Thursday 9 January 2014
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
Disabled People (Access to Transport)
[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Transport Committee, Access to Transport for Disabled People, HC 116, and the Government response, HC 870.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate the Select Committee on Transport report, “Access to Transport for Disabled People”, which we published in September last year. The topic was suggested to us by members of the public. It is a vital issue in relation to equality of opportunity for disabled people and their ability to access employment, education and health and social amenities, for example. Without appropriate transport, that is not possible, and people may suffer isolation.
Our report is wide-ranging. It identifies problems such as the availability of information on planning disabled-friendly journeys, the physical accessibility of transport, spaces for wheelchairs on buses and the training of transport staff, and stresses the importance of interdepartmental working.
There are 11.5 million disabled people in the UK, one fifth of whom report difficulty with transport. The number of disabled people will grow as the population ages, and most people will face some type of disability at some time in their lives. We started our inquiry in the aftermath of the successful Olympic and Paralympic games and as the Government published their accessibility action plan, which contained a number of encouraging proposals for improvement. However, a year after the Paralympics, we were concerned that some of its schemes were falling by the wayside.
One of the most valuable parts of the inquiry for me, as a fellow member of the Transport Committee, was the opportunity to travel on public transport in my constituency and learn exactly how difficult it can be. Does the hon. Lady agree that one good thing that came out of it was that the Diamond Bus Company in Redditch went to Disability Action to discuss how things could be improved locally?
The hon. Lady is a very active member of the Transport Committee, and I agree with the point she makes. It is important to experience the problems at first hand in order to understand fully what they are and what the solutions might be.
We were concerned that some of the schemes in the Government’s plan were falling by the wayside. For example, the Department planned to review the 2005 inclusive mobility guidance for pedestrian and transport infrastructure to take account of changes in design and the lessons learned from the transport provided during the Paralympics. The issue is important, as was shown earlier this week when the Committee viewed a film made by Sarah Gayton of the Sea of Change campaign about the problem that shared space presents for many disabled people. It requires urgent attention. Can the Minister tell us when the review of the 2005 provisions will take place?
In relation to rail, the response to our report was encouraging in some respects. The Office of Rail Regulation has now taken over the monitoring and enforcement of train operators’ disabled people’s protection policies. The Government told us that the ORR will raise awareness of existing provisions. One prime candidate for action must be making known more widely the requirement for an operator responsible for an inaccessible station to provide a free accessible taxi for a passenger to the nearest accessible station. I wonder how many people are aware of that right. If a greater number made use of it, train operators might invest more in making stations disabled-friendly. Can the Minister give us any information about how the ORR is progressing with that important work?
We raised the important issue of staff availability at stations, against the background of anticipated ticket office closures and general concerns about possible reductions in staffing on trains. The Government responded that future changes to ticket office opening hours should mean no overall reduction in—and, in some cases, an improvement to—the services provided to disabled passengers. It was good to read that, but we need a clear explanation from the Government of exactly what that means and how it will be carried out. The information from the Department argues that the service provided by staff in future on the station concourse will be an improvement on that offered by those in ticket offices. Will the Minister clarify what that means? Is it really the case that any change in ticket office staff will not reduce the overall level of trained staff at the station? The issue is important, and it is creating a lot of anxiety among travellers, particularly disabled people, but also many other members of the public with safety issues.
We raised concerns in our report about the requirement to book ahead to receive assistance when travelling by train. I was pleased to receive a letter following our inquiry from the Association of Train Operating Companies stating that ATOC would produce clearer guidance for disabled travellers booking assistance. It also stated that in London, ATOC is identifying point-to-point routes where staff are available to provide assistance for disabled people who want to turn up and go, rather than pre-booking help. I welcome that initiative, but I want to know more about it, including how it will work in London and how many routes will be available in that way, so that people need not book ahead. I would also like to know what will happen outside London. Is this a pilot scheme that will start in London and then be extended? I would be pleased if the Minister gave us some more information on that point.
I apologise for being late, Madam Chairman, but the lift was not working, which happens all too frequently in transport. Did the Select Committee take evidence from people who do not book ahead with train companies, but discover that they sometimes get a better service than those who do? My experience is that very often booking ahead does not ensure that help is in place, but a lot of the train companies are much better these days if I just turn up. That suggests that it can be done on an arrive-and-help basis, rather than requiring booking ahead.
My hon. Friend makes some important comments. We received evidence during our inquiry from people who had tried the pre-booking service, some of whom had complaints about it. The points she makes are important in looking ahead to how policy might be developed.
I have mentioned some positive signs, but we need guarantees on other issues relating to rail. In particular, we need guarantees that future rail infrastructure will be designed to provide step-free access from street to train, in order to give more independence to those with physical impairments. Can the Minister give us that commitment? Can he tell us specifically what is planned in that regard for Crossrail and High Speed 2, for example?
The response to our concerns about buses was simply not good enough. I was disappointed that the Department rejected our recommendation that bus and coach drivers should be required to have disability awareness training.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Like many colleagues, I have been written to by the excellent charity Whizz-Kidz in strong support for the Select Committee’s recommendations in the report. Does she accept that there are examples of good practice within the bus industry? The First bus company in my constituency took part in the “Swap with me” initiative piloted by Sight Concern and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which involved taking the place of blind people by going blindfolded, as I did in Worcester, to see what it is like to use a bus in those circumstances. Does she commend those examples of good practice and support their extension more widely?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We did indeed hear from Whizz-Kidz, which gave us valuable evidence. I commend the initiative that he mentioned. It is important for good examples to be given and for local initiative to be used, but what matters is that that initiative and those examples are then widened out across the whole network.
Leamington is home to a Guide Dogs training school. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), I am pleased to have accepted the challenge of travelling on a bus with a blindfold and being guided by a hugely intelligent dog. I recognise that buses without audiovisual systems can make missed hospital appointments, job opportunities and family occasions something of a routine. The costs of social isolation are well known, and helping older and disabled people to get around seems to make great sense.
In Northern Ireland, people who are registered blind or nearly blind get free bus passes. In April 2013, nine out of 10 people who were registered blind or nearly blind expressed concern that there were no announcements on bus routes and requested an audio system. The needs of blind and nearly-blind people are relevant not only to England, but to the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that those nine out of 10 people deserve to have audio systems fitted in transport systems across the whole of the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I will speak specifically about audiovisual systems shortly, reinforcing the point he has raised.
On training, one issue that has been raised with me is whether the content of training is adequate. There is also the issue of whether training takes place. It was disappointing that the Department rejected our recommendation that bus and coach drivers should be required to have disability awareness training. Instead, the Department defended its decision, taken last year, to opt out of the EU requirement for such training. Will the Minister think again about this issue and discuss it with his colleagues?
I have listened with interest to hon. Members’ comments today. They have all referred to practical examples of difficulties that occur because the right facilities are not in place. I joined campaigners from the Royal National Institute of Blind People on a local bus journey in Liverpool. They showed me how important it is to receive information, at the right time, about the numbers of the buses that are operating, the routes being run and, indeed, where the buses have stopped. It was clear that the lack of practical information deters many people from travelling, including people with sight impairments, learning difficulties or mental health problems, and undermines people’s confidence to undertake journeys and lead independent lives. Drivers play an important part in providing information, so it is important that they are given disability awareness training so that they have the confidence to do so. I cannot emphasise too much that training should be adequate, available and compulsory.
Hon. Members have raised the issue of audiovisual systems, which are vital. In May last year, of the 46,300 buses in the UK, only 8,500 were equipped with audiovisual equipment. Most of those are in London.
People who use buses in London soon get to know that audiovisual systems work. It seems odd that the rest of the country does not get to benefit as fully as London does from those systems. It is not just blind and partially sighted people who benefit, but tourists, visitors and people who do not know an area. Especially in rural areas, knowing where a stop is plays an important part in informing people, so that they can make the best use of their bus journey.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I have noted a number of instances where facilities that are available on buses in London are sadly lacking in other parts of the country. Considering why that might be the case could take us off in another direction, but he raises another important point, namely that facilities required by people with impairments of some sort are also required by many others. Those facilities make journeys easier and give people more confidence in using public transport, so both his points are extremely relevant.
Given that, is it not disappointing that the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s recommendation was that there was no economic case for audiovisual systems? As my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is not just disabled people but tourists and those who are unfamiliar with a bus route who benefit from the speaking buses that we enjoy here in London.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The report focuses on the needs of disabled people in accessing public transport, but many of its recommendations would make travel better for everybody and are extremely important.
In the report, the Committee called for audiovisual information systems to be phased in on all new buses now and on all buses over a decade. That is a modest objective that would help bus users concerned about missing stops or those who are travelling in unfamiliar areas. As hon. Members have said, it would give all passengers, disabled or not, more confidence to use buses more often. Such equipment is surely essential, yet our very modest proposal was rejected. Will the Minister look at it again? Although implementing it might require consultation with colleagues, our proposal was extremely modest, but extremely important.
Our report also called for fines to be imposed when buses are misleadingly advertised as being accessible but in fact are not. Again, that recommendation was not accepted by the Department.
Many improvements to transport for disabled people are devised and implemented at a local level. I saw an example in Liverpool: I made a journey with a young woman with learning difficulties and was shown a travel training scheme. These are local schemes that aim to support disabled people who might otherwise rely on door-to-door transport. A successful scheme can provide the disabled person with more independence and reduce the cost of door-to-door services for the local authority. Will the Minister offer us an assurance that travel training schemes will be supported by the Government, at least with their initial set-up costs?
I want to raise one more important issue, concerning the ability of disabled people to claim their rights. The Equality Act 2010 is a piece of civil law. In practice, making sure that transport operators comply with Government requirements for equal access to transport has too often required individuals to pursue civil court actions. Disabled users of transport are rarely wealthy enough to pay the legal fees of their solicitors and risk funding those of the transport operator should they lose their case. Most challenges to transport operators under the Equality Act are undertaken as pro bono work by solicitors, who take out insurance to cover the costs if the case is lost. However, the civil justice reforms enacted last year will change that. As a result, cases might not be pursued and transport operators might not believe that breaches will be challenged in court. Is the Minister aware of these concerns, and will he raise them with colleagues in other Departments? Does he have any suggestions for mediation that could prevent legal action?
The list I have given is not exhaustive. I have used the time available to point to the main areas covered in the report, but there are other important issues, including concerns that the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment might deprive many disabled people of transport mobility.
The Transport Committee conducted this inquiry to highlight the importance of transport to disabled people as an equality issue. Departments must work together and with local government, transport operators and campaigners. It is important to remember that improvements that help disabled people help all passengers. The response we have received to our inquiry has confirmed that this is a vital area where much more needs to be done. Will the Minister assure me that he will continue to pursue the issues that the report raises, so that transport barriers that prevent disabled people from participating fully in society can be removed? Doing so will benefit everybody.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and her Committee on their excellent and valuable report. There are more than 11 million people in Great Britain with a disability, and current circumstances mean that many feel they are treated like second-class passengers. It is evident from the report that the status quo is not acceptable. Disabled people should receive the same service and treatment as others, but the report shows that that is far from the case.
Many of us take for granted access to public transport and we are quick to grumble when we wait half an hour for a bus or four turn up at once, or we have to make a different connection because of a late train, but the reality is that such inconveniences are insignificant compared with the difficulties that disabled people face every time they travel. I congratulate the Committee on a report which brings this situation to the fore.
Personal testimony from disabled people about their access to transport can be harrowing. I think we all remember Baroness Grey-Thompson’s comments in 2012 when she described having to crawl off a train at midnight, despite having warned the operators in advance that she would need assistance from staff. I am aware that that is not an isolated incident.
The charity, Whizz-Kidz, has been mentioned, and provided in its briefing testimonies from young people on its Kidz Board. One says:
“I would like to see drivers of taxis and buses put down the ramp straight away without you having to ask and without argument or being made to feel as though you are a nuisance.”
A testimony in a briefing provided by Leonard Cheshire Disability states:
“Some of the service bus drivers are nice but others let you know that it is a major inconvenience to have a wheelchair on the bus. You have to develop a rhino hide and just insist on your right to travel and…put up with the tutting.”
Given those testimonies, it is disappointing that the Department for Transport exercised an exemption from the EU requirement for bus operators to provide disability awareness training. I hope that that can be revised in March 2014, as evidently increased training is necessary for some staff. It is important that the training includes how to respond positively to those with hidden disabilities, such as problems with speech and mental health difficulties, which is a particular concern of mine. I recognise that many transport staff are more than willing to take all this into account positively and helpfully, but it is vital that best practice is spread across the whole sector.
The issue is not just about staff training. Improvements to infrastructure are necessary. I continue to campaign for disabled access to stations in my constituency—Hedge End is an example—and it is imperative that if a route claims to be accessible, it actually is when the passenger comes to use it. I noted the section of the Committee’s report that refers to lack of consistency. Consistency is key, and action must be taken to ensure that companies no longer let down disabled passengers, but provide them with the service they deserve.
