case, now fears that the estimated 2,000 to 2,500 horses in the family’s care—I use the term “care” advisedly—that have historically been moved from location to location anyway, may have been steadily relocated across Offa’s Dyke to England, where the enforcement agencies may not be as prepared, in anticipation of the law’s being strengthened in Wales.
In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem may now be being exported to add to the existing problems in England. Horses that may be related to the south Wales case have already been appearing in the Surrey and Hampshire areas and elsewhere, causing the same problems and concerns.
That is just one sad postscript to the story in south Wales. As of last week, despite the best efforts of the RSPCA, the Vale council, the Redwings sanctuary and the police, just over 100 horses had been euthanised at a site in the Vale of Glamorgan. Thankfully, others have been rehomed. Our thanks go out—I know that the thanks of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan do—to all those involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of the animals and to resolve this tragic saga.
Labour is urging the Government immediately to follow the leadership of the Labour Government in Wales and National Assembly Members, who will bring forward new legislation within weeks, or to update, at least, existing legislation to the same effect. Otherwise, what is good news for Wales could result in the 3,000 Welsh horses becoming England’s problem overnight, adding to the 2,500 already in England. We call on the Government urgently to consult on new or revised legislation and other measures to tackle fly-grazing in England and to bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity.
The coalition of horse and animal welfare charities that produced the report “Left on the Verge”, which I have referred to, have also produced the blueprint for the way forward. With new legislation—the Welsh Government model—or with amendments to existing legislation such as the Animals Act 1971, the changes would remove the barriers that currently prevent timely action against fly-grazing. The changes would include: the ability to remove fly-grazed horses immediately and, if rehoming and all else fails, to dispose of the horses within seven days; making it easier to dispose of the horses by rehoming them or, when all else fails, by euthanising them, rather than sending them, in a costly process, to auction; reversing the burden of proof on ownership and so reducing the financial and time costs to local authorities of proving ownership; and improving enforcement and joint working in a wide range of ways.
I know that “unions” is normally a dirty word for this Government, but I ask the Minister to listen to the words of at least one union, the National Farmers Union, which is demanding that the Government match the legislative changes in Wales or risk more horses being abandoned in England, or to the words of the coalition of horse and animal welfare groups when they say in their report that Wales is taking action—England must, too. We will support the Minister and the Government in bringing forward the necessary legislative changes at the earliest opportunity, but if the Government are minded to resist, we will make the necessary changes when we return to government.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate. I, like many other hon. Members, have received lots of e-mails from constituents imploring me to attend the debate. I have been able to reply to them and say, “I’ll see what I can do.” It is a delight to be here to respond on behalf of the Government.
We have heard a little today about the scale of the problem. Although there are no official figures, the charities concerned have estimated that almost 7,000 horses are at risk. The welfare charities, in their report “Left on the Verge”, which has been cited by numerous hon. Members, have also identified a growing trend in welfare cases involving equines. Incidents of fly-grazing appear to be on the rise. Clearly, that is wrong and both a burden and a source of concern for the landowners affected.
I want to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) made about the stress that the practice can cause landowners. He makes an incredibly important point. We are talking about people who care deeply about animals and livestock, and it can be very distressing for them to find abandoned on their land horses that have not been cared for—that have been neglected, maltreated or underfed. They may have been left in fields where there is ragwort, for instance, which could affect their health. Sometimes the field is not sufficiently secure to keep the horse within it. I was very struck also by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) about the school that had to spend money to put up fences to keep horses off its land as a result of this problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome also talked about the cost borne by the landowners in these cases, and it is true that that is a feature. I point out that sections 4 and 7 of the Animals Act 1971 give powers for landowners to recover that cost, but I completely accept that, as with all these things, the difficulty is in the landowners being able to bring a case to get the money back.
Let me say a little more about what laws are currently in place, or we have in the pipeline, that could be used to tackle some of the issues described today. It is important to note that quite a lot of powers are already available. First, section 7 of the Animals Act 1971, which applies in England and Wales, allows horses to be taken into the landowner’s possession, provided that certain conditions are met. After 14 days, the horses may be sold. The landowner may also claim any reasonable costs from the owner of the horses for the upkeep of the horses or any damage that they do until they are either returned to the owner or sold at market.
Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have highlighted, the Highways Act 1980 can also be used and is often used by local authorities. That Act makes it an offence for horses to stray or lie on or at the side of a highway. The police have powers to remove the horses, and reasonable costs can be recovered from the owners in doing so.
Thirdly, as we have heard today, horses that are simply abandoned or neglected are often in a poor state of welfare. I was particularly struck by the appalling anecdote told by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) about horses that were literally dying on a tether in some instances and by the case cited by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) involving someone who had dozens or hundreds of horses that were being neglected.
It is important to recognise, though, that in such circumstances it is possible to use section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to fail to provide for the welfare needs of an animal. The DEFRA statutory code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids provides clear advice on how to meet the requirements of the Act. Although failure to abide by the code is not in itself an offence, it can be used in a court of law as evidence of neglect, and frequently is.
I will address that point in a moment. I just want to make this point about new powers in the pipeline. Clearly, the act of leaving a horse or horses on another person’s land is an example of antisocial behaviour. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently before Parliament and, when enacted, will provide enforcers with new and much more flexible powers to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its forms, including the act of leaving a horse on someone else’s land. Indeed, there have already been some instances in which the existing antisocial behaviour orders—ASBOs—have been served on perpetrators of fly-grazing.
The new antisocial behaviour measures will make it even easier for enforcers to use such powers to tackle these problems. For example, if a person is identified as having left their horse on someone else’s land without permission, the local authority or police could issue a community protection notice requiring the individual to do anything reasonable to address the antisocial behaviour.
