Tuesday 4 March 2014
[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
Scotland and North-east England Post-2014
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—Harriett Baldwin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. This issue is of rising importance for the north-east of England. In six months’ time, the Scottish people will decide whether they want to remain part of Britain. Although it is right that that decision should be taken by them, it is not right to think that it will not affect the rest of Britain as well, especially the north-east of England.
Scotland and the north-east of England share an economic and industrial history, one based on shipbuilding, coal mining and steel works, for example. It is also fair to say that the Conservative party in both areas has been marginalised. That is a common identity that the north-east of England and Scotland share, and that economic history is important to the north-east of England even today. At Durham Tees Valley airport, some 35,000 passengers a year travel from my constituency to Aberdeen for the gas and oil industry, which shows how close Scotland is industrially and economically to the north-east of England.
Thousands of Scots and English cross the border between England and Scotland every day, without let or hindrance, to do a day’s work, but I believe that the Scottish National party has a twin-track approach to the English. On one hand, Alex Salmond has described the north-east as
“our closest friends in economic and social terms”,
and others have said that
“a stronger Scotland could act as a powerful advocate on issues of mutual concern to the north of England and Scotland”
and that there is
“a shared sense of values”.
That is great, but if all that is true, why does Scotland need independence to prove it further?
To the SNP’s internal Scottish audience, the English are those from whom the SNP wants independence, but to the north-east of England, according to Alex Salmond, we are Scotland’s closest friends. Call me old-fashioned, but I would not close the door on my closest friends by asking for independence from the rest of the UK.
To follow the reasoning of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, is he saying that the Swiss are not friends with the Austrians or the people of Liechtenstein just because they do not share a Prime Minister? Surely, given that 250,000 people cross the Swiss border daily to work, that is an example of how people can be friendly without sharing a Prime Minister. It is not David Cameron who makes us friends.
The hon. Gentleman is not necessarily comparing like with like. Scotland and England, and the rest of the UK, have a shared history that goes back 300 years.
I read something recently on the blog “Open Democracy” by Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell, two pro-separatist academics based at the university of West Scotland and Edinburgh university. They state that the metropolitan establishment have pronounced on the currency union, and go on to say:
“London is where the problem lies. But our friends in the north of England have long understood this.”
Speaking as an MP for the north-east who has lived in the north-east all his life, I say to those commentators and the SNP that they should not patronise the north-east of England by pretending that they speak for my region—they do not—or offer friendship with one hand while building a wall between us with the other.
I agree that there should be deeper economic cross-border relations between Scotland and the north-east of England; I have no problem with that. The IPPR North study “Borderlands”, commissioned by the Association of North East Councils, points out that there should be closer cross-border relations, especially between local authorities on either side of the border. Who could argue against that, especially when it comes to issues such as transport? I understand that the SNP agrees, which I am pleased to hear, but surely that would be much easier to do across the existing border than across an international border between two independent states.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I accept entirely the point that he is making: cross-border economic relations of every kind will be affected and harmed if Scotland becomes independent, whether by different tax rates, border controls or fundamental changes to the transport systems, two of which would not meet.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the point that I was going to make next with some statistics. At present, more than 23 million vehicles, 15 million tonnes of freight and 7 million rail passengers a year cross the border between England and Scotland in both directions. If Scotland becomes an independent state, the current border will become an international border. Scotland will have to take control of its border and introduce the relevant regulations to manage it. The present UK is a true domestic single market: businesses in Scotland have easy access to customers throughout all parts of the UK, as does the north-east of England. Anyone who has the people and their benefit in mind will surely see that as a key reason why Scotland should not be independent, and why we should work together for the benefit of all the people who live in the UK.
An international border would create a barrier to all that. For example, as I have said, 40,000 people travel each way across the border every day to work. An independent Scotland would not have the membership of the EU or the common travel area that it now enjoys. It would have to renegotiate travel arrangements with the rest of Britain.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is also about access to European markets. Currently, steelworks in Scotland such as Dalzell and Clydebridge roll Scunthorpe steel. Every single bit of slab steel that goes to Dalzell and Clydebridge in Scotland is from Scunthorpe. Independence would undermine a crucial, constituent part of the steel industry not just in England but in Scotland. It is a UK steel industry.
I think there will be a lot of consensus on this side of the argument. We have a lot of common ground among all parts of the UK. Why we would want to disrupt and dismantle that, I do not know. It can only cause additional burdens to the Scottish and English people who currently take for granted the journey across the border. If Scotland managed to renegotiate entry into the EU, it would have to join the Schengen agreement, meaning that passports would have to be shown at border crossings such as Berwick.
My right hon. Friend says that Scotland would be obliged to join. The position of the Scottish National party is that once it believed Scotland should join the euro. Then it wanted Scotland to have its own currency, and now it wants to stay with the pound. Can SNP members make up their mind? It is not possible. They want to have their cake and eat it.
Thousands of north-easterners would have to take their passports to go to work in Scotland, and Scots would have to take their passports to travel from Scotland to England. I have relatives in Scotland who visit my family in south Durham every week. My brother is English and his partner is Scottish. They make that journey every week without let or hindrance, and now the SNP wants to put border controls there. Scotland will not be a member of the EU or of the common travel area, and cannot have it both ways.
It is fair that we keep making the point by giving particular examples. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the North East chamber of commerce has expressed specific concerns about the currency issue, and the Northern Farmers and Landowners Group, which represents the cross-border farming community, including many farmers who farm both sides of the border, has also expressed significant concern that if independence went ahead the ability of the farming community to function would be gravely impeded.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point yet again. Over time, employment regulations may not be an incentive for people to cross the border, a factor that in itself might disrupt economic development in both the north-east of England and Scotland.
I do not understand why the SNP wants to put up barriers between Scotland and the north-east of England. By putting up such barriers, Scotland will potentially lose out on—
I will just make this very important point, because I will now boast about the north-east of England, as it has a lot to offer.
The north-east is the only region in the country with a positive balance of trade in the export market, exporting £14 billion-worth of goods every year; its manufacturing industry is worth £7.5 billion; we have a strong and successful advanced engineering sector, leading the way in low-carbon technology and sustainable energy solutions; we have world-class research and engineering capabilities in wind, wave, tidal and solar power; we are home to successful knowledge-based economies, with 40,000 skilled individuals employed in the supply chain and more than 65,000 people working in the oil and gas sector; and more than 70% of the oil and gas platforms operating in the North sea are built in the north-east of England. On top of all that, a third of the north-east is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty or is part of a national park. Why does the SNP want to put an international border between itself and an area as fantastic as the north-east?
No. I have given way twice to the hon. Gentleman, I want to make progress and I am sure that he will make some kind of speech later on.
I believe in co-operation between Scotland and the north-east of England, but building barriers will generate costs. Internal studies have proven that. When Czechoslovakia split into two states in 1993, the currency union between the two lasted 33 days and trade between the two fell significantly. I do not want to see that happen in our case.
International evidence also shows that flows of trade, labour and capital are much larger between two regions of the same country than between two similar regions in different countries. The best example is the trade between US and Canada. According to studies, Canadian provinces trade around 20 times more with each other than with nearby US states of a similar size, and the international border between the US and Canada reduces trade by 44%. If anyone believes in a strong Scotland and wants to see a prosperous north-east, why would they want to put barriers between the two, which would not be welcome and are not needed? Such a move cannot be good for Scots, English people or Britain.
I do not understand what is wrong with being part of the third largest economy in Europe and the sixth largest economy in the world. Why does the SNP want to be independent of that kind of success story?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. First, the concerns and issues that he is raising for the north-east of England also apply to all colleagues of all parties in the north-west of England. Secondly, on his central point—that we are better together—does he think that a far better comparison than the one used by the SNP representative here in Westminster Hall, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), which compared Scotland with Liechtenstein—
Or Austria. The better comparison is to look at what happened in Germany. Three centuries ago, Bavaria and Prussia were at war—Catholic versus Protestant. They finally came together and I do not think that anybody, either in Bavaria or Prussia, would argue that those regions have not been able to maintain their distinctive identities and institutions while hugely benefiting from the fact that they are part of a single union.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We can have 300 years of history, as we have between Scotland and England, and still keep separate identities. We have an identity in the north-east of England, which in some ways is similar to the Scottish identity; we even call our children “bairns”. From my perspective, the identity is there and it is a great thing, so why do we have to create independence and an international border between the two countries? To say that we need to do that to secure our identity is not true.
Currently, 70% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, including the north-east of England, and 70% of Scotland’s imports come from the rest of the UK. If the SNP wants independence, why does it want to keep the pound? If it wants to keep the pound, why not stay as part of Britain? It would save—
My hon. Friend makes some good points, and I congratulate him on securing this debate.
There is far more that combines us and brings us together than ever divides us. However, one of the things that is quite concerning is the question of what Britain will pick up from Scotland if we become independent. Standard Life has just announced that it would look to go to its marketplace and its marketplace is England, and that would also be the case with the Royal Bank of Scotland. That is not scaremongering. In fact, what we are doing is creating a division when we do not need to create one.
Again, that is an excellent point from my hon. Friend and fellow Whip.
If someone really believes in the future of Scotland, why would they want to create so much uncertainty for the economy in the future by having this rose-tinted view of independence, when in fact independence is not in the best interests of the Scottish people, although I believe they should have the right to decide whether or not they stay part of the UK?
The issue of Scottish independence is very important to the north-east of England. At one time—
The whole SNP philosophy on independence is just full of contradictions. It wants to create a barrier between England and Scotland, but it also wants to join the EU, where there is free movement of labour and free trade in goods. Obviously there is a contradiction in that.
I think that I have already said it but I just want to repeat that the SNP wanted, at one time, to be a member of the euro; then, the pound was a millstone around Scotland’s neck. Now the SNP wants to keep the pound. How can it keep the pound without fiscal, monetary and political union? We are better together because we already have that union, and it offers stability.
It is okay having some rose-tinted image of Scottish independence, which is all thistles, sporrans and Bannockburn, but the practicalities for the Scottish people should make them think twice, if not three times. Labour is a national party, not a nationalist party, and any further settlement on devolution should bear that in mind: devolution of air passenger duty would affect the airports in the north-east of England; any kind of variation in corporation tax would have an effect as well; and any change in income tax could have a detrimental impact on other parts of the UK, including the north-east of England. It seems that there is another contradiction, whereby the SNP wants to offer cuts in corporation tax and in APD to business, while at the same time saying to the rest of the population that it will maintain good, decent public services. How will it raise the tax to do that?
I belong to the Labour party, a left-of-centre people’s party; that is how we see ourselves. As such, our belief in people does not stop at the borders, but if someone is a nationalist I believe that it does. Those pushing for independence want to have their cake and eat it. They want to keep the pound and the Queen, stay in the EU and NATO, and keep the BBC. They have all those things now, and it is called the United Kingdom. My advice to those seeking independence is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, because we are, after all, better off together.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this debate.
I speak as a mongrel Brit of immigrant ancestors, as the representative of a constituency that borders Scotland, and as someone who has repeatedly made the case that we are better together. I went to Scotland last year and did a series of events over about 10 days, debating this issue from Aberdeen all the way down to Argyll. I was struck by the fervour created by this point. The issue matters desperately to those of us who represent north-east constituencies, because it will have a significant impact on trade. Of course, trade and tourism will continue and, of course, Scotland will continue to exist as an independent country, but there is no doubt that the decision will have an impact on business and on job prospects in the border region.
When one analyses the case put forward by the Scottish National party, it is, on any interpretation, economically illiterate. When the hon. Member for Sedgefield made the point that the Scots wish to have their cake and eat it, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) wisely and intelligently said from a sedentary position, “That’s what cake’s for.” It is a policy totally devoid of any grasp of reality.
Looking at the currency issue, the SNP argues that it wishes to have the pound, but it does not want Mark Carney or the Bank of England having any controls, because when one takes independence, one forfeits huge amounts of control over the ability to tax, set interest rates, and the like. We are now in a position of sterlingisation, a policy best espoused by those legendary countries, Panama, Montenegro and Greece.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that no sensible economist would say that a policy of sterlingisation would support a country’s banking and fiscal system. The desire that we all have for greater North sea oil prosperity is based on a fundamental need to secure the markets, and to secure bank finance, for example. That would be grossly affected by a floating sterling position in Scotland.
As for borders, my constituents in Northumberland are deeply concerned about that matter. It is worth analysing briefly the position in relation to immigration controls. For my sins, I have read the Scottish Government’s paper, “Scotland’s Future”, and I assure hon. and right hon. Members that it is a long, hard read. Chapters 6 and 7 set out the Scottish Government’s preference for an independent Scotland joining the EU, but staying within the common travel area. Others commented, rightly, on the fact that originally Scotland wished to join the euro; then it decided that it wanted the pound, and now it is sterlingisation.
However, in respect of immigration policy—not that we are in Woolworths, having pick ’n’ mix in any way—the Scottish Government prefer to have an EU policy and support that part of the EU. That is, of course, contingent on one thing. It is rare for a Conservative MP to praise a man called Barroso, but I am grateful to Mr Barroso for his amazing contribution to this debate, because the European leaders have made it acutely clear that, regarding the immigration control situation, were Scotland to go independent, it would have to apply to join the EU. That is not going to happen. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar laughs and chunters, as always, from a sedentary position, but can he name an individual European politician—I will happily give way to him on this point—who has said that the border control situation will be acceptable if Scotland does not join the EU, and that it will be no problem at all?
It is worth assessing the UK Government’s position, which is that if Scotland were to become an independent state, the boundary between Scotland and the rest of the UK would, by definition, become an international border between two separate states, with everything that that entails. The evidence locally in the north-east, whether from farming bodies or the North East chamber of commerce, is extensive: there is huge concern that this will have an impact on trade, businesses and jobs. I met a number of oil and gas producers, several of whom are building huge sites on the Tyne at the moment. Hon. Members know that the two biggest construction sites are for construction projects in the North sea. The producers are concerned that, if there were independence, those projects would be affected, and there would be greater difficulties.
It is, self-evidently, for the Scots to make this decision, but it is incumbent on all of us, not just—with great humility and respect—to analyse the weak arguments of the SNP, but to make the case to all the Scots whom we know, and to get up to Scotland and encourage all those in Scotland to analyse deeply whether they wish to do this, because, self-evidently, we are better together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate.
As a Scot, I believe that separation from the rest of the UK would present business on both sides of the border with an unnecessary barrier. In Scotland, there would be a barrier to trading with our biggest market—the UK—and to our long-established trading with the north-east of England, and that makes no sense at all. No one wants a barrier to our trade and connections with north- east England, except those who promote independence for Scotland.
I will not give way at the moment.
