Wednesday 5 March 2014
[Katy Clark in the Chair]
Adult Autism Strategy
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Norman Lamb.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. As you know, I always approve of a woman being in the Chair. It is a great privilege to open this debate today. I am pleased to see so many colleagues from both sides of the House joining the debate, which reflects the importance of the subject.
I understand that the Department of Health plans to publish its revised version of the adult autism strategy for England on 2 April, coinciding with world autism awareness day. Today’s debate is therefore timely for us to identify for the Minister what we think and what our constituents have told us are the key priorities for the revision of the strategy. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the Government’s plans, particularly those to take forward the actions that people require, because we need support for the estimated 460,000 adults with autism in this country.
It is just over four years since my private Member’s Bill on autism became the Autism Act 2009. I still thank colleagues on both sides of the House for making that possible. The passing of the Act was an important landmark in the battle to improve the lives of adults with autism in England. I want to thank everyone, including the people who at first opposed the Bill but who came round to my way of thinking, because they made the Act the first disability-specific legislation ever to be passed in this House.
As we all know, autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and makes sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that it affects people in different ways, making awareness of the diagnosis even more important.
Back in the ’90s, my colleague, Angela Browning, now Baroness Browning—some hon. Members will remember her—made me only too well aware of what happens to adults with autism, particularly if they are being isolated or ignored. Over the years, awareness grew of the needs of adults and children with autism, but even by 2009, there was still no meaningful recognition at Government level of the challenges faced by adults.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on a subject that is incredibly important. Is she aware that 85% of adults with autism in the UK are not in full-time employment? Translating that to my own area, Essex, that is around 7,000 people. The Government have set up Disability Confident, which helps people with disabilities to get into work, but it does not focus on people with autism. My local autism charity—
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local charity on setting up that apprenticeship scheme. That is important. When I started looking at autism all those years ago, one of the interesting things I realised was how valuable people on the spectrum can be. They can make a fantastic contribution to businesses right across the board. Apprenticeship schemes should be looked at quite carefully by the Government. If there is an example in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am sure that the Minister will take it on board and perhaps even arrange a visit to see how it operates.
Adults with autism were still being overlooked by local services back in 2009. They were falling through the gap between learning disability and mental health services, because no one had responsibility for taking a lead locally to ensure that appropriate services and support were being developed for adults with autism.
The diagnosis can become more complex as a person gets older and often needs a referral to a specialist centre, for which out-of-area contracts are often needed. Some local authorities are doing that, but some, I am afraid, are not. That is why the Autism Act was so important. As a piece of disability-specific legislation, it set a legislative framework for that gap to be closed and for the responsibility to improve support for adults with autism to cover every local area.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend. I remember well the Autism Act and the many hoops that she needed to go through to get it passed. I am sure that she is aware of the findings from the National Autistic Society, which said that just one in three people said that, in their experience, social workers had a good understanding of autism. There is a big cliff edge between children and adults, with services completely changing or becoming non-existent when someone reaches 18. Does she agree that, given the big emphasis now being placed on the better training of social workers, particularly regarding vulnerable children, we need to do a lot better with training social workers to deal with adults as well, in terms of the sensitivities and requirements of people with autism?
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. I apologise that I will not be able to stay for all of it, but I am pleased that she secured it this morning. I agree with her that it has been a good product of the 2009 Act, for which she rightly claims credit, that local authorities now have to give special consideration to meeting the needs of adults with autism. As many local authorities have now raised their threshold for support to substantial and critical levels of need, does the right hon. Lady share my concern that that may begin to exclude some of those adults?
That is a point to be taken on board. There is variation across the country that we are all aware of. The Minister will have noted the hon. Lady’s remarks, and it is important that we try to get more standardisation across the country.
The Act guaranteed the introduction of the first-ever adult autism strategy, setting out how adults with autism should be better supported. It was underpinned by guidance and placed duties on local authorities and the national health service to take action. The strategy has been well supported by the National Autistic Society; I think everyone in the Chamber and beyond would pay tribute to the NAS, which does the most amazing work right across the board. Its “Push for Action” campaign has captured people’s imagination. It calls for urgent action to end the wait for the everyday support that people with autism need.
I was delighted to support my right hon. Friend’s Autism Act, which was an enormous step forward, and I congratulate her on securing this debate, because it is exactly a push for action on what we have achieved so far.
I want to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a point raised by a constituent of mine who said:
“I have a bright son who is now 21 and spends every day isolated at home as there is no support or help available for him. I would like him to find a job and make friends but he will need help”.
When we get down to those individual cases and almost the waste of lives compared with what could be done, I certainly hope that we can secure something for this next push.
I am grateful for that intervention. This place is about making legislation, both primary and secondary, but for each and every one of us as MPs, it is those individual cases that strike home to our hearts. It is a valuable role for an MP to bring individual cases to the attention of the House, as the hon. Lady has done, because it makes both our laws and their implementation better. I think that we will all have stories of families and individuals in our constituencies who need more help, and there is nothing more moving than a parent coming to plead for help for their child.
Yes. I rely a great deal on statistics from the NAS, which does detailed work in this area. It is still a crying shame that we have wasted capacity and wasted lives in this area, and we should not stand idly by and let that happen.
Having said that, I am gratified by what has been achieved so far in improving the support at the front line. Just for starters, almost all areas now have someone who is responsible for improving services for adults with autism. It might not seem much, but that development alone has been a mighty step forward. I will also highlight some progress in my own constituency of Chesham and Amersham where there are two clinical commissioning groups and they have agreed that one of them will take the lead on autism issues for the whole county, identifying within the two CCGs a GP who will take work on autism forward. That is the sort of activity that I want to see being replicated across the country.
Elsewhere, I know that some excellent and innovative practice has emerged on issues such as training and diagnosis. Sadly, however, as I am sure other colleagues will testify, progress is still patchy and many areas have not made progress as rapidly as we had all hoped for when the Act was passed.
Research by the NAS shows that, four years on from the passage of the Act, many adults with autism are still waiting—unjustly, in my view—for the support they need. Seventy per cent of adults with autism who responded to the recent NAS survey said they are not receiving the help they need from social services, and more than a third of respondents said that they needed help with simply washing and dressing. In addition, two thirds of respondents said they needed help to prepare a meal and 83% said that they needed support to pay a bill or to deal with letters. Those are things that we all do every day of the week, but in the majority of cases adults with autism are unable to get help from their local council to deal with them.
There is also a lack of clarification between low-level and high-level support. Low-level support services are often right for individuals, as they can prevent them from developing more complex problems and therefore can be almost disproportionately cost-effective. My grandmother used to have a saying about such situations: “A stitch in time saves nine.” That is exactly the principle that we should apply in this area.
The impact of such a lack of support is quite clear. The NAS research indicates that a third of adults with autism have developed a severe mental health problem because they lack support. Of course, the statistics vary slightly, but one statistic I will cite is that just 15% of adults with autism are currently in full-time work. We must urge our local authorities to press on, and the necessary support and impetus must come from Government.
The good news is that we are to have a refreshed strategy—it is the Heineken moment for the Minister. I will turn now to the priorities for that refreshed strategy.
Before my right hon. Friend downs the Heineken, may I take her back to the alarming statistic she just cited about the number of people with autism in full-time employment? Does she agree that there is an onus on businesses to do more, as many of the smarter businesses have done in the past? Those businesses particularly took on board the sensitivities and requirements of people with autism, and considered how they might be encouraged to apply for a job in the first place; many people with autism never even get to that hurdle. Not surprisingly, many of those businesses turned out to be rather good employers, and we need some rather more enlightened employment practices from some more of our businesses.
I agree entirely. I am amazed by the intellect and the unique and fantastic capabilities of some people on the autism spectrum. Many of them have the capability to repeat jobs that demand high intellect, such as the regular quality-checking of components. There are some really valuable people on the spectrum whose skills are being completely wasted, and if there is some way in which we can mirror the apprenticeship scheme and encourage employers to hire them and spread the word that they are the people they should be looking at, although they may require some rightly deserved special attention, that would be useful.
To start with, we must establish base camp. Therefore, I particularly want to hear some assurances from the Minister today that the core elements of the original strategy and statutory guidance will not be lost once the revised strategy is in place. Local authorities and the NHS are at differing points in implementing the current strategy. The strategy has set them on the right path to ensure that the needs of adults with autism are properly accounted for in local planning and commissioning, because it clearly sets out that there must be local leadership on autism to help bridge the gaps in local services and it also makes it clear that every area must have a pathway to diagnosis, as well as appropriately trained staff, which was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).
We must make sure that the progress that has already been made on those issues is recognised as the strategy is revised. I need to congratulate those areas that have taken forward all the key actions that were originally in the strategy, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that those areas that are yet to make progress on the fundamental aspects of the original strategy are clear that that is not acceptable and that they need to take immediate action.
Can the Minister reassure me and the House that the revised strategy will restate the importance of every local area guaranteeing to take the following actions, if they have not already done so? They are: first, appointing a local autism lead; secondly, establishing a local autism partnership board; thirdly, ensuring that autism is included in local data collection and the joint strategic needs assessment; fourthly, developing a local plan; fifthly, ensuring that there is a local pathway to diagnosis; sixthly, ensuring that autism is included in standard equality and diversity training for all staff across health and social care; and lastly, making sure that the community care assessors in the area have autism training. Of course, the restatement of those core actions will not be enough to ensure that change is happening at a local level, but the Government should set a timetable to check that those actions have been carried out across every area of this country, preferably by the end of this year.
I know that the Minister will say “What of the money that is available?” One of the key challenges that I and other colleagues regularly hear about is the financial constraints that face professionals when they seek to develop new and innovative local services. Gaining funding approval has been especially problematic, as there are few evidence-based models of good practice on which to base such approval, even though financial modelling has shown that these types of services can and do save money; it is my grandmother’s old adage again. Investment in new and dynamic service models will not only help local authorities to improve the services that are currently available to adults with autism, but will help to develop an understanding of the best way to deliver services and highlight areas of best practice.
I, and many other people, also place high importance on data capture between health, education and social services, so that those services have a better understanding of the number of children who will move into adult services. Capturing that data is not rocket science and it will mean that the provision of transition services can be better planned for and budgeted for. When I look at this area, it always amazes me that there is no co-ordination of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and people just fall through the gap.
I know that the Minister has agreed to consider the proposal from the NAS for an innovation fund as part of the review of the strategy, and when he responds to this debate I look forward to hearing an update from him about that proposal. I hope that he will be able to respond positively to what, in one way, is an ambitious proposal but, in another way, is very modest.
In conclusion, each and every person deserves the best possible chance to make the most of their talents and fulfil their potential, including people with autism. As illustrated by various reports on autism, including the National Audit Office’s report, with which the Minister is familiar, we are not only wasting large amounts of taxpayers’ money, but not providing adequate support to people with autism, we are also wasting human talent and lives.
The Autism Act has, with a lot of help from colleagues, been a catalyst for change, but more work needs to be done. I urge the Minister to make sure that he seizes this opportunity presented by the refresher to take forward ambitious actions, such as increased investment, which will help ensure that adults with autism throughout the country can be supported to live the life they choose and the life they deserve.
I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. Autism is an issue that I have helped constituents with on many occasions, as an elected representative. I am mostly aware of it, probably, in respect of how we can help those with autism through the benefits system. That is perhaps people’s first introduction to the issue. The right hon. Lady clearly laid out the issues pertinent to those with autism, and also mentioned the pressure that families are under. I want to dwell on that.
Diagnosis of autism has been increasing. I have been involved in the support of autism services for many years in Northern Ireland, through my constituency work and, formerly, in my role as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and as a local councillor. I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber can think of examples of when they have fought to have a child statemented, so that they could receive the help that they and their family needed for schooling, and so that support could be given to the family. Although this debate is about adult autism, autism affects people from the very beginning. I shall try to speak about that as well.
I recently spoke to a young mother of three who, with her husband, was beginning to attend parenting classes to help them better deal with their daughter. It was not that they were not willing to deal with her, but they needed help dealing with the behaviour issues of those with autism. We are talking about lovely children—and lovely adults—but they need help. The couple have two other lovely children, a great family support network and a close group of friends who help out, yet they recognised at an early stage that they needed more help and needed to be better equipped to deal with this. They said that they needed help understanding autism, so that they could understand and interact better with their child.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even in 2014, after a number of years in which awareness of autism has increased significantly—it has done so particularly in the past 15 or 20 years—there is still a need for many statutory agencies to act and react much more sympathetically and proactively, particularly in dealing with parents who have autism and have difficulties with parenting skills?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for clearly setting out the issue for the bodies responsible for helping parents. The parents I mentioned came to me about parenting skills, and they got the help, by the way, which was good. They told me what a blessing these classes were. That is why I am happy to stand with my colleagues today and highlight the needs of sufferers of autism and their families.
I am familiar with the care of one autistic young man. Many hon. and right hon. Members here have personal knowledge of such situations, and I hope that some of them will have a chance to contribute to this debate. That young man’s parents do everything for him: they dress him, cook for and feed him, clean, bathe and toilet him, amuse him, and hug, kiss and love him. He depends on his parents entirely for his every need. When he is at his day classes, they do the washing, ironing, cleaning, and shopping and try to find time to work to pay the bills at the same time.
The pressure on the parents and on the family unit is greater because of the problems and behavioural issues related to the autism of their child. They love their son—that is never in dispute—but love is not enough to get the family through the sheer exhaustion and the emotional and mental strain. Sometimes help is needed on matters outside of parental skills—through social services, for example, giving a bit of respite. Difficulties in the benefits system are practical issues for parents and those with adult autism; they relate to how parents can help their child through the school years and into the early years of adult life. It is up to the community and us as elected representatives to step up to the plate and help that boy and his parents. We can do that by supporting them and offering them the best that our society can do to ensure that they do not reach the point of no return.