Infrastructure improvements must go further than just the bigger physical challenges, such as level access and ramps, which of course are vital. They also encompass the smaller changes that can make a massive difference to a journey. As hon. Members have said, audiovisual destination and next-stop announcements are important. I share the disappointment of the Chair of the Committee that the DFT has rejected the call to require bus operators to introduce audiovisual systems across the bus network. When I was younger, we had audiovisual systems. They were called bus conductors and, at their best, they were really helpful. We seem to have lost them now, so we must substitute something for them.
I agree with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and many other disability charities that audiovisual announcements are vital. Lack of information apparently causes 89% of blind and partially sighted passengers regularly to miss their stop. As the association states, missing a stop is a pain and an inconvenience for most of us, but for a partially sighted or blind person it can cause major difficulties and could be dangerous. It genuinely puzzles me why it is too much to ask that audiovisual systems be introduced gradually over 10 years, as the Committee suggested. They could be introduced as new buses enter the fleet or older ones are refitted. They exist on trains, so why not on buses? Audiovisual systems also have benefits for the wider population, including older people, children and those with mental health difficulties. If buses are more accessible and appealing to use, more people will use them, improving bus company revenue, so it would be win-win all round.
A Department for Work and Pensions survey showed that 37% of disabled respondents found transport accessibility a significant barrier to work. That leads me to the conclusion that improving access to public transport would play a role in reducing Government expenditure, which many desire. Given that, we must ask what wider effect access to transport is having on people’s overall well-being. Transport is more than just getting from one place to another; it is a vital part of everyone’s life, whether getting to work, visiting family and friends, going out for the evening or even getting to a hospital. It is not good enough that for some of us these normal activities are fraught with difficulty.
This has been a useful debate so far and it is good to see mostly cross-party consensus on some of the issues, but in the end, the question is about the sort of society we want to live in and whether everyone should have the same opportunities as everyone else.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). I am now a Member of the Committee, but was not when the report was compiled. I hope to be in line with your recommendation to be brief, Ms Dorries, but I want to cover a few points.
I thank the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Rhiannon Hughes, Public Affairs and PR Manager of Whizz-Kidz, for their briefings, and the disability groups that gave a presentation to the Committee on Monday night. As the Chair of the Committee said, the Committee’s second recommendation was about shared space. I want to refer specifically to one of the shared spaces shown on the film: Exhibition road in west London. It is situated between the Victoria and Albert museum, Imperial College London and the Royal Albert hall, and is a major thoroughfare for tourists, children and all manner of people.
The shared space is very attractive and its arrival is welcomed by everyone, but particularly by people with young children, people in wheelchairs and people with shopping. However, the film demonstrated graphically that Exhibition road is a race track. We seem to be falling down in the UK in the demarcation between where what was the pavement finishes and where the road starts. The recommendation addresses that, and the Department’s response, which refers to work that has been undertaken to look at that, and says specifically of the guidance to local authorities on the introduction of shared space that
“work…has been halted for the time being, as a consequence of corporate planning and resource constraints.”
My first question for the Minister is: what is the latest on shared space and guidance from the Department to local government?
I next want to refer to recommendation 4 and the submission from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside and the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, 89% of blind and partially sighted passengers report having missed a stop. The Department’s explanation that there has not been a business case seems flimsy. There is a social need and I suspect that the business case is stronger than that which was accepted by the bus companies. We have talked about inability to get to work, and missed hospital and medical appointments and interviews. That results in a cost on the state and on taxpayers. The business case may seem to be less strong than it is.
The Government’s response mentioned that the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), had written to the bus companies encouraging them to work in partnership with local authorities to see if the uptake of audiovisual systems could be increased voluntarily. My second question for the Minister is: what was the outcome of the letter, the encouragement to bus companies and the discussions with local authorities, and has there been any progress?
I have received a briefing from Whizz-Kidz, which made three recommendations:
“That transport providers treat young disabled people like any other passenger…That disabled people play a key role in auditing and assessing the transport services…That accessible transport is a key focus of the Paralympic Legacy”.
That last point was mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee. The briefing also referred to three recommendations from the Select Committee report that it particularly supports: for the Department for Transport to involve disability organisations and charities in the prioritisation of transport, for it to provide disability awareness training for staff in the bus and coach industry and for it to develop and publish a methodology on that.
The Whizz-Kidz briefing covers a variety of recommendations, but specifically refers to recommendation 16. The Government’s response said that the
“DfT remains committed to review the use of exemption in a year’s time”.
Both the hon. Member for Eastleigh and the Chair of the Select Committee referred to that. The Government said that the exemption will be reviewed by March 2014, which is only six weeks away. The question, which I am sure the Minister will be able to respond to, is about whether that review is on course and what its outcome has been.
In conclusion, I congratulate the Transport Committee on another excellent report. I have seen many reports over the years, as both Transport Minister and shadow Minister, and this one lived up to all my expectations. I am sure that the Minister, who is known to take a keen interest in these issues, will respond as positively as he can. Having read the Government’s response to the report, I have to say that its tone is not as positive and optimistic as it should be, although I am sure that he can correct that.
I wish you, Ms Dorries, and all hon. Members a very happy new year. Best wishes for 2014! It is a real honour and pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He is knowledgeable and passionate about these matters.
I want to participate in today’s debate because I have received a large number of representations from my constituents about access to transport for disabled people, particularly for those suffering from visual impairments. That is not entirely unsurprising. Poverty, deprivation and an ageing population are all factors that contribute to physical disability and some degree of sight loss.
Hartlepool has a higher than average level of deprivation, and some 40% of all households there include a person with a physical disability of some kind. An ever greater proportion of my constituency population is over 65. Some one in six people in Hartlepool are over 65 and by 2030 they will constitute 23% of the town’s population. That means that an extra 7,100 people in Hartlepool will be over the age of 65, and possibly suffering from sight problems, in a little over 15 years’ time.
In those circumstances, a reliable, inclusive and, above all, practical—I have heard that many times already today—public transport system is vital for my constituents and would allow those with physical impairments and disabilities to enjoy a better quality of life. It would also encourage, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) said, greater use of bus services, which would make them more viable and be, as he said, a win-win situation.
I have to be blunt, however. Hartlepool does not have a public transport system—not really. It has a private sector monopolistic service, run by Stagecoach. It disregards choice, quality and provision of service and concentrates on profit at the expense of passengers, especially those with disabilities. That is why the company can boast of a 17.1% profit margin in its UK bus operations.
Those are “sector-leading profit margins”, as the company said in its latest annual report, and that is why it can increase its earnings per share and dividends to shareholders this year. It is also why it can abolish evening and Sunday bus services in my constituency. I wrote to Stagecoach on behalf of my constituents on the campaigning matters of audiovisual announcements and better accessibility through the use of low-floor boarding devices and new stock. I was told about Transport for London and the trial of a system on the service 7 route in Perth, but the company’s letter did not even mention Hartlepool.
I was struck by the opening remarks of the Chair of the Transport Committee, who mentioned that we need to have modern buses to provide greater space for wheelchairs. Far too many of the buses used in my constituency are 20 or 30 years old. They need to be modernised and that is not happening.
I do not want to discourage enterprise and rising profits for companies, but when it is done at the expense of a deteriorating service to customers, particularly those with physical disabilities, and without the option for those passengers to move to a more appropriate competitor that can provide a better service, it is clear that competition is not working and something needs to change. In these circumstances, it is important that we have a smarter regulatory system that works in the interests of passengers, particularly those who, for reasons of disability, would find it difficult—if not impossible—to travel by other means in a safe, reliable and affordable way.
I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor at the Department, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and I was disappointed to receive quite a blunt response:
“At the Guide Dogs Parliamentary Reception in March 2011, I announced we do not intend to legislate to make audio visual systems on buses mandatory.”
I am disappointed at the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s eminently sensible, reasonable and measured recommendations, particularly on bus travel. The Government’s responses are complacent—even dismissive—and are letting down people in my constituency, particularly those at risk of being vulnerable. Without appropriate public transport as the country ages, a growing proportion of my constituency will be left isolated.
The issue is not just about an ageing population, however. Tonight, sunset is at 4.11 pm, well within the working day. Often, people with visual impairment will not be able to go to work, contribute and have a rewarding career because they are frightened that they will be unable to get home; it is dark and they will not know where they are. We are undermining the potential of many hundreds of thousands of people in this country and reducing our economic potential if we do not address that issue, which is why it should be a priority for the Minister.
I cannot understand why the Government are not being smarter and encouraging innovation in the use of technology in this field. Why is the Minister’s Department not pooling together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to provide seedcorn funding that could utilise big data and technology? That could be through the development of a smartphone app that could plot where a passenger was and inform him or her when the bus was arriving at their bus stop. Can we not have smarter street furniture that would allow that to happen?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to see these ideas developed. It would be a good demonstration of what private enterprise working with Government can achieve. It would help visually impaired people, as well as stimulate British enterprise and innovation into providing a product that could generate revenue here and around the world. I hope that the Minister will look at the issue closely and talk to his colleagues in Government to see what can be done.
I will embarrass the Minister by saying that he is a good man, who cares about transport and knows about it, as my hon. Friend the Select Committee Chair does. I know he has family in Hartlepool, so he knows better than most Ministers how an inclusive public transport system can benefit my constituency. I hope that he takes on board the concerns of my constituents and the sensible and measured recommendations made by the Select Committee. I hope that he ensures that people suffering from sight impairment in my constituency and elsewhere can benefit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate on the powerful points they have made in support of the case for better access to transport for disabled people.
First, I take up the point made by my hon. Friends about the need for more and better audiovisual announcements on buses. I fully support the Committee’s recommendation that the Department for Transport should require all new buses to have audiovisual systems and for that to be phased in over no longer than 10 years—hopefully, quicker than that. Of course, that issue applies not just to England, but throughout Great Britain and perhaps Northern Ireland. It is certainly relevant to my constituency, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their refusal to make the provision mandatory.
The argument that there is no business case for the mandatory introduction of audiovisual systems—that a mandatory rule would place new financial obligations on operators in a difficult economic climate—is one that I do not think we can accept. First, no one can say that a transitional period of perhaps up to 10 years just for new buses will in any sense place excessive burdens on operators, unless the Government think that there will be a bad economic climate for the next 10 years; that is another issue.
Phasing such a system in will surely not be impossible for the vast majority of operators. We do not accept that buses can go around without having destination boards or numbers; it should be as automatic that new buses should have audiovisual information in them. I do not see that there is a case against that.
As many hon. Members have said, the provision of audiovisual information benefits not just passengers with visual or hearing impairments; the public as a whole benefit from such provision. We see that in London when we travel on buses. I represent another city that has many tourists. We can see how it benefits tourists, and others who are not used to the city, to have that information available. It is obvious to me that that should be mandatory. Another reason why it is important is that otherwise we will be penalising the operators that are prepared to put the facility in place.
I am fortunate, in that Edinburgh has Britain’s largest municipally owned bus company, Lothian Buses, which, like many operators in London, is increasingly providing audiovisual announcements on buses. On five routes, they are provided as a matter of course, and they will be added to other routes in the summer.
I am glad to say that the new Edinburgh tram system will be fully operational within a few months, and audiovisual information will be provided on the new trams as well. That decision has been taken by Lothian Buses itself. The company has not been made to do that by the Government and nor has it had any assistance—from the Scottish Government, in this case—in providing that help. It has made the facility available because, as a publicly owned operator, it has a commitment to providing as accessible a transport system as possible.
Indeed, Lothian Buses won an award from the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance a couple of years ago for its work in this area. Of course, it is common sense to provide all passengers with the facility. There should be no difficulty in the Government making it mandatory for all new buses over a period.
My second point is about provision on buses for people with disabilities and particularly those who require wheelchair access. As we know, the regulations provide that all bus and coach operators will have to make their vehicles, both new and old, accessible to disabled people over a transitional period, but in practice that is taken up much more actively by some operators than others. I am glad to say that again, in Edinburgh, Lothian Buses has a good record in this respect: 100% of Lothian buses are now wheelchair-accessible and that will also be the case for the trams in the future. Again, that has been done without any assistance from any governmental source.
However, as we have heard, the situation is not as good in every part of the UK. I certainly support the recommendation in the Select Committee report that the Department for Transport should introduce financial incentives for bus operators to replace older non-accessible buses, particularly where no alternative bus route is available. We all know of cases in which a route is meant to be accessible, but then suddenly the bus operator, for some operational reason, puts on a service that is not accessible. That means that a person who wants to get on the bus with a wheelchair may have to wait half an hour or two hours or not be able to travel at all in a rural area, because the so-called accessible service has not been provided.