We are all aware that the open border between Scotland and the north-east brings significant economic, trade and employment opportunities. We are also aware that, should Scotland vote yes in September, the border will be closed, with the new Scottish state being outside EU membership. Scotland’s languishing in a long line for EU membership would mean its being outside the EU and having a closed border—absolutely guaranteed—bringing about significant trade difficulties. We would lose our shared opportunities, despite the fact that we all agree that we need as many opportunities as we can get these days.
Cross-border private and public sector trading can do without this obstacle being put in the way of ease of doing business. Clearly, Scotland has an important economic relationship with north-east England and the UK as a whole. The facts speak for themselves: Scottish business buys and sells more products and services from the UK than any other country in the world. This enables the Scottish people to be part of a larger and more successful economy, and to trade and share easily with our neighbours in north-east England. Some 70% of Scotland’s exported goods went to other parts of the UK, and 70% of imports came from the UK, clearly demonstrating that Scotland’s economic performance is stronger because it is part of a larger integrated UK economy. Exit the UK and our border becomes a barrier that will impede and restrict ease of trade.
Even where free trade agreements exist alongside controlled borders, neighbouring countries with similar economies are affected by the presence of that border. As we have heard, we know this to be true. Hon. Members need only look at the US and Canada: their trade is thought to be some 44% lower than it could be—a result of that controlled border between them.
The comparison I am making is between a closed border and an open border. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, it is not only business that will be disadvantaged. Labour migration between Scotland and the rest of the UK is estimated to be as much as 75% higher within an integrated UK. More than ever, we need to share skills and knowledge, so that both sides of the border can prosper. Without doubt, Scotland’s leaving the UK would create an unnecessary barrier to trade with our close neighbours in north-east England. More unites us than divides us. Common goals and common bonds have been built over generations, which is why I believe in a vision of working across an open border and a continuation of the ease in our trading relationship that we have come to expect and enjoy.
We remember and value our close association with those with whom we share a border, but it is a border in name only. The border is not a symbol of division, but a link spanned by friendship and a common understanding of the challenges that we face together. Scotland’s relationship with north-east England should be a constructive collaboration, not a destructive competition, as would undoubtedly transpire after Scotland’s separation from the UK. The SNP is always arguing both ways, telling its supporters that everything will change while telling people on both sides of the border that nothing will change.
If all that independence is about is getting away from a Government for whom Scotland did not vote, I would ask Members to join me in seeking independence for Inverclyde. We have never voted for an SNP Government. We have a Labour MP, a Labour MSP and a Labour-controlled council, yet twice we have had to suffer under an SNP Government. The difference is that we understand and accept democracy. I have visited north-east England many times, and I have always believed that the future of Scotland and of north-east England lie together in one country—the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am sure you will know what to do if the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) gets overexcited during the course of our proceedings.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this timely debate. People cannot get nearer to Scotland than my constituency. Indeed, Scotland surrounds us on two sides. My northern boundary and much of my western boundary are the national boundary. The passage of people across the border for work, shopping and family relationships, including my own, is constant. My constituency is very much involved, and there is a great deal of apprehension on what the consequences of a vote for independence might be. I will address those consequences in a moment, but I will first say a few things on the north-east’s relationship with Scotland that will apply whether the vote is yes or no.
The north-east is catching up, but it has significant economic problems. The north-east needs a much larger private sector and more jobs, but it has not had the resources that Scotland has had over the years. Successive Governments have failed to reform the Barnett formula, which gives between 10% and 15% more money per head for Scotland to spend on public services. The Barnett formula does so because it simply locks in the distribution from many years ago and applies it formulaically year after year when the needs of the north-east should have been recognised as they originally were. That is unfinished business for many of us who represent constituencies in the north-east of England.
We continue to fight for change on that front, but there are many signs of improvement in the north-east. We have seen the gross value added per head improve in the past couple of years, and we have seen growth in private sector jobs. We have seen marvellous investments by, for example, Nissan and the kinds of firms to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) referred. Firms are investing on Tyneside in renewable and offshore technology. That is all encouraging, but it has to be recognised that, if we do not continue to press the case for the north-east of England, Governments of all parties appear ready to forget about the area. As north-east MPs, we must therefore continue to press our case very strongly.
There are two aspects of the relationship between the north-east and Scotland that I particularly need to emphasise today. Our economy significantly depends on the connectivity between the north-east and Scotland. One of the most obvious aspects is that it is absurd that we still do not have a dual carriageway connecting the north-east of England with Scotland. Parts of the road have been dualled over the years, but the job is still not completed. The previous Government dropped two very good schemes that would have dualled the road significantly. There is increasing trade between Scotland and England that requires good road communications, which is an important priority. I welcome that the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have both committed to completing the ongoing study and intend to proceed with the matter. We need progress.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I was in Croatia on holiday, and the A1 in Croatia is a magnificent dual carriageway, but it suddenly stops at the border with Montenegro. There is a small break in the otherwise magnificent A1. If Croatia can do it, why on earth have we still not completed the dualling of the major link between England and Scotland on the east coast?
Rail connectivity is also important, and I am beginning to be concerned that the High Speed 2 proposals have led Railtrack to propose ideas for the future of the east coast main line that would provide unsatisfactory services between the north-east of England and Scotland. Those services have greatly improved in recent years. We now have very fast train services from Edinburgh and Newcastle to London. We also have a much improved service from Alnmouth in my constituency, which is an important part of our connectivity. If Railtrack wants to ensure that MPs in the north-east of England, and indeed eastern Scotland, support HS2, it must not pursue daft ideas that would undermine the service. That also means that we have to improve the east coast main line’s capacity, particularly to handle freight. There are possible investments, such as on the Leamside line, that could greatly improve the capacity of the east coast main line and cater for potentially growing freight traffic between the north-east ports and for links between the north-east ports and Scotland.
There are issues that would be of very serious concern to my constituents if there were to be a yes vote in the referendum. The debate so far has been about an idea, and only now are we beginning to consider the realities and facts. Of course Scotland could be independent, but there is a price to be paid by both countries if that were to happen. That price includes serious problems at the border. If the United Kingdom, minus Scotland, did not have control and did not know what Scotland’s immigration policy will be, it could not commit itself to an open border with Scotland. If the rest of the United Kingdom did not have any control of security in Scotland, it could not have a completely open border. Whether the rest of the United Kingdom has a continuous border control or just introduces a border control when it considers there to be a particular danger, there will from time to time be border controls to address the fact that the United Kingdom will have no control over who is admitted to Scotland. I am talking about, for example, a terrorist returning from Syria whom we would not want simply to move freely in Scotland.
The question of immigration and border controls is as much an economic issue as anything else, because the growth in Scotland’s working population is projected to be significantly less than the rest of the UK. That is why we have had nothing from the SNP on immigration. An independent Scotland might have a greater dependency on migrant workers.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. In my limited time, I will address another issue that affects border controls—fiscal policy in Scotland. An independent country might wish to have different VAT rates from those that apply in England. That raises the other issue of Scotland’s relationship with the EU, which has already been covered so I will not say any more. If different taxation rates applied, there would be issues at the border and a need to control goods coming across the border. That would further impair trade and cause further difficulties for people whose everyday life means constantly crossing the border. Those things are not impossible to address—they are dealt with in many countries—but they add to the difficulties of areas that have enough economic problems as it is and certainly do not need such artificial pressures.
The right hon. Gentleman has got to the crux of the matter. Those who support independence for Scotland tell us that they want to see open borders and no change whatsoever from the current arrangements. If Scotland was to become independent, I am sure that most of us, so far as we would have a role in the matter, would want to see as open a border as possible. The fact is, however, that we can only guarantee open borders and the present arrangements by being part of the same state, and that could change with independence. People can debate how real that is and how far they would change, but we can only guarantee the open border by maintaining the same state arrangements.
The hon. Gentleman puts the argument very well indeed. The Union is a guarantee of free passage across the border, unimpeded by either immigration or customs controls, and that is well worth having. We are much better together because of that.
There is another kind of problem—we get it even under the existing system, although it would be significantly worse if Scotland became independent—which is the administrative difficulties people face if they want to access public services across the border. If I ring up a plumber, he does not say, “I am sorry, but I cannot help you because I am on the wrong side of the border.” When public services are involved, however, those difficulties start to arise. We have managed to minimise them in health, for example, where many people on the Scottish side of the border go to GPs in England and vice versa. Many people from my constituency use the Borders general hospital. There are, however, always problems just around the corner, and I spend a lot of time fighting to ensure that new barriers are not erected. They would be much more likely to be erected in the event of independence, and that is a real danger.
Is it not also the case that we have specialised treatments in Scotland and the UK? It is not uncommon for someone from my area of Edinburgh and Midlothian to be sent down to London or the midlands for a specialised treatment. It is also not uncommon for someone in England to come to Scotland for specialised treatment. That would have to go by the wayside with independence.
Indeed. Cross-border activity is common; it is day to day in my area, but it also happens elsewhere with specialised treatment. That activity is not impossible with independence—we should not overstate the case—but it would become more difficult and the likelihood of administrative barriers being erected is that much greater. There are a whole series of reasons why anyone living near the border, unless they see their future entirely as a town of currency exchange kiosks and smugglers, would think that we are much better together. That leads many of my constituents to say, “Why can we not vote on Scottish independence?” I have a lot of sympathy with that, but I hold as a matter of principle that, having joined the Union, Scotland is entitled to leave if that is the will of the Scottish people. They would be ill-advised to do so, and I do not think they will vote to do that, but it is their entitlement.
Were the Scottish people to vote for independence, negotiations would begin on the terms of that independence, how much of Britain’s national debt they would take with them, what we do about the banks headquartered in Scotland and all the other issues. It is then that my constituents and those of other English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will want to be heard. No Government, however composed, will get a deal for Scottish independence through this Parliament that is unfair to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Members of Parliament representing the rest of the United Kingdom will want and will have a say on behalf of their constituents, were Scotland to vote to seek independence.
It is a great pleasure indeed, Mr Weir, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson)—a fine MP—on securing the debate. Usually, the Scottish National party in the House of Commons finds itself the six against the 600. There are slightly better odds this morning, with one against 18, and that is much to the good.
It is absolutely fantastic that some of these arguments are being aired, because when the scares and fears are aired, they are quickly punctured. I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman, together with the SNP Government and Standard Life, supports currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is to be welcomed and is progress. If only some other Members—particularly those in the Treasury—had his enlightened view, we would get on much better. I encourage him to ask the Prime Minister to continue with pre-negotiations. He ruled them out, but of course he has broken his word on that already.
Barriers were mentioned and the truth is that we will not be erecting any barriers. I hope that the Prime Minister will not be erecting any barriers, and in the absence of either side erecting any barriers, there will be no barriers and we can continue to flow and interact with each other freely. The thing that will change is that the Government will move from Westminster to Holyrood, with the most democratic forum representing the Scottish people. I do not know what people can have against that, but I am shocked that people cannot be international. It is great to be an internationalist and fantastic to respect the independence of other nations and to look to engage and co-operate in an international manner. With that, I encourage people who feel that they cannot interact with people outwith their borders to think bigger, to hope for better and to look for a greater future. I am sure that if they search the depths of their hearts, they will find a way to look and to co-operate with their neighbours.
If people are struggling, there are international examples of that co-operation. Switzerland has 250,000 people crossing its borders every day. It is not in the EU, but those people come from EU countries. The population of Liechtenstein doubles during the working day as people come in to work in its advantageous employment environment. That would not happen if Liechtenstein was not independent. The people living around Liechtenstein would not have the possibility of finding employment in that area and would have to travel further afield. I am sure that the benefits that accrue to many places on the borders around Europe will also accrue to the north of England. If the hon. Gentleman was to look deeply at the issue, I am sure he would find many advantages, but it is to his political advantage—it will be off a Whip’s script that he has probably written himself—to up the fears and the scares and make it sound difficult.
I will give way in a minute. All that will happen is that we will stop sharing a Prime Minister. It is not the need to have David Cameron as a Prime Minister that keeps the pair of us co-operating. Without David Cameron, I will still like the hon. Member for Sedgefield as much as I do.
The hon. Gentleman asks a fantastic question, which gives me the opportunity to outline the point of the SNP, which is to put the Scottish people first, rather than power struggles in London, which, unfortunately, is the point of the London parties. It is all about who is in government in London, and that is not for the good of the people of Sighthill, Springburn, Castlemilk, Fort William, Inverness, Sutherland, Lochaber, Skye or Lewis. That is an awful tragedy. It should also be in our interest in Scotland to ensure that the good people of the north-east of England are benefiting as much as those in the regions of Scotland. I look forward to the day I witness people from the north-east of England finding chances of employment in Scotland, rather than having to go far afield to the south-east of England.
May I return the hon. Gentleman to the key issue of currency? Will he state for the House’s benefit what his proposal is on currency? Under the present position on a sterlingisation approach, he would surely be borrowing in a currency over which he had no control and in a monetary environment that is unsustainable in the long run for investors, who are so key to jobs and business prosperity.
The reality, as he well knows, is that after the referendum victory on 19 September, George Osborne will take a different approach from his arrogant, dismissive bullying of the Scottish people. He will find some humble pie and dine on it very heartily. George Osborne understands the importance of his balance of payments and does not want to weaken sterling. Or is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would like to see sterling weaken? He knows that that is what will happen if Scotland is not in the sterling area. Does he disagree with that?
Has the hon. Gentleman not observed the situation with the euro, where Germany is pointing out that those countries whose fiscal policies cannot support use of the euro cannot have independent fiscal policy if they want to remain in the euro? How can Scotland remain independent in its fiscal policy if it uses a common currency with England?
If I did not know the right hon. Gentleman better, I would imagine that he was threatening the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, because they are in that situation. Is he saying that the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man will have to give up their independence? I think not. I think that he is quite a reasonable individual, and I do not think that he will go down that route. The argument about the euro is fallacious, because there are vastly different levels of productivity within the eurozone. The strains within the euro are not really between all the countries that use the euro—they are not between Germany, the Netherlands and France—but between Germany and the far more divergent economies of southern Europe, such as Greece.
I want to address the point that has been made about Canada and the United States of America. The comparison is erroneous because the populations of Canada and the United States are more contiguous, particularly in Canada, running east-west rather than north-south, and that is where the problems are. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) was not encouraging Canada, which became independent of the United Kingdom, to become part of the United States of America. We must realise that 100 years ago, the world had 50 independent states. It now has 200 independent states—Europe alone has 50 independent states—and it is better for it. Intergovernmental organisations and others come together to deal with things, and the approach is far more mature than the one that existed in the days of empire. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to take further his support for the independence of Canada, of which I am a fervent supporter, and to realise that just as Canada is better off being independent of its 10-times-larger neighbour to the south, the same is true for Scotland. I do not see any animosity between Canada and the United States of America; I see friendship and people trying to get on with each other.