We can all relate to the story of Susan Boyle, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is also autism. She found out that she had it later in life. After she was diagnosed, she said that she almost felt relieved to know, after all those years, what was wrong and why she was different. That is a practical example of how someone the nation knows has been affected. She said what she said because she felt it was important that other people knew that autism cannot and will not hold people back, but they need help to get along. That is the thrust of this debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to raise awareness across society of the circumstances of adults with autism? For example, a young man in my constituency, looked after by his parents in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes, got severely into debt because he did not understand what financial services companies were saying when they were pushing credit cards and loans on him. Does he agree that educating the business community, neighbours and community groups, and everyone in society, about how adults with autism respond and cope would protect people and prevent those things from happening?
I thank the hon. Lady for her valuable contribution. Yes, I agree; I think all hon. and right hon. Members would. Churches have intervened to help in a number of complex cases in my constituency. What is not complex for us is complex for people with autism. There is a clear role to be played in that regard. Only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time employment; again, that results from some of the issues that they suffer from, including epilepsy, sleep disturbance and mental health problems. Many out there are trying to help and assist.
I ought to give a Northern Ireland perspective, because we have done good, helpful work there, health being a devolved matter. The Minister is aware of that good work because he has visited a number of times. Perhaps he might comment on that in his response.
The Northern Ireland Assembly put in place the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which is the most comprehensive autism and single disability legislation in the whole of Europe. The need to do something was recognised at an early stage, as was the fact that the power was there to do it within the devolved Administration, and that was done. It is the first legislation in Northern Ireland requiring by law all Departments to plan and work together on the delivery of the strategy. The cross-governmental attitude that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham requested is there. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who both intervened on me, have confirmed that that should happen. Departments worked together on the delivery of a strategy. No cross-Department barriers are allowed at all. When we say “comprehensive”, we mean it. I am delighted that the debate is calling for such a strategy.
Autism Northern Ireland was at the centre of the campaign for the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) with its grass-roots campaign. There was no money or external lobby company—just hard work, and determination to make it happen and to gain support from all parties, which was forthcoming. It had autism ambassadors—health and education party spokespersons—to build up expertise on issues of concern. It also formed a partnership with Autism Cymru, which was already working with the Welsh Government on implementing a Wales autism strategy. That was the foundation of the Celtic Nations Autism Partnership—Celtic as in “keltic”, and certainly not “seltic”. No offence to any Celtic supporters who might be here, of course. That is a partnership with the autism societies of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, which has led to initiatives in the USA. The CNAP and Members of the Legislative Assembly visited the US Congress and the European Parliament.
When we say that the approach is comprehensive, we are talking about looking across Europe and the world; examples were considered and discussions took place. That led to the Autism Act (Northern Ireland). A partnership was initiated with Autism-Europe and MEPs to develop a comprehensive and well-thought-out European autism strategy.
In 2012, I highlighted the difference between the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) and the English Autism Act 2009: the Northern Ireland Act is equality-driven and lifelong-focused. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether the Government are trying to achieve in England the equality and lifelong focus that we have in Northern Ireland through the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. That Act amends our disability discrimination legislation, too, to include those with social communication disabilities such as autism. That supersedes the Great Britain Equality Acts, which only give recognition and guidance in primary legislation. That is significantly different from how we did it back home, where we have attempted to address adult autism.
I again thank the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham for securing the debate. She, like me and everyone else in the Chamber, sees the gaps in the strategy and the need to enhance provision by including an adult strategy. I have raised today the cases of a young girl and a young adult male. The strain on families grows greater with time as the child becomes an adult and more difficult to handle. The legislation should be amended to provide more state help.
I apologise for not being here earlier, but I was unable to get out of a meeting. One of my constituents contacted me to say that now that her daughter is 20, none of the professionals dealing with her daughter will speak to the mother. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should make changes, so that with the young person’s permission, if they are over 18 and want their parents involved, all the different organisations work with the parents, who are there for their autistic children as they get older?
I agree entirely with that most helpful intervention. In my experience as an elected representative, that is exactly what people want. We should help whenever we can. The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland has been anxious to collaborate with the Department of Health on what is working well in Northern Ireland. I have great respect for the Minister of State, Department of Health, but perhaps things could work better. There are examples of good work on the mainland. I looked through the background notes this morning before the debate, and one thing that caught my eye is that there is a specialist autism unit at South Devon college called the LODGE—Learning Opportunity for Development and Guided Education—which has been shortlisted at a national award ceremony in recognition of the education it provides to young adults with autism. There are many good examples of how Departments can do better for young adults with autism, and we should be trying to make that happen.
I am keen to assist and work with the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham to ensure that adequate legislation is introduced to make changes that will greatly affect the lives of those with autism and their carers. Never forget the carers, who also need support. They love their children, but they need help, because things are not simple. They want their child to have the best future possible, which does not include an institution. How will we deal with ageing parents? I know that I am not the only one who is aware of ageing parents. What will happen to these children and young adults when their parents pass away? They may no longer be able to look after their children and young adults alone. The answer is clear: they need support, and we must put it in place. Hopefully today is a first step towards providing that support to families across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I support the right hon. Lady and her proposal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. Indeed, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made some powerful points on cross-departmental working. I am glad to see the Minister is here with the lead civil servant on autism from the Department of Health, with whom I have had many conversations about cross-departmental working.
I have a quick example of cross-departmental working in relation to the transition period. We have all had casework in recent years involving 17 or 18-year-olds who are moving away from secondary education into further education and who find that their transition period is, frankly, stymied by lack of clarity on the funding of their FE places. I have had a number of such cases. Last year was particularly problematic in certain instances. That was through no-one’s ill will, but it was a result of the lack of genuine communication and cross-working between those responsible for the funding of further education and the other services that work with young people with autism. They are young adults coming into the adult world, and their first experience is negative. That is not a good sign of what is to come, not only for those young people but for their families and carers. There is a fear that I call the 4 o’clock in the morning syndrome, which is when a parent wakes up and thinks, “My child is young now, but what will happen when they grow up?” We keep having to ask ourselves that question. It is the exam question that I set for the Minister in today’s debate and at every opportunity we have to discuss the strategy for adults with autism.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for her sterling work to help to bring the Autism Act to the statute book, which was before I came to this place. The Act means that the autism strategy, which is now being revised, is the core document for local authorities and all providers and commissioners of services across England in working with and providing a proper strategy and service for adults with autism.
I have the pleasure and honour of chairing the all-party group on autism, and I enjoy working with Members from both sides of the House. The all-party group has had significant success in the years since it was founded in 2000 not only in campaigning but in achieving real change for children and adults with autism and their families. As my right hon. Friend said, the Act has, in certain areas of the country, delivered that real change. I am delighted that in my constituency in Swindon we now have not only an autism partnership board, the meetings of which I have attended, but an efficient adult diagnostic service. Our social enterprise, SEQOL, was commissioned to provide that diagnostic service, which is one of the best in the country. We are now able to identify adults in their 50s, who are getting a diagnosis for the first time. That is important for them and is an acknowledgement not only of the questions and issues that they have been raising over the years but that, for far too long, far too many people have lived without any support or diagnosis. Diagnosis, of course, is only the first stage. What comes next is as much a challenge, and it is a question that we need to answer.
My hon. Friend is a much greater expert than I am on autism. I was one of the founding officers of the all-party group on autism back in 2000, and it has done important work in this area, among the most important of which was our work with schools and local authorities to encourage early diagnosis, joined-up work and greater consistency in how we detect autism in the first place. If we can do that and tailor the school experience to the special needs of people with autism, we will not end up with people not being detected until as late as their 40s or 50s, which means that they miss out on a whole lifetime of support.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him not only for his work on the all-party group but for his work as shadow children’s Minister and as children’s Minister in this Government. He played his part in ensuring that early diagnosis is a step closer to reality. The Children and Families Bill, which is shortly to be enacted, now incorporates education, health and care into one plan for young people who previously received statements of special educational needs. I am talking about children, but what my hon. Friend says is relevant. If we fail to take those early steps, the problems that manifest in later life become not only more difficult for the adults and their families but more expensive for the state. One example is that adults with Asperger’s are seven times more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system than those without the condition. Why? Because Asperger’s is still a relatively unknown condition. It is not understood by many agencies that deal with it, and misunderstanding leads to sad results.
I thank my hon. Friend for his extraordinary leadership and for having a positive impact in a relatively short time on the understanding of autism. On Asperger’s, he will share my concern for those who unfortunately fall into the criminal justice system, but how far do we need to go to ensure that all agencies properly understand Asperger’s? Just last week, a constituent told me that Atos did not have a clue on how to deal with it. His older child was completely let down by the work capability assessment.
My hon. Friend, of course, has constituency experience with the Gary McKinnon case of how we can reach a dreadful situation where, because of a complete misunderstanding of the condition, serious consequences can flow. He makes an important point about Atos, and we have seen the difficulties that it has got itself into. It is unacceptable that we have a system that does not properly recognise these conditions. Frankly, it is a scandal. We can do far better than that, not only for adults with Asperger’s but for the range of invisible conditions—I do not call them hidden conditions, because the word “hidden” has connotations of its own—right through the gamut of mental health. We do not have a grip of that, either in the benefits system or with some other agencies.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his chairmanship of the all-party group. He has been driving forward progress in this area in a superb fashion. In my experience, the issue he is discussing also manifests itself in all sorts of strange areas. If a local authority or housing association dealing with an adult with Asperger’s has no idea of that individual’s sensitivities, it can positively harm that individual and others surrounding them, leading to immeasurable costs to the taxpayer and in the damage done to the individual.
I entirely agree. It is time that we recognise that conditions such as autism are particular disabilities that open a gateway to specialised housing. Unless we deal with that, we will carry on down the failed route of institutionalisation. We can see the logical conclusion of that in Winterbourne View and other serious examples. The Minister has a passion to deal with these issues, and I know he agrees that independent, supported living in properly tailored, properly built housing—it does not yet exist in any great measure—is what is needed for adults with autism if we are to avoid the tragedy that I and other hon. Members see week in, week out, whether we are canvassing or in surgery. We see young people sitting upstairs in the family home, without a job and they do not know what to do. They have no support, and their families are at their wit’s end in knowing what to do. We have to do better than that, and they deserve better.
On interface with agencies—I was talking about criminal justice—in many police areas, we now have autism alert cards. That system works well in Wiltshire, which is the police force area in which I live. We relaunched our autism alert card only last week. It is a simple thing: a bit of plastic with next of kin details on it. Importantly, the card tells the reader that the person carrying it has autism. That should trigger a series of events happening and make the police aware that autism is a factor. If various support services and care services are needed, they can be brought into the package and the family and the support network can also be informed about the incident or problem that the adult is having. Those simple measures can make a great difference.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous. Where do GPs sit in all this? He has mentioned awareness and the need for different agencies to work more closely together. Does he agree that GPs should be given more training on autism at medical schools?
In a word, yes. GPs would welcome it and it would, at a stroke, deal with a whole range of unidentified problems. With greater awareness among general practitioners, referrals can take place. Where there are existing diagnostic services, as there are in Swindon, they can be used and, as I have mentioned, SEQOL and other organisations in other areas can get to work, using the pathways and identifying the condition.
What is next? What else is needed? I am a great believer in advocacy services, and I can see their power in some excellent local examples. The Swindon Advocacy Movement has recently had more funding to extend its remit to help people with autism and Asperger’s. It is a wonderful organisation, with a one-stop shop in the centre of Swindon that gives support to adults with learning disabilities. Its motto is that it is not there permanently to do things for people, but to empower people to help themselves. With that little bit of help, support and advocacy, lives can be changed for the better, and I see that happening through its wonderful work.
We also have Discovering Autism Spectrum Happiness, a voluntary organisation set up by a group of like-minded individuals some years ago in Swindon. It is now working from the Pinetrees community centre, offering the Swindon autism information and advice service, which is an invaluable resource. It only started last year, and it has already reached out to more than 150 individuals with autism and their families. By its estimate, there might be a couple of thousand of people in the community who have not yet been identified. Through its support work and its network, it is giving advice and empowering people with autism. I had the pleasure of visiting it only two weeks ago to talk about some of the cases that it is finding and some of the cases that are coming across my desk. There is a lot going on in local communities, but there is much more that we can do on an overall strategy to identify best practice, to knit that together in a co-ordinated and coherent way and to give other commissioning bodies and other authorities a gold standard from which they can work.
The Minister knows that I am not into lowest common denominators or prescriptive measures when it comes to this sort of thing, because I believe in localism. There has to be, however, some standard to which all commissioning bodies should work. Like adults who are neurotypical, adults with autism should not be frightened or worried to move about. If they can move to another part of the country to secure employment, they should reasonably expect that autism services in their new town or city will be of a similar standard to where they have come from. When they have a family support network, the tendency is for people with autism to stay close to home, and in many cases that is not a bad thing at all. Bearing in mind the Winterbourne View example, bringing people with a disability closer to home and to their network is a good thing, but there will be many high-functioning people with autism who want to travel, want to move about and want to take that job at the other end of the country. Why can they not do that? At the moment, there is a fear that the support network that they might enjoy in Swindon would not exist in another part of the country. That is the function that the strategy could fulfil; it is an empowerment strategy, not some prescriptive “We know what is best for you, so we will tell you what to do” strategy.
On community autism awareness, I have talked somewhat about advocacy services and information, but I want to talk about the sense of isolation that many with autism and their families feel. In a survey conducted by the National Autistic Society, 82% of adults with autism said that they have days and 42% said that they have weeks when they do not talk to anybody outside their household. Just think about that for a moment. Some 72% said that they have been bullied or discriminated against. A survey by Ambitious about Autism found that 87% of parents and carers of people with autism felt unsupported by the community. Those are stark statistics, but some of the solutions are simple. Small adjustments are all that is needed to change things. In the supermarket, staff are often not trained to know how best to deal with individuals who have autism. In the hairdressers, a few sensory adjustments would allow someone with hypersensitivity to access those facilities. The cinema at Greenbridge in Swindon regularly hosts autism-friendly screenings for children and young people, which make all the difference in the world. Parents at those screenings do not need have to have eyes in the back of their heads or worry about whether their child will be seen as naughty or misbehaving. They can relax, secure in the knowledge that everybody around them is accompanying someone with autism. Such adjustments make a huge difference in the lives of not only the individuals who have autism but their carers and families.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. The large DIY chain B&Q made a virtue of employing older people and disabled people, who are sensitive to the needs of their older and physically disabled customers. As a result, more disabled or older people tend to shop there than at other DIY chains, because the staff understand them. There is a commercial advantage in training and employing staff who have greater sensitivity to, and experience of, autism and other learning disabilities.