That takes me to my third and last point. Much more work must be done to create a seamless journey for all passengers, but particularly for people who have disabilities and especially, in this context, those who require access for wheelchairs, although not only them. For example, a passenger travelling in my constituency on one of the new No. 10 buses, with full wheelchair access, to Edinburgh’s Waverley station can look at the mobile app that has already been developed by Lothian Buses; it provides information on many of the issues on which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) was looking for assistance on behalf of people with disabilities and travellers more generally.
The passenger gets to Princes street in the centre of Edinburgh, gets into the new lifts, which take them down to the platform, and gets on to a train with a wheelchair-accessible place run by East Coast Trains. They go to London, use the lifts at the new King’s Cross station and get on a wheelchair-accessible bus to wherever they are going in London in due course. Then, at the end of their journey, they find that they cannot get off a bus or they have difficulty because they cannot get to the kerb, as someone has parked in the way.
Alternatively, the passenger gets off the bus without difficulty but then has difficulty getting across the road at a pedestrian crossing because of the limited time allowed for pedestrians to cross. As hon. Members, we all know the Streets Ahead Campaign, which began recently and which, among other things, wants to extend the amount of time allowed for pedestrians and others to get across pedestrian crossings.
We must have an integrated approach, a seamless approach, to travel planning. That means, in particular, much better integration of the needs of disabled people into planning at an early stage, tackling issues such as street clutter, thoughtless parking and broken kerbs, which are, in their own way, just as important to providing accessibility to transport for people with disabilities, because that is all part of the whole travel experience. I therefore strongly support the Select Committee’s recommendation on the need for co-ordination in this area.
I would like to conclude by recognising that the Government did think again on the abolition of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. I was one of the hon. Members who raised that issue with the Minister’s predecessor and I am glad to say that the Government reconsidered the proposal to abolish the DPTAC. The issue was raised with me by campaigners in my constituency. As someone who is always ready to criticise the Government when they do the wrong thing, I am also prepared to recognise when they have done the right thing.
I am glad that the Government have listened to disabled passengers’ organisations and other groups that wanted the DPTAC to be retained. I hope that they will now take the next step forward, which is to listen to the views expressed by disabled persons organisations and transport organisations generally and to make the changes that will improve the transport experience for passengers with disabilities in the way that the Select Committee has recommended.
I urge the Minister in particular to change the Government’s stance on audiovisual announcements on buses. That is an easy thing to do. The necessary legislative changes could be made quickly and would make such a difference to so many passengers—those with disabilities and others—throughout our country. I urge the Government to think again on that point in particular.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am very grateful that my hon. Friends have given so much attention to the issue of wheelchair accessibility, but there is one specific issue—the need for audiovisual announcements on public transport—that I wish to address.
Before the Christmas break, I marked the international day of persons with disability by navigating Middlesbrough town centre blindfolded, with the help of the Guide Dogs association. I was joined by representatives and service users from Middlesbrough Shopmobility, as well as Linda Oliver and her guide dog Zoë. Wearing a blindfold and experiencing the world without sight was extremely unsettling and it gave me a greater understanding of what it is like for a blind or partially sighted person to do what we, the fully sighted majority, take for granted. With many blind or partially sighted people reliant on buses for mobility and freedom of movement, it is concerning and disappointing that they are often prohibited from accessing such a lifeline.
I welcome the progress that has been made to make public transport more accessible for those with disabilities, but I urge the Minister to go further. Blind or partially sighted people whom I met told me that accessing public transport can be a very difficult and disorientating experience. I know that to be true, as I was given the experience of being blindfolded and taken on a short journey on a bus around a town that I am so familiar with. I soon lost my bearings and all sense of my surroundings and became completely reliant on assistance from those around me to get on the bus, find my seat and get off at the correct stop. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and with the Guide Dogs association, which has pointed out that when we get off at the wrong stop, it is an annoyance, but for a blind person it can be very dangerous.
The changes to the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 to make buses more accessible for disabled people are welcome, but sadly fall short of including audiovisual announcements. The Transport Committee rightly highlights the fact that the lack of onboard AV information reduces the willingness of the visually impaired, as well as the wider public, to use buses. AV announcements would help the elderly, who may not be as confident as they once were, or those with special needs, who could strike out more independently if they had the reassurance that AV announcements would bring. Indeed, AV announcements would also help the fully able first-time visitor to a town or city to navigate around.
It is not always possible for a blind or partially sighted person to rely on a bus driver or fellow passenger to tell them when to get off. Bus drivers have a great deal to do these days: they are not only drivers but conductors. It is simply unrealistic to expect them to be able consistently to offer extra assistance to the visually impaired. That is backed up by the figures from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association report, “Road to Nowhere”, which states that around half of travellers surveyed are not told when to get off at the correct stop.
A constituent contacted me who had taken a bus from Aberdeen to Westhill, and had told the driver that they needed to know when they got to the Tesco store. The driver forgot, which meant that my constituent had to stay on the bus until it returned to the depot and then have another go with another bus driver. There was no way that they could have found their way if they had got off at the wrong stop.
That is a stark illustration of the point I am making. The problem will not cost a lot to put right. Research by the TAS Partnership found that it would cost only £2,100 to install a system to make AV announcements on a single-decker bus and £2,500 on a double-decker bus. The systems could be introduced over a number of years, as new buses are brought into the fleet, to mitigate the burden on bus companies. Is it not ridiculous that we are talking about such sums of money, when AV devices should be an integral part of the plant and machinery of any bus operation? Windscreen wipers were not compulsory years ago. Such devices should be part and parcel of the ordinary running of a bus company. When it comes to the business case, I have not run a bus company, but it would not surprise me if making buses more attractive for people attracted more passengers and encouraged a greater flow of income. It is not rocket science.
The introduction of AV announcements will give greater independence to passengers. I urge the Government to take account of the Transport Committee’s recommendations and ensure that such announcements are phased in over the next 10 years and on all new buses. I applaud the determination of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which is campaigning for the creation of a fund to encourage local authorities and bus companies to install AV announcements. Ultimately, the issue is one of equality, and indeed of disability discrimination. I urge the Minister to consider closely the suggestions made in this debate. They will give our fellow citizens the dignified assistance they request to overcome the hurdles and difficulties they face as they endeavour to play their full and rightful role in our society—difficulties that the majority of us simply never encounter.
Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and her Committee for a striking, effective and comprehensive report. I cannot do full justice to the report in the time available, but I would like to comment on some of the pressing issues that the Committee has highlighted. I commend the excellent contributions that have been made across the Chamber, particularly by my parliamentary colleagues including my distinguished predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).
More than one in five people with a disability have experienced difficulties using transport, according to research by the Department for Work and Pensions. In rail alone, the number of journeys made by disabled people is estimated to have increased by 58% over the past five years. The Labour party is proud of its work in government on accessibility issues, which included updating the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005 and working on rail, aviation and access to taxis and minicabs in the Equality Act 2010.
Nothing stands still, however, and it should not do so under this Government. The Transport Committee’s report is comprehensive, with 107 written submissions and 34 witnesses interviewed. Difficulties using transport affect about a fifth of the population. My disappointment at the Government’s response, which is shared by several hon. Members present, is that they have not engaged adequately with many of the Committee’s key recommendations. The tone of much of the response drifts between complacency, defensiveness and world-weariness about the whole issue. We accept that the problem presents complex challenges, but surely it also provides opportunities to increase disabled people’s ability fully to participate in society and in the economy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) ably pointed out.
The Department for Transport had to be taken to task by the Transport Committee for the lack of information it provided on the accessibility action plan. The Department finally released the report on progress on Christmas eve, but if it thought it was playing Santa to disabled people, it was deluding itself. In the same way, the Department gave a dismissive response to the perfectly sensible suggestion for a cross-government working group on accessibility—a response that might be characterised as “carry on silo-ing.” I hope the Minister does not share that world view, as I am sure he does not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, the Chair of the Transport Committee, has stressed—as have so many other hon. Members—the importance of phasing in universal audiovisual systems over the next 10 years. The response so far, as we have heard, has been to encourage bus operators to adopt such systems voluntarily, and to say that the business case has not been made. Disabled bus users make it clear that such systems are key as they make journeys, and the statistics from Guide Dogs have already been quoted. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) described, from a sighted person’s perspective, his own experience of how hugely dangerous it can be for a blind person to be left stranded in an unfamiliar area.
It is fine to encourage voluntary take-up—as the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), did—but has it been successful? Guide Dogs suggests that only one operator has responded on the issue. However, operators that have installed the system say it has proved to be good value for money. A representative from Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company said:
“AV systems punch above their weight due to how valuable they are for the blind and partially-sighted.”
Will the Minister or his officials tell us which operators are resisting the Transport Committee’s modest proposal? If operators have not yet put forward a business case that the Department considers reasonable, can it not do more to seek one out and to recognise the full social benefits that such systems offer? The Department has said that it does not have a method for assessing the full quantitative benefits of access to transport, such as social inclusion and links to skills and jobs. Is it not about time that the Department developed one or worked with similar economic models that have been produced elsewhere? Departments have to produce an equality impact assessment for each piece of legislation, and the Department for Transport should use such a mechanism when it looks at issues such as this.
On the business case, is it not remarkable that in two UK cities with among the highest levels of bus use, London and Edinburgh, operators have chosen to install AV systems as far as possible? The operators are realising the benefits from doing so voluntarily, so why do the Government not make that mandatory throughout the country?
My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion. Notwithstanding the difference between major cities and the rest of the country, I might suggest that the Department for Transport should get off its bottom and look at what is being done in London and Edinburgh. Perhaps they might discover a mechanism for producing a business case. The cost, as we know, is around £2,500 for a double-decker bus, compared with £190,000 for the whole process.
Do the Minister and the Department recognise that although many services are delivered locally, his Department can play an essential role in bringing together local stakeholders and encouraging dynamic partnerships? In my constituency, I have been privileged to be president for the past 17 years of Rideability, a disability organisation that provides on-call access to people with disabilities. The organisation has recently entered into an agreement with my local council that allows it to secure its future while retaining its input to an expansion of the scheme. That shows what can be done through intelligent co-operation between local government, consumer groups and the third sector. Surely the Minister’s Department should be incentivising the formation of such groups.
The Committee also said that the exemption to EU law, which the Government brought in, that prevents bus and coach operators from being required to train their staff in disability support should end. My hon. Friends have asked the Minister whether he would review the exemption in March 2014, and I echo that question. What evidence do we have to show that the current approach is working? Replies to the parliamentary questions I have tabled claim that, currently, 75% of drivers have had basic training. Progress on that will not be reviewed until March 2014. The Government need to be far more proactive in targeting 100% rates of training and retraining, and should work closely with sector skills councils such as People 1st, which has done good work in this area, to develop the best strategies for doing so.
The Committee also mentioned financial incentives. The Government response was that they would probably contravene EU state aid law—my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool will be only too familiar with how that catch-all argument has been used with procurement issues. What discussion has the Minister’s Department had with Government lawyers, or preferably an independent legal adviser, to confirm that such incentives would not be possible under EU law? Just because not all disabled people require a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, why will the Government not consider incentives to make more available for those who do? Why not listen to the calls from Leonard Cheshire to ensure more regular checks on accessibility equipment, so that disabled-access bus routes are not left without an appropriate vehicle?
The Committee also talked about journey planning. As Leonard Cheshire commented, the Government should not be complacent or self-congratulatory about what has been achieved so far. The Committee suggested that the Government should consult disability organisations over decisions about what stations should be prioritised for improvements. The Government said that third parties would only recommend their local stations and such consultation would not add value to the process. I dispute that, as I think most MPs would. It is a very Eeyore-ish attitude. I talked to my local bus users group, working with Blackpool Transport in Blackpool, where we have retained our municipal status for both the bus services and the trams. The group works on a range of issues, including disability and accessibility.
The expertise of such organisations is vital, as access to stations is a key issue. The progress being made is important, but is it not awful, in the 21st century, that the majority of rail services and stations have yet to achieve step-free access via lifts and ramps? I am thinking of examples in my neck of the woods of older Victorian stations, such as Preston. For disabled people, getting into and across the station is a bit of a lottery—the Blackpool Gazette reported a disturbing case last year of a lady from Blackpool who tried to do it.
Whizz-Kidz has been mentioned. I have been proud to work with it in the past as an ambassador. It has achieved good things, helping two young people in my constituency and providing life-changing equipment worth more than £1 million. Should the Government and the Department for Transport not seek to engage more broadly with such national bodies, as policy is developed and accessibility criteria are set? Should they not recognise the expertise and objectivity that charities that serve people with disabilities can contribute to the process?
It was a huge privilege to host the Paralympics in this country in 2012. It did the country’s reputation, and its reputation for addressing issues for people with disabilities, an enormous amount of good. One of the many benefits that the games brought was that they shone a light on some barriers that disabled people still face when using public transport. The games sparked a renewed attempt to make transport accessible for all.