In the case of fly-grazed horses, the notice might require the individual to remove or even to sell the horses. Failure to abide by a community protection notice is a criminal offence, and anyone who does so may face a fine or other sanctions. The provisions give the authorities power to impose a forfeiture order on any item, including an animal, used to breach a community protection notice; in this case, that would be a horse.
Several hon. Members have alluded to the frustration of those who complain to the authorities about such problems but no action appears to be taken. If a complainant is dissatisfied with a local authority, either because it has not responded to their concern or because they consider that it has not dealt with the concern effectively, it may be possible to use the new community trigger. Under the community trigger, the police, local authorities and other organisations can be required to review their response if a resident or group of residents have complained about the same problem three or more times and are not satisfied with the response.
In applying all those antisocial behaviour measures, it is necessary to know who the culprits are. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can tackle the problem without identifying and tackling irresponsible owners. If authorities can pool their intelligence and information, it should be possible to identify the leading perpetrators of fly-grazing and take appropriate action. If the problem is acute in certain areas—looking at the charts, Wales appears to be particularly badly affected—it should be a priority for the authorities to do whatever is necessary to deal with it. The tools are there, and we need to ensure that they are enforced.
One of the problems in dealing with fly-grazing is identifying the owners. As we know, identification of the owners of the horses involved is one of the key issues in enabling the authorities and those with whom they work to tackle fly-grazing.
I will press on, otherwise I will not cover all the points.
Revised horse passport regulations have been in force since 2009. They require all owners to obtain a passport for each horse that they own and all newly identified horses to be fitted with a microchip. We and other member states are currently considering EU Commission proposals to improve and strengthen the horse passport regime in response to the horsemeat fraud incident earlier this year.
Several measures are under consideration, including stricter standards for passports and a requirement for all member states to operate a central equine database, to which several hon. Members have alluded. DEFRA officials are working closely with the equine sector council strategy steering committee on the matter. As we have heard today, however, horses associated with antisocial behaviour are frequently not identified, so although we welcome the strengthening of the horse passport regulations, we recognise that it is not a solution in itself.
I wanted to touch briefly on another point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the tripartite agreement between France, Ireland and the UK. The Government are committed to protecting our equine industry from the threat of disease from overseas. European statute requires that horses that move between EU member states must undergo a veterinary inspection 48 hours prior to movement, and that they must be accompanied by a passport and health certificate. Any movement must be pre-notified to the competent authorities.
However, the existing tripartite agreement applies a derogation from those rules for horses moving between the UK, France and Ireland, on the basis that the three countries share the same health status for equines, and it seems reasonable that that should continue. We have, therefore, managed to avoid imposing unnecessary costs and burdens on horse owners.
Following considerable work with the equine sector and the member states concerned, I can confirm that a new tripartite agreement has been signed, which limits the derogation from EU health controls for intra-EU trade to groups of horses with a demonstrably higher health status. That will come into effect in May 2014. Those new changes will apply only to movements between the UK and France, and Ireland and France. The situation regarding movements between Ireland and the UK remains unchanged, because we are satisfied that on disease control grounds—bearing in mind the aims of the relevant EU directive—there is no additional risk. The new agreement between the UK, France and Ireland will hugely benefit the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) highlighted the importance of co-ordination. We have been particularly struck by the protocols introduced by councils in Wakefield and York, which give guidance to local practitioners about the steps they should take to deal with the problem of fly-grazing, citing all the laws at their disposal. I emphasise to local authorities that they can use existing and future antisocial behaviour legislation to tackle that problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and others have asked whether it would be possible to provide further guidance, and we are looking at that. In the case of tackling dangerous dogs, for instance, we issued specific guidance to councils so that they understood the implications of the new measures. We are keen to learn from Wakefield and York councils about whether further work can be done in the area.
On the Welsh proposals, there are a couple of limitations. My biggest concern with what is proposed in Wales is that it introduces no new powers beyond those in the Animal Act 1971, but it shortens the time scales. There is a danger of our putting the onus on local authorities to deal with the problem, rather than on tackling irresponsible owners. We could end up imposing costs and additional burdens on local authorities—
It is wonderful to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This timely debate on safe cycling in London is about saving lives. Just recently, there were six deaths in just two weeks in London, which forced attention on the issue. Two collisions occurred on the same day, which was particularly poignant. Our thoughts are with those who have died on London streets, and with their families. Most recently, Brian Holt, Francis Golding, Roger William De Klerk, Venera Minakhmetova, Khalid al-Hashimi and Richard Muzira have died on the streets of London on their bikes.
As well as highlighting the whole issue of safety for cyclists in London, the recent spate of fatal accidents has raised serious concerns about roundabouts such as Bow, where Hounslow resident Brian Dorling died in 2011. I have a personal interest in the matter because I, too, sometimes cycle into work and around my constituency. Every time I do, I feel as though I am taking a risk, even though I abide by the rules of the road. Even cycling around Parliament square, which is right outside, it feels as though I am taking my life in my hands.
I want to encourage cycling, because it is good for health, well-being and the environment, but we need to find a way to make it safer for everyone on the roads. Some 70,000 cyclists took to the streets of London in August for the Prudential RideLondon festival, and the Barclays Boris bikes have expanded across London. I want to encourage the inspiration created by the Olympics and the Tour de France, which will come to Yorkshire in 2014. Individuals such as Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Chris Froome, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead, Jason Kenny and others have inspired a whole nation of cyclists, which has to be good.
The number of journeys made by bike more than doubled between 2000 and 2012 to more than 540,000 a day in London. The central London cycling census conducted by Transport for London in April this year calculated that bicycles accounted for up to 64% of vehicles on some main roads during the peak morning period, a time of day that recent incidents have shown to be particularly dangerous. More bicycles than cars travel across London, Waterloo, Blackfriars and Southwark bridges during that time, a setting that presents enhanced safety hazards to cyclists. In pure numbers, however, there were fewer cycling fatalities in the past six years than in the previous six. Reading the figures in a different way shows us that in London in 2012, 22% of all casualties on the road were cyclists, whereas in 2006 10% were, so there has been an increase in the percentage.