That is a powerful point. Employing older people and disabled people is good not only for business but for employment. Doing so is not simply about being a kind employer; it is about being savvy. We have already heard about the huge potential that those with autism, Asperger’s and related conditions offer. They have qualities and gifts that we do not have, and they have incredible resources. If we only empower them, they can show us what they are capable of.
My hon. Friend is making an incredible speech. I have mentioned PACT for Autism, and the pilot apprenticeship schemes for people with autism. Given that the Government are investing so much in apprenticeships, does he agree that they should incentivise companies to hire apprentices with autism?
That is an excellent idea. As my hon. Friend knows, our hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) has pioneered a wonderful scheme in his area whereby employers are matched up to young people with autism in order to offer them apprenticeships and job opportunities. I commend that local initiative to my hon. Friend the Minister as a great example of what can be done to empower young people and adults with autism.
I have talked about local cinemas and hairdressers, but what about training bus drivers to be aware of the needs of passengers with autism? I am sure that bus drivers would be receptive, because such training would make their life much easier. A lot of useful measures, such as the provision of quiet spaces in shops, can be done very easily. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, they will open up business to new opportunities.
I draw a parallel with some of the excellent work that has been done on dementia awareness. The co-ordinated dementia-friendly communities programme has been supported by the Government since 2012, and the Prime Minister has commended it. In dementia-friendly communities, local people come together to decide how to include people with dementia. Transport providers, charities, schools and local authorities all open up their facilities to ensure that people with dementia and their carers—let us not forget them—are not discriminated against. Only two weeks ago, I opened a memory café in the Wyvern theatre in Swindon, where people with dementia and their carers can come on Thursdays to have some space, enjoy mainstream activities and feel part of life.
There is an important parallel to be drawn with autism. How are we going to achieve similar improvements for those with autism? Not only must environments be made easy to navigate, but businesses and services must be respectful and responsible; public and private service providers must receive better training; there should be volunteer-led public education in workplaces and schools; and we must work with venues to help them adapt their buildings. Things such as better signage, more information and befriending schemes are also important. All that has been done with dementia, and we must do the same with autism.
The National Autistic Society gave me an example from a blog of a mother who loves musicals but has not been able to go to see a show for some years because her four-year-old son has autism with hypersensitive hearing. Believe me, I know what that is all about. Last year, she bought tickets for an autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in London’s west end. The organisers provided accessible information about the venue to ensure that children with autism would not be overwhelmed on the day. When mother and son went to the theatre, they found that there was a relaxation area where parents could go. At the beginning of the performance, one of the actors came on stage to help children understand the difference between actors and characters in the play. That performance brought families together and beat isolation.
That example relates to children, but there is no reason on earth why we cannot do the same for adults. For a few hours, children and family members were able simply to be themselves. That is the point I made about the Greenbridge cinema experience, which has been invaluable for so many families. Parents are not judged and they do not need to have eyes in the back of their heads. They are accepted and they do not need to apologise for their children or the person for whom they are caring. That is priceless, and I cannot describe how important it is for families of people with autism.
I have to contrast that with my experience some years ago at the Riverside theatre, where we went to see the musical “Salad Days”. As those of us who know and love it will be aware, it is all about a piano that makes people dance. Well, my daughter decided to dance. I thought that that was wonderful, but some in the audience, who did not really understand, did not, so that was the end of that. We really need to move away from such experiences. That has lived with me as a very bad experience for the family, and I hope that I never have to go through that again. I hope that one day we will no longer have to put up with the sort of phrases that I have encountered, or the lack of thought that people often show for those for whom we care.
I hope that the revised and re-published autism strategy will acknowledge what ordinary people and ordinary businesses can do better to make our communities autism friendly. My experience of talking to and e-mailing with many families across the country who are affected by autism indicates that there is a will for change. The right framework and the right resources from central Government could help us make the step change in society’s attitudes towards autism that we have championed, and on which we want to see real action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I will be fairly brief, after an excellent debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this important and timely debate. Her close links with this important issue were demonstrated emphatically by her bringing forward the Autism Act 2009, and her work on that legislation should be commended. It is worth mentioning that the 2009 Act is the country’s only piece of disability-specific legislation, and the fact that it reached the statute book is a credit to not only the right hon. Lady but the hard work of Members from all parts of the House.
In preparation for the debate, I have immersed myself in the Official Report of the Autism Bill’s passage through this place. Although there were some disagreements, for the most part the debate was incredibly consensual, and the tone of today’s debate has been similar. The legislation has achieved a great deal, and I pay tribute to all Members who were involved. I have often said, particularly in Westminster Hall debates, that Parliament is at its best when we can put partisanship aside to achieve shared goals. The 2009 Act is a clear example of that. It is an Act of Parliament of which all Members, especially the right hon. Lady, can be proud.
Section 1 of the 2009 Act placed a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish an autism strategy, which had to include a plan for meeting the needs of adults in England with autism, and a plan for improving the provision of appropriate services by local authorities and the national health service. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), then Secretary of State for Health, published a strategy on 2 March 2010 called “Fulfilling and rewarding lives: The strategy for adults with autism in England”. That joined up all aspects of Government, with no fewer than seven Government Departments contributing, ranging from the Department of Health through to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice.
As colleagues have mentioned, the strategy heralded a new approach across Government, transforming the way that public services supported adults with autism, as well as illustrating what Whitehall can achieve when departmental silo thinking is rightly jettisoned. Despite some meaningful progress since it was published in 2010, there is clearly much work to be done. A report by the National Autistic Society revealed that 92% of adults with autism said that they needed some degree of support, yet 70% said that they were not receiving the support they needed. That meant that almost eight in every 10 people who were not receiving support were forced to rely on their parents.
In his foreword to the 2010 strategy, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Health remarked that
“Autism is sometimes described as a ‘hidden disability’, not only because it has no physical signs, but also because adults with autism are some of the most excluded, and least visible, people in the UK.”
The testimony we have heard this morning underlines that reality. My right hon. Friend also stated that people with autism have been falling through the cracks between different organisations. The 2010 strategy has done much to identify those adults who need support, and improvements are being made, but it is clear that the new autism strategy must look to build on that progress.
Since the 2009 Act and the strategy in 2010, there has been considerable change. Sadly, that has not been consistent throughout the country, and many adults are still not receiving the care or support that they need. Levels of change, and action on necessary improvements, have not yet been sufficient; I do not think that there is any disagreement on that. The forthcoming updated strategy is an opportunity for the Government to maintain national leadership on implementation, and to guide local authorities to enact effective changes and improve services.
It is clear that the identification of those with autism is essential to the success of any strategy, and, to that end, it is right that those in public services are given the tools and knowledge that they need to identify people who may need support. That could mean GPs, other health care workers, police officers, teachers, bus drivers—as we have heard mentioned—or MPs. As a Member of Parliament, I see more and more people in my surgeries who either present at some point on the autistic spectrum or have family members or friends who do.
Although the strategy refers specifically to adults, one key way to ensure that adults are given the support they need is to ensure that they are given the support they need as children. The classroom offers a lot of contact between teachers and pupils, and that relationship is extremely important. Properly trained teachers could identify the needs of children earlier, meaning that proper support systems can be put in place as a child reaches adulthood. That is so important—it is vital.
As a parent, I see my children’s primary school making real headway in that regard, but provision in secondary education appears insufficient. I fear that secondary schools in particular too often miss an opportunity with regard to pupils with autism, and that is a great shame. I hope that the Minister will attempt to allay that fear, particularly given the advent of changes in our education system—free schools and more—that have accelerated the use of non-qualified teachers. Will he tell us how the needs of autistic pupils are being safeguarded in the new educational landscape?
As I bring my remarks to a close, I want once again to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham for securing this debate, and for all her work on this issue over many years. I also pay tribute to all the Members who have contributed to this excellent debate. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on the few issues I have raised. We are striving for the same ends, and there is a remarkable crossover in the means by which we want to achieve them. We have the opportunity for a strong political consensus on this issue, and it is one that I sincerely hope we do not waste.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing the debate, but more particularly on her brilliant work over the years to secure the 2009 Act and the strategy that followed it. I know from my ministerial role that she continues to show an interest and pursue the case for change, and that is incredibly valuable.
Ministers are normally under pressure to respond to requests for meetings, but although I have not had one today, I would like to offer my right hon. Friend the chance to come to the Department, before we reach the final point of the refreshed, revised strategy, to discuss where we are going with it. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) spoke passionately as well. I was with him yesterday at a meeting of his all-party group on autism, and he should be part of the discussion. Other Members are welcome too—that would be very valuable.
I thank the Minister for his generous offer. He took the thought out of my head, because I was going to ask whether my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) could accompany me, alongside someone from the National Autistic Society. That offer will be taken up, and communities across the country will appreciate that. Even if the Minister is unable to meet all the demands we have set out today, it is important that he can set out a path forward, so that we can achieve what we have been asking for across the board, so I thank him for his offer.
I am grateful to the Minister. I will not take up his valuable time, but I want to thank him for the meeting he had on the strategy the other day with me and my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen), and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). We have already started the work here in Westminster, and I am very grateful to the Minister for agreeing to a further meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) to push the agenda forward.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s comments. I share the shadow Minister’s view that this issue is entirely bipartisan. There is a massive need to change and increase society’s understanding of autism. Awful things so often happen through ignorance of autism and the entire spectrum. It is crucial to raise awareness, as several Members have said.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham raised a number of queries about whether the revised strategy would reinforce the points from the original strategy, and I can confirm that it will do so on all the points she mentioned. It must also go further and look into other areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon talked a lot about the criminal justice system, and we must look at how we can improve things there. He made the point that someone with Asperger’s is seven times more likely to end up having some contact with the criminal justice system. We have started to roll out the Government’s liaison and diversion service, which I announced back in January. By 2017, we aim to have a nationwide service for people with mental health problems, autism and learning disabilities who end up in the criminal justice system, often inappropriately and unnecessarily. Getting people diverted to diagnosis, which Members have talked about, and to the right treatment can often prevent further offending and potentially thereby transform someone’s life while protecting others.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the mental health pilot schemes that are being introduced in Wiltshire and other places; they were recommended by the Bradley review some time ago. Does he agree that community psychiatric nurses need training, particularly in cases of comorbid autism and mental health conditions, which are sadly quite common? We must ensure that the pilot covers autism when it comes to the diversion at the police station.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I wanted also to touch on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the parents of adults with autism who, far too often, are told by clinicians that they cannot talk to them about their adult child’s circumstances. Clinicians often hide behind the absolute importance of confidentiality about a condition in order to refuse to talk at all to the parents—the people who know the individual better than anyone. That is an attitude of mind among too many clinicians. It has to change.
I also wanted to refer to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think I can call him my hon. Friend. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you for that. He talked about the pressure on families, and he is absolutely right. Whether one is talking about learning disability, autism or dementia—there are parallels with dementia—the need to raise awareness in society is real. I am also happy to look at the Northern Ireland legislation and at what lessons can be learned throughout the jurisdictions.
Another point in response to the debate was to do with transition. Whether with mental health, learning disability or autism, we so often find that disasters happen at the age of 18. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) alluded to that important point. Too often, people are lost to the system. The age of 18 is the worst possible age to withdraw support, whether we are talking about mental health in general or autism in particular.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. I gave the figure of 85% of people with autism not having full-time employment, and I mentioned the apprenticeship for autism started by my charity, PACT for Autism. Will the Government’s apprenticeship ambassador, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is present, work with the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships to look at introducing such a scheme and rolling it out across the country?
My hon. Friend beat me to it, because I was about to refer to his comments on apprenticeships. I am interested in that. I am proud of what the Government have done on apprenticeships in general, but their use for people with autism is an interesting area. I noted the points he made about the scheme in his local area, and I am happy to consider it further.
On incentivising employers and leading by example, the Government, in the NHS, are among the biggest employers around and will no doubt want to be an autism-friendly organisation and employer. Does the Minister have any information about how autism-friendly the NHS is in employing people with autism? Will he look into how the NHS can take a lead by doing that?
I absolutely agree that the NHS ought to be an exemplar employer. I suspect that the truth is that it is variable, with areas of good practice, but we do not know enough about the position throughout the NHS. The message should go out from this debate that the NHS has an obligation to lead by example and to demonstrate what can be done. Several hon. Members made the point that employing someone with autism might be quite challenging to start with, but the potential that that individual can offer is often enormous. An organisation could end up with a loyal employee who can contribute massively. The NHS needs to demonstrate that by leading from the front.
Everyone with autism should be
“able to live fulfilling and rewarding lives within a society that accepts and understands them.”
That was at the heart of the “Fulfilling and rewarding lives” strategy, and I stand firmly behind it. Furthermore, the work of the National Autistic Society’s “Push for Action” campaign has been hugely valuable in helping the Government to focus on the issues that need to be considered. I pay tribute to the society for inspired leadership. Other organisations have worked with us as well, including the Autism Alliance, Autism Plus and Ambitious about Autism, and I pay tribute to the work of all those organisations.
During our review, we ran a comprehensive exercise to listen and learn how the strategy is working. Nearly 2,000 people, including some on the autism spectrum and some who are involved in planning, commissioning and providing services, took part in focus groups, events and conferences, and more than 1,100 people with autism took part in an online survey. Local authorities worked with their partners and local people to complete a self-evaluation exercise on their progress. All this information, including individual returns, will be made available by Public Health England when the update of the strategy is published. As well as cross-departmental discussions, there has been contact with the different parts of the United Kingdom to discuss all four strategies, including that of Northern Ireland, to find common ground and to improve standards across the board.