If there has been a discordant note in the debate, it was introduced by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who described London as a “giant suction machine”. I am glad to say that that was repudiated by no less a figure than the SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon, who said at University college London that the Secretary of State’s comment was a bit harsh. That happened to be on the day that the Chancellor went to Scotland to bully, threaten and harry the people of Scotland, with predictable reactions. I remember the headline from the London Evening Standard: “Chancellor bullies the Scots while Nicola Sturgeon charms London”. The SNP’s deputy leader spoke in a constructive tone not of fears and scares, but of optimism about the future.
We did not see that last week.
I hear Members, including no less a figure than the Minister, cackling and heckling. The same fears and nonsense about the idea that we would be diminished were no doubt present when Ireland and some of the Dominions were moving towards independence, but I argue that they were wrong. There is more trade between the UK and Ireland now than there ever was when Ireland was part of the UK. Things are better, and the aggregate GDP of the British Isles is higher because of an independent Ireland and an independent Isle of Man. It will be higher still when we have an independent Scotland, because of the giant suction machine that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills alluded to. There is an issue, but the best way to solve it is to create a successful second centre of gravity in the island of Britain. The island of Ireland probably benefits from having two Governments, although it has not been helped by the psychopathic elements who have been involved over the past 100 years.
It is hard to follow the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but we are all trying. Can he enlighten us when it comes to the Barnett formula? If Scotland were to go independent, presumably that formula would not continue to operate and the hon. Gentleman would not seek for it to do so, given that Scotland would be an independent state. What is the SNP’s position if it loses the referendum? Will he decide that Scotland does not need the Barnett formula?
The hon. Gentleman is quite correct to say that if Scotland were independent, it would not seek to operate a Barnett formula any more than Norway does. In Norway, of course, average wages are twice those in the UK, on a population of a similar size to that of Scotland with oil.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if the referendum were lost. First, I do not think that the referendum will be lost, and secondly, the SNP will do what we always do, which is to put the interests of Scotland first. He should be aware that Scotland is 8.4% of the UK’s population and raises 9.9% of the UK’s taxes, and that over the past five years, taking tax and spend together, Scotland was £12.6 billion relatively better off.
If the hon. Gentleman is exercised by the Barnett formula, and he clearly is, the best thing that he can do is to join his brothers in Scotland and support independence, and then he can stop worrying about it. He will no longer be troubled by the green-eyed monster when it comes to someone getting a fraction more or a fraction less. Actually, that concern should not exist because, as I have pointed out, Scotland contributes 9.9% of the UK’s taxation although it accounts for only 8.4% of its population. In each of the past 32 years, Scotland has contributed more tax per person than the UK average.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the population of Scotland in comparison with the rest of the UK, and he mentioned taxation. One of the important taxes for the man and woman on the street in Scotland will be income tax, and that income tax level is only 7.2% of the UK collection rate. He has also mentioned Norway. Would he like to share with us the income tax levels for people in Norway, and whether those living in an independent Scotland could actually stomach such rates of tax?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me down an inviting road. As I have mentioned, average wages in Norway are twice what they are in the UK after tax. After adjusting for purchasing power, the average Norwegian has 43% more money, or £158 extra, each week in their pocket than the average person in the UK. In addition, inequality in Norway is lower than it is in the UK. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in making his constituents wealthier, he should follow the model that the SNP proposes, under which we would set up an oil fund and ensure that the gains of productivity were distributed far more equally in our society than they are at the moment in the UK. Inequality in the UK is the fourth highest in the OECD, and that is not something that he should be defending. He should join me in making Scotland a more egalitarian and wealthier place. Norway proves that that can happen with independence and oil.
I would love to take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but you are inviting me to wind up, Mr Weir. I thought that I had been doing so quite successfully, but I shall bring my remarks to a close. I would just like to mention the pleasure that I alluded to earlier of reading that Standard Life agreed with the Scottish Government on the currency. It should be borne in mind that Standard Life has at various points in the past 20 years threatened to walk out of Scotland if this, that or the other happened. Of course, it has not and it will not.
It is not just Standard Life. British Airways and Ryanair are seeing opportunities coming through, which may well benefit those in the north of England. They may prefer to take cheaper flights abroad from Scotland rather than making the long and arduous journey down to the south-east of England through snarled-up traffic. British Airways demonstrates the nub of the issue.
Language, please. The hon. Gentleman lets himself down.
My final point is that when we put all the scares and fears aside, we see that independence offers opportunities not only for Scotland but for the north of England, and that it will increase the aggregate GDP of the British Isles. Nobody would roll back the independence of any other countries that have become independent, and I wager that when Scotland becomes independent, nobody will roll that back either. The voices that try to scare us about independence are the same ones that endlessly tried to scare us about devolution. They repeat the same fears as before when it comes to independence. None of them wants to reverse the independence of any European country, however, and when Scotland has become independent, they will support it wholeheartedly. Those in the north of England and the Borders will tell us of their great relations with Scotland, and they will tell us that an independent Scotland is the best thing since sliced bread.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and it is a privilege to follow the party political broadcast for the Scottish National party—we look forward to the idea of “Scotland, the new Liechtenstein” being rolled out in the referendum debate. I feared that I would not get to speak, so I will be brief, to allow other Members to contribute.
In principle, I support allowing Scotland a referendum, so that the people can decide. How could I not, with my track record of advocating referendums? I am concerned, however, about the way in which the referendum has come about, and about its legitimacy, given who will be voting. I have never quite been resigned to the anomaly that allows 400,000 English people living in Scotland to vote, but 500,000 Scottish people living in England not to vote. It is strange that many of the Scottish people whom I represent will have no say, but my mother who lives in Hamilton will get a vote—she will, I am sure, vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.
We are primarily present, however, to discuss not the referendum, its format or how it came about, but what it might mean. There are two possible options. Scotland could, of course, vote to leave the United Kingdom. That is unlikely, because the Scottish people are sensible enough to want to remain part of the United Kingdom, but the possibility remains. They might be persuaded by the slogans and rhetoric of those who legitimately make the argument for independence. As we have discussed this morning, though, there would then be all sorts of problems and unanswered questions. How would they deal with taking a share of the national debt? How much would that share be, and what would the deal look like? What would the currency be, if it cannot be sterling? What would Scotland’s relationship with the European Union look like?
No, I would not, personally. It would be a suboptimal position, were Scotland to go independent, and I think that Scotland would not find it to be in its long-term interests.
Furthermore, how would Scotland deal with an exodus of companies that have made it clear that they would not be comfortable remaining based in Scotland were it to cast itself adrift from the United Kingdom? All those questions have been debated at some length, however, and I want to look at what is more likely to happen. It is more likely that Scotland will sensibly vote to remain part of the UK. That is why this debate is important, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on it. What happens in that case could be important for the region that he and I represent; indeed, it could have an impact on the north-east and the north-west, and on the north of England as a whole. Without doubt, debate would quickly move on to further devolution, devo-max and what Scotland will look like as part of the United Kingdom, post the independence referendum. What would the new settlement be? I have no doubt that there would be a push for further powers to be devolved and further control to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, and I fear what that would mean for the north-east.
We already have a competitive disadvantage in the north-east as a result of some of the powers that Scotland has devolved to it today. As regards competition with the north-east, Scottish Enterprise is able to give an extra push towards investing in Scotland, and to appeal to companies on where they bring their business, employment and investment. It is not necessarily the case that Teesside and Tyneside would prosper at the expense of places such as Aberdeen, but the reality is that companies choose where they will be located. There should be a level playing field, with fair conditions on both sides of the border, when companies make that choice.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again, because we are short of time.
After Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom, as I am sure it will, my concern is that the north of England will face a challenge. While we do everything we can to support the country, the economy and its growth as a whole, we must ensure that we do not allow an unfair competitive advantage that would damage the economies of the people and constituencies that we represent.
The hon. Gentleman and I know that the growth of Teesport in our region is massively dependent on exports to the Scottish market. For example, last January, Bunn Fertiliser announced that it would use Teesport to export not only to its English sites, but to the Scottish market. Can he give any other examples in our area of the Scottish market being so crucial to Teesside?
The examples are legion. The entire chemical processing industry and our engineering expertise on Teesside are in competition for jobs and investment with similar industry in many parts of Scotland. That goes not only for Teesside, but for Tyneside, Wearside, County Durham and the north of England as a whole. It is important for us to work together, and to improve the economies of all such areas where we can. We must not allow unfair competition that would unjustifiably and unfairly penalise the people we represent in the north of England.
Where would that take us? If Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, the greater debate would be the one that took place in the north of England. The push would be for further regionalisation. We had a vote some years ago on whether we wanted a regional assembly, and the proposal was rejected in an outstandingly clear result. My concern is that that movement and impetus would arise again, out of a feeling of unfairness about Scotland being able to compete in a way that disadvantaged the north of England. The push towards regionalisation in England would start again—it would start in the north—and it is not something that I want to see.
Scotland voting no, if handled in the wrong way, could lead to further regionalisation, damage and break-up in the United Kingdom. I have no objection to powers being given to regions, but I do not want wholesale transfers away from our existing united model, which I support. We resoundingly rejected a regional assembly, but this could open the door to that debate starting again. The people of the north-east do not want a regional assembly, and the people of England do not want an English Parliament—that is not a route that the United Kingdom should go down—but I fear that a no vote, if handled in an improper way, might allow the creation of unfair competition and disadvantage for areas such as the north-east and the north-west, and for constituencies similar to mine, leading us down a path that would do irreparable damage in the long term to the United Kingdom.
I welcome the debate, and we will hear much more on the subject in future. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield on raising such an important issue. I hope that, whoever is in government and whatever the situation at the time, people in London and in Westminster will appreciate the significance of further devolution to Scotland if it unfairly disadvantages the north-east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. The impact of Scottish separation on the north-east has received little attention. I am pleased that we are able to discuss the consequences of separation for the north-east, as well as for Scotland.
My view, for the record, is that we all benefit from Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. My constituency is a bit further from the border than that of other Members present, but in common with many people throughout England who have family ties with Scotland and feel a real sense of connection, I am proud of the longstanding relationship that we enjoy with our Scottish neighbours. It is right that any decision on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom is a matter for Scotland alone, but the United Kingdom has benefited from Scotland being part of it, just as Scotland has seen many benefits from being part of the United Kingdom.
The challenges that we face in the north-east are all too familiar to the Scots, and are similar to their concerns in daily life. Our shared trading links are a massive advantage on both sides of the border. Businesses and other organisations, such as the North East chamber of commerce, have rightly expressed concerns about the undoubted negative impact on jobs, growth and trade of a vote for separation.
There are many unanswered questions about the practical implications of separation. Unfortunately, this morning we have had no answers from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), speaking on behalf of the Scottish National party, whether about border controls, currency or membership of the European Union. It is incumbent on those who propose independence as an ideal to offer answers to genuine questions on such important issues.
The hon. Lady talked about sharing an affinity with Scotland. I have an affinity with Ireland, but I do not want us to share a Prime Minister, necessarily. Are there voices in north-east England expressing concern about jobs flooding into Scotland, as they might put it?
In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), yes. Steelworkers in the north-east were concerned when the SNP Government awarded the contract for the firth of Forth crossing to China. If it were not for steelworkers in England—in Scunthorpe and Darlington—bringing that up with the Scottish Government, the SNP would not have U-turned and offered the contract to the Dalzell site, so that there was fabrication in Darlington as well.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He takes a keen interest in such issues. Teesside is an important part of the UK steel industry, and he has steadily made that point about the impact if Scotland were to become independent.
I believe that more unites us than divides us. Our shared links and shared history matter. We simply cannot afford the uncertainty and the risk to jobs and trade that Scottish independence would bring. I do not want to see Scotland break away, but that decision is for the Scottish people—I respect that. I hope, though, that when voters go to the polls in Scotland, they will see the benefits of remaining part of this successful and enduring Union. I hope that it will endure for many centuries to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate and on his passionate contribution, in which he argued for the strengths of the Union of the United Kingdom. We have heard a lot this morning—about the impacts of independence on the steel industry in Scotland and the north-east; border controls and barriers; connectivity between the north-east and Scotland; EU membership; euro membership and currency in general; farming; North sea oil exploration and engineering; and a history lesson about Bavaria and Prussia from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).
I have seen things from both sides of the border. My father was a Scots miner, who married my mother, an Englishwoman, in Dunfermline abbey. They lived in Dunfermline, and then moved back to the north of England—that is where my mother was from. I was born in Acomb, in Northumberland, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). I lived in Northumberland and then Cumberland, as it was then, until I was 14, before moving to Clackmannanshire in Scotland, where I have lived since, and I now have the privilege of representing it as part of my constituency. In the 1970s and 1980s, I worked for 10 years for the UK’s biggest house builder, Barratt, a north-east company that has in the past seen excellent growth and rewards from its Scottish business ventures. That kind of relationship is under pressure from independence.
That is a disappointing tone to take. All I can say is that I am severely surprised. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the different countries of his ancestry. Had his parents or grandparents been from countries outside the UK, would he have had a difficulty about that? Had he an ancestor from Denmark or Ireland, would he be internationalist on this issue, or does the fact that his ancestors are from the UK give him a particular difficulty?
It was not any better than the speech, at all. The hon. Gentleman really needs to be saved from himself in this place. My experience is of understanding the relationship between north-east England and Scotland, first hand. Those bonds demonstrate, I feel, the underlying strength of the Union, a sentiment that I know is shared by most Members present, with one obvious exception. Such links highlight that the debate surrounding independence does not affect Scotland in isolation but has significant implications for the rest of the UK. Nowhere is that felt more keenly than in north-east England.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield spoke with conviction about the common identity shared by Scotland and the north-east, and I am in full agreement with those sentiments. There can be no doubt about the bond in our industrial centres, such as Glasgow and Newcastle, or Sunderland and Dundee, based on our shared history, family and political perspective.
I, too, remember the 1980s, when Scotland and the north-east stood together against the poll tax and pit closures. People recognised then, as we do now, that any political change that we hope for can be reached only through the unity of shared identity and interests. That common bond would simply not be achievable if Scotland and the north-east were in separate countries.
The bonds of the 1980s can be felt just as strongly today, as can be seen by the fact that close to 150,000 people who were born in Scotland live in north-east or north-west England, and we have heard today about the many who travel across the border to work every day. Most of those people have made it abundantly clear that they do not want the break-up of the UK, as can be seen in a recent independent poll, which showed that 62% of Britons want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. People want that not only because of the bonds that we share, but because of an underlying recognition that independence for Scotland could leave them worse off.
That brings me to an important point, echoed throughout today’s debate: independence has the potential to create uncertainty for our nearest neighbours, as well as for Scotland. John Tomaney, formerly of Newcastle university, has indicated that independence could have significant economic consequences for the north-east; in particular, he has highlighted the undesirable situation of Scotland competing directly with the north-east for investment. North-east England would be in the unfortunate position of being caught between a prosperous south and an independent Scotland fixated on implementing Irish levels of corporation tax. The end result would be a dangerous race to the bottom when it comes to wages and conditions, a scenario that would have serious implications for not only job security but the growth and development of the economies of both Scotland and the north-east.