Across the country, 2012 saw the highest number of cycling fatalities, with 118. For me, that is far to many. In London specifically, there were 10 deaths in 2010, four of which involved HGVs, and 14 deaths in 2012, five of which involved HGVs. This year, we have had 14 deaths so far, nine of which involved HGVs. There is absolutely a case for doing something. Fourteen deaths in the capital so far this year is 14 deaths too many. We should be doing something about it.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing an important topic to the House today. As a fellow Hounslow MP, I am sure she will join me in congratulating the Hounslow cycling campaign on its work in promoting road safety for cyclists, making roads safer and increasing the number of women cyclists. I am sure she will come on to this point, but does she agree that there is concern over the Mayor of London’s comments that seemed to suggest that irresponsible behaviour on the part of cyclists was disproportionately contributing to the problem? We need roads to be safe and we need those driving large vehicles, as well as cyclists, to drive safety.
I thank my neighbour in London for that intervention. London councils have made an effort to create a safer environment for cycling, but I always push them, because when we have deaths, it shows that there is more to be done. The Mayor certainly stressed that there were issues with cyclists, but there are also other matters to consider. He has published “The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London”, so he is addressing the serious issues. Everyone on the roads has a responsibility. Whether we are motorists, cyclists or lorry drivers, it is important that we take responsibility. There are things that we can all do improve safety.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in this important debate we should stress that someone is more likely to be killed walking a mile than cycling a mile, and also stress the health benefits? Our overall life expectancy is increased if we cycle and lead an active, healthy life. We should ensure that we stress the benefits of cycling for well-being, as well as the dangers, and make it safe for those who cycle.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I am pleased that she has secured this important debate. My constituency has thousands of cyclists, who are fortunate to benefit from an integrated cycle network, so they feel safe cycling. My constituency is close to London, and over the past few months, as these unfortunate deaths have occurred, we have seen a huge increase in the number of cycles left in the cycle racks at Stevenage station, because those cyclists are now scared of cycling in London.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. There is a fear of cycling in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out that it is important to stress the positives, but we also have a responsibility as MPs to protect people and allay some of the fears.
I occasionally cycle in my constituency in Plymouth. Safety is not only an issue for cycling in London. We have a big problem in Plymouth with potholes, some of which are incredibly deep, and I suspect that the situation might be the same elsewhere.
I agree that many issues need to be addressed. There were 118 deaths across the country last year, so we must look at what we can do to make cycling safer in every area.
This year, the Mayor appointed London’s first cycling commissioner, who with the Mayor created “The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London”. There are many great ideas in that paper, which is intended to build on the Olympic legacy for all Londoners and make the roads safe for people who want to take up cycling, as I did after many years of not being on a bike. I take great pleasure in using my Brompton bicycle, which was made in my constituency. Brompton Bicycle Ltd in Brentford is a great local company.
We want to encourage more people to cycle safely. Earlier this year, city hall announced almost £1 billion in improvements over 10 years to make cycling safer. I push the Department for Transport to work closely with the Mayor, because he has responsibility for only a certain number of roads in London. More communication, co-ordination and partnership would be good, with all the stakeholders involved sitting together and working out a vision and strategy that will help everyone.
Several schemes are certainly helping. We have already heard about what is happening in the London borough of Hounslow, and there are also various initiatives such as Bikeabilty training for beginners, advanced cyclists and children. We must see whether more can be done. The police recently played their role in cycling safety with Operation Safeway, whereby 2,500 Metropolitan police officers were posted at junctions in London to advise on the increased road safety problems caused by the high volume of traffic.
There have been several petitions through which we can see that the public are behind us: the “Save our Cyclists” petition has 35,500 signatures; the “Get Britain Cycling” petition has 72,000 signatures; and the “Better road driving test” petition has 17,900 signatures. The public want movement. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction to the deaths, but we must have a response. That is why there is an urgent need to have measures in place before there are more deaths on the streets. I would like a co-ordinated plan for the initiatives and ideas that are coming forth on better and safer cycling, which all stakeholders can sign up to, so that we know that things are happening.
There are a lot of options to make cycling safer, such as better safety equipment on lorries—side guards, proximity sensors and side cameras. Given the number of deaths involving HGVs, the complete lack of visibility in HGV drivers’ blind spots is a grave issue that I want us to take seriously. When I cycle in London, I try not to go anywhere near a lorry if I can help it, and I stay well behind them at junctions. We could be slightly more radical and ban HGVs during rush hour, as they do in Paris. Deliveries in London during the Olympics were made at night, so it could be possible to do that again. We may need to tighten up driving tests for van and lorry drivers. We have talked about having more Trixi mirrors at road junctions—big mirrors that allow better visibility, especially for lorry drivers. In some areas of London, and elsewhere, where there are very wide pavements, there could be safe sharing of pavements to allow cyclists to travel more safely. It is important to crack down on cyclists breaking the rules of the road, and perhaps helmets should become a requirement.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. If someone decides to use a Boris bike—a wonderful initiative—they are not offered a cycle helmet at the same time. I am not suggesting for one moment that people should be forced to wear them, because I am a Conservative and I believe in a moderately liberal approach, but they should be offered them, particularly helmets that have lights attached, so that people can see where they are going.
My hon. Friend obviously knows my shopping habits. I recently bought a new light for my helmet, because I did not feel that I could be seen clearly enough from behind, even with a high-visibility jacket. That is important.