Foundations for change have been laid and people with autism have increasingly been engaged locally in planning and designing services. Clear national guidance has been issued on the care, management and diagnosis of autism. We have heard about some great experiences that people have had in further education or with particular employers. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a good point about the need for employers to take the lead and to demonstrate best practice.
In some areas, there are great local autism teams and excellent diagnostic services. I noted what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said about her area and the GP who was taking the lead in that county to commission services. That is exactly what needs to be happening everywhere. I also heard of some great services being provided in Swindon, so there are some good things happening, but it was only five years or so ago that low levels of awareness and a lack of services were what led to the Autism Act, back in 2009. There are some real successes, but there is also much more to do to see the foundations translated into a greater difference to peoples’ lives.
When I have talked to people with autism and to families at events that have taken place during the review, I was struck by how variable the position is. In some areas, very little has happened. We now have the legislation in a good place and a good strategy, which is being updated, but translating that into a difference to people’s lives is where an enormous amount of work still needs to be done.
When the Minister comes to publish the refresh of the strategy, will any care be given—as it should, in my view—to the understanding of NHS front-line staff, in particular in emergency medicine, and their identifying patients with autism? I have a series of examples from my constituency of people with autism accessing emergency services, receiving suboptimal care and getting into some pretty dangerous situations.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I was going to come on to give an example of that. Sadly, we have also heard from many people with autism, and their families and carers, that things have not yet changed enough, or at all, for them. Gaps in provision or waits for diagnostic services continue to be reported. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon made clear, diagnosis is the start of what can then happen; it is a condition precedent to an improvement in someone’s life, and is of course not enough in itself. Many people have told us that they have skills to offer employers that they cannot use. That is totally frustrating for them, and a waste for the individual and for the economy, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham made clear.
The Minister has slightly moved on from the point that I wanted to make, but I will make it nevertheless. Will he also look at an initiative that the NAS and I took in my constituency with some parents of children who have autism? I brought them together with the clinical commissioning group in a non-crisis atmosphere, because most of the contact with parents and families with autism happens when they are in crisis. We held a meeting in my office in a non-crisis environment and it was helpful to have an exchange in a calm atmosphere about the issues and problems faced by those individuals and families. They were able to put those across to the CCG and the local authority, which meant that the professionals were then so much better equipped to know what such families and individuals are facing, and to give them the help and assistance that they require. Will the Minister also look at that as a model to roll out across the country?
I would. Bringing people with autism and people who use services together with those who are commissioning the services is a necessary condition for any good commissioning, but far too often it does not happen. As my right hon. Friend has demonstrated, there is a role for us here: we can act as local champions to bring people together and put pressure on institutions to change attitudes. I very much share that view.
We are in the final period of finalising the update to the strategy and are giving active consideration to ideas that others have contributed, such as the innovation fund, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, to help develop good practice, and an autism awareness scheme to help local volunteers and community groups. Autism should not be seen as an add-on to services or work programmes, and with well over half a million people on the autism spectrum, everyday services will already be seeing or in contact with many people who have autism. Thinking about and engaging with those people more effectively and making reasonable adjustments or adaptations to existing services will lead to better outcomes for people and a better use of public resources, as other hon. Members have said.
Monday was NHS change day. I was made aware, via Twitter, of a short video about a doctor’s pledge to ensure that instructions given to patients are clear and not ambiguous. The video followed a girl called Lucy who has autism. After a consultation in a room in a hospital, she was told to wait outside A and E, and so went outside the building, because she had taken the instruction literally, and sat waiting for hours outside in the cold in the car park, left entirely on her own. I encourage hon. Members to watch it: it lasts about 30 seconds and was distributed via Twitter. That simple and straightforward pledge, made by a doctor who recognised that there had been a complete failure by his service, will help to raise awareness within the service and increase understanding of autism. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made the point that this is not just a matter for the NHS; other organisations such as banks and other financial institutions have a responsibility to see how they need to raise awareness among their staff.
Many of the changes under way in public services, such as increased personalisation and choice for individuals, are essential to giving people with autism the right kind of support. Support for people with autism may not require huge budgets to achieve improvements, and much can be achieved with a degree of creativity, flexibility and determination.
This issue is relevant not only to health and care, however. Again, we can draw a comparison with the dementia situation. The Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia is about how not only health and care services but society need to change, and how we need to raise awareness across society. The same applies for people on the autism spectrum. It is about changing people’s lives, both where they live and where they work. We know that so much more could be done to promote autism awareness, but our society is becoming more aware of autism. We hear about local schemes to make parts of the community more accessible and welcoming to people with autism. For example, as was referred to earlier, cinema screenings are being made autism-friendly by simple adjustments such as having the lights on low and the volume turned down.
Services based around low-level interpersonal support, such as buddying schemes, have enabled adults with autism—including people who do not qualify for support from their local authorities—to participate in different social and leisure activities and have promoted social inclusion. The example of the special showing of a musical in London is a good demonstration of an organisation prepared to go the extra mile to make life enjoyable for people in those circumstances. Exactly the same can be done for adults as for children, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said.
The Care Bill also puts a duty on local authorities to develop preventive services for people within communities. The shadow Minister and I have been devoting a lot of our time to the Care Bill. It is great and groundbreaking legislation that puts a focus on individuals’ well-being and happiness. If we can change the way in which organisations such as local authorities behave towards people with care and support needs, so as to focus on their well-being and not the needs of the institution, we can effect real change.
The Children and Families Bill will bring significant improvements to the transition of young people with autism from school, through college and into adult life—a point made by the shadow Minister. It will introduce education, health and care plans for people from nought to 25, which will put greater emphasis on long-term outcomes for young people. We know that caring for someone with autism can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be incredibly challenging, both emotionally and financially. The changes to carers’ assessments that will be introduced if the Care Bill becomes law will ensure that many more carers can get support.
It is also important to improve training on autism for front-line public service staff, a point raised several times in our debate. Since 2010 we have worked with a range of organisations to produce a comprehensive set of resources for staff in the health and care sector. Health Education England has a role to play, along with initiatives from the royal colleges, such as the Royal College of General Practitioners, whose adoption of autism as a clinical priority from April this year is very much to be welcomed. The regulations to support the Care Bill will also require community care assessors to be suitably trained—again, an issue raised in our debate. Having autism-aware police officers, courts and probation services can make a great difference. The existing statutory guidance made it clear that autism training should be available to all staff working in health and social care.
To plan effectively, local authorities need access to data on numbers and needs that are as comprehensive as possible. From April this year, as an outcome of the zero-based review of adult social care data, they will have to record a person’s primary reason for support and any health conditions that person may have, including autism. That provides a basis for possible future measures on autism in the adult social care outcomes framework.
A key challenge for many older adults with autism is that they will have had significant support from their families, but as families age that becomes less possible. We are considering how to build on the recent NAS report that followed work by the House of Lords autism and ageing commission.
As we have heard, most people with autism want to work, and have skills and talents that would be incredibly useful in the workplace. The policy paper “The disability and health employment strategy: the discussion so far” outlines a more personalised and tailored approach to employment support for disabled people, including people with autism. As well as challenging negative behaviours and attitudes, the Disability Confident campaign launched last year by the Prime Minister is designed to help employers who are unsure about the benefits of employing disabled people.
Adults with autism are entitled to benefit from all the Government’s wider initiatives to get working-age people into employment. The Department for Work and Pensions is aware that more can be done to help people with autism make the most of those programmes and of themselves. Only this week, the DWP held an event with my Department and the NAS, for people on the spectrum and for employers, to improve people’s experiences in applying for jobs at the jobcentre and with employers.
We are only at the beginning of the journey to improve all aspects of the lives of people with autism, including when they are seeking employment or are in education, as well as the support they get in health and social care. We need to continue with concerted action and commitment both nationally and locally to make a difference. The update of the 2010 strategy will mark the next step in that journey, but there is still a long way to go.
Fatal Domestic Violence
It is a pleasure to secure a debate on this sensitive and important issue. I am grateful that the Minister is in is place to hear the case for peer support and advocacy services for the families of domestic homicide victims.
Our understanding of the full effects of domestic homicide is still emerging, but I will give my perspective. I was a criminal barrister for many years, and I dealt with homicide, murder and manslaughter cases. I thought that I had a deeper understanding than most people of the effects on the families of victims, but I realised after discussions with expert advocate services that the family’s journey does not end at the door of the court when the verdict is passed and the sentence is handed down. Often, that is only the first stage of a long, arduous process through which families have to go.
A domestic homicide, whether it is murder, manslaughter or another form of death, profoundly changes a family’s life in an instant. For example, the surviving children may have witnessed abuse or the killing, or they may have lost a sibling. They may have lost both parents if the perpetrator parent either committed suicide or is held securely. The family property immediately becomes a crime scene, the criminal justice system must be navigated and the health and financial costs of that need to be challenged. Information that is vital to the family may have to be held back so they are not compromised as witnesses. At the same time, they must deal with the grief that results from the loss of their loved ones and the private personal details of their lives will be made public. It is a self-evident truth that the aftermath of such a death is traumatic. It raises issues that nobody the family knows has ever had to deal with before, and thrusts the family into contact with agencies with which they never thought they would have to engage. In an instant, they are in a strange, troubling new world.
Specialist advocacy and support is desperately needed for those families. There is a real concern that the Government’s well-intentioned proposal to give a grant to one prime service provider while withdrawing direct grants to smaller specialist and expert providers will reduce the number of families who are provided with specialist expert and independent support after domestic homicide. The Government recognise that that sort of support helps families to cope with and recover from the trauma.
The organisation Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse is directed by somebody whom I regard as a friend, Frank Mullane. It is an award-winning service that is funded from a number of sources, and for a number of years it has received welcome and helpful contributions from the Government. It provides specialist services to some categories of families—in particular, families who were bereaved before April 2010, for whom Victim Support’s homicide service currently has no responsibility and for whom the homicide service provider will not have responsibility from October 2014, and families whose tragedy attracts a section 9 domestic homicide review. The Government brought that important provision into force, and I warmly welcome their decision. However, a number of organisations already refer families to AAFDA for domestic homicide reviews, and Victim Support’s homicide service signposts families to the organisation. The word “signpost” is important, because Victim Support uses the word “refer” only for organisations that it directly commissions using its budget. AAFDA has an excellent relationship with Victim Support’s homicide service, and the two organisations collaborate effectively on behalf of many families.
Victim Support’s homicide service signposts families to AAFDA for help not only with that issue, but also with inquests, serious case reviews, mental health inquiries and other matters. Families also directly approach the organisation, and it has an input into Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiries. It does a range of work, and engages with local employers, service providers and other agencies to provide a full package of support.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I entirely agree about the excellent work of Frank Mullane. As my hon. Friend is aware, the police must appoint a family liaison officer to support the families of victims on every occasion. However, a problem that has not been resolved is that in murder and killing cases, the perpetrator, until convicted, is treated as the next of kin of the deceased and the children.
That is right, and that relationship often leads to manipulation after the event. The intercession, the support and the advocacy service are vital if we are to prevent families from reliving the trauma, as has happened in many sad examples.
The Minister will be aware of the report that was completed in July 2011 by the former Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, Louise Casey. It was the largest survey of bereaved families ever undertaken; more than 400 families revealed the toll of bereavement. Louise Casey concluded that the devastating effects of homicide manifested in many ways. She rightly concluded:
“these effects persist for many years.”
That is why I said that the criminal trial is often only the beginning of the journey for the family.
Louise Casey identified the enduring needs of families after homicide, and she provided several important conclusions. First, many families who were bereaved before April 2010 still need the support of specialist agencies after October 2014. There is a concern that the funding for the homicide services for those families has not been dealt with adequately. Secondly, many families who were bereaved after April 2010 still require ongoing support. They already seek out AAFDA and other small specialist organisations during the time that the current national homicide service provider is engaged and afterwards.
From 1 October, the prime service provider will have to have an exit strategy with families, or its capacity will eventually be insufficient because of the numbers that will come to the service. For many families, the journey through the criminal justice system alone may take several years. For example, some domestic homicide reviews are necessarily suspended until the end of the criminal trial, and some inquests may not take place until several years after the tragedy. I know of an example of a family who are about to face an inquest that will last for several weeks, two and a half years after the homicides.
A further problem arises because families’ emotional and practical needs often do not emerge until years have passed since the homicide. It is then that the smaller specialist organisations such as AAFDA will be approached to help those families cope and recover. In reality, and as history shows, many families need help to cope and recover after the homicide service has exited the process. That is no reflection on the services provided by the homicide service, but it is simply a fact of life that the amount of time that people need to cope and recover often will not match the resources that are available. There is a concern that those families will not get the support that they need.
Although the Government’s aim is that from October this year, the prime homicide services provider will commission other services that families need, there is a worry that the expertise of small organisations such as AAFDA may be overlooked, and if it is not overlooked, that the funding available will be insufficient to make the service sustainable. That will result in fewer families getting the support that they need.
I cannot overemphasise the expertise and skill of AAFDA. It is a registered charity that was formed in 2008 and which has strong connections with Swindon, where my constituency is. It has become expert on domestic homicide, domestic violence and supporting families after these horrors, including support through the criminal justice system. It has been recognised by both the previous Government and this one as a leader in its field.
AAFDA has three specialist caseworkers, two of whom lost family members to homicide, and the other who has 30 years’ operational and strategic experience in the domestic violence sector. In addition, it has a volunteer criminologist and a volunteer barrister who give significant pro bono help. One of AAFDA’s caseworkers is considered to be a national expert on stalking, and the other two caseworkers, including the director, Frank Mullane, are Home Office accredited chairs of section 9 domestic homicide reviews. AAFDA is, of course, a member of the Home Office panel that quality assures those reviews.