I emphasise what colleagues have said. The Minister is a reasonable man. I know that, as a regional MP, he will not simply take a London-centric view. Is it not sad, however, that the Government response to the report offers thin gruel for those striving for these golden ideals? We risk squandering the potential and optimism of that summer and making little of our Paralympic legacy. We were capable then of putting the wonderful success of our Paralympic athletes on stamps, which went out across the UK. Surely we should now make more effort for the people themselves, so that the Paralympic athletes and all those with disabilities can do likewise.
I congratulate the Select Committee on Transport on its excellent report, which is certainly food for thought. As a former member of the Transport Committee, I participated in an earlier report on the issue, when we looked at plans to make the Olympics fully accessible for disabled people. Indeed, the Olympics were delivered with wonderful opportunities for everyone to access events.
Mention was made of Christmas eve. The report appears to be a little like the sort of list that my children used to bring me to give to Santa, but on such occasions, I could not always give every gift on the list; I hope that the Government’s response at least shows that we are behind the moves to make all our transport accessible to as many people as possible.
I welcome the opportunity to update the House on some of the many developments that the Government and transport industry are taking forward to improve transport for disabled people. My noble Friend Baroness Kramer leads for the Department on the issue. Reference was made to a world-weary approach. I met my noble Friend this week and can say that she is absolutely enthusiastic about this topic and the phrase “world-weary” does certainly not apply. Although the Government were not able to agree with all the Committee’s recommendations, Committee members raised a number of important matters and I hope to tackle the main points on which the Government were challenged. Before I do so, I shall address one or two of the points made during the excellent contributions that we heard this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) asked about the 2005 regulations and whether they would be updated. The Department remains committed to renewing and updating “Inclusive Mobility: A Guide to Best Practice on Access to Pedestrian and Transport Infrastructure” during 2014, as set out in the accessibility action plan. She also asked if many disabled people were aware that they had a right to a taxi if they could not get access to a train at a station; I did not realise that people had that right. I hope that it can be publicised more widely, so that people are aware of it.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is no longer in her place, said that often turning up and hoping to get help can be better than booking in advance. Constituents have written to me about delays on the trains that mean that the assistance they hoped to get—for example, at York station to make a connection to Scarborough—is unavailable.
Particular reference was made to access on Crossrail. Sponsors are keen to make the line accessible, but delivering that will depend on cost, technical feasibility and identifying suitable funding. There has been criticism in the press and Parliament about Crossrail not providing step-free access at all stations. However, Crossrail will dramatically improve accessibility to rail transport in London, with 31 of the 38 stations on the route having step-free access and an estimated 93% of journeys on the route starting and ending at step-free stations.
All central London Crossrail stations will be fully accessible from street to train, and there will be step-free access from street to platform at 20 of the 27 service stations on the route. At a further two stations—Taplow and Langley—there will be step-free access to the eastbound platform, which will be used by Crossrail, but not to the westbound platform. There are currently no plans to deliver step-free access to Iver, Hanwell, Maryland, Manor Park and Seven Kings stations.
Crossrail is meeting its legal obligations. The stations that will not be made step-free will have minimal or no infrastructure work carried out on them, and therefore there is no requirement for them to provide step-free access. Work is now under way to look at finding technical solutions to make the remaining seven stations step-free and to explore potential sources of funding. Based on the time frames for the feasibility work and the decisions around the Access for All programme, the position should be much clearer by the spring of this year.
As I thought I had made clear, where Crossrail is carrying out substantial construction work at stations, it has an obligation to make those stations accessible, but where stations are not being modified, Crossrail is not forced to make them accessible to be legally compliant. However, as I have said, work is ongoing, and we will be in a much better position by the spring. May I also point out that the wonderful new north-south railway line that we are endeavouring to build will be fully accessible on High Speed 2?
The Minister must be very frustrated by this situation, because Crossrail will be the showcase for UK plc—the latest 21st-century addition to our major national infrastructure. He knows, as we all do, how difficult it is to retrospectively make all these kinds of changes. Crossrail is being built now; if this work is going to happen, it should be happening now. I hope that he will make his best efforts to ensure that Crossrail finds a solution to the problem of the small number of stations that are still being left out at present.
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has just said about taking the opportunity now to ensure that access is provided at all the stations on Crossrail.
A related point is that if Crossrail is approaching this work on the basis of meeting its legal requirements, I must say that we often find situations where accessibility at some stations requires someone in a wheelchair to use four, five or six different lifts to get from one point to another within the same station. Obviously, I accept that there are difficulties in terms of what can be done in many stations. Nevertheless, I hope that every effort can be made to ensure that, where accessibility is provided, it is provided in a way that is as convenient as possible and not in a way that forces passengers in wheelchairs to go on a magical mystery tour to get from one part of a station to another.
Absolutely—I could not agree more. Sadly, one of the problems that we face is that we are dealing, of course, with upgrading some Victorian infrastructure that was not built with disabled people in mind at the time.
I am sorry that members of the Select Committee were not entirely satisfied with the response to the Committee’s recommendation that the Government should require bus operators to introduce audiovisual systems across the bus network. We recognise that many people find audio and visual announcements useful for travelling, and we understand the social benefits of having such systems on buses—in fact, they are useful for all bus users—but we are aware that this technology comes at a considerable cost. Our findings show that installing audiovisual technology on all new buses could cost between £5.75 million and £9.7 million per year. These figures are based on projections that between 2,500 and 2,800 new buses could be registered each year through to 2015.
May I just make some progress, because there is good news?
We have previously written to the bus industry to encourage it to work in partnership with local authorities to see whether the uptake of these systems can be increased on a voluntary basis. However, the Government support the industry’s drive towards developing and promoting the use of smartphone technology to assist blind and partially sighted passengers, as well as able-bodied passengers, as an alternative to audiovisual announcements. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, while the technology on the bus can give information to the person on the bus, smartphone technology can give that person information on their journey to the bus stop and at the bus stop, as well as other information that may be useful to them.
If we are not careful, we could be guilty of looking at the last generation of technology without looking at the next generation of technology, which has tremendous potential to give people information they need about all types of transport delays or updates. Indeed, the Government’s innovation transport systems catapult fund is available for this type of technology, and the Government and Transport for London are keen to share data and to make their data open, so that there can be innovation in the use of apps and other smartphone technology to ensure that people can access the information that is freely available.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I strongly appreciate the point that he makes about leapfrogging from existing situations with audiovisual systems to the use of apps. Such apps may all be useful and helpful, but I caution him that the idea, the practice and the roll-out sometimes take a little longer than people think, even in this digital world. However, we are talking specifically about costs now for audiovisual systems. The Minister has quoted some figures, so will he make the results of that research publicly available to all Members and place them in the Library, so that Members can judge them for themselves?
Yes, by all means. I am happy to ask my officials to do that. However, we are keen to ensure that we do not place undue burdens on operators, many of whom—on certain routes—are facing particular financial difficulties, although I noted the points that were made about Stagecoach and its profitability.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous in doing so. I think that I am right in saying that he quoted a range of costs from £5.8 million to £8.4 million. Can he tell the House how much that is per bus? Has any work been done in respect of the additional revenue that might accrue to bus companies as a result of widening their customer base?
Well, if 2,500 buses cost £5.75 million, that is just over £2,000 per bus by my calculations. I have taken note of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the age of some of the buses in Hartlepool, and I will certainly write to Stagecoach managers and invite them to Scarborough to visit the Alexander Dennis bus factory, where I am sure they will be able to place an order for state-of-the-art Enviro200 single-decker or Enviro400 double-decker buses. The factory will be more than happy to supply Stagecoach with such buses.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s remarks about smartphone technology. However, will he ensure that, in consultation with local providers, the problem of connectivity—particularly in rural areas—is addressed, because we all know that a smartphone is a wonderful gadget in town but very often it just will not work on rural bus routes?
May I briefly welcome the initiative to do more to improve awareness of the Transport Direct website, because pre-planning for journeys is so important, particularly for people with hidden disabilities, which we have not really discussed today? I urge the Minister to ensure that that work happens as quickly as possible and, if appropriate, to set a timetable for early meetings with stakeholders to ensure that that portal is accessed by as many people as possible.
Certainly—I would be delighted to ensure that that happens. Indeed, my own house does not have a mobile phone signal, so I am aware that there are numbers of people who do not have a signal for a smartphone and that many people from poorer families do not have smartphones.
We will continue to work with the bus industry to identify the best solutions to improve access to the public transport system for all passengers. Having met various bus stakeholders in December to discuss accessibility issues, my colleague at the Department for Transport, Baroness Kramer, who leads on accessibility issues, will write to bus industry representatives shortly to encourage the development of simpler and more affordable audiovisual systems for buses.
Aside from the use of audiovisual technology, as members of the Committee will be aware, the Government have placed a requirement on bus operators to ensure that all buses used on local or scheduled services are fully compliant with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000—or PSVAR—by 2015, 2016 or 2017, depending on the bus type. The regulations require buses to include facilities such as low-floor boarding devices, visual contrast on the edges of steps, handholds and handrails, and priority seating for passengers in wheelchairs.
As of September 2013, 78% of the total fleet had PSVAR accessibility certificates and the figures are rising steadily. The transition will take place over time, with transport operators inevitably using a mixed fleet of accessible and non-accessible vehicles in the run-up to full compliance, but the change will have a significant impact on disabled people’s access to the bus network.
On disability awareness training for bus staff, raised by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton), the Government appreciate the important role played by staff providing assistance—as well as their awareness of and attitudes towards disabled passengers’ needs—in disabled passengers’ ability and willingness to travel.
EU regulation 181/2011 on bus and coach passenger rights came into force in all member states on 1 March 2013. The Government took steps to apply a number of exemptions within that regulation, including—many hon. Members expressed their disappointment about this—exempting UK bus and coach drivers from a requirement to undertake mandatory disability awareness training. This exemption was applied in line with Government policy on adopting any EU legislation, to make full use of any derogation that would reduce costs to business. This policy ensures that UK businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage compared with their European counterparts.
To mitigate the impact of applying the disability awareness training exemption, in July 2013 my predecessor as Minister, now Minister for Crime Prevention, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), wrote to bus and coach industry representatives to encourage the completion of disability awareness training by all drivers at the earliest opportunity. It is estimated that approximately 75% of all bus and coach drivers have completed some form of disability awareness training and this figure continues to rise.
My noble Friend Baroness Kramer will also write to bus operators to obtain examples of their disability awareness training and statistics on customer satisfaction. In response to concerns from the public about the disability awareness training exemption, the Department agreed to review its use in March this year, one year on from commencement, to ensure further progress has been made and that drivers are receiving adequate training in this area. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) mentioned this. Bus and lorry drivers have to engage in compulsory certificate of professional competence training, one day a year. Many bus operators regard this as an opportunity to use that training to help in this regard.
On rail, I believe that we have a good story to tell, as borne out by a recent study by the European Commission, which stated that the UK has the best major rail network in Europe, with passengers recording an overall satisfaction score of 78%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on what he is saying. In North Herefordshire, we have disabled access in Leominster, but not yet in Ledbury. Will the Minister do all he possibly can to ensure that, next time that it is possible to sort the station out and change it so that it is accessible to disabled people, it is high enough on the list to get the funding?
Yes, I note my hon. Friend’s good point. Sadly, there is a surfeit of applications, compared with the money that there is to go round, but we are making progress every year.
The UK scored higher than some EU countries on accessibility for passengers with limited mobility, although a 65% satisfaction rating still means that there is a lot of room for improvement and we are not complacent about that.
As with buses, we have targets for an accessible rail network. All rail vehicles must be accessible by 1 January 2020, incorporating features that facilitate travel by disabled people, including wheelchair spaces, audiovisual passenger information systems, priority seating, contrasting handrails and accessible toilets, where toilets are fitted. Already, more than 7,600 rail vehicles being used on the network were built or have been refurbished to modern access standards, including half of all trains. There are many plans to upgrade train fleets ahead of the 2020 deadline. It is worth mentioning that all older rail vehicles have features that already make them accessible to most disabled people, even if they have yet to receive the full suite of improvements.
We also take seriously improving access to stations. Unfortunately, though, many of our mainline railway stations date from Victorian times. These 19th-century stations were not built with the needs of 21st-century passengers in mind, and this has left us with a huge task in terms of opening up the rail network to disabled passengers. Currently, more than 450 out of a total of 2,500 stations have step-free access between all platforms. By 2015, we expect that some 75% of rail journeys will start or end at a fully step-free station, up from around 50% in 2005. The number of stations fully accessible to disabled people other than wheelchair users is significantly higher.
Accessible stations have a significant impact on people’s journey experience, not only for disabled and older people, but also those carrying heavy luggage or travelling with a child in a pushchair. My colleagues and I are, of course, concerned that only around 20% of our national rail stations have step-free access to every platform. That is why we have continued the Access for All programme that was launched in 2006 and have made plans to expand it, to provide a step-free route at more than 150 stations by 2015. That programme has already delivered smaller-scale improvements at 1,100 stations.