In this short debate, I would like to get a feeling from my hon. Friend the Minister about some of the things that must be considered as a matter of urgency. The first is a cycle safety summit, for want of a better term, to get all the London stakeholders around a table to discuss the vision, strategy and plan of action going forward. That would include, of course, the Department for Transport, the Mayor’s office, Transport for London, the Metropolitan police and each of the London boroughs, which all have roads for which they are responsible. It would also involve the cycling safety campaign groups, and maybe even the all-party group on cycling. It would be a conversation around a table about a joint approach and a plan of action to get things moving.
The second issue that we need to consider is continuing to improve the safety of road junctions, whether with Trixi mirrors or safe cycling routes. Transport for London has increased its budget for safer junctions from £19 million to £100 million, but how far will that stretch across the key London junctions that need to be sorted out? Can TfL also address some of the other junctions that might not be its responsibility?
The third issue is better safety equipment on lorries. I feel strongly about that issue, given the scale of deaths from HGVs; nine out of the 14 deaths so far this year have been linked to HGVs. Side guards are critical to prevent people from being dragged underneath, as are close proximity sensors to let drivers know whether someone is around and side cameras to help with blind spots. Maybe we will have to prevent HGVs from entering central London unless they have safety features. If they do not, maybe the Mayor could impose a levy or fine.
The fourth issue to consider is the importance of clamping down on all road users who break the law, with on-the-spot fines for dangerous driving or cycling. Those who use the roads must respect each other; I say that as both a driver and a cyclist. I think that being a cyclist has helped me be a better driver, and I encourage everyone to try it. We might consider a fixed penalty for going into the cycles-only box at junctions. I would also like those cycle boxes and the advance stop lines extended a bit. At the moment, they are about 5 metres out, which is very close to traffic queues, especially during the morning rush hour. Maybe that could be extended to 7.5 metres.
My fifth point concerns further training for children and adults. London boroughs and the police have been reasonably good at giving support on cycling safety, and there are also videos about how HGV drivers have blind spots. Adults returning to cycling after many years, in particular, may need a refresher. Another option is changing the driving test for drivers of all vehicles, including taxis, HGVs and cars, and including cyclist awareness and safety. I have mentioned considering a rush-hour HGV ban or a levy on HGVs not fitted with safety equipment.
This debate is important because it is about saving lives in our capital as well as elsewhere around the country. We want to do something as soon as possible in order to prevent more unnecessary deaths. It will help create a better, happier, safer city in which we can all live, and will hopefully save a few lives in the process.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) for securing the debate, which comes after a series of fatal accidents involving cyclists on the capital’s roads in recent weeks. I offer my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives.
Such incidents are a sobering reminder of the dangers that road users can experience on our busy urban streets, but equally, they should not discourage people from getting on their bikes. Cycling is still generally a safe activity. Indeed, the number of fatalities in London dropped from 21 in 2003 to 14 last year. Sadly, we have already reached 14 so far in 2013, including six in the past couple of weeks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out, we must not forget that the health benefits of cycling greatly outweigh the risks, but as the Minister with responsibility for cycling and road safety, I am determined to make cycling even safer. Since February last year, we have made an additional £159 million available to support cycling and boost safety, including £20 million to improve the design and layout of road junctions at 78 locations around the country. A further £15 million is being targeted specifically at dangerous junctions in London. More recently, we have announced £77 million to help eight cities across England realise their ambitious 10-year plans to increase cycling and make it safer.
Those investments are crucial as the number of cyclists on our roads continues to rise. After the heroics of Team GB in the Olympics and Paralympics and the success of our riders in the Tour de France, thousands of people are catching the cycling bug. Although I got the habit nearly a decade ago, I am also a Brompton rider, and I very much enjoy riding the vehicle, which was made in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth.
The Minister is another Brompton rider in the Commons. I am grateful to him for pointing out the welcome boost to funding, but is he aware of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling report, which recommended that long-term stable funding is what makes the difference? At least £10 a head for the whole population, rather than for the seven cities, is what is needed if we are to make the great strides that we have seen on the continent and allow for infrastructure improvements, particularly separation at junctions and on our most dangerous roads.
The Government have certainly announced long-term funding pledges for transport infrastructure that will, with reforms to the Highways Agency, enable planning year by year, unlike the stop-go investment that we have had.
I will be on my Brompton again on Friday morning as I cycle from King’s Cross station to Westminster. My officials have devised a route for me that will allow me to experience both the worst and the best of cycling roads in London.
The trend back to cycling is particularly noticeable among young people. British Cycling, the national governing body, has seen membership of under-18s soar by 42% in just a year. However, money is only part of the answer. We are also working in other ways to improve cyclist safety. For instance, we have made it simpler for councils to put in place 20 mph-limit zones, and we have encouraged local authorities to implement such limits in areas where cyclists and pedestrians are most vulnerable. Reducing traffic speeds can make roads safer and improve the local environment.
As we have heard, a high proportion of cyclist fatalities involve large vehicles, so we have given English councils the power to install Trixi mirrors at junctions. We have also made it easier for councils to install contra-flow cycling and signs saying “No entry except cycles”. Awareness of other road users is paramount, particularly in big cities, so we welcome initiatives such as TfL’s “Exchanging Places”, in which cyclists can sit in a lorry cab and watch for a police cyclist riding up on the left side of the vehicle.
Several new driver certificate of professional competence courses now take cyclists into account. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth will probably know, truck drivers must now undertake five days’ training, and then one day’s training every year, to achieve the certificate. The training may even require the driver to experience what it is like to be a cyclist on busy urban streets. As someone who has driven HGVs, I know where their blind spots are, and I hope that those who participate in the scheme will too.
We are investing £11 million a year in Bikeability training to help a new generation of cyclists to get the skills they need to be safe on our roads. That training is not just for children; it is for adults too. On top of the Government’s funding, some local authorities provide free or subsidised training.