Frank is rightly credited with being the driving force behind domestic homicide reviews becoming law in England and Wales and helped draft some parts of the statutory guidance. He has a now-growing academic expertise, being a visiting lecturer and assessor at the university of Gloucestershire, and he works closely with universities both at home and abroad. He is continually learning about developments in the sector. Having attended, for the past four years, the annual conference of AAFDA, held in Swindon, I too, have learnt a lot about this area. I have met some of the families being helped by the organisation and I have listened to speakers from as far afield as Sweden, Ireland and indeed, from many parts of England. AAFDA is also a member of key national forums, advising the College of Policing, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and those of us—me included—who are looking to develop legislation on domestic abuse.
In the brief time I have left, I want to give some case examples of the importance of the ability of the organisation to stand in the shoes of those who have been victims of domestic homicide. The fact that we are dealing with immeasurable grief almost goes without saying, but let me give an example of one family. A woman—a mother and sister—was killed by her husband. The family had to summon up the strength to clean the bloodstains from the house where the victim was killed—just imagine that for a moment. As one family member said to the media,
“it's like being told—it's not your mess, but you clean it up.”
That is a graphic, I accept, but important illustration of the ordeal that people have to go through, not only in losing somebody, but in physically dealing with the aftermath of a homicide.
That family are being helped and have been helped for more than three years. They have been given expert advice and guidance on which organisations they needed to go to to get the information that they needed, otherwise they would have been in isolation. That family have channelled their resilience into providing well thought through and skilful challenges to the various bodies in the system, and it is an important example of what can be achieved to the benefit of those who have suffered.
Another example is where uninformed advice had been given to a family about a domestic homicide review, and because of that uninformed advice, they had declined to participate. As a result of signposting to AAFDA, they were given proper, expert advice. The process was explained and the family changed their mind. They participated in the review, and the review itself has benefited hugely from the involvement of the family. It has given them an opportunity to participate and to explain from their point of view the challenges that the system posed to them.
It is all about identifying and achieving the objectives of the family while managing their expectations, because for many families, finding out the facts of the case and what happened can be a huge difficulty, for some of the reasons I outlined earlier. Helping families to acquire that information may serve at least two purposes. First, as the Prime Minister acknowledged when he gave evidence to the Liaison Committee in 2013 about the awful case of Jacintha Saldanha—the Bristol nurse who took her own life after the very sad hoax call from broadcasters in Australia—the family absolutely need the truth. They need the facts.
Secondly, and this is important, significant public resources may later be avoided as a result of the resumption of inquiries that have been justifiably sought by the families because the initial inquiry had been wholly inadequate. Many of these families cannot afford solicitors, but they need—this is undeniable—help from those who have considerable experience of the system. As I have said, the work that AAFDA does with regard to inquests is very significant. It is an advocacy service that helps a family to understand the process and how they can participate and prepare for the ordeal itself.
I have given a few family examples, but I want to give one further example of a family who talked with passion about the action plan that was set out by AAFDA. That action plan gave that family a sense of where to go and what to do and allowed them to move forward. AAFDA helped to make sense of the process to the family in a way that just was not happening for them without its input.
As I have said, AAFDA is influencing the practice of domestic homicide reviews to include family and friends. It first influenced the Government to ensure that that was stated clearly in the statutory guidance, and its caseworkers continue to advocate strongly on behalf of families, so that reviewers understand that the family is to be given space and to be integral to the reviews, rather than lip service just being given to their involvement. Without families being able to influence the reviews, frankly, they become meaningless. They become talking shops and they become ineffective.
As I said, there are concerns about the way in which funding will be configured from October this year. Although AAFDA is already working with police and crime commissioners such as Angus Macpherson in Wiltshire, there is a difficulty for them directly to fund the work because the incidence of domestic homicide in many police areas will be low. Therefore, the nature of that specialist work will, by dint of its relative rarity, have to be in a national framework. That is why, we understand, the funding is being administered centrally. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could not only acknowledge the value of the work by organisations such as AAFDA, but look carefully again at the funding mechanism to make sure that this invaluable service and others like it are not lost to those families in real need.
In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing the debate, I very much echo his opening words that this is indeed a sensitive and important area. I also echo his closing words in paying tribute to AAFDA and the other organisations that work in this most difficult area. I have been aware for some time of his interest in and knowledge of the area from the various written questions that he has submitted on it.
I am more than happy to assure my hon. Friend that the Government remain committed to ensuring that victims of all types of crime have access to support to enable them to cope and, wherever possible, to help them to recover from their experience, or at least, to be able to have some kind of normality in their lives: for example, returning to work, re-engaging with outside interests and trying to rebuild their lives.
Domestic abuse and homicide are particularly abhorrent forms of crime. Such violence, as my hon. Friend said, ruins and destroys families. It is insidious and can take many forms: physical, emotional and sexual. Homicide is its most extreme manifestation. Clearly, for anyone to lose a loved one in such a way is a disturbing and traumatic experience.
Progress has been made over the years to raise the profile of the issue and, more importantly, to fight it. In 2011, the Home Office implemented section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. That means that local areas and agencies are expected to undertake a multi-agency review following a domestic violence homicide to help all those involved in the review process in identifying the lessons that need to be learned. In November 2013, the Home Office published a document setting out the most common themes that were identified as lessons to be learned.
I am obviously aware of the organisation Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and of the very good work that it does in supporting those affected by domestic abuse and homicide. More generally, support for those bereaved by homicide has been improved in the past few years. The Government remain committed to providing support for victims of crime and their families, and that includes provision of support for those bereaved by homicide.
Currently, the Ministry of Justice provides £2.4 million of annual funding to a national homicide service provided by Victim Support. That service provides an assigned caseworker who delivers and co-ordinates practical and emotional support and who can commission specialist support, including legal advice and counselling. In addition, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently provides up to £100,000 of funding a year for additional support when the homicide has occurred abroad. That funding helped 4,500 individuals to be supported by the homicide service between 2010 and the end of 2013. Currently, 2,588 people are being supported.
In addition, the Ministry of Justice currently provides a total of £350,000 of annual funding to a number of other specialist and peer support organisations that provide help for families bereaved by homicide. Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse is one of the organisations providing peer support that we currently fund.
A new national homicide service is currently being commissioned by the Ministry of Justice and, from October 2014, the Ministry of Justice will be providing grant funding for a more integrated offer of support for those bereaved by homicide. It will provide access, where required, to practical and emotional support and to both specialist and peer support.
The principle of service provision is that it will be based on need. My hon. Friend mentioned Louise Casey’s review of the homicide service in 2011, and rightly so; it is an important document. One of the lessons that we have drawn from it and, indeed, from learning and feedback from the service providers currently funded, is that the needs of those bereaved by homicide can range from the short term to the long term and, in some cases, as he said, persist for many years or even be lifelong. In that regard, it is important to remember that Louise Casey’s report called for an integrated service for the bereaved; and, indeed, an integrated service commissioned and managed by one grant fund will be able and required to refer individuals to peer and specialist support. That is precisely because signposting, under current separate grant funds, is sometimes not in the best interests of families, so we are trying to address that specific point that my hon. Friend made.
We also know that individuals who need support will not inevitably fall into one category of support need. Individuals who need specialist advice may, for example, also need immediate practical support and advice, counselling support or help with claims for compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. We know that victims’ needs can both change and recur over time, so not only will the balance of what victims need across these various areas of support vary from individual to individual, but the balance of support that any individual needs may change over time. That is why we want support to be available to individuals for as long as they need it; we are not looking to exit individuals from the support that they need according to a pre-set time scale or proportion of the available budget. That is to say that victims who receive support from the national homicide service will be able to do so for as long as they need it. We also want the support offered to address and help to meet the range of an individual’s needs, so that in time the need for support reduces.
The Ministry of Justice therefore intends to provide one grant award for a national homicide service. We are inviting bids from organisations that can demonstrate how they will deliver support across the range of needs; it is important to ensure that this leads to a more integrated service than the current separate funding arrangements. We are inviting prime contractors with subcontractors, and consortiums, to bid. There is therefore scope for smaller organisations, including peer support groups, to take part in the process, either as bidders for the direct MOJ grant or as partners in service provision. This competitive grant process will allow the provision of support to families based on need and entitlement, and provision of the support is therefore not time-limited.
Let me be clear that although we are changing the way in which we fund the homicide service in order to provide a more efficient, effective and integrated service, we remain committed to ensuring that peer support is available to those victims who want or need it. It is expected that in bidding for and providing the service, the future recipient of this grant award will need to demonstrate how it will directly provide support and, where it cannot directly provide all support across the range of needs, it will put in place sustainable arrangements with other organisations that can help to ensure that the range of needs are met.
Let me address directly a point that I know AAFDA makes: what happens to those bereaved by homicide before the setting up of the homicide service in 2010? Among the essential features of the current service model is that it is designed to provide immediate support and then structured ongoing support. It provides a dedicated caseworker in the immediate aftermath of bereavement who conducts a needs assessment. Obviously, the needs of those bereaved before 2010 will not be best supported by this service model, so we do not propose to extend the scope of the new service to include support in cases that predate the current service, but organisations that currently support pre-2010 provision were advised in August 2013 that they would need to ensure that they made suitable funding arrangements, either to continue to support service users or to transition them to appropriate services once the current funding streams ceased. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice also gave organisations the opportunity to engage in work to consider how to help the victims sector build capacity and capability ahead of the move to local commissioning by police and crime commissioners in October 2014. Of course, PCCs will be able to augment nationally provided services locally as they see necessary.
The organisations have been told about this; they have been told about the new funding arrangement, and I hope that they will be able to use the new arrangements to ensure that they continue their essential services. If an organisation proves unable to develop such arrangements and that means that there is a risk of essential support ending, it can and should contact the Ministry of Justice to highlight that risk, the steps that it has taken to resolve it and information on the range, volume and type of support activities that would constitute the gap in service provision from October 2014, because the purpose of the new grant award arrangements is that resources can be distributed as effectively and efficiently as possible, which will ensure that organisations provide as much support as possible for individuals.
I again emphasise the importance, under the new arrangements, of commissioning by police and crime commissioners. That will mean that decisions about local services are based on local needs and made by individuals who have an understanding of those needs and who can be held accountable for the money that they spend on these services. Each PCC will therefore be able to look at the range of services being provided both locally and nationally and make their own assessment of how to provide additional, tailored support to victims based on local requirements.
I think that the new system will be better integrated than before and I hope that it will also be more flexible than before, so that the small specific charities that do such vital work will be able to continue doing it. I hope, therefore, that I have gone some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend that it is precisely because of the changeable and varied needs of individuals who are bereaved by homicide that a grant award for a co-ordinated and integrated provision of service is the right approach to ensuring that those bereaved by homicide have access to vital support.
Severn Bridges (Tolling)
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, especially in view of your south Wales connections. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Severn bridge tolls. The subject has been debated regularly in this place in recent times and has been given keen cross-party scrutiny by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which I am a member. The level of tolls on the Severn bridges is a thorny issue. It is an ongoing frustration for constituents and businesses. That concerns me, because I have a toll booth on the edge of my constituency, and it concerns other hon. Members who have constituencies in south Wales and England. I am grateful for the turnout today.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I emphasise that there are ramifications for a much broader range of people than those who represent the M4 corridor. Those of us in west Wales, haulage industry contractors and the tourist sector have a deep interest as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. As the Welsh Affairs Committee discovered during our inquiry, the tolls have major ramifications for the rest of south Wales. For that reason, I am glad that other hon. Members are here, and I hope that they get a chance to talk about how they have been affected.
As we approach the end of the concession with Severn River Crossing plc in 2018, we need an openness from the Department for Transport and the Treasury about the plans that are being made for when the bridges return to public ownership. The Welsh Affairs Committee published its report on the Severn crossings in 2010, which urged the Government urgently to set up a future strategy for the crossings and called for tolls to be reduced significantly. Four years later, however, we are no further on. The only progress has been to allow people to pay by debit or credit card on the bridges in time for the Ryder cup, and what a long-drawn-out, tortuous process that was.
The tolls continue to go up every year, regardless of the economic climate and people’s ability to pay, and my constituents need some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. It is generally accepted that tolling was necessary to fund the crossings on the Severn, but what was so unfair about the Severn Bridges Act 1992 was that it introduced a concession so rigid and inflexible that the toll cannot be varied to help in difficult economic times without the taxpayer incurring liability. Any request to modernise the bridges receives the stock response that the Government cannot make any changes without extending the concessionary period even further or charging the taxpayer. The situation is unfair, because Severn River Crossing plc is fully compensated for any change that comes along, and it can whack the tolls up year after year in line with the 1992 Act. The Treasury is happy because it keeps the VAT and other tax income, and it quietly does well out of the bridges, but bridge users are stung time after time, and they have to pay more for longer.
I called the debate because I want to articulate the real frustration that bridge users feel, and to ask the Minister explain openly where we are and what the Government are planning. We have learned over the years that information on the finances of the bridges is hard to come by. Mysterious debts spring up, and dates and figures regularly change. I hope that today offers us a chance to get some clarity. If anybody is in any doubt about the effect that the tolls continue to have on the economy, they need only hear what a business man said to me this week:
“the majority of business visitors comment within the first few minutes of a meeting about the toll, never positively, and people feel that it develops a negative impression of Wales—both from a business perspective, but also for those who may return as a potential tourist.”
If every meeting in the offices and factories of south Wales starts like that, something has to be done. It is time that the Government listened.
Does my hon. Friend share my bitter disappointment that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who demanded this week that the Severn bridges be nationalised, is not here to deliver his battle cry to build socialism in our time?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this extremely important debate. She mentioned the hidden costs; the UK Government dropped a bombshell on the Welsh Affairs Committee a year or so ago, when they said that there would be an outstanding debt at the end of the concessionary period, when the bridges returned to public ownership. There is no clarity about the sums involved or how long it will take to pay that debt. Does she share my concern that many of our constituents believe that the Treasury is using the bridges as a cash cow? Without clarity on the matter, the people of south Wales will feel that the Treasury is intent on fleecing motorists for the foreseeable future.