We know from research into Access for All projects that passenger numbers—for both disabled and non-disabled passengers—rise significantly once a project is complete, so we have added £100 million to extend the programme until 2019. We have already received nominations for more than 200 stations for this funding, which is about seven times the number that we can support with the money available, and that tells me there is an appetite in the industry to further improve access to stations. I recently visited Morley station, with our excellent parliamentary candidate, Andrea Jenkyns, to see the problem first hand in Leeds.
Of course, as well as having accessible infrastructure, disabled passengers need to have confidence that staff will be available to assist them. The Government have no plans to impose cuts in staffing on trains or at stations. It is and will remain a matter for train operators to determine their staffing levels, to provide the required standard of service for passengers.
Ticket-buying habits are changing and passengers are booking their travel through a wider range of sources, often using the internet and mobile devices, as well as using systems such as Oyster. As part of the Department’s review into fares and ticketing, we set out proposals to improve the way in which we manage opening hours at ticket offices. We are keen to see a shift towards more efficient forms of ticketing, such as better self-service ticket machines, websites and mobile applications. We want to make it easier for the rail industry to propose innovative changes that harness new technologies for the overall benefit of passengers and taxpayers, but we also want to ensure that all passengers, including disabled people, continue to enjoy a high level of service.
We recognise that passengers feel strongly about changes to ticket offices that may have an effect on staffing, so before agreeing to any changes, we would need to be confident that passengers will continue to enjoy ready access to ticket buying. We plan to give passenger bodies a stronger role as part of the proposed change, enabling them to have more input in shaping any proposals, as well as the ability to raise objections on a wider range of grounds than previously, such as the impact of any proposal on disabled passengers.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) raised the issue of shared space. I have seen Exhibition road first hand and I have to say that, having previously been an enthusiast for shared space, when the hon. Gentleman was the Minister, that enthusiasm has waned somewhat. I am not aware that large numbers of local authorities are keen to introduce these schemes, but if hon. Members from around the country have knowledge of any, I should be pleased if they fed them in. This does not seem to be a movement that is gathering force.
The Government remain committed to changing the transport industry’s approach to disabled and older people in British society. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to stress that the Government are committed to improving the travel experience for disabled people who use public transport. In 2012, we delivered the most accessible Olympics and Paralympics in history, by prioritising and planning accessibility from the start and working co-operatively. We have shown that we can do it, and the Government want to build on that success.
[Katy Clark in the Chair]
The debate has reinforced the importance of this issue and the importance of the Committee’s conducting its report, securing its reply and debating this further with the Minister. I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate and contributed to it.
Will the Minister write to us with more information on the availability of staff at stations to assist passengers? I was a little bit concerned when he stated that the Government had no plans for cuts and that this was to do with the operators. I should like more information on that. Could there be more urgency in addressing some of these issues, particularly the installation of audiovisual systems? Smartphones are not an alternative to audiovisual systems. Step-free access to trains and training require more urgent attention.
I am sure that all these issues will continue to be debated and that campaigning on all of them will continue. I thank everybody who has brought us to this point. I advise and, indeed, warn the Minister that I am sure that there will be more to come. I thank him for his replies.
Global Food Security
[Relevant documents: First Report of the International Development Committee, Global Food Security, HC 176, and the Government Response, HC 626.]
I am glad to have the opportunity to initiate this short debate on the International Development Committee’s report on global food security. The report was published some time ago; I believe the recommendations will have been read and absorbed by the Members who are here, so I do not intend to reiterate them. I will pick out some of the key points.
One of the things that we observed is that, although we are the International Development Committee and our concern is for poor people in poor countries, global food security affects us all. Food prices have doubled globally over the past 10 years, and food security, although it is a crisis for the hungry, has an implication for every society.
Indeed, it was pointed out to us in evidence that the UK is only three or four days away from a food crisis at any one time. The vast majority of our food is in transit on our roads and railways, which is where it is mostly stored. We saw that when we had a truck drivers’ strike; what brought that strike to an end was that the supermarkets and shops were about to run out of food. The Committee took the view that it was important to confront our own population, which rather backfired on us when we made the front page of the Daily Mail. As Members will appreciate, the Daily Mail does not support international development spending.
There have been two severe food shocks in recent years, in 2008 and 2011. Every night nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry. We have reduced hunger, but we certainly have not improved nutrition. Indeed, malnutrition, which in a way is hidden hunger, is a major issue that is separate from the issue of people who simply cannot get enough to eat on a regular basis.
There are a number of reasons for those spikes, some more convincing than others. There is obviously the pressure of population growth although that was outside our report’s scope other than to acknowledge that, obviously, the more people there are in the world, the more pressure there is on food supplies. Therefore a population policy, to the extent that that is possible, is perhaps desirable. The experts also told us that they believe it is possible to feed the planet’s projected population, provided that we are organised to do so. However, the food spikes and the perpetual hunger and malnutrition that exist clearly demonstrate that we currently are not in that position.
Food waste is another issue. I was interested to hear reports this week that link to other aspects of our findings. Obesity is increasing in emerging economies. In places such as India, for example, there are people who are desperately poor and hungry, yet there is a middle class that is becoming increasingly overweight because of its diet.
There are two issues in that context, one of which is food waste. We received conflicting evidence; some people suggested that as much as 50% of world food production is wasted, but the settled figure seems to be about 30%. We are aware of how much food is thrown away in domestic bins. We all throw food away. We buy too much and we throw it away because we have not eaten it in time, but food is also wasted in the fields, in transit, in storage and in a variety of other ways.
By definition, addressing waste increases supply. That includes investing in security, refrigeration and cold stores and trying to ensure that food is processed as close to the point of production as possible. Many developing countries have a problem in that area because the cost of setting up storage and cold stores is high, yet without them food literally goes to waste. The Committee had an active discussion when we were in Afghanistan, where people were arguing that they have to process an awful lot of their food in Pakistan because they do not have the facilities in their country. That leads to waste in transit. Addressing that issue is clearly a relevant factor.
There are other problems. When a food price spike happens, it affects different commodities differently. One of the most volatile commodities is rice, but all the basic commodities can be affected. Some producers, as has happened in Thailand and Russia, for example, decide that they will protect their own populations by banning the export of such foods, but that exaggerates the problem for the rest of the world; it does not solve the problem. The Committee’s view is that we should discourage countries from export bans and encourage people to recognise that there is interdependence in the supply of food. There are issues on the supply side and on the demand side that need to be addressed.
There was an inevitable debate on the effect of biofuels on food availability—I have got to that debate only at this point because, although I think it is important, it sometimes dominates the issue of global food security. There is recognition that simple blanket encouragement of biofuels can lead to a switch away from food crops to biofuel crops, at the expense of food production. That is not desirable, but it would be wrong to assume that biofuels are therefore inherently a bad idea.
The issue is how to develop biofuels that do not compete with food production. There are some successful examples—Brazil is one of the better ones—of where waste products from food production can be turned into biofuels without affecting the delivery of food into the market. In some cases, there are areas of land on which food production is of limited value but where it is possible to produce biofuels.
The Committee is asking that we switch away from the blunt instrument of setting targets for biofuel incorporation into our motor car and vehicle fuels—the UK recognises that, but the EU is still wrestling with it. The UK Government have accepted that we should try to cap it at 5% and that we should try to ensure that, if possible, 100% of that 5% is made up of non-food alternatives. Indeed, the former Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), told us that encouraging the reuse or recycling of cooking oil has helped to increase the proportion of biofuels from less than 20% to more than 80%. Therefore, these things can be done, and that is almost wholly environmentally beneficial.
At the moment, the EU seems to be locked in a tussle over the level of the cap. The UK Government are committed to 5%, although they found themselves voting for 7% at one point. The European Parliament voted for 6%, but my understanding is that everything has gone back to the drawing board. I simply urge the Minister to use her good offices, and those of her Department and her colleagues in other Departments, to ensure that the principle should be to take the threshold down to 5% and to promote non-food-competitive biofuels.
Another logical and obvious point is that we need to improve the productivity of small farmers. It is important that people get to grips with the way the developing world has changed in recent years. There is an idea that the majority of poor people in sub-Saharan African or south Asia live on some kind of smallholding in a rural area or in the bush, scratching a living from subsistence farming. Well, many are, but half the world’s population now live in towns and cities and are not engaged in agriculture at all.
We therefore need to do two or three different things. One is to ensure that those on smallholdings get support to maximise their own food production and then—and only then—to sell food to provide additional support for their families. However, we must also improve yields to enable those people to supply towns and cities in their own countries, which often import food from outside. That goes back to the idea of improving storage and transport facilities.
There has been controversy over landholding. Different approaches have suggested that large-scale farming will somehow produce better yields than smallholders. The evidence we had—I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) will make a contribution on this—is that smallholding can improve productivity in a comparable, but much more appropriate, way. Obviously, it is up to individual countries to decide how they want to promote their agricultural mix. We have combined our farms to ensure we have larger-scale farming, so it would be wrong for us to criticise other countries that seek to do the same. However, we should not rush things, and, where large-scale farming is displacing smallholdings, there are certainly questions as to whether that is the best way forward.
I mentioned the Committee’s star coverage in the Daily Mail, which came about because of a particular interconnection with the fact that countries are changing their eating habits as they become more prosperous, which is also linked to the obesity issue. As the populations of emerging countries such as India, China, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia become better off, they aspire to eat a more elaborate diet—in particular, meat—encouraging the production of cereal-fed livestock, diverting food into meat production and forcing up the price of meat globally, which, again, is something we notice in this country.
We suggested that, over time, people in this country might want to consider eating less meat, which led to a headline along the lines of “Mad MPs seek to ban meat eating”. We were quite clear that we made no such suggestion, but we did think that people should consider balancing their diet away from meat. As someone who represents a beef-producing constituency, I did manage to win support from my local beef producers when I made it clear that there is a strong case for pasture feeding and natural livestock production and that there is a role for livestock.
What matters is how we raise that livestock, and I should put it on the record that the beef rearing we do in my constituency exemplifies the kind of meat industry we want, as opposed to the forced production of cereal-fed animals to supply a mass market. I think the Committee would stand by the suggestion that, over time, that is the sort of balance that needs to be sought.
It is estimated that, if we are to tackle hunger and feed the world, we need to increase food production by between 60% and 70% between now and 2050. That is a huge challenge, but we are assured it can be achieved if we introduce globally some of the measures recommended in the report.
I want to conclude by pressing the Minister on a couple of points and commending a measure that we saw in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s productive safety net programme pays people in rural areas for work—sometimes construction work—thus giving them money to invest in alternative activities, many of which improved their farming productivity. We saw beekeeping and livestock rearing expanded, and living standards dramatically improved. The work also improved the physical environment—roads, access and so forth—in the community.
Of course, the programme cost money, most of which came out of aid money, and the objective in the long run is to find a way of making the programme sustainable. However, it definitely works, and we were very impressed to hear from some of the people directly affected about how their lives had been transformed and how they had gone from being unemployed and unproductive to being very satisfied, employed and productive, as well as having food and money in their pockets.
In two respects, the Government response was not quite as the Committee would have wished. One point was about social support. I have spoken about urban food shortages; the best way to deal with them is to give people the means to buy food—preferably from producers in their own countries. However, only 14 of the 29 countries with which we have bilateral programmes have social protection networks. The Government’s answer was that it was up to the country programme managers to make an assessment, and I accept that, as I think the Committee does. However, we would still make the point that, where possible and appropriate, provision could be improved and expanded.
The other issue was nutrition. Again, the Committee is pleased that, following previous reports, the Government have prioritised nutrition to a greater extent and recognise how important it is. Nutrition is about giving people not just food, but the right kind of food. While that is especially true of pregnant or nursing mothers and very small children, it is also true of the rest of society. The World Food Programme prioritises the issue, but there is an overlap between its target programme and the Department for International Development’s programme in four of the UK’s bilateral partners. We would like the Government to see whether they could, at least in those countries, bring the two programmes together to help the WFP’s programme and DFID’s own programme to be more effective in improving the nutritional element.
In summary, people are still hungry. If we are to achieve the millennium development goals and their successors, lifting everybody out of absolute poverty and leaving no one behind over the next 17 years, we absolutely have to address the issue of global food security and adopt measures, or encourage the adoption of measures, that improve supply, eliminate waste, improve storage, increase productivity and ensure that food gets to the people who need it, when and where they need it.
The Committee believes it has identified many of the areas where such work can be done. Much of it is being done, but, with nearly 1 billion people going to bed hungry every day, there are clearly too many parts of the world where it is not happening. The UK is a major player on this issue, and we commend the Government for what they are doing, but we hope they will accept that we have identified areas where they could do more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. It is also a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, who has excellently outlined the Committee’s excellent report. Although things have moved on since it was first produced in May last year—that is not the Committee’s fault—it still makes some important points. The key points are, first, that there is still a crisis: 1 billion people go to bed hungry every day. At the same time, however, the report highlights the fact that positive things are happening, that there is a way forward and that the situation can be tackled if the right measures are put in place and the right policies adopted. That is a reminder of the enormity of the issue, but also points out that we can move forward, which is an important antidote for those who sometimes despair about whether anything we do actually makes a difference.