One of the most effective ways to make our roads safer is to change people’s driving habits through hard-hitting marketing and advertising. That is why we continue to develop new campaigns through our award-winning Think! brand. In October, I launched a new Think! cyclist campaign, targeting Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge, on top of the activity already launched in London. That built on a similar campaign last year that was based around the message, “Let’s Look Out For Each Other”.
In August, the Prime Minister announced a major programme of work to cycle-proof new trunk road projects so that they can be navigated confidently by the average cyclist. That includes a £20 million investment from the Highways Agency to fund significant junction upgrades and other improvements to remove barriers to cyclists. We also expect local authorities to up their game to deliver infrastructure that takes cycling into account from the design stage.
The delivery of the Mayor’s “Vision for Cycling” could also help to make cycling safer in London. There will be a new network of better cycle routes in London, including a “Crossrail for the bike”—a fast, segregated east-west super-highway. The Mayor’s plans also include prioritising major and substantial improvements at the worst junctions, and making significant improvements to existing cycle super-highways, such as the one that I use every morning when I cycle in to Parliament.
Clearly, however, if we are going to improve cycling safety in London significantly, we will have to reduce the threat of trucks where full segregation is not possible. Cyclists are no more likely to be involved in a collision with a lorry than with any other type of vehicle, but when it does happen the outcome is all too often a tragedy. In September, we set up a taskforce with Transport for London to raise awareness of safety among HGV drivers and to take targeted enforcement action against the small minority of potentially dangerous operators, drivers and vehicles.
I understand that last Monday, on the first day of the Metropolitan police’s new road safety enforcement campaign, 70 lorries were stopped and 15 penalty notices were issued, for offences such as vehicles not being fit for the road. In addition, about 100 cyclists were advised of a range of road safety measures that they can take, such as wearing hi-vis jackets or helmets, or fitting their bike with lights. A number of cyclists were also stopped for riding on the pavement. Indeed, only this morning I witnessed a cyclist dangerously running a red light in this part of London.
New standards for mirrors on the passenger side of lorries have recently been agreed at international level, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), recently wrote to the European Transport Commissioner urging him to ensure that those standards are mandated by the necessary regulatory change within the EU. Such mirrors are crucial, as they improve drivers’ visibility and make it easier for them to see cyclists on the passenger side, particularly when turning left at junctions.
The Department for Transport continues to work with international partners through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, particularly to allow camera technology that further improves driver vision. From 29 October 2014, all new goods vehicles will have to comply with revised European rules—for example, with regard to side guards—that will permit fewer exemptions than the current legislation does.
In August, the Prime Minister also announced that we will be publishing a cross-Government cycling delivery plan. We will work with stakeholders, including TfL, on drafting the plan, which will set out how we will deliver on our vision of more people cycling more safely and more often. It will be supported by Departments across Whitehall and will include a commitment to work together to deliver a cycling infrastructure that will make Britain a cycling nation to rival our European neighbours.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth suggested that there should be a cycling summit. That is a very good idea, but I have to say that I am ahead of the curve, because even before the most recent tragedies on our roads I met Chris Boardman, British Cycling, the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the charity Sustrans to discuss the issue. Indeed, I have a meeting in the diary for tomorrow with TfL to discuss some cycling issues, and on 4 December the Mayor is coming to the DFT to discuss cycling and other issues. It is important that we work together with all the stakeholders involved, including the cycling campaign groups and the all-party group on cycling, of which I used to be a member.
We can also look at other areas where we can make improvements. Mention was made of advanced stop lines, but a contribution could also be made by having early start signals, to allow cyclists to get away first before the lorries set off.
There is a huge amount going on to improve cycling safety standards in London and across the country. Our challenge is to ensure that an increase in the number of people riding bikes on our roads does not translate into more casualties. We are already making progress. Cycling in London has trebled over the past decade, yet fatalities of cyclists have fallen by 17% during the past five years. However, as the past few weeks have shown, there is absolutely no room for complacency. We have to continue working with our partners and continue delivering the investment. We must focus on key areas of threat, to continue raising safety standards for cyclists.
We should also examine some other ideas, such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned today. However, I have reservations about proximity sensors down the side of vehicles. They can often be set off by roadside furniture or other obstacles, and could actually distract a driver on some occasions. But it is absolutely imperative that we see what we can do about side guards. There are a number of vehicles that are currently exempt from having to have them, such as skip wagons, refuse wagons and some tippers, and it is important that we consider what we can do to improve the design of those vehicles, and to ensure that more and more vehicles are fitted with side guards.
As a Government, we are absolutely committed to doing what we can to improve road safety. I have considered the issue of having a ban on lorries in London. However, it must be borne in mind that in Paris the area covered by the ban is only about the size of the zone 1 area in London, so there is not an extensive ban in Paris. Of course, there are also communities in London that would resent deliveries being carried out at night as a routine measure, as that may—
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
In recent months, we have lived through difficult times in relations between employees and management. Grangemouth was a black mark on industrial relations in this country, and showed the work force there being exploited and totally taken advantage of by aggressive management. In the past year, my Labour colleagues and I have also been fighting for the rights of thousands of workers who have been blacklisted and blocked from working by immoral construction companies. The Government’s moves to bring in a Bill that will make being a member of a trade union all the more difficult will do nothing to improve relations. As chair of the Unite the union’s parliamentary group, and with plenty of trade union experience before coming into this place, I can truly say that I am saddened by the low that we have come to and the distrust and anger that we see on all sides.
I have come to Westminster Hall today to propose not a new idea but what I think would be a productive and collaborative way to allow constructive dialogue between managers, workers and shareholders. We need to find a way to work together for the sake of the British economy and the livelihoods of our hard-working constituents.