I strongly agree, and I will say much the same thing in my remarks. The Severn bridge tolls are the most expensive in the UK. It now costs £6.40 for a car to cross the bridge, £12.80 for a van, and £19.20 for a coach or lorry. By comparison, it costs just £1.50 for a car to cross the Humber bridge or £2 to use the Dartford crossing. However, the Dartford crossing is free to use between 10 pm and 6 am, and a scheme was recently launched under which local residents can pay just £20 a year to cross the bridge as often as they like. Those are both examples of the Government stepping in after local campaigns and helping long-suffering road users. If they can help businesses and residents in those areas, why can they not take decisive action to help in the case of the Severn bridges?
The tolls are a cost-of-living issue for my constituents, especially those who commute daily over the bridge, and the cost is a big burden for many businesses that operate out of south Wales. Constituents constantly tell me how hard they find it to absorb the increased tolls each year when pay is frozen, hours are reduced and the cost of living continues to rise. A constituent e-mailed me a few weeks ago to say:
“I’m employed in Yate in Bristol which means I have the daily trip across the bridge. While I had budgeted for the bridge cost, the actual cost of commuting along with the increase in the cost of living is currently causing me great concern. I try to ride an old motorcycle as much as I can”—
a motorcycle can cross for free—
“but I have found the wind protection on both bridges to be unsatisfactory, even in the summer, leading me to balance the cost of taking the car with the danger of taking the motorbike. Therefore, I would really like to take the car every day but the cost is just too high, and as you know the cost has now increased again.”
There is little choice. It costs about £2,400 to commute to Bristol by train using a standard adult ticket. Some of my constituents feel that the yearly toll increases have a knock-on effect on alternative modes of transport, such as the bus or the train, which further restricts their choices. The train service from Severn Tunnel Junction station is frequently full, and commuters are sometimes left standing on the platform at peak times. Those who commute between Bristol and Newport East have a really raw deal, which is a significant barrier to those looking for employment in Bristol. It is one thing to pay the toll once a week or so, but quite another to pay it every day, just to go to work. The local anger and frustration was demonstrated just a few days ago on St David’s day, when 120 local singers re-enacted the Rebecca riots—the men were dressed in traditional women’s clothing, apparently—on the M48 bridge. That shows just how strongly people feel about the matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an excellent debate on a crucial issue, and I endorse all the points that she has made so far. She has mentioned individuals, but does she agree that we are also hearing increasingly from businesses? In particular, the Freight Transport Association, which has 700 members across Wales—many of them in my constituency—has talked about the impact that the tolls are having on the small margins in its members’ businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was going to praise the Freight Transport Association for its campaign, so I am glad that he mentioned it, and I very much agree with him. The Newport business man I mentioned earlier also told me about the negative impression of the toll:
“the toll has a major effect on recruitment and retention of staff in both directions. The northern fringes of Bristol across to Cardiff are all very commutable (M4 allowing) but having to build in excess of the £30 per week in to commuting costs prevents a lot of skills transfer between the areas. As an example, an employee of one of my clients told me that the bridge tolls have risen nearly 50% in her time commuting, whereas her salary has risen less than 15%.”
Businesses, particularly those in the haulage industry—I make special mention of the Freight Transport Association’s campaign—say that the tolls mean they bear a cost that their competitors across the bridge do not have to deal with. They have to add the cost on to their bottom line, which hits their competitiveness. Some companies pay in excess of £250,000 a year.
A Welsh Government study, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, shows that scrapping the tolls altogether could improve the economic output of south Wales by some £107 million. The report also shows that for a car journey—excluding commuters and business travel—the toll represents approximately 19% of the costs of a trip between Cardiff and Bristol. For light goods vehicles the figure is 23%, and for heavy goods vehicles it is 21%. The total cost of crossing the bridge for businesses and consumers, once VAT is taken into account, is in excess of £80 million a year in 2009 prices.
That is the impact of the tolls, which I am sure other Members will also articulate, but what can the Government do to help? Every year, when it is announced that the tolls will go up, bridge users ask for them to be frozen, and the Government say that they cannot be, because of the concession. However, the Government wrote off £150 million of the £330 million debt on the Humber bridge, so where there is a will, there is a way. The Government could step in and compensate the concessionaire; they just choose not to. Will the Minister address that point when he responds?
Last year, the Welsh Affairs Committee asked the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), to look at a scheme for business—for example, a toll-free overnight period that would help businesses with their costs, as well as easing congestion. The current Minister has replied that the concession would have to be extended to pay for that. I will say it again: the Government stepped in to help with the Humber bridge; why not do so here? Will he clarify his remarks about the TAG concession being the limit of the concession that the Government can offer under European law? It would be helpful to have that explained in person.
Will the Minister also give us some answers on what the Government are planning, as regards where we go at the end of the concession, when the bridge returns to public ownership? The Treasury has done pretty well out of the Severn bridges in previous years. In 2000, the European Court of Justice ruled that VAT must be charged on private bridges. Between 2003 and 2012, the Government accrued an unexpected windfall of £121 million as a result of that change. Estimates from the Scrutiny Unit suggest that by the end of 2013, the figure is likely to be nearer to £135 million.
The Finance Act 2007 started the abolition of the industrial buildings allowance, meaning that the Government held on to an estimated £21.2 million, in 1989 prices, which they would never have expected. I understand that in today’s prices, that would be nearer to £40 million. Although the Government argue that they must continue tolling to recoup the £88 million in costs from unexpected repairs to the first bridge, they have actually accrued more than £160 million from both changes, which is more than enough to write off the existing debt. Will the Minister please update those figures and confirm how much to date the Government have received from VAT, and how much has been saved as a result of abolishing the industrial buildings allowance? The Department for Transport does not seem keen to answer my latest parliamentary question, even though we have had the figures before.
Will the Minister confirm that we are still looking at mid-2018—the last date we had—for the end of the concession? Previous Ministers have alluded to the fact that they would like to continue tolling for two years after the concession ends in order to recoup the Government debt that we have discussed previously—that was admitted to the Welsh Affairs Committee a couple of years ago. Is that still the case? Will the Government publish an updated full breakdown of the outstanding £88 million of debt and how and when it was incurred?
What is the current thinking on the level of the toll? The Minister has just written to the Select Committee to say that VAT would not be collected on a public bridge after the concession ends; will the tolls therefore reduce by at least that amount? If not, and the Government maintain the level of the toll, the Freight Transport Association has pointed out that businesses will no longer be able to reclaim VAT and so could effectively face a 20% hike in tolls. A specific answer on that possibility would be helpful, because we do not want businesses to end up in a worse position.
What serious work has been done on concessions for people who live locally? As I mentioned earlier, people who live locally can now cross the Dartford crossing an unlimited amount of times for £20 a year; that sounds extremely good to me. I hope that we do not hear, again, the stock answer to all such questions: “We have made no decisions about the tolling and do not know what the level will be. We are not there yet.” At the heart of the issue is a strong suspicion that the Government see the bridges as a cash cow, or even—as was suggested to me—a river of money. The concessionaire is in a win-win situation, as it can increase the tolls every year and be compensated for any changes. Meanwhile, the Government receive more than they expect through VAT and other income, while the poor old user has to pay more for longer.
In its 2010 report, the Welsh Affairs Committee recommended that, come 2018, tolls be reduced to a maintenance-only level, which would be very much supported by my constituents. We called for transparency on the financial arrangements of the bridges, and for discussions on ownership to be considered. We also asked the Government to consider off-peak rates for businesses, and local concession schemes for residents. Four years on, we have very little detail on anything. May we please have some answers today?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for securing the debate.
Anyone following this debate might wonder why I, as an English Member of Parliament, am here. It is worth reminding the House that the old Severn bridge is entirely in England—indeed, my constituency stretches halfway across the bridge and the constituency of the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) stretches the other way. The new, second Severn crossing is of course half in England. My first plea to the Minister is for him to be clear that, because three quarters of the bridges are located in England, they must remain under the control of the United Kingdom Government so that the interests of both English and Welsh residents can be taken into account and balanced properly.
I know that the hon. Lady did not do so, but many in Wales have advocated that the bridges should be under the control of the Welsh Assembly Government. Given the fact that they are in England, and that my constituents are as affected as the hon. Lady’s, it would be wholly wrong for the bridges to be under the control of a Government over whom my constituents have no democratic influence. I make that plea strongly and hope that the Minister can confirm that that is the case.
Perhaps the shadow Minister could also confirm that that is the Labour party’s policy? I am guessing that it is, on the basis that when it was in power for 13 years it left the bridges under the control of the UK Government’s Department for Transport, but it would be helpful to know whether the UK Labour party’s position is the same as that of the Welsh Labour party. The latter wants to take control of the toll revenue. The First Minister has said that one option should be that the Welsh Government should take full control and play
“a central role in determining future arrangements and in accessing and utilising any future revenue streams for the benefit of the people of Wales.”
As I say, that would be quite wrong. The bridges are three quarters in England and any changes will affect English residents just as much as Welsh. The control and decision making about any future tolling regime, or lack thereof, should be taken by the UK Government.
I agree with the hon. Lady that our constituents, and businesses in our constituencies, would rather there were no tolls. I have had conversations with my constituents and said that in an ideal world it would be lovely to have had estuarial crossings financed wholly out of general taxation with no toll. However, I know the world and the realities of paying for things. I know that the previous Government were not great at balancing the books, but it is better to have the estuarial crossings with a toll than to have no toll but no crossings. Of course, all previous Governments decided that tolling was the way we paid for significant estuarial crossings.
I know that when the bridges return to the control of the United Kingdom Government in 2018—I agree with the hon. Lady that it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm what the latest expectation of the date is—some decisions will need to be made. I would like the Minister to think about a range of things. First, I agree with the hon. Lady that it would helpful to know whether the Government will stop levying VAT once the bridges revert to public ownership, which would mean £1 off the price of the toll.
Secondly, decisions have to be made about the future maintenance of both the second Severn crossing and the old Severn bridge that has the M48 running across it. The old bridge has significant maintenance costs. I think the hon. Lady alluded to—the Minister will be able to confirm this—the costs of maintaining corrosion resistance on the cabling on that bridge, which are significant. However, it is important to keep that bridge functioning and benefiting, particularly, my constituency, which benefits most from that bridge as opposed to the second Severn crossing. I am sure that the Minister will be able to say a little more about that when he responds to the hon. Lady’s question.
Thirdly—this is relevant to the question of future tolling on the Severn crossings—the Highways Agency and the Government will have to think about whether there should be future crossings of the River Severn. In my constituency, as one goes up from the existing tolled crossings, there is a crossing at the Over bridge, after the junction between the A40 and A48. That bridge is a significant traffic bottleneck, causing severe tailbacks to my constituents—both commuters going to and from work and businesses in the area. Some short-term solutions have been proposed for the end of this year and for 2015, but the only long-term solution is a future crossing somewhere south of that bridge and north of the existing tolled crossings.
I have set up a commission focusing on economic growth on my side of the Severn. One of the options we should consider is a new bridge. Does my hon. Friend agree that any decisions about tolling in the future should take into account the need for a new bridge somewhere along the Severn?
I agree, for this reason—I will be clear to the Minister—in an ideal world, I would like another crossing over the Severn. I would prefer that to be paid for out of general taxation and not require either tolling on that crossing or continued tolling on the existing crossings. However, I do not want the Minister to rule out, at this stage, considering whether at least some of the future tolling revenue should be used to fund a third crossing. I think the hon. Member for Newport East was tempting him to rule that out; she was tempting him to look forward something like four to four and a half years, to make some decisions about a future tolling regime on the crossings today and then to announce them to the House.
If I am given the choice of a crossing, I will take the crossing. However, if I am told that I cannot have a crossing for 20 years because it is unaffordable, but I could have one in a year or two if we were able to use some toll revenue, that is a debate I want to have with my constituents. I want to see whether that would be a good trade-off that my constituents might want to undertake—whether it can be balanced with the benefits to businesses, jobs, economic activity and relieving congestion. I at least want the Minister not to rule that out.
I have written to the Highways Agency, asking it to look at some options for further crossings and to set out the future useful life of the second Severn crossing and the old Severn bridge, to see how long they are likely to last.
All I am suggesting at this stage is that the Minister does not rule out considering that in the future. Of course, the tolls would not be in perpetuity, but I do not want to rule them out. The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the fact that the bridges do not affect just Wales. The bridges are three quarters in England; as I said, the old Severn bridge is wholly located in England, and it affects my constituents in England just as much as it affects his constituents in Wales. It is important for the House to remember that the debate about the Severn crossings and the tolling regime is not just a Welsh issue, but an English one too; and that it does not affect just south Wales, but, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned, the rest of Wales. This is a wider question, and we need to look at the economic impact on Wales and on England—in Newport West, Newport East and my constituency—and make a balanced judgment.
I was clear in my remarks: I would prefer another crossing over the River Severn that does not have tolling and that does not require tolling on existing crossings. However, I am realistic enough to know that, given the state of the public finances, caused largely by the Government whom the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) supported, difficult decisions have to be made. There is a debate to be had about whether we can have the infrastructure sooner by funding some of it from tolling. That debate is worth having, and I want to put it on the table. I am asking the Minister not to make decisions today for a position four and a half years in the future and rule things out that we may have cause to regret. That is all I am asking him to do. I have asked the Highways Agency to undertake some option appraisals, so that we can have a sensible and balanced debate in the future.
The debate I always have with my constituents is simply to remind them that both Severn crossings had to be constructed and paid for, and that the toll revenue simply repays the cost of providing and operating the crossings. There is a trade-off: if we did not increase the toll each year—of course I understand why that is unpopular; I would prefer it not to go up as well—we would extend the concession period. That is a trade-off the Government have to make. The option would be open to the Government, as it was—I remind the hon. Lady—to the previous Government, whom she supported. For 13 years, they did not make any amendments—by choice—to the tolling regime. They did not do any of the things that she is suggesting, just to put the issue into context.
While it is tempting, we must be honest with our constituents that things have to be paid for, and they can be paid for in only one of two ways, one of which is for the cost to fall on the general taxpayer. Although the public finances have been hugely improved by the difficult decisions taken by the Government, they are in a state because we inherited them from the previous Government. There is no magic money tree to pay for the toll revenue. If we sweep the toll revenue away—I know how tempting that would be—either cuts will have to be made elsewhere, or taxes will have to rise. Politicians owe it to our constituents to be honest and frank with them. There is no magic money tree, and the bills have to be paid.