That concern is not restricted to today’s debate; it has been voiced over a number of years. In evidence to the Calman commission on Scottish devolution in 2009, the North East chamber of commerce expressed its concerns about what it called
“the creation of a Scottish rate of Corporation Tax”,
“the potential for wasteful competition”.
That view was recently echoed by the chamber’s head of policy, Ross Smith, who has stated that the north-east
“will feel the impact of any competition from north of the border more keenly than others”
“the future of Scotland is a big issue for many businesses”
in the region.
Those concerns are only reinforced by the fact that the nationalists still have no credible plans on what currency would be used in an independent Scotland—that issue has been explored today, and we are still waiting for an answer. The situation leads only to uncertainty for the thousands of companies in the north-east and north-west that trade directly with Scottish businesses. The separatists are putting economic output and jobs in north-east England in jeopardy.
With just over six months to go until the referendum, the SNP has simply not provided any substantial answers to those important questions and many others raised today. As a result, it is damaging Scotland’s prospects with its crossed fingers, and its strapline from Alex Salmond of “Trust me: it’ll be all right on the night.” It also runs the risk of damaging the north of England, part of the country that would be an independent Scotland’s biggest supplier and marketplace. That is why it is insincere of the SNP to assert that backing an independent Scotland would be in the best interests of the economy of north-east England, while not being straight about the impact on the north-east of its proposed cut to corporation tax.
We have a bigger idea than independence. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, Labour is a national party, not a nationalist one. By their very nature, nationalists are separatists, whereas my party has its roots firmly in the whole of the UK, as has been shown today. I would encourage people to pay attention to the Institute for Public Policy Research’s “Borderland” report, which argues that the key to success for north-east England lies in more joint working with Scotland—a point we heard in contributions from hon. Members today. Working within the shared institutions of the UK is the obvious means of delivering and achieving that, rather than trying to forge a relationship with a newly formed foreign country.
This debate will go on, so perhaps we should have another debate on the same topic. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) bemoaned the 1:18 ratio among Members here today. Perhaps he can put in for a debate; then he could make a longer contribution, although that might be a bit of a challenge. However, today’s debate has made it clear that although the outcome of the referendum is rightly a matter only for people living in Scotland, the debate must be open to all. Open debate will be vital in the coming months if we are to provide any clarity in the uncertainty that the independence referendum poses for Scotland and the north-east. Independence for Scotland will do nothing to build jobs, improve social justice or raise the aspirations of people in north-east England.
As I said, I was born in north-east England, in the UK. I have lived in north-east England and in central Scotland, in the UK. I have worked in central Scotland and in this place, in the UK. I intend to make sure that, after 18 September, living in central Scotland and working in this place, I am still living and working in the UK. That is why I welcome today’s debate, and I hope there will be further opportunities to discuss these issues in the weeks and months ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir; I commend the fair way in which you have performed your duties. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate, and I welcome the contributions from Members from both sides of the border and of all political persuasions. Some Members are new to the debate on Scotland that we are regularly subjected to—or take part in, depending on one’s perspective.
Today is an important day in the referendum debate, because I hear from the BBC that Mr Alex Salmond is coming to England to reach out over the heads of the “Westminster elite”—I do not know whether that is us—to the people of England. I understand that he will tell them that they have no right to have a say in whether England enters into a currency union with Scotland, and that if Scotland becomes an independent country in the EU, English students will still have to pay tuition fees, contrary to EU law. That sounds like a very friendly message, which will be much welcomed.
The hon. Gentleman makes an astute point. We all listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), but it did not contain many facts about what independence will mean for an independent Scotland, or what currency it will have. Mr Salmond needs to be clear that the message on the currency union is not a bluff. He needs to tell us what his alternative plan is. Sterlingisation would leave Scotland with no central bank, no lender of last resort and no control over its interest rates. The Scottish Government’s fiscal commission said that sterlingisation
“is not likely to be a long-term solution”.
Mr Salmond looks like a man without a plan. Perhaps the people of England will find out what the people of Scotland have not found out: his plan B for currency.
As a number of Members have pointed out, being part of a strong United Kingdom benefits us all, on whichever side of the border we live. We all benefit from the stability and certainly that comes from being part of the large and diverse UK single market of 63 million people, rather than the market of the 5 million people of Scotland. The UK really is greater than the sum of its parts; we all put something in and we all get something out.
As part of the UK, Scotland has a broad tax base that allows us to share risks across the UK, and enables us to deal with economic shocks such as the 2008 financial crisis, and to support our ageing population. We have influence on the world stage as a member of the UN Security Council, the EU, NATO, the G8, the G20 and the Commonwealth. At home, institutions such as the NHS and the BBC benefit us all. Scotland benefits from having a strong Scottish Parliament that can make decisions about the things that affect our everyday lives, such as our schools and hospitals. We can pool our resources in the good times and share risks in the bad times with our families and friends in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I left the Scottish Parliament because I was elected to Westminster. I am a supporter of the Scottish Parliament. I want to remind our friends who are not usually part of this debate that the Scottish National party did not support the devolution proposal in 1997, or the Calman commission’s proposal to give the Scottish Parliament additional powers in 2012.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Although he and I did not vote for the SNP Government in Edinburgh—nor did most people in Dumfries and Galloway—we are not saying that we should tear up the devolution settlement simply because we do not like the Government in Edinburgh. Rather, we are campaigning against the Government and saying that they should be changed. We are not tearing up our country simply because we do not believe in individual policies.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said that the only change that would come from independence is a change of Prime Minister—I think I heard him correctly, but I will check his words carefully, because I intend to have them printed out and distributed as widely as possible. He gave us the best case against independence that I have heard for some considerable time.
As a number of Members have said, like Scotland, the north-east benefits from the UK’s size and scale, and the ability to share risks and resources. Within the UK’s single market, we all benefit from close trading links, which continue to grow. The hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) made those points strongly. Scotland sold goods and services worth more than £45.5 billion to other parts of the UK in 2011; that is double what we sell to the rest of the world, and four times as much as we sell to the EU. About 30,000 people travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK to work each day.
The strong ties between Scotland and the north-east are clearly illustrated by the work of the “Borderlands” initiative. As a Member of Parliament for Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish borders, I am keen to encourage that close cross-border work. We must bring more closely together the strategic interests on both sides of the border.
The right hon. Gentleman is a powerful advocate of the dualling of the A1 to the border. It was not clear from his contribution that the A1 in Scotland is not dualled to the border; he might have wished to give that impression. However, he makes a strong argument for his proposition. He also made a strong point about cross-border services. Many of my constituents gratefully receive hospital treatment in Newcastle, and they do not want additional bureaucracy to block that. Although the NHS works on a devolved arrangement in Scotland, it is a shared institution and people do not want it to be separated.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield powerfully made the point about the border effect, which can be seen in the case of not only Canada and the US, but Austria and Germany. Creating a border will have an impact on trade. Hon. Members might be aware that our SNP friends have a pick ’n’ mix approach to comparisons with Scotland. Sometimes it is Norway, sometimes Finland, and sometimes Lithuania; today it was Lichtenstein—tomorrow, who knows? What we do know is that Scotland is better off within the United Kingdom. The only way to keep the benefits for trade and the labour market, the UK pound and cultural links is for Scotland to vote no in the referendum. That is why the UK Government will do everything we can to make a positive case for a strong United Kingdom with Scotland as an integral part.
Patient Medical Records
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to today’s debate on how our health service can use patient data to improve health care.
Using data collected by the NHS to improve patient care sounds like a wonderful idea and it should be something that we can all support. However, almost nobody in the country, apart from NHS England, the Department of Health and companies with a commercial interest in the area, support what has been proposed. The scheme, which had the chance to bring about huge benefits for patients, has suffered from a complete failure to listen to either patients or doctors. The bottom line is that people simply do not want their medical data to be sold to the private sector or used for profit-making activities, and no amount of awareness raising or leafleting will change that.
I want to ensure that we have a consent-based model for using patient data that patients are happy with and have confidence in. Patients’ opinions should be used to inform the way in which care.data works and not trampled over in the hurry to extract data. Patients matter, but we have heard no apology to all those who were not properly informed about care.data and whose confidential data would have been extracted without their knowledge if there had not been this hastily arranged delay. Why, I ask, have we had no apology to the in-patients who did not receive the leaflet, those with learning difficulties or visual impairments who could not read or understand it, and those whose first language is not English, or to the elderly, sick and infirm, who could not get to their GPs to discuss the scheme?
I fully support the principles behind care.data, but I think we need balance here. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that no patients were informed at all about the fact that their hospital episode statistics data were being released under the previous Administration, and they had no opportunity either to opt in or opt out?
Well, there is not a Labour Minister responding at this time; there is a Minister from the Department of Health, which is peopled by members of the coalition Government.
Let me make it clear: this is not an argument between people who are in favour of research and those who are against it. Of course, we all want to facilitate life-saving medical research, but I want to do so without damaging patient confidentiality or public confidence in the NHS. We now have another chance to get this right, and we have six months in which to do that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a timely debate on a very important subject. Does he agree with me that a scheme that is already lacking in public confidence is not helped when Atos has been awarded the contract to extract the data from GP records? Does he agree that that should never have happened?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and indeed, I will come to that point later. As I said, we have an opportunity in the next six months to try to get the scheme right. If the Government now address the many concerns raised about privacy, consent and the creeping commercialisation of our health service, they have the opportunity to create a scheme that offers enormous benefit to health care and research. However, if they fail to do that and continue to steamroll ahead, ignoring public concern, in six months’ time they will find themselves in precisely the same place as they are now, faced by massive public opposition to a scheme that has the potential to do so much good and to save lives.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has noticed an issue that has emerged. NHS England uploaded a vast amount of hospital patient data—188 million records—to Google servers. That was done—we have already heard mention of the firm, Atos—by PA Consulting Group, which lost a Home Office contract a few years ago because of data loss. Does he agree that it appears that NHS England has now lost control of the IT side of the project, and that before we go forward, we need full disclosure of all the uses to date of patient data?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) has taken note of what she said and that the Department will be forthcoming in identifying exactly how much confidential NHS data have been released to private profit-making companies. He might also point out how much income the Government have received from that.
There are a huge number of problems with the existing scheme. I could mention the information leaflets that look more like junk mail and have no opt-out return slip on them, or the fact that data extraction was planned to start before the code of practice on who will be allowed to access the data was completed, or the lack of a clear figure on cost. However, perhaps the most damaging flaw in the whole plan has been the refusal to listen to or to address those concerns when they were raised by doctors and patients. We simply cannot and should not bring in a scheme that lacks the consent and approval of the vast majority of people whose confidential health data will be used.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the Chamber for consideration; it is the second time in three weeks that we have had the chance to debate the issue. Data collection is important, because of the benefits that could come from it, but confidentiality and people’s confidence in the system have been undermined. Does he agree that the fact that the NHS data collection is specific to England, and that the Northern Ireland Assembly Minister responsible has indicated that he would have some concerns over a similar proposal, indicates that there is not unanimous support for it across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which just goes to show that the Northern Ireland Assembly view the matter with more concern than the Department of Health seems to at the moment.
I say again that simply spending the next six months dropping more leaflets through letterboxes or building a website will not be anywhere near good enough. The Government must now come up with a coherent plan of how they will change care.data to address the many concerns that have been raised, and NHS England must work out how it will let people know about that.
Basically, the Government have two choices, but first they should stop fighting with GPs and patients who are unhappy with the scheme. I can assure the Minister that the GPs and patients who have contacted me have plenty of ideas about how the scheme could operate with proper safeguards built in. Will the Minister commit, during the six-month period, to engaging with GPs and patient groups about their concerns? As I have said, the Government have two options. They can either ensure that all the patient data extracted are only shared with non profit-making bodies working in the NHS or with recognised medical charities, or, and this is the second option, allow identifiable data to be extracted and used by companies for profit, but only, surely, when patients have specifically opted in to permit that.
The one thing any new scheme must have is clarity. Which datasets and variables will be released? Who decides what information or combination counts as identifiable information? Who will be held accountable if data are wrongly released and confidentiality breaches occur? What will happen if a patient withdraws their consent after data have been extracted, because they change their mind?
The Government must engage with GPs and patients. They could do far worse than look at the survey carried out by Pulse, which showed that three quarters of GPs believe that NHS England should abandon the opt-out system and ensure that data are extracted only after patients have given consent.
Is there any reason to believe that the opt-in would end up covering more than about 13% of patients, as is the case in other countries? What use is that to future generations that want their conditions cured and their diseases ended by good medicine?
If the hon. Gentleman believes that only 13% would choose to opt in, does that not prove that 87% have considerable concerns about the entire basis of the scheme? People do not want their data to be taken outside of the confidentiality agreement that exists with their GP.
Thank you very much, Mr Weir.
The Pulse survey found that as many as one in 12 GPs are considering opting out all of their patients from the scheme, and 33% said that they were undecided. Unless public awareness and GP confidence improves massively in the next six months, we will see huge opt-outs. What would the consequences of that be for the health service? I asked the Minister what would happen if a GP refused to upload patient data. His rather disconcerting reply was that
“NHS England would need to consider whether to take remedial action for breach of contract.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 275W.]
Will the Minister tell us whether such remedial action would make it impossible for GPs to continue to practise? Can he guarantee that doctors will not lose their jobs for doing what they believe to be best for their patients by protecting the confidentiality of personal data?
NHS England has said that it is delaying the scheme for six months because it wants to ensure that the public better understands the proposals. That is a hugely arrogant argument. NHS England is basically saying, “Look, we know best. We tried to get this through by stealth but we got found out. We will therefore delay it by six months while we try to explain it better to you, the public. We know best—we understand and you do not.” As I just said in response to the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), 87% of the population have considerable concerns about the scheme and do not want their data to be taken outside of the confidentiality agreement that exists between a patient and their doctor.
No, I have given way on many occasions.
NHS England must start listening. GPs in Birmingham, where my constituency is, have said that they simply do not have time to have a proper conversation with patients about data sharing. GP surgeries are already stretched, and patients struggle to get an appointment within a reasonable time frame. Are we really suggesting that GPs should be talking to patients about the minutiae of a data-sharing scheme when ill people already cannot get an appointment? Would that really be the best use of doctors’ time?
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) raised the issue of who is going to extract the information, and pointed out that Atos appears to have won the contract. At first, I thought that that was a joke, and I looked at the calendar to check that it was not 1 April. If it is seriously being suggested that Atos, probably the most loathed and inept company operating in the UK, is to be left to extract the data, all I can say is God help the patients of this country. The Department for Work and Pensions has found that 60% of Atos disability assessments have been overturned on appeal. The company is absolutely hopeless. How on earth can the Government award it a contract to extract patient data? I ask the Minister: will it be done in this country, or on the other side of the world? I have no confidence whatever that Atos will be able to retain the confidentiality that patients want.