Our economy is too shareholder-focused. The pursuit of quick profit leads to short-term thinking and a lack of investment in our companies, and our focus on shareholders means that cultural barriers may further hinder investment. In 2010, 41.2% of investors in British companies came from outside the UK, and it must be true that a shareholder in a company who has investments all over the world takes less of a direct interest in that company than an employee of that company would. It leads to examples of bankers hedging their bets and putting people’s lives and jobs on the line. It also leads to a lack of training for staff and a lack investment in infrastructure, meaning that companies will last for the next few years but not for the next 40 years.
Our company structures are not good for the economy. They lead to a lack of stability and to unequal distribution of gains from growth. We know that there is a public outcry at this system in the economy, and not just from the left. It seems to me that giving workers more of a say on our boards could be a key way of improving our broken economy. People want the next boom to benefit everybody, and a responsible Government will ensure that that happens. The Leader of the Opposition has rightly pointed towards “responsible capitalism”, and I hope that my proposal will form part of that under the next Labour Government, hopefully in 2015.
Of course, having worker representatives in a position on the board is good for employees, including those who feel downtrodden or that they have no job security, but who could contribute to the running of a company much more productively than people who do not know the shop floor. In a survey of workers’ representatives in other EU countries, one Swedish representative said:
“We think of the employees who other board members sometimes forget.”
The issue is a moral one about what we want a 21st-century UK business to look like. Do we want to return to Dickensian scenes in which profit overrides everything and workers have no rights, no pride and no say in the job in which they spend so much of their time? Or do we want management to remember that those working for them need to be considered when they make changes to the company?
Whether employees are simply forgotten or neglected when decision are taken is irrelevant. What we need is someone championing their needs, in the same way that those of shareholders and of management are put forward. It is important to remember that many employees, unlike shareholders, cannot just walk away. They have trained for that job and so cannot diversify themselves as easily as shareholders can. They are key stakeholders tied to the company, and their issues need to be heard.
Having workers’ representatives on boards is good for business. The use of labour representation has been found to increase the value of firms. Employees have a detailed knowledge of the shop floor and of operations, so they become an important source of information for those making long-term decisions. In other countries, the proposal has been found to make a company more efficient. In a study of representatives, they remarked that their key knowledge of everyday business and employee matters made them specialists on the board, in the same way that other board members were specialists in, for example, accountancy or strategy.
The proposal would be good for business also because it would improve relations between the work force and management. It is telling that even Mr Ratcliffe of Ineos compared Germany with the UK and commended the good working relationship between unions and companies in Germany; this is the same Mr Ratcliffe who partly caused the problems at Grangemouth. I think a key part of that is the fact that workers in Germany sit on boards and can negotiate on issues before they get too far down the line.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on putting this important issue on the agenda; he is making a powerful case. Does he agree that, although worker representation on boards cannot and will not be a substitute for collective bargaining, it ensures that such bargaining takes place in an atmosphere that is more like a partnership, which is constructive? I have seen the benefit of that in my constituency at Cowley, where I can contrast the industrial relations in BMW with how they were in Rover and British Leyland previously.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I can only use my own experience before I came to the House, when I worked for Thales, which was a progressive company. It downsized during the defence cuts, cutting thousands of jobs, but it did so by talking to the trade unions and workers’ representatives. In Scotland and Portsmouth, BAE Systems is talking to its employee representatives in a progressive way and treating people like grown-ups. We can contrast that with what happened at Grangemouth.
In times of poor performance, employees are likely to be more aware of the troubles of their company and may offer concessions. Equally, they will expect returns when the company is doing well. Importantly, having a representative on the board offers an opportunity for early consultation. A recent survey found that, in such cases, both sides tended to be more realistic about the issues at hand.
Financially, the proposal works well, with fewer days lost to strike action. Germany lost 3.7 days to strikes for every 1,000 employees in 2008, whereas the UK lost 28 days in the same year. That is not a one-off: in 2007, Germany lost 8.1 days, while the UK lost 38 days. No worker likes to go on strike; it is always the very last option and a huge deal for all involved. The contrast shows how much more effectively Germans manage differences between employees and management. They come to more compromised agreements that suit everyone early on, and negotiations with the unions much less frequently result in strike action. I cannot see how companies, or indeed the Government, could disagree with a way to reduce days lost to strike action in the UK.
Directors like the system, with more than 60% of directors and 70% of chairpersons surveyed in Sweden finding the experience “very positive” or “rather positive”. Martin Gilbert, the outgoing chairman of FirstGroup, one of the few companies that use the system in the UK, said:
“The presence of employee directors on the FirstGroup board is invaluable. The few drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the benefits and having this two-way channel of communication has positively impacted on the running of FirstGroup.”
The proposal is popular, with 76% of UK employees in favour, according to a Survation poll. People are beginning to recognise that we get better results if a company board is representative of its work force. I think we are all in agreement that we need more women on boards, and we all see that it would be good for employees and the work force. The difference between the situations of women and employees in general, however, is that employees will never be at board level unless we change the rules.
I propose that we follow our European colleagues and make it mandatory to have employee representatives on boards. The Minister might say that we should not model ourselves on such countries, because the UK is different. However, the responsibilities of German supervisory boards are similar to those of British and American boards. We can therefore look at the German success story and follow suit. We even have a UK FTSE 100 company, FirstGroup, to model the idea on.
The proposal is not in direct contrast to what the Government have proposed. They are keen to encourage John Lewis-style employee-owned companies through tax breaks. There is appetite on both sides of the House to give employees more of a stake in their company—their livelihood. That is especially true with regard to executive pay, with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills proposing to make boards and remuneration committees more diverse, following a cross-party Treasury Committee report in 2009 calling for more employee representation on those committees. Extending that to boards as a whole, which would make decisions more directly applicable to employees, does not seem to be much of a stretch.