I would like to make a couple of points before I have the delight of hearing the expertise of the members of the Select Committee who will no doubt contribute to the debate. I would like to speak first on biofuels, to which the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) referred in his speech. As we all know, the production of biofuels was once seen as a key part of reducing carbon emissions. That is why, some three or four years ago, the European Union adopted targets to ensure that an increasing proportion of transport fuel comes from renewable sources. Although some criticised it at the time, that target had support across parties and from groups outside politics because it was seen as the right thing to do to try to tackle growing carbon emissions.
We now recognise more widely that the clearance of land to grow biofuels can itself cause carbon emissions, especially where it involves forests, which are part of the solution to global warming because they absorb carbon dioxide. According to one estimate, the clearance of land for biofuels could produce as much CO2 by 2020 as between 14 million and 19 million cars. A more relevant point to this debate is that land clearance is a serious obstacle to addressing the problem of food security because it can cut the amount of land available for agriculture, thereby pushing up food prices. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, that affects the UK as well as many people in developing countries.
Although there is an increasing recognition that energy from biofuels and food security are clearly interlinked issues, there is still no international or European agreement on a way forward. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that some countries, including the UK, have aimed for a 5% cap on the proportion of biofuels used in transport fuels in the EU. Other countries want a higher percentage, but at this stage there is no agreement on what it should be. However, the key principle is that biofuels must be based on genuinely sustainable sources, such as waste. Their production should not affect agriculture or the production of food for consumption. That must be the basic principle. Although they have been pushing, the Government must push much more actively for that at the EU level—I must say that I read a certain lack of priority into how the Government have dealt with biofuels at the EU level. I would be interested if the Minister could update us on EU developments on this issue.
Another point relating to biofuels, which the right hon. Member for Gordon has already mentioned, is how we can do much more by developing biofuels that come from food waste and other sources. That could also produce jobs in the UK. As well as producing biofuels from food waste, we must try to reduce food waste in the first place, as that has a major impact on the demand for food. One estimate is that 30% of food produced in the world is wasted. That clearly does not make sense from any perspective.
I want to say a few words about promoting agricultural development by small farmers in developing countries. The right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that this is not simply about small farmers being good and anything else always being bad. It is much more complex than that. Nevertheless, in many countries there are still problems with excessive land acquisition and land banking, particularly by large multinational corporations. That must be recognised. I am certainly not against private sector investment in developing countries, either from international companies or the private sector in developing countries themselves, but there are still too many examples of small farmers being forced off land that they may have cultivated for generations because they have no formal title to it or are driven off by powerful actors in the countries concerned.
One possible avenue might be for the Government to do more to support land registration efforts to assist small farmers and agricultural co-operatives, and smaller producers in negotiating and agreeing contracts with the large companies that acquire their produce. I notice with interest the recommendation from the Fairtrade Foundation—which is referred to in the Select Committee report—that companies that purchase crops from small farmers should offer to pay by instalment throughout the year, rather than in one go at harvest time. Such a simple measure could potentially make a real difference for small producers in many countries. I do not see how that could be imposed internationally through some sort of legal framework, but it is the kind of good practice that the large, responsible British company, among others, should be encouraged to adopt when dealing either directly or indirectly with small producers. That is something practical that the Government and international bodies could be encouraging.
Given that the UK will shortly be marking Fairtrade fortnight again, let me close by suggesting that the Minister and her colleagues might take this opportunity to make an announcement in response to the suggestions from the Fairtrade Foundation about how the UK could take that idea forward in the international negotiations in which she and her colleagues will be involved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce). I would like first to declare an interest: in Twin, of which I am a director, an organisation that has pioneered the promotion of fair trade in the UK, and in Equity for Africa, which makes social impact investments in businesses, largely in Tanzania, some of which are agricultural producers.
As the Chair of the Select Committee said, global food security concerns us all. It is not just about developing countries. It concerns us all because, as the Prime Minister has said, in a world of plenty,
“a billion people around the world do not get enough food, and undernutrition holds back the growth and development of millions of children.”
The issue also affects us right here. The right hon. Member for Gordon has already referred to what happened in 2000, when we were on the edge of a food supply crisis as a result of the fuel strike. Shortages on the other side of the world raise prices here too, and when families are living at the edge of their budgets, as many do, an increase in the price of food cannot be accommodated.
I welcome the renewed emphasis that the Government have placed on supporting agriculture throughout the developing world, including enlarging the remit of the Commonwealth Development Corporation—now called the CDC—to look again at direct investments in agriculture. The CDC was a pioneer in investing in agriculture after the second world war, and many of those investments are still very productive, employing a lot of people in developing counties. The CDC rather lost its way on the issue of agriculture 15 or 20 years ago, so I welcome the return to its roots, along with investment in infrastructure and many other areas in which it has recently become successful.
Food security must be taken more seriously by all Governments, not just those whose people live daily with the consequences of shortages. We recently saw an example, to which both previous speakers referred, of a lack of seriousness when the European Union failed to introduce a food-based biofuel cap of 5%, which I believe the Government support and that was recommended by the Select Committee. Using precious land to grow food that is then inefficiently converted into fuel costs a lot of money in subsidies and pushes up food prices globally. As the Government support the cap, I urge them to call on EU member states to do the same, and as rapidly as possible.
In 2008, the sharp rise in the price of food arising from shortages led to hunger, hardship and civil disturbances in many countries. At that time, the world managed to rouse itself from its complacency and slumber, and took some important steps. The G20 formed the agricultural market information system, which includes the G20 plus Spain and seven other major agricultural exporters and importers, and of which the UK Government are a very active supporter. It analyses data on production, consumption, prices, stocks and trade and uses that analysis to prepare short-term market forecasts, which have made a great deal of difference. It also has a rapid response force, which meets as often as is necessary—I read “annually”, but I hope it meets more often than that, as it is supposed to be a rapid response force —to discuss policy co-ordination, which is vital. Given that one reason for the food price spike in 2008 was misinformation about the level of stocks in China, the system is a significant step forward and has helped to lessen the impact of more recent crises. However, we need more than information and policy about food supplies; we need action to react to crises.
The 2011 decision by the G20 to remove export bans or special taxes for food purchased for the World Food Programme was welcome. As the report makes clear, however, the hasty imposition of export bans still happens and makes difficult situations worse. This goes slightly beyond what the report says, but I would recommend that, led by the G20 and the United Nations, the World Food Programme should put in place plans with every state in regions likely to be affected by shortages, so that if a neighbouring country faces a crisis, countries could allow food to go where it is needed—instead of closing their borders for exports—in the full and confident knowledge that the World Food Programme would immediately support them with additional stocks if necessary to avoid a crisis for their own people. Export bans are based on the fear that a country’s own people will face shortages. That fear would be unfounded if the World Food Programme had definite plans in place, together with Governments, immediately to replace those stocks.
That brings me to the contentious issue of stocks, an issue about which the international community retains its worrying complacency. Our report recognised that
“maintaining large-scale food stocks can sometimes be problematic and costly”,
but we said that we believe that
“there may be a case for judicious use of stocks to relieve the tightness of markets.”
We recommended that the Government conduct further research, in particular to consider
“under what circumstances it would be appropriate for a national government to pursue strategic stockholding for national food security purposes.”
That was a modest but important recommendation that was rejected by the Government, who perhaps misunderstood what the Committee was really suggesting. I sometimes think that Governments—I am not referring to the UK Government—should take some time to read the book of Genesis to see what Joseph did during the food crisis that affected Egypt for many years. He suggested that emergency stocks be built up, which saw the country through a long period of famine.
Our proposal was not to manage prices on a day-to-day basis, in a way that would lead to the failed grain mountains and wine lakes that the Government response implies we were suggesting; it was specifically aimed at emergencies and food security when prices rocket. Indeed, the Government’s response states:
“Evidence suggests that emergency food stocks, which do not attempt to manage prices but provide food to the most vulnerable at times of crisis, are a more effective way of improving food security outcomes in developing countries.”
That is precisely the point. I do not believe that there is such a marked dividing line between stocks for emergency purposes and stocks to relieve pressure on prices. In countries where the cost of food forms a major part of household expenditure, a sharp price rise is a food emergency, because it means that an ordinary person without much money cannot afford to buy food, which makes the situation almost like a famine, even though food is around. This is such an important matter that I ask the Government to look again at their response. Later in their response, they made a sensible reply to our recommendation about emergency food stocks. I ask the Government to combine the two responses and examine how we can improve the world’s view, and particularly the UK’s view, about the handling of food stocks.
There have been major improvements in how crises are handled locally. The World Food Programme’s purchase for progress scheme, which aims to procure much more food regionally and locally, rather than shipping it in, is eminently sensible. It supports local food producers and does not distort the market. It enables countries to continue their normal way of life while helping to tackle a local or regional problem. Cash-transfer and voucher-based schemes, such as those already referred to in Ethiopia and elsewhere, are also effective, and the Department for International Development is rightly regarded as a world leader in such schemes. I commend those who are developing and implementing those programmes.
Two decades ago, development agencies substantially withdrew from programmes supporting agriculture, particularly small-scale agriculture, and it was left to non-governmental organisations and national Governments. It was thought that agriculture was perhaps a business of the past, that the problems had been solved and that they could concentrate on other areas. That was a big mistake, so it is good to see DFID once again strongly supporting investment in agricultural research and productivity.
As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned, the fair trade movement has made a significant contribution. Although it has concentrated on the cash crops, starting with coffee, cocoa, sugar and others, it has supported smallholder agriculture throughout the world. Let us not forget that most of the production of those smallholders is usually for their own local consumption of food crops, in addition to the cash crops that they have grown. We can rightly be, if not proud, then satisfied that the UK is now the world leader in fair trade in terms of volume of sales. It has adopted a pragmatic approach to fair trade, which is not viewed as an ideological subject, but one that promotes good quality and the interests of producers. That is why supermarkets have taken it on board. In other countries, the fair trade movement has perhaps rather shunned supermarkets and has hence deprived the smallholders of extremely large outlets for their produce. I reiterate my call for the Government to put their full weight behind Fairtrade fortnight in a few weeks’ time, because it is important that we do not lose the initiative that has driven the movement for the past 20 years to the position it now holds in this country.
We also need to recognise, as was said earlier, that smallholders do not fit into one category. They can be farmers with an acre or two, or they could have 10 or 20 hectares—in fact, we have many examples in this country that might be regarded as smallholders in developing countries around the world. They are not uniform. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, the Chairman of the Select Committee, said, this is not just about farmers subsisting in the bush. Many of them are substantial businesswomen and businessmen in their own right; they just happen not to have large expanses of land. At the heart of the matter is the ability or confidence of farmers to know that they own their land and have the rights to it in law.
I welcome the Department’s work on land tenure and rights, which are often fragile or non-existent. In 2011, the Select Committee saw the programme in Rwanda, which has now documented almost the entire country as far as leases or freeholds are concerned. As a result, everyone owning land and the millions of small farmers—men, women and families—know that they own the land, can develop it and are not at risk of having it arbitrarily seized. In addition, if they need to develop the land and have a good business case, they can go to a local bank and secure borrowing on it to increase, we hope, their incomes. DFID has also supported such work in India, Nepal and Mozambique. I hope the Department will extend that support to other countries, because it is rapidly building up world-leading expertise in land registration for smallholders. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is one of the best possible uses of UK taxpayers’ money that I have seen in DFID.
There is also the question of water resources. Water is a huge problem, and helping to discover and make best use of water resources is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. I therefore welcome the work being done to help countries to identify their vast underground water resources and exploit them for the benefit of the poor. I welcome the Unlocking the Potential for Groundwater for the Poor research programme, which is supported by DFID.
Rural infrastructure—irrigation, storage and rural roads—improves both pre and post-harvest production. The International Development Committee saw that in the Congo, where a 400-km earth road financed at a relatively reasonable cost by DFID meant that a journey that used to take about five days now takes two hours. Agricultural production can therefore be brought to market in a city such as Bukavu. Previously, that would not have been possible, and produce would have rotted on the way. Infrastructure should of course largely be the responsibility of national Governments, so I am glad that the UK is now supporting the comprehensive Africa agriculture development programme. The work can be done locally, perhaps with technical support from the UK, so will the Minister update us on any progress made on that programme?
Ultimately, agriculture is a business and a livelihood—something that brings in an income for hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is perhaps the business or livelihood in which more people are employed around the world than any other. That is why—given that over the next decade, according to some figures, we will have to create 1 billion new jobs globally, both to tackle current unemployment and for the new entrants into the labour market—agriculture is vital, because agriculture creates jobs effectively. In terms of investment, it is one of the most productive means of job creation.