In conclusion, some people say that the choice is between protecting patient confidentiality and saving lives, but that is a false choice. As I said right at the start of my speech, people such as me who are concerned about the scheme are not against medical research or the provision of information to allow research to go ahead. I am opposed, along with the vast majority of people in this country, to private information about patients being sold off to private companies for private gain. That cannot be right. I urge the Government to look at the issue again and listen to what doctors and patients are saying.
Order. Sir Peter is seeking to make a speech, but given the time, I can let him do so only if both the Minister and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) agree to it. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has received any notice that Sir Peter wishes to speak.
As I said in the previous debate on this issue, I am grateful that this debate has been held. Nevertheless, I hope that we will take the advice of Ben Goldacre, who said that patients should wait before they opt out and that NHS England should listen before it makes a final decision. I hope that we will find a way to satisfy people, and I strongly urge people to make their data available for the benefit of us all. That is what community is about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, I believe for the first time. It is also a pleasure to respond to the debate and the points raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff). I congratulate him on securing the debate, as well as on the keen interest he has shown in the correspondence we have conducted via written questions. We have talked through some of the issues and he has expressed concerns about the importance of patient confidentiality.
I hope today to be able to reassure Members that strong safeguards were put in place by the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and that the creation of the Health & Social Care Information Centre was not a sudden event. The process is evolutionary and was debated fully and thoroughly during scrutiny of the Health and Social Care Bill a few years ago. I was a member of the Health and Social Care Bill Committee, as was the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), and it sat for longer than almost any other Committee in the House for more than a decade. It is therefore not correct to say that the issues have not been debated and properly scrutinised in the past, because they absolutely have.
I am not going to give way because of the time. I have not said anything controversial; I am just reiterating the fact that a lot of the issues that have arisen today were discussed at great length during scrutiny of that Bill. The hon. Gentleman will recall that as he made many interventions and speeches in Committee.
We need to highlight the importance of this issue. We must ensure that we have the right data and the right processes in the NHS to inform good care. It is about ensuring that we have the data to improve research, to drive better integration and, in the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal and the Francis inquiry, to ensure transparency in protecting patient confidentiality and in the quality of care provided by health care providers so that we can ensure that high quality care is provided throughout the NHS and that its quality is properly scrutinised. We must learn from examples of good care, and where, by comparison and other standards, care is not good it should be transparently exposed.
There are important research benefits, too. We know that if we want to combat disease, address some of the challenges that we face in the health system and improve our knowledge of diseases from cancer to heart disease, we need to have the right information. We have to ensure that we collect data and information to improve patient care, which is the heart of everything we are talking about today. As long as we do that—I believe that we have the right safeguards in place through the 2012 Act and through the further clarifications and reassurances provided by the amendments to the Care Bill that have been tabled for next week—we are in the right place to deliver improved transparency and care quality while ensuring that we protect patient confidentiality, in which we all believe.
I am passionate about the principles of care, data, and I will not be opting out because of the benefits that the Minister and many others have outlined. He mentions the Francis report, and one of its fundamental principles was that people should be open and transparent about past errors and take account of genuine concerns. I am concerned that what we are hearing from the Health & Social Care Information Centre is very defensive. There is a complete refusal to be transparent about errors; it is blaming everything on a previous body. Many members of those two bodies are the same, so for us to proceed with confidence those legitimate concerns must be addressed.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is also important to highlight that sections 263 to 265 of the 2012 Act put much stronger safeguards in place. Those sections state that processes must be in place in the Health & Social Care Information Centre to ensure confidentiality and to ensure that data are always handled in the right way. The body is responsible for ensuring that those processes are kept up to date and that there are accountability frameworks for those processes. That important step forward was not in place for the previous body.
I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I want to make progress on some of the points raised in this debate. I will have to be brief any way, and she had a good chance to question me when I appeared before the Select Committee on Health last week. If she feels that she did not have an opportunity to discuss all of the issues, I am sure she will have an opportunity next week when we discuss these matters in our consideration of the Care Bill. Amendments were tabled last night to support some of the issues that we are talking about today. Those amendments will be considered next week, and I am sure those Members who cannot contribute in greater detail today because of the time will be able to contribute much more fully to next week’s debate.
Finally, it is important to talk about driving and supporting integrated, joined-up health and social care across the system, in which we all believe. I know that those Members who are members of the Health Committee believe in that because I remember being a member of that Committee with the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Easington. If we are to deliver better integrated care, we need to have the right data. One of the key challenges in the past is that we did not collect the data effectively to measure what good integrated care looks like. We know we need to improve the collection of those data, and we want people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, dementia and asthma to be better supported in their own homes and communities. Of course we need to have the data to do that. A lot of those data will come from primary care, and it is important that we put together those data and analyse them to understand what good care looks like. We have not been in the right place to deal with that in the past, but I am confident that we will be in the right place to do it while protecting patient confidentiality with the measures that we are seeking to implement.
The point that I wanted to make is in line with what the Minister is saying. Following the revelations about IT issues that I mentioned, and the apology that his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) made yesterday to the Commons, will he now agree that it would be sensible for Ministers and NHS England to consider keeping one copy of the care.data database and run staff queries against it, so that it is held in one place and not scattered about on various servers, causing consternation and the need for websites to be taken down, as they were yesterday, because NHS England does not know where the hospital data have gone? The only solution is the one that we discussed last week: keeping one copy and running staff queries against it.
It is absolutely right that the discussions that we have had in this debate and the issues raised about care.data have been helpful in building on the safeguards in the 2012 Act to improve the processes of the Health & Social Care Information Centre, as a new body, to ensure that it has particular regard to putting strong confidentiality criteria in place. It is also right to keep those criteria under regular review. Obviously, there is regular communication between that body and the Information Commissioner about issues such as protecting confidentiality.
I am sure that we have a robust set of criteria in place under the 2012 Act. It may be helpful to hon. Members if I outline what they are. I reassure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green that the data are not released for profit. It is about cost recovery when they are. It is also important to say that data are not released in identifiable form without a strong public policy reason: for example, in a civil emergency or some such situation. Data must be used for the benefit of the health and care system. That is a strong set of criteria for use of the data, and strong safeguards are in place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already put in place an opt-out for patients who do not want to be involved in the process, which has not been the case in the past.
It is important in this context to highlight that we are not taking a sudden, big-bang approach or change to data; this is an evolutionary process. In 1989, in-patient data were collected for the first time; in 2003, out-patient data; in 2007 and 2008, accident and emergency data. That was about improving and driving transparency, developing better care pathways for patients with, for example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ensuring that we better used data to benefit the health service and patients. Now, when it is so important to drive better integration, primary care data will also be collected. That is not a revolutionary change; it is an evolutionary change. What is important is that now, under the 2012 Act, we have much stronger safeguards in place better to protect patient confidentiality and much more rigorous processes under which the Health & Social Care Information Centre, as a new body, will operate, in order to ensure that it regularly reviews its processes and uses data in the right way.
It is also important to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fully supports and is committed to the principles of the programme, which will alert the NHS where standards drop, enable prompt action to be taken, help staff understand what happens to people, especially those with long-term conditions, and help us develop and improve care. However, in order to reassure hon. Members further and bring greater clarity to some of the issues and discussions, we have tabled some amendments to the Care Bill. We will have an opportunity to discuss them fully next week when we debate the Bill. I am sure that when hon. Members see them, in conjunction with the safeguards already in place under the 2012 Act that were not there before, they will be reassured.
The programme is a good one. It is doing the right thing, improving research, driving up care standards in our NHS and supporting the integration of the health and care system, which we all believe in. It is also protecting patient confidentiality. With those reassurances, I close my remarks. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity next week to debate fully any further issues or concerns that they may have. I will bring them the reassurances that they need.
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I am delighted finally to have secured this afternoon’s debate. The A303 is a 92-mile road of historic importance that runs from Basingstoke to Devon and is one of only two major routes across the south-west. It is often affectionately referred to as the highway to the sun, because of its popularity with holidaymakers. I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber have fond memories of their long trips down it.
Unfortunately, such trips have become far from stress-free, and they now take far too long, because of the formidable traffic jams that are regarded as an everyday occurrence even outside the high season. A document published by the Department for Transport in July last year revealed that an estimated 20,000 vehicles drive within 200 metres of Stonehenge on an average day. The problems have become particularly acute since the closure of the A344 at Stonehenge. Sadly, to my constituents, the old Roman name for the road, which was the devil’s highway, seems appropriate. For many people, travelling on the A303 has become a deep source of frustration. Parents battling to the west country in half-term dread it, but it is a hassle that they face only once or twice a year. It is far worse for my constituents, who have to wrestle every day with what feels like one of the most notorious traffic blackspots in the country.
I have called the debate because I want to ensure that the 15 miles of the A303 that run through my constituency are not overlooked in the Government’s evaluation of the road as one of their national strategic priorities. More than 20 years have passed since the first dualling proposal was put on the table, and a staggering £43 million has been spent on numerous feasibility studies that have ultimately, and very sadly, come to nothing. That is all despite the fact that when the M4/M5 route to Devon and Cornwall was constructed in 1961, it was always envisaged that the A303 would be entirely dualled, given the road traffic and economic forecasts at the time. That was 53 years ago. My predecessor, the excellent Robert Key, campaigned on the matter throughout his 27-year career in the House. He tells me that he had meetings with 70 different Ministers from different Departments during that time, which even involved the late Baroness Thatcher examining maps on the floor of her office.
Sadly, debate over the dualling of the A303 has become increasingly polarised. For those who are primarily concerned with traffic flows and the prosperity of the south-west, dualling is a no-brainer that will ease congestion and boost the regional economy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this vital debate. He is making an excellent case, which I would like to back up by saying that people in Cornwall would benefit enormously from the dualling of the A303 throughout his constituency, because it is a vital arterial road into Cornwall.
My hon. Friend makes a wise and sensible point, and I will expand later on the economic benefits for the south-west as a whole.
On the other side of the argument, we cannot ignore the fact that the A303 runs very close to the UNESCO world heritage site at Stonehenge. We have a responsibility to protect that sacred site and reduce the blight that traffic continues to cause. If we do not, the National Trust, English Heritage, the Stonehenge Alliance and the Council for British Archaeology inform me that Stonehenge will be formally placed on the at-risk register. That would be extremely damaging to our reputation as a world leader in safeguarding our heritage.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, which I will expand on in a moment.
The risk of Stonehenge losing world heritage status is not an empty threat. That happened to Dresden in 2009 when a new four-lane bridge was constructed. As my hon. Friend just said, we must recognise the unique nature of the environment that surrounds the A303. Understanding how the greater Stonehenge and the vast interlacing of pathways, waterways, tombs, stones and enclosures fit together is not the idle pursuit of a few; it is a national heritage responsibility for us all.
As those two perspectives collide, doing nothing is not the only option. Although people tell me, “Just get on and dual the road,” a poorly designed and badly executed overground dual carriageway that undermines a 5,000-year-old world heritage site is not an improvement worth fighting for. In the past, however, all parties have repeatedly united around one solution: a deep-bore tunnel that is at least 2.8 km long, which would pass unseen beneath the hidden barrows and earthworks of the wider Stonehenge site. It seems to me that no other realistic solution has been offered—other proposed solutions have been a cut-and-cover tunnel or open dualling—that provides the same protection for the historic asset of Stonehenge and delivers the improvements to traffic that so many of my constituents desperately seek, and which I so enthusiastically support. Successive programmes have been cancelled on the grounds of costs that made them politically impossible to deliver or justify. As a result, we are left with a highly congested road, dissatisfied local people, wasted investment in feasibility studies, long delays for businesses and an imperfect solution for those who seek fully to address the heritage concerns.
Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes it is difficult to look at the benefit of a project? I look back to the debates over the Channel tunnel and think of what that has delivered. Tourism is mission-critical for the south-west, and if we do not get the A303 sorted, we will have a real problem. Our small businesses depend on it, and if the situation is not improved, the potential of the south-west will never be realised.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Later in my speech, I will describe the analysis that has been done on the impact on the south-west economy, the support of the CBI and others, and the reasons why it is imperative to get on with improving the road.
The difference now, compared with previous attempts to deal with the problem, is that Britain’s engineering expertise has developed and we now have an international reputation for excellence in large-scale infrastructure projects that involve tunnelling. I understand that as a result of the expertise accumulated through Crossrail, the Hindhead tunnel and the Thames Tideway tunnel, the cost of such a project today should, in real terms, be around half the cost that was quoted in 1996.
I recognise that the dualling of the A303 by Stonehenge has aroused significant debate over many years, but the current impasse requires clear ministerial engagement and decisions. I therefore urge the Minister to be the one who unlocks decades of inertia—to be the Minister who finally delivers a solution for the road, rather than being added to the 70 I mentioned earlier who sadly failed.
Ten years ago, the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said:
“Let’s have no further re-examinations and re-examinations and reviews—let’s get on with it”.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for securing this debate. I completely agree with him on the need to be sensitive to Stonehenge and its surrounding environment. Nevertheless, does he share my observation that the road must be dualled at some future point, at least as far as Ilminster, because the volume of traffic will inevitably make it necessary? Indeed, it already has. The question is not really whether we dual it, but whether the Government have enough sense of urgency about the economic benefits for the south-west and the time that is being lost daily. Are we going to keep pushing the problem on to future generations of politicians and future Governments when we should be looking to resolve it ourselves?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He makes a passionate case on behalf of the Somerset people he represents, and everyone in the region, on the legitimate economic arguments for the whole country, and the south-west in particular. I fully back him up on what he said.
Will the Minister tell us how the feasibility study will be framed to deliver an unambiguous solution for the A303 in Wiltshire? I do not mean a solution on paper, and subject to further decisions near or after a general election; I mean a solution that will secure physical changes on the ground. As other Members have said, the A303 is vital to the south-west, but it is also a route used day in, day out, by local people in my constituency, and they are very concerned.
Winterbourne Stoke is a typical Wiltshire village, except that more than 30,000 vehicles thunder through it every day. In just five years, there have been two fatalities and nine serious injuries in a number of collisions. The case for the Winterbourne Stoke bypass was accepted in previous studies and public inquiries. I recently visited the proposed sites with local councillor Ian West, who said that there is no controversy over the best route or its inclusion in any upgrade to the A303. Will the Minister reassure my constituents in the village that this notorious accident blackspot will finally be addressed?