I am sure Members have heard arguments on the issue from friends in the corporate world. There is a lot of resistance to the idea from UK directors. They say that it might move the objective of a board away from maximising shareholder value towards maximising the payroll. I question whether that is really a bad thing. In these years following a financial crisis, we should be looking to make companies less short-term focused and more rounded. We want UK companies that stand the test of time and that are good for communities. A board looking to do that would be focused not only on dividends. Also, we are talking here about some employee representatives, not 50:50 representation of directors and employees. The proposal would just give employees a voice and give the board a fresh perspective.
Members might also talk about the additional burden that the proposal would bring. They might say that it would make boards bigger and therefore less efficient, with members preparing less before meetings. There is indeed evidence that smaller boards are more effective, but evidence from Swedish employee representatives shows that corporate leaders and representatives are capable of co-operating in a way that is of benefit to all. Any inefficiency would be outweighed by the benefits of greater understanding of the company’s operations and more co-ordinated decision making.
Members might have been pressed about the risk of confidential information being leaked. However, we are first looking to improve relations between employees and the board, so I am confident that employees would respect the additional responsibility. Evidence from other countries shows that they are rarely tempted to whistleblow; if they are tempted to do so, does it not suggest that the company is up to no good?
British businesses are wary of employee representation, but that is because we do not have a culture of it, and because it would be likely to reduce ridiculously high executive salaries. For example, the boss of Volkswagen in Germany, Martin Winterkorn, saw his bonus for 2012 cut by 20%. Most directors are comfortable with high pay, because they are detached from reality. What they need is people on their board who can bring them back down to earth. There has rightly been scandal after scandal about bonuses and million-pound salaries. The Labour party supports having employees on remuneration committees, but I think it would be much more effective if we put them on boards, right at the top.
I understand the difficulties of forcing the proposal on to companies, but I do not understand why we cannot encourage those with whom we do business to adopt the approach. We could ensure that, in a tendering process for public services, more weight was given to companies that had adopted this collaborative approach to their board system. For companies regulated by Ofgem, Ofcom or Ofwat, we could ensure that part of the regulation was a better deal for employees through employee representatives. I am convinced that there would be wide public support for a measure that ensured that profits were spent on the right things, rather than on shareholder dividends or executive salaries and bonuses.
We can change the culture of the corporate world little by little, and employee representatives could be a first step. It would be a good deal for business, a good deal for consumers and, most of all, a fair deal for employees.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate, which is a helpful opportunity to discuss employee representation on the boards of UK companies. There has been a recent report by the Trades Union Congress on the topic.
I agree with much, although perhaps not all, of what the hon. Gentleman says. I may have to disappoint him on some issues, but I agree with much of his sentiment and many of his points, particularly on the positive role that the trade unions can play in industrial relations. It is sometimes far too easy to demonise trade unions without remembering that we have historically low levels of industrial action. The hon. Gentleman is right that we always want to do what we can to reduce industrial action even further, but the vast majority of trade unions work constructively and positively with employers in the workplace. Thankfully, examples such as Grangemouth, where industrial relations are in a much less positive sphere, are the exception rather than the rule.
I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the downsides of pursuing short-term profit above all else, which the Government also recognise. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary commissioned the Kay review to consider the matter, because we agree that long-termism is in the interests of the UK economy and, indeed, individual companies, but sometimes the models that we have in place reward and incentivise the pursuit of short-term goals, rather than long-term goals.
I take seriously the concerns of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North on the abhorrent practice of blacklisting, evidence of which the Government are very open to receiving. Of course, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs recently held an inquiry into that practice.
The benefits of employee engagement within the workplace are significant and well proven, and we definitely want to encourage such engagement. I would make the case that the only way to do that is through worker representation on company boards. I think it would be desirable if more workers were represented on boards, and there is nothing in law stopping companies from having such representation.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the FTSE 100 company First Group, which of course has such representation on its board. He read out the company’s powerful testimonial on the consequent benefits to its operations, and many companies may want to consider such representation by looking at the experience of First Group. Ultimately, it is better if the decision is taken by companies, rather than being mandated across all firms, not least because choosing to do so probably means there is much more chance that a company will actually engage with the real issues and view the engagement positively than if it was forced to do so through Government intervention.
That argument is always made on a range of issues, but we are trying to change the culture. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North rightly referred to that towards the end of his remarks, and it could be done in a variety of ways. I argue that sometimes mandation and regulation are not necessarily as effective as other methods of encouraging businesses to recognise the benefits of particular forms of behaviour. Whether on employee engagement or diversity, we need to consider what is the right tool to get the result that we want.
Further, there are a number of reasons why mandating that companies must have worker representatives on their boards would not be desirable. Part of that is because of the way in which our board system is structured. Our board system is different from other European countries that have been mentioned. We have a unitary board system, which means that anyone sitting on a board or a board committee is a director with the same responsibilities and duties as other directors, and is equally accountable to shareholders for decisions.
There is no legal distinction between different types of director, whether or not they are representing employees. All directors have a legal duty to have regard to the interests of employees in promoting the success of the company, and we need to be slightly wary of the danger that, if we force an employee representative on to boards, it could have the perverse, unintended consequence that the other directors on a board might take less seriously their existing duty to have regard to the interests of employees. We want all directors on boards to be thinking about that, rather than having it siloed into one individual position.
I am not sure whether I will take up the tempting offer to agree with Mr Ratcliffe, but better discussion and dialogue between workers and management is always the best way to avoid disputes. The vast majority of cases, thankfully, do not get to the stage that Grangemouth did—there were horrendous consequences, the worst of which were thankfully averted. None the less, it was difficult even to get to where we did, which is a far from ideal situation.