If we are to be honest with our constituents, does the hon. Gentleman accept that we should point out that the Government have now benefited by more than twice the debt on the bridge from unexpected tax income as a result of changes related to the bridges? The Government have actually done well in terms of VAT and other tax changes.
That is a perfectly reasonable point, which of course has to be balanced—I am sure the Minister will set this out—against some of the costs. I am clear: I want the tolls to come down; they can certainly come down by the level of VAT. I certainly think that they can come down. All I am asking is that at this point the Minister does not suggest that the tolls are swept away, if the cost of removing them would mean that a future crossing over the River Severn either never happened or only happened at some far distant point in the future. I am only asking him not to make that decision today, given that we have not properly considered the arguments.
Let me just complete my point, and then I may take another intervention from the hon. Gentleman shortly.
I just want to respond to a point that the hon. Lady raised. I am sure that she did not do it deliberately, but she did not set out accurately for the House what the Welsh Affairs Committee said. I think that she said—I will take an intervention from her if I have misquoted her—that the Committee argued that the toll should be reduced to a level of £1.50, which would effectively just pay for maintenance. The Committee did not say that. It said that, if the toll was reduced to that level, that would allow
“the crossings to remain self-financing.”
It also said that
“the Government should seek to reduce the level of the toll at the earliest opportunity.”
However, it did not say that the Government should reduce the level to £1.50, because—this relates to my point about a future crossing—it said:
“We recognise…that at this level no “sinking fund” would be accumulated towards any future replacement of either bridge.”
The Committee also said, and I agree with the hon. Lady about this point:
“The Government must not be tempted to use the crossings as a ‘cash cow’.”
I agree with that, which is why if there is any future tolling over and above the level required for maintenance, the Government must be clear about its purpose. My view is that it must be used for infrastructure, which would benefit the hon. Lady’s constituents, my constituents and the economy of the UK. That would be the only scenario where future tolling, other than that required to pay for maintenance, would be acceptable. I agree with the hon. Lady about that, but I do not want the Minister to close any doors at this point.
The question that I asked the hon. Gentleman, which I am afraid he has not answered, was whether he foresees a repetition of what happened with the Severn Bridges Act 1992, which was that when the second Severn crossing was built, the two bridges were treated as one entity for financial purposes. Is he now suggesting that we should have another bridge that goes from one thinly populated part of England to another thinly populated part of England, which then becomes a financial burden on the people in south Wales, because those people will be paying tolls on it to use the main crossing from Wales to England? Can he please make it clear that he is asking for something that is entirely freestanding from one part of his constituency to another?
At the moment, I have asked the Highways Agency to carry out some option appraisal work, to examine what options there might be for a further crossing over the River Severn, somewhere between the existing crossing at Over and the old Severn bridge. I asked because that detailed option appraisal work has not been done, so I have no idea where there may be sensible routes to cross the river, how much they might cost and what kind of traffic flows might be diverted. It is worth saying to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, there are significant traffic flows through my constituency that use my local roads, as people do not use the Severn crossings they ought to use because of the tolling. We have to look at all these issues in the round and make a proper judgment, which is another reason why the bridges need to stay under the control of the UK Government, so that different issues can be balanced. I accept that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady will be completely focused on south Wales. Of course they will be; that is the part of the country that they represent. That is absolutely right, but I am focused on representing my constituents in England, and I want to ensure that all these judgments are properly weighed up. At this stage, I am not asking the Government to commit to tolling or to building another crossing. All I am asking at this stage is for the Highways Agency to respond to my request to consider the options, and for the Minister not to shut off future debate about what the tolling regime should be.
I have been quite clear—in an ideal world, I would like there to be no tolls on the bridges, or perhaps only those to cover maintenance. However, the fact is that if we want more infrastructure, it has to be paid for, either by general taxation, which is difficult given the difficult financial position that we inherited, or by the users of that infrastructure, or by a combination of the two. I simply want to ensure that we can have an open and frank debate in the future, and that we do not simply shut off any avenues. I think the hon. Lady was simply tempting the Minister to look forward four, four and a half years—or however long he will confirm to us—and make final decisions today that will shut off some of the opportunities for debate and for future infrastructure growth. All I am asking him to do is to keep those options open, so that we can have that debate, properly balance the needs of my constituents and his constituents, and the Government who are elected at the next election can make those sensible judgments. That is all I am asking for, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that that will be his approach.
As I am so old, I remember the opening of the first Severn bridge in 1966. What it most certainly was not was a bridge from England to the Forest of Dean. It was a bridge from England to Wales, and it was by pure technical and geographical chance that the engineers decided to put it at the tip of the constituency of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). Similarly, when the second Severn bridge crossing was built, I was on the Standing Committee of this House that dealt with it. It was the then Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Walker, who decided that it was the thing to do. The vast majority of the traffic on both bridges is due to people wanting to go between England and Wales, so I do not agree for one second with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that either a third Severn crossing is necessary, or that tolls would have to be maintained after the concession ends to pay for a third crossing. The original Severn crossing is obviously not used as much as the second crossing, although I use it quite a bit, so heaven only knows how little traffic there would be on a third. There is no agreement whatever among Welsh MPs—or, I would have thought, English ones—that the bridges are anything other than a lifeline between England and Wales.
The crossings have brought great benefits to Wales, as they have to England; there is no question about that. However, there are difficulties, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) referred to in her fine speech, because of the haulage industry and tourists. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that there are plenty of people who wish to travel to the Wye valley, the Forest of Dean, other parts of south-east Wales, and to the west country on the other side of the bridge, for tourism reasons. They are obviously caught heavily by the high tolls on the bridge, and it is about time those tolls ended.
The question is: when will that happen? In 2010 or something like that—I cannot quite remember—we were told, I think here in Westminster Hall, by the then Minister that 2017 was when the concession was likely to end. We, and the Welsh Affairs Committee, have been told that it is probable that the concession will end in 2018. However, we have been further told—this is a new one—that it could well go on until the 2020s, because the Department for Transport has found that it is apparently owed some £112 million, because it spent public money on, and in debt over, a bridge that was privately owned.
I am a bit sceptical about all that, to be perfectly honest. I think that all these sudden discoveries in the DFT are excuses to extend the franchise and maintain the tolls for as long as possible. I am hugely sceptical, and I fear I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean—for whom I have a great deal of time, although we do not seem to agree on this subject—on the issue of who controls the bridge; it is a bit more complicated than he suggested. Yes indeed, three of the four entrances, as it were, to the bridges are in England, but then two would be anyway—would they not?—because people on one side have to travel to the other side. I have already explained that the first Severn bridge is an aberration, in that it goes into a bit of the Forest of Dean, near Chepstow. Of course, the second Severn crossing completely goes into the terrain of the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Government’s interest in this matter therefore cannot be easily dismissed. About 25%, if not more, of all traffic that enters Wales from England goes across those bridges.
The transport spokesperson for the Tories in the Assembly, Mr Byron Davies, said this time last year:
“Devolution of the crossings—and future use of the tolls—has the real potential to help hard-pressed motorists, provide significant investment in Welsh infrastructure and encourage economic growth”.
That is the sort of argument that I made in one of my first speeches in this place in 2010. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is imperative that all parties in Wales speak with one voice, rather than the Conservatives saying one thing in Wales and saying something different here in Westminster? Of course, the same applies to the other parties.
I agree. That follows a pattern over the past few weeks, with a huge disagreement on taxation, but that is another issue. It would be worth while the hon. Member for Forest of Dean getting in his car one day, going on the M4 to Cardiff Bay, and chatting with the transport spokesperson for his party in Cardiff.
I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Assembly and Government have an interest in this. I agree with the conclusion of the Welsh Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), that the British Government should discuss the matter and have a proper conversation, because it is important. My point was that decisions have to be taken by a Government accountable to people in England and Wales. The problem with decisions about the bridge tolls being wholly under the control of the Welsh Assembly is that my constituents have no democratic input into that Government, who will make decisions solely based on interests in Wales. The United Kingdom Government can consider the interests of the whole UK, and people living in both England and Wales. That is why the decision making should stay there.
Perhaps there should be joint decision making, or some arrangement could be made. Yes, of course, the bridge is hugely important to the people of the Forest of Dean and elsewhere in Gloucestershire, but that was not the purpose of building the bridges. I repeat that they were not built to go to the Forest of Dean or Gloucester; they were built to ensure that Wales and England were connected, to avoid the terrible journey through the Forest of Dean, around Gloucestershire and on to the A4.
My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Are the bridges not also a crucial European transport road link to the Republic of Ireland? There are benefits from and consequences for that crucial trade link. Access to Cardiff airport is also important and needs to be considered.
Indeed. That is why, in a post-devolution world, the Welsh Government have a huge interest in this matter. I hope that the Minister tells the House that he has been in conversation with his colleagues in Cardiff.
Finally, let me mention what happens to tolls after the concession finishes. Yes, of course, VAT means that there will be money available anyway, and what is collected in VAT should at least go to ensuring that the toll is lowered, but there is more to it than that. Lying behind everything in Government is the dead hand of the Treasury. I spent a decade having to deal with the Treasury as a Minister. Anybody who has been a Minister knows that it wants to get as much money as possible—that is its job—but it is the job of Ministers to obstruct it as far as they can, to ensure that the people can occasionally benefit from a concession.
If I may help the right hon. Gentleman, he gave a figure of £120 million outstanding at the end of the concession. The projection that I have is of £88 million at the end of the concession in 2018. It will take one or two years to recover this money. Under the terms of the Severn Bridges Act 1992, an update will be given to the Welsh Affairs Committee in April on the accounts of the previous year.
The Minister will, of course, have greater knowledge than me of the figures from his Department, but whether or not it is £88 million, they would like it to be £112 million, and probably a bit more than that. Ultimately, the money that is there to pay the concessioner, which is going into the pockets of the Severn crossing company, could eventually be made available to reduce the tolls on the bridges and save people who use it from being burdened. My fear is that there is a huge temptation, whether in the Department for Transport or the Treasury, to retain that money and simply put it back into the public coffers. That would be deeply wrong.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean made a valid point when he said that the money could be used for infrastructure. However, I disagree, because there is no need for a third Severn crossing. There may be a case for infrastructure around the bridges, but that would be a relatively small amount in general terms. No, the people of Wales and England—and the people of other parts of Europe who use our bridges—should be given the opportunity to have lower tolls when the concession ends. Although the Minister cannot commit himself to that today, I hope that he does not dismiss that outright as the aspiration of all of us.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to serve under you, Mr Bone, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate and on continuing to pursue this issue, which we come back to time and again because it is so vital to the south Wales economy—and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, to the wider Welsh economy.
I thank the Minister for the meeting that he accorded members of the Welsh Affairs Committee on 10 February, but significant questions remain. Hon. Members know that in July 2013 we met the Minister’s predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), as a result of which there was the hint of a possibility of further concessions for freight.
Owens Logistics is a large haulage company in my constituency with some 500 employees. It has a massive bill, in the thousands of pounds, for tolls on the Severn bridge, so this issue is important for it. It worries that it will not be in a position to compete with companies on the other side of the bridge that do not have such costs. First and foremost, it frequently lobbies on fuel and fuel duty. It has depots further east than Llanelli, in Aberavon and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East, because that can help with the amount of travelling. However, when it is competing for business against firms based in England, obviously the bridge tolls are important. Later, I will mention that company’s wish to plan for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, not least because Owens comes up to Blaenau Gwent, in the heads of the valleys area. I asked it before this debate exactly how much tolls cost. Just to inform my hon. Friend’s contribution, it spends £250,000 a month on bridge tolls. That is a huge cost for a successful medium to large-sized business in south Wales.
Yes, indeed. Of course, many other firms in Wales are affected by the tolls on the bridge, too. Whether it is a small electrical contractor, a plumbing business wanting to serve customers on both sides, or a large haulage firm, those businesses are at a disadvantage compared with competitors who do not have to use the bridges regularly.
To clarify, on discounts for frequent users in heavy goods vehicles, the Eurovignette directive imposes a 13% cap on any discount for HGVs, and the discount for HGVs on the Severn is near the maximum allowed under that directive. I do not need to mention that hauliers reclaim the VAT on these charges.
I was about to come on to the issue that the Minister mentions. He kindly sent me a letter containing that information this week. What I would ask is: how close are we to that 13% limit? Is there any wriggle room at all, and would it be possible to open a discussion on further concessions? I think he said in our meeting that that would be likely only if we had a tit for tat, and traded such concessions off against others. If anything like that were to be suggested, the freight companies would need to be closely involved and see the detail, because they would not want to end up paying much more in the daytime to get a night-time concession if their bills ended up being higher. They are still interested, however; they have said that they would be interested in looking at concessions, even if that means that the tolls continue a little longer beyond 2018.
I question the suggestion that EU law means that freight and ordinary car use charges cannot be varied, and whether that is a competition issue. If all freight lorries use the bridge no matter where they come from, it would not be a matter of having more favourable laws for British-based lorries than for Dutch or French-based lorries. It would be helpful to have a little more information on that.
Perhaps I could ask the Minister to look at that remaining 3% and see if there is any wriggle room at all, because when we are talking about paying the huge amounts mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), even 3% would make a considerable difference.
VAT is a massively important question. The Minister confirmed in his letter to me that VAT comes off the charge when the crossing is managed by a public, rather than private, company. We would be delighted if that meant an automatic 20% decrease. However, if the rates were to be kept the same, that would be a massive penalty for all the business users who currently reclaim the VAT, because effectively they would have to pay 20% more and would have no opportunity for clawback.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) mentioned the figure of £112 million. Mercifully, the letter from the Minister says that that has reduced to £88 million. Of course, we on the Welsh Affairs Committee would be pleased if the Department for Transport were to revise that figure downward again. There was an issue about how that was calculated in the first place, and we want to ensure that we get up-to-date information about that. Although the Minister previously said that 2018 was a long way away, firms such as Owens are investing long-term, looking eight to 10 years ahead, and they have to make decisions. The more certainty such firms can have, the better.