I welcome the new FoodTrade initiative announced last year, which boosts UK investment in African regional staple food markets. Again, that could play a significant role. Will the Minister update us on how that is going? It is important that such initiatives, once launched—sometimes with great publicity—are followed through and are not left on one side, as can be the case on occasion.
Time and time again, speakers in previous debates have brought up the question of world trade in food products, which must open up. It is a great disadvantage to developing countries that their products do not have proper access—certainly not duty-free access—to many of the world’s richest markets. That is simply not acceptable in the modern world. By opening up the markets, we would see developing countries, which have a huge competitive advantage in agriculture, able to exploit that competitive advantage much better than they can at present, creating jobs, wealth and incomes for their people.
Climate change was touched on in our report. We did not have the time, space or, indeed, remit to go further than to say not only that it impacts upon food security, but that agriculture can make a massive contribution. On the one hand, I have seen for myself the effect of climate change on crop production—changes in the types of crop that can be grown, sometimes to the detriment of crop volume and productivity. On the other hand, agro-forestry can make a huge contribution to the world, although we do not place quite enough emphasis on it at the moment. Many countries are beginning to look into it as a means of job creation, resisting and countering climate change, and encouraging carbon sequestration.
Compared with a decade ago, and certainly two decades ago, the seriousness with which DFID and others treat agriculture has increased remarkably. That is welcome, but it comes not a moment too soon. A couple of hundred years ago, Malthus was wrong in his predictions, because the world woke up to the importance of improving productivity, investing in research and cutting protectionism. We can still prove the Malthusians wrong again, but only by doing the same: by investing in research to improve productivity and by cutting protectionism. DFID is doing a lot, if not most of that. It is not doing all of it—I have pointed out areas where there must be improvement—but it is doing most of it. I urge the Minister to keep going in the right direction.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I am also pleased to speak in today’s important debate on the International Development Committee’s report on global food security. The Committee put a lot of work into this comprehensive report, responding to the call to act on increasing worries about global food security, about which the public are concerned.
In the early autumn, for a whole afternoon and early evening—five or six hours—I led a debate with the Bishop of Derby in Derby cathedral about the IF campaign and global food security. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), also came along and talked about food security. The debate was well attended, which shows that people out there are concerned, in particular about the taxpayers’ money spent on international development, because they want it to be used effectively. In this case, we can use it effectively.
The need for immediate action was put beyond doubt after average global food prices hit an all-time high in 2011. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the three main reasons for the increases were biofuel production, commodity trading and climate change.
Having visited various African countries, I am especially concerned that land grabbing by the private sector for the growing of biofuels, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, could cause food crises due to the unavailability of land for food crops. Nevertheless, I feel that the recommendations made by the report provide a pragmatic and sustainable solution to the situation. The Government have not fully accepted or agreed with the recommendation made by the report to put in place a cap on the level of food-based biofuel that can count towards the provisions of the European Union’s renewable energy directive, but I am confident that consensus can eventually be reached.
I am also encouraged that the European Parliament has voted on the incorporation of indirect land use change factors into the directive. The directive, if accepted by the Government after discussions, combined with the revision of the UK renewable transport fuel obligation to exclude agriculturally produced biofuel, as recommended by the report, will ensure that land grabbing is kept to a minimum and that local people are able to feed themselves and their families for years to come.
I am in particular pleased at the news that the Government have agreed with the Committee’s report on the need to improve rural infrastructure to ensure global food security. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has launched a new challenge fund window for private companies willing to invest in eastern and southern African staple food markets.
The Government will also offer grants to companies that seek to invest in storage and collateral systems; my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) mentioned storage, refrigerated vehicles and cold storage, which are problems particularly in parts of Africa with little electricity. Perhaps we could encourage solar energy technology companies to invest in such areas in Africa to help. They have so much more sunshine than we have here, and we are heavily investing in solar power, so there is no reason why they should not. The more people who use it, the cheaper it will become for them.
The Government also hope to invest in import markets and co-ordination and information systems in markets. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned roads going in. I am pleased to see that happening. Roads open up markets and make it easier for people to get their produce to market. I am also pleased that mobile phone technology is helping people in African countries to find the best markets and the best prices for their food.
Some encouraging things are going on in different countries. What DFID does well is to take best practice from country to country and help people improve their techniques. DFID’s plans will help encourage food production and save thousands of people, not just from starvation but from malnutrition and undernourishment. It will also ensure that countries and farmers have the resources to build their own rural economies and help the global community reach the UN’s post-2015 millennium development goal of halving global poverty.
I would like to share one example with the Minister. When we were in Ethiopia, I went to meet a British glove manufacturer from the south-west that has always invested in Ethiopian sheep pelts for its gloves. It has now built a factory in Ethiopia and is manufacturing gloves over there, but the farmers there have stopped dipping their sheep. As a result, the sheep get various infestations that cause holes in the pelts, which means that the pelts are not of such good quality.
The company was umming and ahhing about what to do. Its core business is glove manufacturing, but it felt that if it could set up a model farm and train the local farmers to dip their sheep, they would not produce flawed pelts with holes. Not only that, but if they showed them how to let the rams in only at certain times of the year, as we do—so that when the lambs are born they have plenty to eat—they would get bigger lambs, bigger sheep, bigger pelts and more meat to share. That is the sort of lateral thinking that we can encourage. Maybe DFID should consider how it can operate model farms to show farmers how best to do such things.
Alternatively, because I believe that a lot of farmers in many countries need better education about farming practices, maybe we should be encouraging agricultural colleges to set up branches abroad or get people to come here to learn more about agriculture. However, it would be better for people to learn in their own countries, because we do not have to deal with the same climates or water shortages as they do in African countries. If farmers could be taught to use fertilisers and much better farming methods, including irrigation, we could help improve farming practices throughout the continent, which would inevitably improve productivity, which other hon. Members have discussed.
Another problem, discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, is land tenure in Rwanda. We saw on our visit that Rwanda has a problem. It has allowed people to build all over the place, so that buildings are dotted about, meaning that there are no large amounts of land for people to cultivate, but lots of smallholdings. Until such countries have better planning laws, they cannot have large farms; they can only have various sizes of smallholding. Maybe some education could be delivered, or work done with Governments of other countries, to improve planning laws so that buildings are not built all over the place. Countryside is lost when that happens, and there should be better ways of planning for the future.
The report’s recommendations are clearly having an effect on Government policy. I am particularly encouraged by the partial consensus in the Government response that the UK will do its utmost in its role in Europe to promote the food security interests of less economically developed countries. I am hopeful that the International Development Committee will continue to be effective in dealing with that important issue in future. As hon. Members have said, we will have to produce much more food for the world. The land is there; we just need better technologies. We are well placed to help developing countries to produce more and better food.
I should perhaps declare an interest. I am involved with a charity in this country called Free the Children, which works internationally. It talks about adopting a village and does health and education work, but it also spends a lot of time teaching children in schools how to grow crops, so they can then go back and teach their parents. Free the Children shows them how to use water and fertiliser, and what happens if they are not used appropriately, so they can take the technology back to their parents, who can see that they get much more crop yield per acre or hectare than if they did not use that technology.
There are ways for us to be innovative, as Free the Children has been, by working with schoolchildren, as well as with our agricultural colleges working out there. We can also encourage British and European businesses investing in developing countries to think laterally and consider how they can help by setting up model farms and demonstrating ways to do things, so that best practice is spread as quickly as possible. Everything is very good, but it is all fairly small-scale. It needs to be much more rapid if we are to satisfy the world’s needs in the next 25 years.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. It has been a pleasure to hear all the contributions from hon. Members. This debate has been postponed several times, which is no reflection on its importance. It was postponed once to accommodate the commemorations of the life of President Mandela. However, it is right that we now have the chance to discuss the report, which deals with the vital issue of food security. As others have said, the issue has impact both here at home and abroad. I am often struck by how many policy issues that we think affect people far away are, at heart, the self-same ones of public policy that we grapple with week in, week out in the House of Commons.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that about 842 million people, or one in eight of the global population, suffer from chronic hunger. Although the global trend of hunger is, thankfully, downwards, all too frequently there is a lack of resilience in food supply, which can put millions of people at risk of tipping into hunger as a result of external influences, whether due to a spike in food prices, as the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned, to climate change or to conflict. It is worth noting that 1.3 million people in the Central African Republic, for example, are now at risk of hunger—that is a huge number; 40% of the country’s population—as a result of the ongoing internal conflict there.
As this debate has shown, food security is a desperately important issue. As we have heard, it is connected to infrastructure problems and to people’s income and position in society. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Stafford correctly judging Malthus as wrong. Malthus made a mistake; he forgot—or did not know or work out—that we would use technology to meet the challenge presented by the world’s finite resources as the population grows. That is what we have done down the years: it was true at the time of the industrial revolution, which changed where people lived and how food was produced, and is true today for Africa and other countries around the world. It is sometimes frustrating to hear people repeat as common-or-garden knowledge the idea that there is only so much space on the planet, so there can only be so many people, and that the problem is countries with growing populations. Those people make the self-same mistake as good old Reverend Malthus did all those years ago. We ought not to forget that our responsibility is to support the development of infrastructure and technology, rather than spreading doom and gloom about the inevitability of food insecurity.
The Committee’s report is welcome and wide-ranging. It demonstrates not only the urgency of tackling food security issues but the breadth of policy areas, both international and domestic—from transport policy to food waste, from social protection to co-operatives and climate change—that have an impact on ensuring that food resources are used sensibly and sustainably and are distributed globally in an equitable fashion. We heard something of the breadth of the report from the Chair of the Select Committee earlier.
The report rightly emphasises the impact of the two major recent food price spikes, in 2008 and 2011. The 2008 spike in particular caused a stagnation in the fight against global hunger and significantly set back efforts to meet the millennium development goals. The spikes demonstrate clearly the increasing volatility of food prices in an era of lower food stocks and a tighter balance between supply and demand. I encourage the Minister to speak with her colleagues in the Treasury if possible to investigate the impact that commodities trading has had on food prices. It is another symptom of the fight about financial services regulation—a fight that must continue—that the ever more complex products being bought and sold cause prices to become disconnected from fundamentals.
The Committee is also right to take a strong position on the impact of biofuels on food prices and supply, by concluding that the increasing use of agriculturally produced biofuels is driving up food prices and increasing their volatility. By using land that could be feeding the world’s poorest, the growth of those fuels makes the fight against global hunger far harder. Further, the report rightly notes that their use is potentially even more environmentally damaging than the use of fossil fuels—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). The report makes a strong case for a revision to the renewable transport fuel obligation’s equivalent target for biofuels in transport fuel volumes, to disincentivise the use of agriculturally produced biofuels. The Government’s response to that recommendation is disappointingly non-committal and appears to play down the impact of biofuels on food prices. When winding up, will the Minister commit the Government to revising the RTFO, or at least set out a timeline for doing so?
Further, the report urges Ministers to push for the EU to revise the renewable energy directive, or RED, to cap use of food-based biofuels and stop those fuels counting towards the RED target. There was a difference of opinion between the Commission and the recently ended Lithuanian presidency over whether the cap should be set at 5% or 7%. What discussions have Ministers had with EU counterparts recently on revising the RED and where do the Government stand on the level of the cap?
It is disappointing that the Government reject, out of hand, the Committee’s recommendations for statutory targets and sanctions for the reduction of food waste, which although declining still stands at over 20% at a household level in the UK. Is there a point at which the Government would consider waste to be unacceptably high and, as a result, reconsider their position? Food waste reduction is an important challenge that does not always receive the attention that it deserves. We could all shine a light on that issue.
It is encouraging that the report calls for greater support for farmer organisations and co-operatives in developing nations, to help strengthen small farmers’ bargaining positions with large corporations. In particular, it calls for support to assist women and marginalised farmers. Although Ministers have not rejected those proposals, their response, particularly on co-operatives, feels lukewarm at best and makes no proposal to expand support for such organisations. Worryingly, the response fails to mention the positive impact of co-operatives for women and marginalised farmers. Will the Minister give some practical examples of how DFID is supporting farmer co-operatives and set out how the Department intends to expand that work? Again, the way that co-operatives can help to support food production and equitable distribution of its rewards is a lesson that we have learnt in this country.
Both the hon. Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the importance of Fairtrade, with Fairtrade fortnight coming up. My hon. Friend made a specific recommendation about payment in instalments. Will the Minister comment on that?
As the hon. Member for Stafford mentioned, the Committee’s modest recommendation that the Government undertake further research into how small-scale, judicious use of food stocks could act as a buffer to some of the worst impacts of food price volatility seems to have met somewhat of a brick wall in the Government’s response. The idea that we should go back to the common agricultural policy is a bit of a straw-man argument. There is potential value in smaller-scale food stocks for poorer nations. Perhaps Ministers should have a think about their approach to that issue.