Other local areas have been similarly affected by the pollution, and particularly the noise, caused by the sheer volume of traffic. I am delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), is present. He has drawn my attention to the increased noise and pollution caused by the sheer volume of traffic around Andover. Will the Minister outline today how he intends to tackle that and replace the particularly noisy sections in that constituency? Will he agree, at the very least, to explore resurfacing the road so that those living next to it can have relative peace and quiet restored?
The village of Shrewton in my constituency has also paid a heavy price for the recent traffic changes associated with the construction of the new visitors’ centre at Stonehenge and the closure of the A344, which I mentioned earlier. The work of the Stonehenge Traffic Action Group—STAG—under the leadership of Janice Hassett and Dr Andrew Shuttleworth has motivated me to pursue those issues.
I turn to the wider economic benefits of improvements to the route. A study carried out in 2013 for Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire councils estimates that dualling the A303 would ultimately generate more than £41 billion for the economy, create 21,400 jobs and increase visitor expenditure by £8.6 billion every year. John Cridland, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has said that the A303 should be fast-tracked because it is
“pivotal in underpinning the government’s broader growth priorities: boosting our export capability and maximising the economic potential of all regions.”
Of 650 south-west businesses surveyed, 89% said that the reliability of the journey time was an issue for them, and 77% said that improving the route would increase investment in the area. More than two thirds of Wiltshire businesses alone said that dualling would increase their turnover, saving time, fuel and lives. The issue therefore is not simply one of a bit of traffic on the edge of Salisbury plain. The A303 is one of just two transport arteries to the south-west. The British Chambers of Commerce has shown that upgrading it offers the highest benefit-to-cost ratio of any UK transport project, including—dare I say it—a third runway at Heathrow.
Why would businesses invest in sites if accessing them involves travelling regularly on the A303? Staff would be plagued by delays and rarely be on time, while clients would never know whether staff would turn up. The benefits, therefore, are clear, as is the choice. We can continue with the clogged-up artery that is the existing A303, or we can provide the region with a much needed lifeline to catalyse economic growth in the south-west. It is somewhat sad that seven years ago my predecessor held a debate in this Chamber on this exact topic, but since that point nothing tangible has emerged from Governments of either side.
In recent days, I have spoken to English Heritage, the National Trust and Stonehenge Alliance, and I have received representations from the Council for British Archaeology, which will not accept anything that threatens the heritage interests of the area. Decades of consultations mean that we know the position of the Ministry of Defence and of the numerous stakeholders I have referred to, which have all contributed many times to the lengthy, expensive and repetitious public inquiries over the years. Let us be honest and say that tackling Stonehenge might well be the most difficult part of the A303 programme, but let us then get on with the job.
Let us have no more hand-wringing and procrastination, flying of kites that will not get off the ground or picking off of smaller, cheaper schemes elsewhere along the route—perhaps the Countess roundabout flyover, or an underpass at Longbarrow roundabout. They may be politically more palatable and fiscally less threatening to the Treasury, but they are not really what is required. We need an imaginative and holistic solution, and a realistic, fully costed explanation of how it will be paid for.
Have we explored every funding avenue available? Will the Minister agree to examine European funding avenues related to the economic interests of the far west of the region, which would undoubtedly benefit from the A303 being upgraded? Will he work with other Government Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to ensure that all funding associated with this UNESCO world heritage site is pursued aggressively and exhaustively? More importantly, will the Minister pledge categorically that Stonehenge will not be simply siphoned off into the “too difficult” category in the study, in order to deliver improvements elsewhere on the route?
The harsh reality is that if the Stonehenge solution is ignored and the rest of the A303 is dualled, my constituency will remain host to the bottleneck that prohibits swift and easy access to the wider south-west region.
The Government have commissioned a resilience review for the whole transport infrastructure to the far south-west in Devon and Cornwall, which is very welcome. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might also ask the Minister to consider giving the importance of the A303 greater emphasis in that infrastructure resilience report?
That is a useful intervention. The difficult past few weeks, in which the infrastructure of the south-west has been under enormous pressure, have underscored the fact that we must open up new options for the A303. Sorting out the A303 in Wiltshire will provide a clear gateway to the south-west.
My constituents have been promised so much on this issue by many Ministers over many years; sadly, they have been let down every time. I am determined that they will not be let down again. I ask the Minister to commit today to ensuring that our hopes for the A303 can become a reality. I know that he is a plain-speaking Yorkshireman. I look for plain speaking in his response to us Wiltshire folk, who are fed up with constant words and little action.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Dr McCrea. The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is to be congratulated on securing this debate, not least because the A303 is one of the few strategic road links down to the far south-west, and particularly to Plymouth. Its importance therefore cannot be overstated. The recent extreme weather in the far south-west shows how vulnerable we are; we lack rail and road resilience when major road routes are cut.
The hon. Lady knows the region very well. I will come to those issues a little later, but she is absolutely right that there are major problems when either the M5 or the A303 closes for one reason or another. We have had relatively little investment in the south-west, as recent weeks have shown. Across the south-west, we have less investment in transport per person than any other region in the country, with the possible exception of the north-east in some modes. We are now reaping the consequences.
I say to the Minister that I fully accept that there is no open chequebook—the shadow Chancellor would jump on me if I suggested that there was—but when we look at the Hindhead tunnel, which goes under the gorgeous landscape of the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey, we can see what could be done if the finance were to become available. As the hon. Member for Salisbury made clear, the A303 has long been a subject of Department for Transport attention, and his predecessor was much admired by all parties for his persistence and the intelligent way in which he tried to find a solution to the problem around Stonehenge.
The South West Regional Committee, of which I was the Chair and which reported in 2010, made it clear that we felt it important that the Department for Transport should value the route in terms of the resilience that it provided to the region. We had instances during the recent storms—I will come back to this—when the A303 was partly closed due to falling trees and the rail line was closed for engineering works, as was the M5. Nobody had actually talked to each other. Business in Plymouth and further south ground to a halt. Fortunately, co-ordination between the Highways Agency and Network Rail is now a lot better, but as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) pointed out, we have seen exactly what can happen if those roads close.
Tourism and manufacturing are hugely important issues in the south-west and Plymouth. Although rail usage is growing—when there is a line—we also need road links to bring visitors, freight and goods. Companies such as Wrigley, Princess Yachts and Babcock all need to ship products and supplies via road links rather than rail, due to the nature of the products that they are moving. The Heart of South West local enterprise partnership’s top priority is a faster, more resilient transport system, and it is pressing for improvements to the A303 as part of its key area of activity. It understands the need to move people around by road. Certainly, now that Hinkley Point C will be going forward, there will be a greater need for good road links, and improvements will be required.
The region’s transport planners have been grappling with the A303 for decades. What should be done with it? What should its status be? How can we better connect it with roads further west? The dualling argument to increase resilience is made by motoring organisations such as the RAC as well as local authorities. Dualling the road under the Blackdown hills, for example, would be a huge cost commitment, but it is undoubtedly what local people want, in the same way that tunnelling under Stonehenge is important.
Like many hon. Members here, I have driven along the A303. It is a lovely route winding through a number of counties. Judging by the Members here, it does not go through many Labour constituencies, but I say to Government Members that they have a strong, powerful voice. It is their coalition that is in government. I have seen Members from my party in areas such as the north-east make use of the strength of such a body of people. Government Members have a good opportunity, and they should ensure that they use it.
I will wind up, because I am sure that other hon. Members want to make similar points. I point out that the road does not have national status. Unfortunately, it has not been seen as important by this or previous Governments, but I hope that the Minister will now take a close personal interest in it, because it is important. We have seen the impact of weather on the south-west. If we fail to get a grip on the situation, not only will UNESCO look at Stonehenge—the hon. Member for Salisbury made that point clearly—but we will lose the important opportunity to grow the economy in the south-west. We have a lot to offer, including a lot of manufacturing companies that could do a lot more, but we cannot do it without the transport infrastructure. The A303 is a vital part of that.
In my 17 years in Parliament—other than the period when I was a Minister, when I had to secrete references to the A303 in answers on other things—there has not been a single year in which I have not raised the issue of the A303, so I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing this debate, and for introducing it so well. The A303 is a special road. It is a road of myth and legend, about which books have been written and films made. It is Britain’s mother road. Sadly, it is a neglected mother, because successive Governments have failed to put in the investment needed, and it is frankly unfit for purpose. That is the simple point that many of us have made year after year to Government.
The hon. Member for Salisbury concentrated, quite reasonably, on Stonehenge, which is the major difficulty along the whole road. I hope that he will forgive me for concentrating, despite the fact that we do not have megaliths to hand, on the portion of the road that runs through my constituency, the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch. We have a couple of listed world war 2 hangars turned into houses that are of interest, but they do not quite merit the same attention as Stonehenge. Nevertheless, they are very interesting.
Sparkford to Ilchester is a stretch of road that should have been dualled a long time ago. There are reasons why it has not been, and in my view, those reasons are unsustainable. Casting my mind back a little, I remember appearing at a public planning inquiry in 1996 on the dualling of that stretch of the A303. Those of us who were in favour of dualling won the inquiry—the inspector found in our favour—and construction was about to start, when suddenly, in 1997, with the change of Government came a moratorium on all major road construction, and the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch was left out. That meant that work did not start when we hoped it would.
Then the regional bodies for local government in the south-west brought together the so-called south-west regional spatial strategy; very few people shed many tears when it went. Those bodies decided that the A303 should not be considered the second strategic route to the south-west. That was an utterly perverse decision, but of course the Government at that time, with many other demands for investment—
In the north-east, as the hon. Gentleman says, or elsewhere. The Government were very happy to grasp that and say, “Well, the local people don’t think this is an important road, so why on earth should we invest in it?” So the road was still not dealt with at that time.
There were other knock-on effects. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Winterbourne Stoke, where I have spent many happy hours queuing in traffic over the years, and the effect of the surface noise from the road there. That problem also afflicts my constituency; around the Wincanton area, there are houses that are close to a busy road. We had a commitment 15 years ago to replace that road surface with a low-noise road surface, but guess what? The plans to do that were cancelled and the money was specifically moved to the A1(M), which was considered a higher priority.
The A303 has been constantly neglected. Also, the best has sometimes been the enemy of the good: sometimes the difficulties to do with Stonehenge and the Blackdowns—difficulties that undoubtedly exist—have been allowed to prevent anything being done along any part of the road. I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman said about Stonehenge; it is essential that we find a solution.
Sorry, I am not doing very well with titles today. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a solution is not found on Stonehenge and the Blackdown hills, dualling other bits of the road and encouraging more traffic on to them will simply cause further problems at bottlenecks? There is almost a case for sorting Stonehenge and then working backwards.
Well, the same volume of traffic will be on the road, so I am not entirely sure of that. However, I agree that Stonehenge is a priority; we have to find a solution to the problem there.
The problem with the Blackdowns is that it is extremely difficult to conceive of a road scheme across the area that will meet the environmental requirements. In the case of the Blackdowns, there is an alternative, in the use of an enhanced A358 connection. I know that those in south Devon, including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), will not see that as the ideal solution. Nevertheless it is a viable alternative, at least in the meantime, until we can find a better solution.
Let me return to the reason for dualling the parts of the A303 that can be dualled relatively simply. I would like the schemes for Winterbourne Stoke, Chicklade and Sparkford to Ilchester to be taken off the shelf; it is utterly absurd that we have not made progress on those. I am hugely relieved that this Government have finally decided that they want to do something about the A303 and have commissioned the feasibility study. I hope that it will be in the hands of the Minister relatively soon, so that decisions can be made, hopefully in time for big announcements in the autumn spending review this year.
There is every argument for doing something about the A303, but they are in three main areas. First, there are the economic arguments. We have already heard from various hon. Members that the economy of the south-west needs this connection, and ample evidence has been produced by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the local enterprise partnership and the local authorities in the area to say that this work needs to be done to unlock the economy of the south-west peninsula.
Secondly, there are perfectly sound safety arguments, certainly in relation to the area that I represent. One of the problems is that there is a relatively fast—I say “relatively”, because too often it is clogged up—dual carriageway that suddenly becomes a single carriageway, then a dual carriageway again and then a single carriageway again, just at the point when people travelling from London are at their lowest ebb and most tired. They have probably not taken a break before that point, and therefore the accident record is of some concern to me. That problem could be avoided by simple online improvements.
Thirdly, there is the point about resilience, which was eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). It is simply ridiculous that we often have only one viable route to the whole of the south-west peninsula; it is ridiculous that one of the longest peninsulas in any country has such limited access to it. People in London and elsewhere sometimes do not understand just how big the south-west is. I remember that when we were talking about regional police forces, I said that the northernmost point of the so-called south-west regional police force, which was at Tewkesbury, was nearer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall. That is a fact. People have no conception of the distances in the south-west, yet we are served by one motorway. When that motorway is closed for any reason, as it was, sadly, by the accident near Taunton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) a little while ago, the result is chaos for the inadequate A303. Similarly, the A303 was flooded at Christmas. Perhaps that was because of freak conditions, but nevertheless we had, yet again, an example of the area’s lack of resilience.
We have to couple that with our inability to travel by rail in such circumstances, which all of us will remember from just a few weeks ago, when Paddington station was like a ghost station, because there were no trains running from it, or no trains running to anywhere that people wanted to get to. I beg the pardon of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), because he could probably get to his constituency from Paddington, but we could not get to the south-west from Paddington. Resilience is a big issue.
My last point relates to something said by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, namely that the south-west seems to be forgotten by every Government. A few months ago, I accused the Secretary of State for Transport of not knowing where the south-west is. He has proved me wrong; he knows where it is and has been there, as has my hon. Friend the Minister who is here today. However, in terms of Government investment in infrastructure, the south-west is still very much the poor relation of every other part of the country, and that is not good enough for me. I just do not see why we have to be the last in the queue for every single thing when it comes to Government investment. My plea to the Minister is this: for once, listen to the west country, listen to all the points that we are making, and do something about our wholly inadequate A303.
Let me apologise, Dr McCrea, because I may not be able to stay to the end of this debate, depending on when it finishes, as I have another meeting to attend.
I will make a short contribution picking up on the historical implications of this issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) mentioned. I declare two interests: first, I am a member of the all-party group on archaeology; and, secondly, I am a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The economic implications of this issue have already been highlighted by Members; I will not go over them again. I just point out that Stonehenge is an important element of the economic case that they have made, and we need to take it into account.
Inevitably, the issue of the A303 bottleneck in the area of Stonehenge has been raised. We need the Government to look for a long-term sustainable solution to this problem, which reflects their full cultural, environmental and international obligations. With respect to the Minister, this is not solely a traffic issue; at stake is the integrity of one of the world’s finest prehistoric landscapes.