We must encourage such dialogue. Obviously, one way to do that could be through worker representation on company boards, but I disagree that that is the only way in which that dialogue could happen. Indeed, I suggest that employers can do a great amount, even without such representation, to ensure that they properly engage with their work force, address issues as they arise and have mechanisms in place to pre-empt difficult challenges.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his experience at Thales, which is not far from my constituency and is still an appreciated employer. Many of my constituents work for Thales in Glasgow, but I do not know whether there is worker representation on the company’s board. Even if there is not, such representation is not necessarily what drives positive engagement. As hon. Members would agree, there are many companies out there that do not have worker representation on the board but that, none the less, manage to have very positive workplace relations, which is to be commended.
On directors, it is perfectly possible in UK law for a director to be responsible for ensuring that the views of employees are heard by the board, but having a director with a specific, legally defined responsibility for furthering employees’ interests may be unhelpful because it could risk directors pursuing competing interests, rather than coming together as a board to set common objectives for the company.
It would not be fair to portray the UK as having poor employee participation, and I have mentioned that many companies are good examples of such participation. Indeed, studies and research back that up. The latest report on employee involvement by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions shows that employee participation is high in the UK—across the EU, only the Scandinavian countries score higher. That backs up my point that formal legislative mechanisms are not the only means of achieving effective employee engagement.
Indeed, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently supported a business-led initiative called “Engage for Success,” which outlines the benefits of employee engagement and provides practical best practice that businesses, large and small, may employ to improve the engagement levels of their work forces. Only one in three employees feels properly engaged in the workplace, so there are huge productivity gains to be realised. If the figure could be increased even to two in three, the UK economy would experience a significant boost. I encourage hon. Members to look at the “Engage for Success” website.
Engagement with employees is to be encouraged and promoted, but I would not go as far as prescribing that all companies should have worker participation on their board, which is perhaps not workable and not the best way to achieve the goals that we share.
Other EU member states have different board structures and systems of corporate governance, so we need a solution that works for the UK and our particular system of corporate governance and industrial relations, rather than a one-size-fits-all policy. The approach in Sweden and Norway, for example, is based on far greater levels of detailed negotiation and collective bargaining between employers and employees at all levels of company decision making. It is therefore simplistic to assume that we could just apply one element of such a system to the UK system.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North is right to raise the issue of pay, because many hon. Members have been concerned about increased levels of executive pay in recent years. It has been excessive in many cases and the ratio between the earnings of those at the top versus those on the shop floor is also concerning. Directors’ pay in particular has ratcheted upwards, but, importantly, it has not been linked to performance. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with somebody being rewarded for a specific success, such as growing a company, providing new jobs or creating wealth for the economy, but where that reward is given when the company has not necessarily been experiencing particularly fantastic results, that needs to be questioned. Excessive pay for failure or for not bringing significant success damages the long-term interests of business.
We brought forward reforms, which came into force on 1 October, to create a more robust framework for the setting and reporting of directors’ pay. They will boost transparency, so that people can clearly and easily understand what those at the top of companies are paid. Importantly, the reforms will empower shareholders to hold companies to account through binding votes, creating a stronger, clearer link between pay and performance. We have already seen shareholders flexing their muscles in a much more welcome way on issues such as executive pay. It will take some time to see the full impact of the reforms, due to the voting and engagement patterns of investors, but there are already good examples of constructive dialogue between companies and investors.
More widely, the Government is committed to tackling short-termism through the recommendations of the Kay review. Earlier this month, the Government’s response to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills set out the progress made on this important agenda. Of particular help are our reforms, now in place, of narrative reporting and the governance of executive pay. We have also secured changes to EU law to end mandatory quarterly reporting by companies and will soon implement that reform in the UK.
The Financial Reporting Council updated the stewardship code last autumn to emphasise that investors should be focused on long-term company strategy and not just on governance arrangements, but more may need to be done. The FRC is undertaking a further review of the stewardship code with a view to strengthening its application and ensuring that it enhances engagement between investors and companies focused on long-term value creation. We have seen various initiatives from investment industry groups to develop good practice on stewardship, which we hope will continue, and on the disclosure of costs and charges in the investment chain. We have committed to publish next summer a full progress report on the delivery of the Kay review’s recommendations.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned women on boards, and I agree that it is an important issue. Having more women on boards is important not only from the point of view of women or equality, but also in the same way that having more diversity of ethnicity, background and discipline is important.
One would not want a board comprised solely of accountants, lawyers, men or people who happen to be white. People bringing a diversity of views and experiences to a board can stop group think and make it a much stronger group that can really drive a company forward. Worker representation can lead to such diversity, but we should not necessarily mandate it. We want a mix of talents and experiences on boards to encourage higher performance. We are making good progress on gender diversity through the proposals put forward by Lord Davies in his excellent review.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Government’s work on encouraging employee ownership, which is another way of encouraging employee participation in business. Last week, I launched the “The Nuttall review of employee ownership: one year on report”, which follows up on the recommendations of the Nuttall review. Many businesses are discovering that employee ownership can be an excellent model of governance that works incredibly well and that encourages an engaged and motivated work force.
The success stories include not only John Lewis, although it is obviously a great example, particularly given its increased sales at the moment, which can partly be put down to the rather fantastic bear and hare advert, but also Arup and the Baxi partnership—now Baxendale Ownership. A whole host of small companies up and down the country are showing the benefits of this particular model. It is perhaps not right for every business, but it is an important part of the mix, which is why we are supporting it further through tax breaks that we will announce more on shortly.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we could promote employee representation through Government procurement or regulation, and we are open to further thinking about how to encourage that. Last month, the Government asked Professor Chris Ham of the King’s Fund to conduct a wide-ranging review of how best to encourage wider employee participation in health.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).