The report rightly argues that social protection schemes have a vital role in protecting the food security of the poorest, but Ministers’ ambitions seem to be a bit limited. Fundamentally, two things stop people starving: money in their pockets and food in the shops that they can afford to buy. We have systems of social protection in place in this country, and countries as diverse as Liberia and Brazil and south American countries have been investigating building up such systems. Social protections inevitably mean that food price spikes are less catastrophic for the poorest. The report notes that DFID plans to support social protection schemes in only 14 of the 29 countries where it has bilateral programmes. The Government response to the report states:
“It is important that DFID does not move ahead of local political and practical reality in seeking to support social protection programmes.”
That does not feel like an ambitious commitment. Will the Minister set out whether she sees DFID as having an activist role as an advocate for and supporter of social protection schemes, whether they are governmental or community-based?
This report once again reminds us that development issues do not exist in a vacuum. Our domestic policies on a wide range of areas can feed into food insecurity issues overseas. It works the other way round, too: food price spikes, speculation and insecurity of supply impact on our constituents as well, as they struggle with the cost of living crisis. The Select Committee has made some very worthwhile suggestions on how the British Government could step up their efforts across the board to tackle food insecurity. Unfortunately, in certain cases, the Government’s response seems lukewarm. However, I hope that through today’s debate and the Committee’s good efforts in its report, we can bring a greater focus on the important issue of food security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of the Department for International Development in response to the debate on the report of the International Development Committee about global food security.
The report was warmly welcomed by my Department. It addresses an area of critical concern, as many Members have mentioned, and I congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions today. There has been a lot of wisdom in the speeches from the Committee members and Opposition Members about this critical issue. It is critical because feeding a growing human population sustainably into the future, in the face of climate change and resource depletion, is challenging. In a world where 842 million people go to bed hungry and 26% of the world’s children suffer from stunting due to malnutrition, an equally difficult challenge to address, it is vital to ensure that the UK’s aid and development efforts are effective in making a difference.
I want to address as many as possible of the points raised, and to make some of my own. The report was studied closely in DFID and other Departments, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport. The Government’s response combined all those perspectives and departmental priorities.
My opposite number, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), said that we are lukewarm, but I do not agree. The Government agree or partially agree with 33 of the 39 recommendations in the report and that is not a bad response to a report with so many recommendations. Everyone wants DFID to do everything, which is one of the challenges that we must try to accommodate.
We disagree with only two recommendations. I will go into them in more detail, but one was food waste, and DEFRA noted that voluntary controls rather than mandatory targets work best in reducing waste. On the recommendation on strategic food stocks, the Government believe that functioning markets rather than Government intervention are a better way to manage food stocks. I will address that fully in a moment.
In areas where my Department leads, the report addresses food and nutrition security, focusing on production, the role of smallholder farmers, reducing waste and loss in the food system and providing social safety nets for the most vulnerable people. Hon. Members raised those points, and DFID already prioritises all of them. The report also tackles more contentious areas, including using food crops to produce biofuels, which I will come to in a moment and which was raised by many, if not all, hon. Members, and the role of genetic modification in meeting yield gaps—especially in challenging natural environments, an issue that was not raised during the debate.
The growing potential of the private sector is recognised and the report reflects on how this sector may become a hugely more significant player in securing food security goals, particularly by working more closely with smallholder and commercial farmers, which is an area of great expansion in DFID’s work. We recognise that food security is as much about the quality of food as having enough to eat. Stunting is a critical issue to address because it is the future of the nation. If 20% of children in a country, or even up to 50%, are stunted, the future of that country is in jeopardy because it cannot achieve the necessary skills base.
The UK is scaling up nutrition programmes in more than 10 countries. In Bangladesh, for example, my Department is integrating the delivery of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional support into three existing programmes that tackle extreme poverty. Those interventions will reach 243,000 adolescent girls, 103,500 pregnant women and 225,000 children under five.
I was marginally upset that no one referred to the Nutrition for Growth event, which was a great step forward and indicated our seriousness about tackling nutrition and global food security. Food alone is not enough to ensure the future of nations. At the event, DFID gave a commitment to triple investment in nutrition-specific programmes between 2013 and 2020, which will reduce stunting by 20 million by 2020 and save the lives of at least 1.7 million children.
On emergency assistance, DFID is not abandoning commitments to continue to provide assistance to the most vulnerable and impoverished countries, including those affected by recent crises such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and victims of the ongoing conflict in Syria. These responses will continue to include emergency assistance that may, when necessary, include direct provision of food aid and, when appropriate, cash transfers rather than food aid to allow disaster victims to purchase food when food availability is not the problem and available cash is the bigger issue. Access to food is an issue and when it is available locally, it is much better to enable people to purchase the food rather than simply giving it to them.
In some areas, progress has been more difficult. The Government have repeatedly stated that in relation to investment in biofuels in developing countries, food production must always take precedence over the production of energy from food crops. However, we are legally bound under the EU renewable energy directive to our commitment to source 15% of our overall energy, and 10% of the energy used in transport, from renewable sources by 2020.
As many hon. Members mentioned, the UK is, thankfully, the most progressive EU member state in addressing the developmental and food security impact of biofuel development. We actively lobby in Europe to minimise that impact. However, it is recognised that many member states do not see eye to eye with us on this issue. Securing strong political alliances with like-minded EU Governments is essential. The UK’s present position is not shared by a majority of states and we continue to make our case forcefully. Balancing legitimate business and investment concerns against the impact on the food security of some of the poorest people in the world is essential.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said she was confident that we could make progress on biofuels, but I do not totally share her confidence. EU members are not in line on this because there is a conflict between two goods. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) referred to the EU renewable energy directive versus the use of land and inappropriate production of biofuels that could impact on global food security.
Perhaps my right hon. Friend will wait a moment. My view is that we must start to think about 2020, which will be the end of the current target period to which we have signed up and which we cannot get out of. We must negotiate so that the onus is not on us and we can talk about fuel from waste and not from land that could be used for growing food.
All the comments from all hon. Members are important. There is an issue and we must drive harder at it. We will continue to press the EU, but we cannot control the issue so I want to lay plans in advance, if there is no change up to 2020, so that we are ready then to force through a change.
I thank my hon. Friend for explaining the position. It is as well to be up front and honest. The problem is not the Government’s position, but our partners’. However, too often the EU and sometimes our own Government do not look at the joined-up impact of some policies. The challenge is that if the EU really does care about poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, it should be prepared to re-examine its own policies and not put its commercial interests at the top of the list. The same applies to CAP reform. The Minister would have the support of my Committee if she argued that case energetically and tried to win support, but I accept that she is in a difficult position.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I could not agree more. I am simply being open and straightforward about the challenge that lies ahead. I am not saying that we will not tackle it and strive with European colleagues to change it before 2020, but I do not want to get to 2020 without having put in the work to ensure that if that is the point at which we have the opportunity to change, we have made enough allowances to make that change. It is the fall-back position.
One area where perhaps the IDC report did not give a sufficiently strong emphasis is one that is close my heart: the status and economic empowerment of women and girls. Women and girls benefit most from efforts to strengthen people’s food and nutrition security and to make them resilient to stresses and shocks. DFID recognises that as a high priority and is committing more time and resources to working with corporations and Governments globally to ensure that women and girls equally benefit from new investment opportunities in agriculture, as entrepreneurs and at a household level.
For example, the new DFID-supported Propcom Mai-karfi programme aims to raise incomes by up to 50% for more than half a million people in northern Nigeria, half of whom are women. That speaks to something else that Members raised, which was the improved productivity from agriculture. DFID puts an enormous amount of energy into that. I think we call it “stepping up”, so that everyone improves their income and their productivity through their actions.
I am coming to that. I have a whole list of points to get through. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) asked why it was that only 14 countries are in the programmes when there are 29 DFID countries. I hope to get to that.
The Government believe that functioning markets are a better way to manage food stocks than Government interventions. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) made a number of points that went above and beyond the recommendations made in the report. One idea he mentioned was the World Food Programme holding universal stocks to improve availability. He also mentioned involving neighbouring countries and so on. As he said, those ideas go beyond the report’s recommendations. The evidence we have is that universal stocks are not the most effective use of money.
I will not return to the cap as an example, because it is clear that Members did not favour that view, but Malawi, for example, has recently had food shortages. They hold stocks, but when push came to shove and they looked at their grain stock reserve, it was not as high as they thought. Much of it had disappeared. There are a number of issues outside of simply whether stocks are held for emergencies. We do not have the evidence to say that that proposal is an effective use of money, but my experience is that a whole range of unintended consequences come from stockholding.
I fully understand what the Minister is saying and agree that this is not an easy area. We received evidence from the deputy director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. He said:
“The experience of the price spike and the impact of that in various countries related in large measure, in India and China in particular, to the ability to cushion the impact on their population by providing access to food at a lower price because of their grain reserve policies. Certainly in the 2008–09 experience, the impact on poor consumers in India and China was much less than it was in countries in Africa, for example, without the same capacity to do that.”
That is the basis of what we were saying.
I understand that there are differing views, but DFID does not have sufficient evidence and the evidence that we do have shows that attempts by Governments to manage price levels through public stockholding have not been effective in achieving food security objectives. For the moment, we will have to differ on this issue.
The issue of targets for food waste was mentioned. Our experience shows that the voluntary approach is effective and has allowed businesses to reduce waste and become more efficient. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked at what level we would change that. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has worked successfully with industry on a voluntary basis through the Courtauld commitment to reduce supply chain food and packaging waste by 7.4% over the past three years. Household waste is down by even more: 15% since 2007. Our approach is having an effect and there is not an ultimate target where we will suddenly change horses. We agree that waste is a big issue and we are working through these voluntary mechanisms, which appear to be working.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I want to give a couple of minutes to the Select Committee Chair at the end and I have a huge number of points to get through.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon asked about the scaling up of safety nets, as did the hon. Member for Wirral South. DFID is more than doubling the number of countries where it supports social protection programmes. We had seven countries in 2009 and we will reach 15 in 2014. It may be that that support is the answer everywhere, but with the best will in the world we cannot scale it up on our own without the mother countries agreeing with us, and not just in policy terms. Even with 0.7% of GDP spent on aid, we do not have infinite funds to do everything in every country without research and without working with mother country Governments.
We will continue to support such programmes. We think that they are excellent and are demonstrating great benefits. We use evidence of that, where appropriate, in conversation with Governments that are new to the idea of social protection. I have been to some countries that do not want these protection programmes introduced. We disagree with that, but we are not a colonial institution that says, “You must have this.” We try to demonstrate the evidence of how successful and useful the programmes are and how they work in those countries.
No, because I will not get through any of these points if I do.
On the Government’s support for the Fairtrade Foundation, we absolutely recognise the important work that it does to promote smallholder access to global markets. We welcome the attention it has brought to finance for small-scale farmers. The UK provides core funding to the foundation and we look forward to working with them and discussing the Committee’s recommendations.
On meat, the key to a healthy diet is getting the balance right. That means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions. Red meat can form part of a healthy diet and is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12.
However, not all meat is good. Some meats are high in fat, especially saturated fat. I think it was the right hon. Member for Gordon who mentioned UK farmers. Encouraging people in the UK to eat less and to eat more healthily would not impact on UK farmers. UK commodity prices follow those in the wider international market, so trade flows would adjust. That, at least, is the evidence we have. The fortunes of UK producers are more dependent on their competitiveness within the wider market.
I am glad that the work that DFID does on land and property rights has been recognised. We have signed a new agreement with Ethiopia to go the same way as we have with Rwanda. We are scaling up our land programmes in at least six other countries and we intend to continue our partnerships.
I make a grateful nod in the direction of the Chair of the Select Committee for his recognition of our work on beekeeping. The “World at One” bumped me on Christmas eve, when I was going to expand on our international work on beekeeping. The weather in Britain took precedence.
I am sorry that I have not spoken to all the points, but, to conclude, my Department is working with international partners to prepare for the next series of international development goals after the millennium development goals. The IDC report helps my Department to remain challenged, focused and a world leader in international development policy and practice. I thank the International Development Committee for its continued engagement with the work of DFID and its insightful and useful observations and recommendations, and I thank all Members here today.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The Committee agrees that the Department does great work and that we are working in the right direction on pretty much everything. I welcome her update on the commitment on nutrition. We welcome Nutrition for Growth, and I am sorry we did not mention it in the debate. We are well aware that women make up the majority of farmers, but perhaps we should have made that more explicit.
We would still like more engagement on the social transfers, particularly for urban food problems, recognising that the Bolsa Familia programme in Brazil was a radical way of delivering poverty reduction. I accept that we cannot impose social transfers, but we still think that the issue has a lot of mileage. I welcome the Minister’s response to our report.
Question put and agreed to.