I intervened earlier to say that this was not just about the monument. I am credited with being one of those who helped to invent landscape archaeology. I stress that the landscape in which Stonehenge sits is an important archaeological site in its own context. This Government should explore what impact on this world heritage landscape would be acceptable. Particularly for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, the Government should explore a long-bore tunnel option. That would add to the considerable achievement of the recent closure of the A344 next to the stones, which reduced noise and traffic pollution from the road, and that in turn moved us further in the desirable direction of allowing visitors to explore the entire world heritage landscape in its completeness.
Although my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the wider heritage arguments, he must acknowledge that the closure of that road before a solution for the A303 was fully established caused enormous frustration to many local residents, some of whom are in the Public Gallery.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I fully accept his point, but we cannot undo what has been done historically, and we have to take the major benefits that came out of it, in terms of reducing noise and traffic pollution. We would like to get back to the amount of noise and traffic pollution being reduced, so that people can explore the world heritage landscape in its entirety.
The aim of all the key heritage bodies involved—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury listed them in their entirety—is to regain the tranquillity and dignity of this unique cultural landscape, as well as allowing the throughflow of traffic between here and the south-west, so that present and future generations can fully enjoy and appreciate the world heritage site as a whole. Anything that can be done to achieve those two objectives is to be welcomed as something that we should do now.
It is a pleasure to speak in this worthwhile debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing it and congratulate him on doing so. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber, especially from along the route of the A30/A303, shows how important a debate it is.
I want to quote Hansard first of all:
“The trunk roads from London to the West are quite inadequate for the traffic they have to carry. Queues up to 10 to 15 miles long are commonplace in summer on roads like A.30 and A.303. At many points there are bottlenecks, and the carriageways are quite inadequate.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1959; Vol. 605, c. 1558.]
This is from a speech made by Mr Edward du Cann, MP for Taunton, in an Adjournment debate held in May 1959. It shows that there has been quite a long debate about this road.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) mentioned the part of the road in Ilminster that was to be trunked in 1997, before the moratorium on road building by the previous Government. A project involving the A30, moving into the A303, east of Honiton, was also shelved. We nearly got there, but it was stopped.
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), has agreed to drive on the road and see the A303 for himself, including where improvements can be made. That is welcome. I thank him for that. As he is a Yorkshire farmer, I am certain that we will get a truthful answer from him today, and that he will commit the Government to doing something about this quickly, rather than taking too long.
I want to take issue slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Rome is one of the most historic cities in the world, with the forum and all the Roman remains, but dual carriageways go all around it, right close to the buildings. Yet that can be maintained. We have to be able to deal with the life that we live today and the need for dualling of the A303/A30, and not live in a prehistoric world. I am keen on history, but at the end of the day we have to find a way, acceptable from both an historical and financial point of view, to ensure that we dual the A30 right the way down to Cornwall.
In this Chamber, we are probably 300 miles from Penzance. I have not done the arithmetic, but I suspect that it is only a little further from London to Scotland. People have to remember that.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The distances are not wildly out. It is distressing, when one visits Secretaries of State in some Departments, to find that they think that Plymouth is a bit like Hastings, in terms of its distance from London. Some education is needed in Departments.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course, when the Minister drives the route—he has probably already done so, but he will do it officially—he will see the length of the A30/A303 and will only probably get halfway along it. By some magic, he appears to be stopping at Honiton; I have no idea why. But seriously, we have to improve the road.
Hon. Members have said that we have few arterial routes into the west country. Bristol is not the west country; it may be part of the west country, but there is much after Bristol. To get to Devon and Cornwall, people need to cross Wiltshire and Somerset. We need to get that road done. A previous solution talked about in the spatial strategy—building on the A358 and dualling it out to the A303—is not a solution, because all that does is drive motorway and A303 traffic on to and off an already congested road. The west country—Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and Wiltshire—relies a lot on tourism. We also rely on our businesses being able to be able to move their goods and services around. Come the summer, there are times when those roads are completely blocked. That has a huge economic effect on our businesses. Money for dualling the A303/A30 would be well spent.
I have made the point before in Parliament that, although I am 110% behind the Government taking action on our deficit—the huge sum that we have to borrow day in, day out, to pay the running costs of this country—there is an argument that says that, when interest rates are so historically low, we should borrow money to build infrastructure, because that builds up our economy and gives us a great future.
We expect our fair share of proceeds in the west country. Vast sums may or may not be spent on High Speed 2, yet we have railways that are falling into the sea. We are doing our best to make sure that that does not happen, and that railways are rebuilt. A second railway line needs to come down to the west country. All this is part of the infrastructure. Roads are also important.
On a slightly more controversial note, people say, “If you dual those roads, the traffic will go faster and it could cause more pollution.” However, in my view, it causes much less pollution. There is nothing worse than car engines ticking over for hours on end; cars do not run well when the engines are not running smoothly, and the amount of fuel and carbon monoxide that comes out of cars that are queuing for hours adds to pollution.
In my constituency, especially coming out of Honiton, several villages along the A30, which leads into the A303, have poor access to and egress from that road. There have been many accidents along it, so there are many good reasons, from a traffic safety point of view, for improving it.
People might think that I, as the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, would be telling the Government, “You must start by dualling the A30/A303 from Honiton eastwards,” but I am not saying that. I say that eventually we must dual the whole road. We must not be stopped by either Stonehenge or the Blackdowns in my constituency, because those are the expensive parts of dualling the road. In a former life, I drove around the whole south-west region. I often drove down the A30 into Cornwall. Short stretches of single-track road do not hold up traffic anywhere near as much as longer lengths of single-track road. My point is that we have to start the job. There is a saying that a job started is a job half done. There is no doubt that, once we break the logjam by starting to dual the road, it will be dualled the whole way.
I accept my hon. Friend’s positive approach, but does he acknowledge that, for the large volume of people going all the way through to the furthest extremity of the south-west region, the economic advantages of spending money on the route will not be realised unless they can get through the significant bottlenecks near Stonehenge? We have to do something; otherwise people will not get down to the south-west quickly enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is fighting the corner for Stonehenge, but if we improve the roads either side of Stonehenge, we will solve the Stonehenge issue. We do not want to say, as the previous Government did in many respects, that we will not spend any money on the A30/A303 unless the Stonehenge situation is sorted. I will support him all the way in whatever he wants to do to get his piece of the road done, but we should not let that be the piece that holds up the whole road. I will not necessarily throw all my rattles out of the pram—I will throw only a few of them—when the A30/A303 at the Honiton end, going east, is not the first part to be dualled. I believe that the dualling will happen, and it is right that it does. We are considering the long-term strategy for the south-west. The A30/A303 has to be part of that strategy. Businesses, the local enterprise partnerships and councils are all pulling together, which is amazing in itself, so let us not say that it has to be Somerset, Devon or Wiltshire. It has to be all of us pulling together.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need the Government to commit to a strategic plan for the whole A303 corridor. What part is done first depends on how quickly things can be worked up, how long the regulatory and planning processes take and all the rest of it. We know that some bits will be difficult and some bits will be easy, but we want the Government to commit to a comprehensive plan.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The improvements are set up in five pieces for five different areas. Some of those pieces will be easier to start than others. I urge the Minister to get on with it. We have talked for an awfully long time, and people want to see something happening on the ground. We could do with a bulldozer or a JCB sometime before 7 May 2015. I do not know what is happening on that day, and the Minister cannot possibly comment.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He makes a powerful case, because we have a long-term economic plan. From the Isles of Scilly up to Bristol, we are all united. A key part of the Government’s long-term economic plan is to rebalance the economy so that every region contributes to the success of our nation. Every LEP has identified that this infrastructure is mission-critical.
My hon. Friend is right. The Government’s long-term economic plan is essential for ensuring that the west country gets its fair slice of the cake. We will contribute hugely to the economy, and we will help to build growth. People always want to come on holiday to the west country. Until we had all this rain, the sun did nothing but shine in the west country. I am surprised that we have managed to have such an amount of rain. In all seriousness, people come to the English riviera in south Devon, and they come to Somerset and Cornwall. They visit Stonehenge in Wiltshire, but they would like to be able to move on at a reasonable speed without being jammed for ever; if they cannot, it probably does not show Stonehenge to advantage. It probably sticks in people’s memory as that horrendous place where they were jammed in traffic. Improving the A303 will hugely help the national economy and the west country. The scale of the flooding has caused setbacks for people, businesses and property; now is the time for us to move forward positively.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We have twice had statements in Parliament from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and others on money to be spent on the A303. That is why the situation is different now from in previous years: the Government have committed real cash to getting the road done. My one plea is for the Minister to get on with it. He should get the money out of the Treasury, which is a naturally generous body, as soon as he can; otherwise, it might take the money away. Let us get on with building the road, so that not only can there be a good future for our constituents and businesses, but all the people who come to the west country have a good experience and come back again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate, which has attracted interventions and speeches from no fewer than eight speakers from both sides of the House. All of today’s speakers have made important points on this piece of road. It is difficult to talk about it as a “piece of road”, because it is so long. He described it as “the highway to the sun.” Coming from Birmingham, I know such highways well. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) describes it as “Britain’s mother road”. Both of those descriptions are accurate.
Many hon. Members have talked about the economic importance of the A303. Most notably, it was a major part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). There has been unanimity today on the need to invest in creaking parts of the road network to cope with demand, improve safety, relieve congestion and secure jobs and growth. There is also an understanding that, however we do that, it has to be done in a way that improves our communities and quality of life. Protecting the environment is an add-on to that and has to be part of the process.
The A303 is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver those objectives. We have to be honest about that. There is a clear need to improve the route, which is vital for the entire south-west’s connectivity to the rest of the UK. Incomplete dualling over the years has resulted in a number of bottlenecks, about which we have heard today. Those bottlenecks cause road safety problems and cost trade and tourism. There has been a range of continuing reviews, public inquiries and policy changes from the 1990s to the current day. They have demonstrated just how contentious delivering some crucial road upgrades can be in practice. Any solution to this matter will be difficult, but I am concerned—some of the issues put to the Minister are real ones—whether the Government’s approach fully learns the lessons of the past. I have a number of questions for him to tease that out. The recent floods have underlined just how important it is to improve strategic transport connections to the south-west more generally. It is no good just looking at roads, although they are important; we need to take into account all the transport networks of the south-west—that point has been made by a number of Members today—and improve transport resilience across the piece in the region.
I will not attempt to hide the fact that, like this Government, we faced challenges in delivering a second arterial road to this part of the country when we were in government. As Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) committed to improving the A303 in 2003. Our process was subject to lengthy public inquiries and the cost of the proposed schemes rose significantly during that period. When we left office, however, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303. That included—it has been contentious for some in the Chamber—dualling the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, which avoided some of the problems with the area of outstanding natural beauty at Blackdown hills. What is the status of that plan now?
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about money, and we need to press the Minister on that. When the Government entered office, nearly £4 billion of planned investment for our roads network was cut. Those are not my figures, but those of the National Audit Office. The Highways Agency budget for capital investment in roads has been cut from £1.6 billion in 2010-11 to just £877 million in 2013-14. That has had a big impact on specific road slippages.
A lot has been said about delivering major progress. Things were said about that in the autumn statement, but the truth is that most of the road schemes that are being talked about were started under the previous Government. I do not say that just to make a political point, although I am making something of a political point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) wanted to be here today, but was unable to come. He has said that the Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure has made the reality of improving the A303 further away than it could be.
On this side of the House, we are pleased that Ministers are finally talking about the need to invest in our country’s long-term transport infrastructure, but the important thing is to start delivering it. In the spending review of June 2013, the Government committed to producing a feasibility study on solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west, and I have a number of questions for the Minister on that. Will he clarify the study’s intended publication date? There has been some talk about that being spring 2015. I am sure that all of us are looking to spring 2015 for all sorts of things, but I suspect that the constituents of Members who have spoken today, seized though they will be by events in spring 2015, want to know what the significance of that study will be for the road scheme.
The real lesson of the past is that publishing reports near general elections ensures that nothing happens for another five years. It is absolutely imperative that we have a clear proposal from the feasibility study much sooner than spring 2015. Does the shadow Minister not agree?
The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me in many ways. It is important that the Minister is clear about the issue. If we are talking about publication in spring 2015, is the bottom line that it might not even be published before the next general election? If it is published before the general election, when does he, whichever Government are elected, see the study being put into operation in practical terms?
I want to ask the shadow Minister a direct question. The A303 was about to be dualled in 1997. If the British people do not make the right decision and elect a Labour Government in 2015, can he assure us that, if it is in place to go, that road will be built and not shelved as the previous Labour Government did in 1997?
I will make a number of points to the hon. Gentleman, and the first is that I would love to have a Tardis, for this issue and for many other things. I would love the result of the last general election to have been different. I am sure that the Conservatives would have liked to have won the last general election, but they did not quite manage that. There are lessons to be learned by all parties on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said, we have committed to a review, but the fact is that the finances of this country are opaque and what is going on is not clear. We will and are going to have to go through everything before the general election to work out what can be done.
The points raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury were well made. This issue has been subject to delay. Whoever is elected next year, we need to know the timetable for discussion and for those decisions to be made and put into effect, one way or another.
I fully admit that the decades of delay have been under different and successive Governments, but perhaps the Minister can explain why it was only in January of this year that he wrote to the relevant Members—I quote his response to a question from the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey)—to
“set out a brief synopsis of our proposals for the study.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 356W.]
Is that the only practical progress that has been made by the Government since the summer of last year? If not, will the Minister set out what else has been done? If the study is to take nearly two years, when does he expect a costed and timetabled plan to be in place? That is what is needed for delivery. The hon. Member for Salisbury has rightly said that a new feasibility study needs to take into account things that have happened so far. A number of Members have talked about the previous south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, which was published in 2002 and took an integrated approach to tackling transport problems in the region. Does that have any status in the Government’s thinking, and if so what?
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View has talked about the work done by the former South West Regional Committee. Regional Committees did some excellent work in their short life, including on this issue. Will that work form part of what the Government do and say on the feasibility study? Given that the congestion problems on the road have remained broadly similar, is there not a case for updating what has already been done, rather than simply commissioning a new study? There seems to be some confusion on that point. If I have misunderstood what is happening, perhaps the Minister will tell me. What action are Ministers taking to ensure that the feasibility study will not just result in an A303 proposal again being subject to further public inquires and further legal challenge?
Recent events have underlined just how important it is to improve transport connections to the south- west. At a debate last week on weather events in the south-west, Members from across the House spoke about the devastating impact the floods have had on their communities. Our thoughts are with all those communities that have been affected. Labour party candidates from that area have been on to us, saying that investment needs to be prioritised. Those points are made to us by our people in the south-west, as well as by those in this House. It is not only about restoring rail services, important though that is, but ensuring that the transport network as a whole to the south-west can cope with future pressures and be resilient. I therefore want to press the Minister for more clarity on the Government’s plans for future investment.
The transport network in the south-west is increasingly under threat. There has been significant concern among local authorities trying to improve resilience on the peninsula. Can the Minister confirm whether the funding that he is talking about on the rail network, apart from anything else, is the same money that was pledged in 2013, or is it new money? If it is not, where will it come from and what cuts will be made elsewhere?
Equally, I welcome Network Rail’s proposals for an alternative to the Dawlish line, which is expected to be published in July. After two attempts by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) to raise this question last week, I ask the Minister again to clarify how a Dawlish avoiding route will be funded. Will new money now be available from central Government? It is important that we have clarity from the Government on both the rail and the road situation. It is important for the Government to consider the needs of the transport system, as well as land management and flood defence, holistically. That is partly what today’s debate is about.
First, the report on options for the Dawlish avoiding line should clearly be developed in conjunction with the A303 feasibility study to ensure that they come together to ensure needs are met. If that is going to be the case, can the Minister confirm whether they will be parallel processes that do not link up? Secondly, will the Minister think again about the new national networks policy statement proposed for the future of our road and rail? This planning document, which is open to consultation at the moment, does nothing to ensure that our existing transport networks are flood-resilient. I understand that, privately, his Department is aware of this and aware that the policy statement requires major work to ensure that it reflects future planning policy properly and that it is climate-resilient. If that is the case, it needs to be revised. So I think we need to hear a little more from the Minister about that one.
If the NPS is meant to be the Government’s vision for future transport, and the omission of flood resilience remains, that is highly concerning. In the light of all this, will the Minister clarify what consideration is being given to climate change and future weather shocks in the A303 feasibility study?
The Opposition take investment in our long-term infrastructure seriously. It is not about rushing to announce long lists of schemes or studies without considering future risks and shocks. It is about properly considering the options and future pressures, and establishing clear and costed plans for delivery. It is about looking at our transport network in an integrated way so that we can meet the needs of the future. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify some of the issues raised, because the A303—Members have alluded to many problems along the line of the route—is not and cannot be a stand-alone issue. It is indicative of a need to deliver an effective strategic transport network for the south-west in future. I hope that when we leave the Chamber today, the Minister will have provided us with greater clarity, rather than greater confusion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate on the future of the A303. I know this subject is of great importance to him and to other hon. Friends and Opposition Members. I am aware that he has raised issues about the performance of the A303 at Stonehenge and details of the Department's feasibility study during business questions.
The A303 is an important trunk road that passes in close proximity to the Stonehenge world heritage site, and the issue of improving this road has been considered by successive Governments, as we heard. I very much recognise the strategic importance of this corridor and therefore of finding solutions to its problems. Before I respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend, the Member for Salisbury, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity both to set out this Government’s position on investment in the strategic road network, but also the history of proposals for major improvements to the A303, as well as setting out how my Department will consider options for future investments. Indeed, I hope that I can make progress where even Mrs Thatcher failed.
Before I go on, I will respond to a couple of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He recognised that the previous Government had been engaged in a degree of stop-go—mainly stop in terms of the A303. Although he recognised that fact, there was no straightforward apology, and I was rather perturbed to hear him say that when they left office, they had a costed plan. Nothing was costed when the previous Government left office. The public finances were in a catastrophic state. Indeed, when they had some money in 1997, when they took office, they announced a moratorium, so I will take no lessons from the Opposition on how to organise a road investment programme.
We have controlled spending so that we can increase genuine investment, and we will build on the previous work done in planning the feasibility of this route. On timing, we have set ourselves an ambitious programme, and we hope to have some news in the autumn statement. Indeed, when the announcements are made in the autumn, it will be interesting to hear what the shadow Chancellor says about following through on the promises when the Labour party writes its manifesto.
I made it clear in front of the Select Committee last week that we are certainly not going down that route. The decision on the A14 Huntingdon bypass makes that very clear indeed. In fact, I was reported as saying we have drawn a line in the sand on that one.
As part of the progress we are making, Department officials met local stakeholders in Taunton on 24 January to discuss the scope of the study, and officials are working to incorporate the views of stakeholders when finalising the scope.
I said that it may be useful to set out the historical background in terms of the previous proposals for major strategic improvements to the road. Proposals to complete the dualling of the A303 were made in the 2002 London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, and, together with improvements to the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton, they could have created a second strategic route to the south-west. However, by 2007, with the cancellation of the Amesbury to Berwick Down scheme owing to increased costs and the south-west region’s conclusion that some schemes could not be funded from the regional funding allocation, the Highways Agency was no longer able to progress the proposals.
My hon. Friend may also be aware that Somerset county council held a summit with other relevant stakeholders in 2012, the outcome of which was a commitment for further work on the relative prioritisation of potential interventions and consideration of possible funding avenues. A grouping of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships produced an initial analysis and business case for future improvements to the A303 corridor, to reiterate the importance of investment in the corridor. This work provides a useful starting point for more detailed work into the consideration of possible solutions to the problems along the A303.
On this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, which announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review.
The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s Future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned. This includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is aware, for future investment planning, the Highways Agency is conducting its route-based strategy process, which involves local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. It might be helpful to say a little more about the agency’s approach, because that is the mechanism by which we will consider the investment needs of the entire strategic road network.
In our May 2012 response to the recommendations of Alan Cook’s report, “A fresh start to the strategic road network”, we agreed to develop a programme of route-based strategies to inform the identification of future transport investment for the entire strategic network. Route-based strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning throughout the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the A303, as part of the south west peninsula route-based strategy.
The Highways Agency completed a series of local engagement events last autumn to help identify performance issues and future challenges. I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders in the south-west, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated so far. The agency and the Department will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. Route-based strategies therefore provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide evidence about problems on the A303, so that the need for improvements can be considered and a plan for future investment developed.
My hon. Friend highlighted the issue of congestion on the A303 and the problems experienced as the road passes the Stonehenge world heritage site. The Government very much recognise such issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy. We are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the longstanding problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor, initially by undertaking a feasibility study.
The Minister was rushing through different things—the route-based strategy and the feasibility study—and I may have missed something, but will he clarify when he expects the route-based strategy to be completed and how it will feed into the feasibility study? Given the estimates that I have heard, the report of the feasibility is due in the spring of 2015. Is that what is intended?
No, we hope to make better progress than that and to be in a position to make an announcement based on that study in the autumn statement this year. The good news is that that study is one of six on the strategic road network. The A303 is already in the final of that competition.
I wish for no less for the hon. Gentleman, I am sure.
It might be useful to say a little more about the approach we are taking, as the feasibility study is the mechanism by which we will identify early solutions to the problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor. The aim of the study will be to identify the opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the corridor that are deliverable, affordable and offer value for money, including noise mitigation where appropriate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury suggested. Much work has been carried out, but agreement has not been reached on a set of solutions. It is therefore important for us to carry out this study to ensure that we understand the priorities for the corridor and that proposals for investment demonstrate a strong and robust economic case for investment, as well as value for money, and are deliverable.
Does the Minister accept that the Stonehenge case will require not only a value-for-money approach, but a perspective on the wider heritage interests? What work is he doing to engage with other colleagues in government to take account of the particular concerns at Stonehenge?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. A number of issues associated with the route-based studies up and down the country include environmental or heritage considerations. It is important not to take the view that, because they are sometimes too difficult, they should not be considered properly.
The study work will be conducted in stages, with the Department initially looking to identify the current and future challenges along the corridor. We are keen to ensure that we have the most up-to-date and relevant information available to inform the study. The Department has asked stakeholders to furnish us with any additional study work or analysis that they might have commissioned. The next stage will be to identify the range of solutions or measures that could address the problems identified along the corridor. Again, we will look to build on previous work, rather than starting from scratch, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield suggested, but we will not rule out other potential investment proposals that may emerge from the first phase of the route-based strategy process, as well as potential investment proposals on the A358.
We will look to engage with a range of stakeholders throughout the life of the study, including local highway authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local environmental groups. A stakeholder reference group will be established to ensure a mechanism through which the views of stakeholders may be incorporated in the study work. The views of hon. Members will also be important in the deliberations. The outputs of the route-based strategy and of the six feasibility studies will inform the Department’s roads investment strategy, which is being developed and which we have committed to publish by the end of the year.
I fully understand the Stonehenge concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. As is well known, the single carriageway section of the A303 can cause congestion during traffic peaks on bank holidays and through the summer. I am aware that local lobby groups have been established, such as the Stonehenge traffic action group, of which I understand that my hon. Friend is aware.
The new Stonehenge visitor centre opened in mid-December 2013 and is situated at Airman’s Corner on the A360. In terms of traffic to the centre, the car park fails to meet demand at busy times, and this leads to traffic that is queuing to enter the visitor centre backing up along the A360 and blocking it to other users. In extreme cases, the traffic has reached as far as the A303 at Longbarrow roundabout, causing congestion on the A303. In support of the new visitor centre and closure of the local road, the Highways Agency has carried out extensive improvements to the Longbarrow roundabout at the junction of the A303, with significant investment of more than £3 million to support the Stonehenge attraction.
In addition, drivers have been using the nearby byway and lay-bys to get a good view of the stones, which has further exacerbated congestion on the A303. The Highways Agency has worked with Wiltshire county council and the police to prohibit certain movements and to prevent drivers parking illegally, guiding them by the designated route to the visitor centre. I assure hon. Members that while we await the outcome of the feasibility study, the Highways Agency will continue to monitor and respond to congestion at this location. Wiltshire police have invited some local representatives to a meeting with key agencies, including the Highways Agency, the county council, English Heritage and the National Trust, to look at the short-term issues likely to arise this summer.
Given the flooding that we have seen over recent weeks and months, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the strategic road network in the south-west has performed well, although there was a closure one weekend. By and large, the network has been kept running, keeping the south-west open for business during this difficult period and allowing the replacement buses to run. The importance of the A303 has been emphasised in light of the issues experienced on the rail network.
Flooding occurred at two locations on the A303, at Ilchester and at Deptford, which was due to adjacent water courses and groundwater run-off from fields. Flooding at Ilchester meant that the A303 was closed in both directions for 20 hours. The diversion route was utilised to keep the route into the south-west open. The flooding at Deptford saw the eastbound carriageway affected for 12 days, although within two days a contraflow was put in place, enabling traffic to get through.
In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury on securing the debate. I have been clear that the Government are committed to and have set out plans for large-scale investment to improve our strategic road network in the relatively short term. We are also committed to developing a longer-term programme of investment through the route-based strategy process. Through the A303-A30-A358 corridor feasibility study, we will work closely with local stakeholders to ensure we consider current and future transport problems and the range of possible solutions that could deal with them. As I said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by the local stakeholders and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to be able to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.
Every cloud is said to have a silver lining, and the weather in the south-west this year has emphasised the importance of a resilient road network when we have problems on our rail network. The fact that big investment is going into north-south rail connections makes an even stronger case for investment in roads in the south-west. I look forward to my road trip to Tiverton and Honiton—a road that I have travelled before. Having heard the points made today, I think that I need to set off in good time.
Domestic Violence (West Essex and Harlow)
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr McCrea. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on an important matter that affects thousands of men and women up and down the country. I want to give special recognition to Safer Places in Harlow, Essex county council, Nick Alston, who is police and crime commissioner for Essex, ManKind and Women’s Aid for the assistance they have given me in preparing for this debate. I also welcome the work done by the TUC on domestic violence training and education.
For six months, I have put in for this debate because of the particular problem of domestic violence in Harlow and because of two tragedies that have afflicted our town. That is why I must pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Blunnie, who are in Westminster today. They have been incredibly strong throughout their ordeal since their daughter’s death, and continue to astound me with their campaign to prevent any other families from going through similar tragedies. I am hugely grateful to the Minister, who has agreed to meet the family after the debate.
This debate is much needed. Nationally, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse, with two women being killed per week by a partner or former partner.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about male victims of domestic violence. Female victims are more numerous and sometimes more vulnerable, but we should not overlook male victims, who can fall victim to domestic violence in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Often they are unable to talk about the issue or to find resources available for victims of their gender.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Domestic violence is evil, whichever sex is afflicted by it.
As I said, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse. Today I want to focus specifically on west Essex and Harlow, where there is an above average amount of domestic abuse incidents. I am incredibly proud of my town. I love living there and am very proud to be its MP, but we cannot sweep the problems we have under the carpet and so it is important to set out some of the problems that we face. In Harlow alone domestic abuse makes up 10% of all crime, a statistic that has increased by 2% in the past year; 32% of all offences are assault with injury. Across Essex, police deal with 80 domestic incidents per day. As I mentioned, we have sadly lost two Harlow residents to domestic violence recently, Eystna Blunnie in June 2012 and Claire Parrish in July 2012.
I therefore want to raise three issues this afternoon. First, what the situation is in west Essex in relation to domestic abuse; secondly, what steps are already being taken to improve how domestic abuse is dealt with; and thirdly, what needs to be improved and how that could be achieved.
As I have already mentioned, there are two tragic cases I would like to discuss that really typify some of the problems that we face. The first is the distressing case of Eystna Blunnie. Before she met her ex-fiancé, Eystna was a happy young woman who had a close relationship with her family. During her relationship with her ex-fiancé she became withdrawn, and had little contact with her mother and father. In April 2012, she was taken to hospital after being strangled and falling unconscious. She was pregnant at the time, with a daughter called Rose. She made the decision to leave her ex-fiancé, and returned to live with her family. But two months later, and just days before her baby was due, she received a text from him saying he had a surprise for her. She was found by the roadside with over 50 injuries, and died shortly afterwards from severe head injuries. Her ex-fiancé was found guilty of her murder and of causing the death of their unborn baby, Rose. He was jailed for a minimum of 27 years. I was due to see her in my surgery just a few days after she died. During the court case, it transpired that her ex-fiancé had previously been arrested for assaulting ex-girlfriends.
The second tragic death is that of Claire Parrish, a mum of four living in Harlow. Her partner murdered her just hours after she told him that she wanted to end their relationship because of his domestic abuse. Like three in four victims, Claire was sadly one of the many who felt unable to contact the police.
Of course, those cases are horrific examples of the terrible tragedies that can occur. But they unfortunately also reflect the wider problem of domestic abuse in west Essex, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, recorded incidents of domestic abuse increased by nearly 88% across Essex; they increased by 25% between 2010-11 and 2011-12. The cost of domestic abuse in Essex alone is £86 million per year. It represents a substantial amount of police work.
Those statistics can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know from studies that the incidence of domestic abuse is higher in areas of deprivation, and that is sadly reflected in Harlow wards. Toddbrook, Little Parndon, Hare Street and Netteswell are in the top 30% of the most deprived areas in England; unfortunately, they also have the highest rates of domestic abuse in my constituency. On the other hand, it is good that Essex police are recording incidents of domestic abuse thoroughly, and it has been acknowledged that changes in how records are kept and county priorities are one of the reasons why domestic abuse figures in Essex are so high.