The Minister may think that we will have another Government in place in 2018—some of us hope that we will—but I am sure that every Department plans ahead and thinks about what it would do. The Department for Transport is in a position to make the necessary assessment and get hold of the statistics, so that we can have more information about the £88 million being paid back, about when there will be an opportunity for the bridge to be debt-free and just have a maintenance charge, and about what would be done with that maintenance charge.
I am a little concerned by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) saying that he would like a levy on the existing bridges—in other words, on people coming into Wales—to fund a bridge further up the river. I much prefer his first suggestion, which was that such a bridge should be funded through general taxation spread across the UK, to the suggestion that we penalise one particular group of users. One of the main bones of contention about the bridge all along has been that such charges are unusual in this country; it is not like in some countries on the continent where most of the motorway network is tolled. That is why there is such great resentment of the toll, and the level of it, in the first place.
We certainly want a little more clarification of what will happen in the future. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us any indication of where we are going, and kept the Welsh Affairs Committee fully updated with any further information.
When the first bridge opened, Harri Webb wrote a telling poem, recalling the pressure from Wales over many decades to build the bridge. However, he made the observation:
“Two lands at last connected,
Across the Severn wide,
But all the tolls collected,
Upon the English side.”
Things have been corrected since then, but the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has released another hare that is running, and the implied threat of tolls in perpetuity will cause a great deal of interest in Wales. I believe he has in mind a repetition of what happened when the second bridge went up: the pooling of finances to build bridges into a great lump, with all the complexities of financing that, and added to the total bill and debt—if that still exists—would be a sum of money for a third crossing from somewhere in Gloucestershire to somewhere else in Gloucestershire. Those are thinly populated areas in which I doubt there is a strong case for putting in another bridge. If that is seen to be a further burden on the main artery out of Wales, that would be deeply resented, so we will be interested to see if that is pursued.
I have two points. First, many people going into Wales do not use the bridges, but come through my constituency. That is an argument for reducing the tolls, as the bridges are not the only crossing. Secondly, I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that, as I think the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) touched on, the old Severn bridge goes from England to England and it is used by people from England and Wales, not just people in Wales. Therefore, we need to take a balanced view about the impact. The crossing at Over that the hon. Gentleman referred to suffers from significant congestion. If he thinks that the area is thinly populated, I suggest that he goes there on a Monday morning at about 7 am to sit in a queue of traffic. He will see that it is not as thinly populated as he might think.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), I am old enough to remember not only the opening of the Severn bridge, but the terrifying and unforgettable experience of going across on a ferry: there was roughly one inch between the car and the water on one side and about half an inch to the next car on the other side as they packed the cars tightly on to the ferry. To escape that nightmare, many made journeys around Gloucester. As he said, the congestion was pretty bad at that time. The hon. Gentleman has to make that case, but it should be separate from the Severn bridges, which are not only the main roads from Wales to England, but a main European highway. For those travelling from the continent right across to Ireland, that is the recommended route.
Unfortunately, we have had this long period of a perceived barrier in getting into Wales. It is a psychological barrier, but it is powerful. People see the crossing as an obstacle. They would say, “You mustn’t go that far, or we’ll be paying.” That barrier is perceived to be a great deal more than the actual cost. The toll is high enough, but if the total cost of running a car is added up—insurance, petrol and all the rest—it is not a huge percentage of that, except to those who travel across the bridge daily. The feeling that, somehow, this is an obstacle in the way of going into Wales has inhibited development and progress in Wales for many years.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen that such costs appear to be created by accountants and it is difficult to argue against those. I can recall one time in the House when a courageous, or foolhardy, Conservative Member for Vale of Glamorgan argued for an increase in tolls. The toll was some £3.75, and he argued that it would speed the traffic through the bridge if the toll went up to £4, but that view was not universally supported.
We feel that this is the Roy Hughes memorial debate, because our late comrade mentioned the Severn crossings on more than one occasion, and probably on more than 1,000 occasions, in this House. He became very strongly identified with the bridges through his persistent, long campaigning. If he were alive today, he would be horrified that we are now faced with a new debt. The users of the bridges should be treated in the same way as users of other parts of the motorway network in the rest of the United Kingdom. They should not have to pay this unjustified toll in perpetuity, as it now seems to be. If the £88 million is paid off, the accountants in the Treasury would probably come up with some other pretext for charging even more and keeping the charges going.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate, which will now always be known as the Roy Hughes memorial debate. I also congratulate the no fewer than eight hon. Members who have participated either through interventions or speeches. In the last speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) even treated us to some Harri Webb poetry.
The Severn crossings clearly concern hon. Members on both sides of the House because they are an important transport link between England and Wales that play a vital role for businesses and the economy, that help people to keep in touch with friends and family and that keep our two countries connected. It is therefore unfortunate that the cost and experience of using the crossings have been a source of frustration for so long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East has raised the Severn crossings previously. For many years she has been pressing for reform of what, in her previous debate in 2010, she called an “expensive, inconvenient and inflexible” system. The issues that she has raised today are very much the same.
I will say something about England later in my speech, but the crossings are a key link in the transport and economic infrastructure of Wales, and they are essential to the Welsh economy and its ability to grow. Approximately 25 million vehicles use the crossings each year. Obviously, nobody wants to pay tolls, but the benefits of the crossings are clear and include increased access to markets, suppliers and consumers, and quicker journey times. It is important, however, that the toll price reflects a fair balance between the cost of better infrastructure and the benefits to the people who use it. This debate has made it clear that the cost of the Severn crossings does not appear to be fair, and it has not appeared to be fair for some time. Road users who rely on the crossings have been hit hard by annual increases and, as my hon. Friend said, an inflexible and old-fashioned payment system.
There is an impact on people. First, the tolls are the highest of any crossing on the strategic road network. As we have heard, the current prices are £6.40 for a car, £12.80 for a light goods vehicle and £19.20 for a heavy goods vehicle. On the Humber bridge, the toll for a car is just £1.50 and the toll for an HGV is £12.
If we do the sums, the point is still made. Whether or not the toll is free one way, the price is clearly still higher. Those amounts are not theoretical. We are living through the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation and they hit people hard. A lot of attention has been paid to energy costs, fuel bills, food bills and so on, but the cost of transport is a large chunk of people’s household budgets. That has been made worse for domestic users of private motor cars because they have also been hit by the VAT increase to 20%, which has hit the price of fuel, too.
It would be lovely to say that the tolls should just be scrapped, but, as we have heard, that is not necessarily practical. There is a strong case, however, for considering whether there is a way to make the tolls fairer. It is possible to consider a cap on annual increases, which is a model we use for other modes of transport. There might be a way to take regular and local users into account, for which there are precedents. From March 2014, local people eligible for the resident discount on the Dartford crossing will be able to make unlimited trips over the crossing for just £20 a year, thereby ensuring that that toll on the strategic road network does not hinder local mobility.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on the local discount, and my constituents have raised the Dartford issue. The Minister might want to address what “local” means. My understanding is that, for the Dartford crossing, it is a very local and tightly drawn boundary. If we had something like that on the Severn crossings, would “local” include my constituents? Would it include some of my constituents and some of the constituents of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden)? How widely would the boundary be drawn? My view is that if we are to have such a boundary, the right people to make the decision would be the UK Government, who could take into account both sides of the national boundary, rather than just the Welsh side.
I will address the UK Government and the Welsh Government in a while, but the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s point is correct. Working out the meaning of “local” is complex. I am simply saying that the Government should not close the door. They should consider it and see what is feasible, and they need to do so relatively quickly because decisions have to be made in the near future. The situation has gone on long enough.
My hon. Friend makes her point well.
I have principally referred to the impact on private transport and cars, but the tolls also significantly affect local businesses. We have heard that many believe the cost of the crossings to be a tax either on Wales or on people trading with Wales that restricts economic activity between our two countries. Even if that is only a perception, it is a problem for confidence. As we have all said, the crossings are undoubtedly an essential link between our two economies, so it is fair to welcome the Welsh Assembly’s analysis of tolling, which provides important evidence on the economic impacts of the Severn tolls. The picture is complex, as has just been underlined by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), but the research shows that the tolls have a severe impact on small businesses, particularly those operating in the transport and logistics sectors across the border. My hon. Friend puts the figure for some businesses at up to £250,000 a year, which is a major burden on a small business. Indeed, it is a pretty significant burden on a business that is not small, too.
There is also an impact on tourism, particularly on those making short trips. When asked if they would expect to make more trips to Wales by car if the Severn tolls were removed, apparently 22% of people surveyed in south-west England said that, yes, they would visit Wales more often in the next year, which is a significant statistic.
In light of those serious concerns for small businesses, tourism and wider economic growth, we would all appreciate the Minister’s assessment of the social and economic impact of the Severn crossings. Also, we would all appreciate knowing the Government’s response to the evidence produced by the Welsh Assembly, which provides food for thought and, hopefully, food for Government action.
I have mainly referred to Wales, and the Severn tolls are not just an issue for south Wales. They are a whole of Wales issue that affects tourism and businesses across the country. The crossings also affect England, particularly south-west England, and businesses and people travelling from further afield. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made his point on that today. The issue is important and has been raised with me by Steve Parry-Hearn, who, as the Labour candidate for the Forest of Dean, is after the hon. Gentleman’s job. Mr Parry-Hearn has clearly outlined to me the impact of tolls on people in that area. Small and medium-sized enterprises are hit hard by the cost of the crossing, either directly from the tolls or indirectly from increased traffic as operators attempt to avoid bridge tolls by using other roads. He is campaigning against the level of the charges, which he says are having a
“detrimental impact on the lives of working families, businesses and on tourism across the Forest of Dean.”
My hon. Friend for Newport East referred to a protest on the Severn bridge at the weekend, coinciding with St David’s day, which showed the level of local anger. I must admit that I was not aware until today of the particular attire worn on that protest. I hope the Minister listens to those voices and considers discounts for regular business use or some kind of flexible pricing structure. Off-peak pricing for businesses has been suggested, which could provide an economic boost, cut congestion and mitigate the environmental impacts of heavy traffic at rush hours. These things are complex, but I would appreciate the Minister indicating whether he is prepared to consider such options.
We have heard that it is not only the costs of the crossing that are such a big issue, but the lack of convenience. There is no doubt that the Severn crossing has provided a poor service to users. It is absolutely astonishing that a modern card payment system was not introduced until 2011. I note the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) in his previous role as Transport Minister in helping to make that finally happen. It was overdue. Even with that, the Severn crossings are still playing catch up. I understand that the system still requires road users to enter their PIN number into a handheld device, which takes time. That means that cash is still encouraged for quicker transit.
The technology exists for easier and more convenient methods. Remote payments are a possibility and free-flow technology is set to be implemented at the Dartford crossing later this year. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s plans for further modernising payment and usage at the Severn crossing? Can some kind of free-flow technology option be considered? Will he consider the recommendations of the recent Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency review, which called for the agency in Swansea to become a digital centre of excellence? That could be a real opportunity to make online payments and improved digital services a reality on the Severn.
On questions for the future, “What next?” will be important for whichever Government is in power after 2015. I have talked about reforms to price and payment that could bring big benefits for users, but those do not on their own fundamentally address the main point, which is that the concession will soon end. I understand that the estimated end date has slipped again, because of the VAT rise and the costs of introducing card payment. When the date finally does arrive, the crossing will revert to the control of the Secretary of State and into public ownership. The annual cost of maintaining and operating the toll will only be a fraction—20%, I understand—of the current net revenue made from the crossing, which was estimated to be £87 million in 2012-13.
As we have heard, the Government will be left with an estimated debt of some £88 million due to extra operating and maintenance costs. My hon. Friend has asked a perfectly reasonable question. As well as confirmation of that figure of £88 million, it would be useful to have a breakdown of it. That would inform decisions about what is fair for the future. In the fairly near future, a decision must be made about how the debt will be recovered and about future toll charges. That is why it is important that the Government work in partnership with the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly to sort these things out. They should also work with Severn Crossings plc, while it is the concessionaire, to prepare for that without losing much more time.
Last week, the Department for Transport launched a consultation to simplify the procedures for toll increases at local statutory tolled bridges, tunnels, lifts and crossings. If the Minister is considering how best to regulate the price of tolls across the UK, will he set out a clear strategy for the future of the Severn tolls at the same time? The consultation creates an opportunity to do that, and I hope he will seize it.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this debate on the Severn crossings. Before I discuss the tolls on the Severn crossings, I make the point that it has been the policy of successive Governments since 1945 that crossings on estuaries should be paid for by the user rather than by the taxpayer. Successive Governments have taken the view that tolls on all such crossings are justified because the user benefits from the exceptional savings in time and money that those expensive facilities make possible.
It might be helpful if I give a brief outline of the history of the Severn crossings, some of which is relevant to the issues that have been raised. The first Severn bridge was opened by the Queen in September 1966, providing a direct link from the M4 motorway into Wales, with a toll in place for use of the bridge to pay for the cost of construction. In 1986, the Government said that a second bridge would be constructed. In July 1988, they announced that the private sector would be given an opportunity to participate in the scheme, and in April 1990 they announced the selection of the bid led by John Laing Ltd with GTM-Entrepose to design, build and finance the second crossing. That consortium was also to take over the maintenance and operation of the existing Severn bridge.
In October of that year, the concession agreement between the Government and Severn River Crossing plc was formally signed. In February 1992, the Severn Bridges Bill received Royal Assent. The concession agreement was enshrined in an Act of Parliament and commenced in April 1992. Severn River Crossing plc then took over both the operation and maintenance of the present bridge and the construction of the new bridge. The concession agreement was structured so that certain risks were borne by the Government, rather than by Severn River Crossing plc, for example, costs relating to latent defects on the first Severn crossing. By bearing those risks, the Government could finance the construction of the second crossing and maintenance of the crossings at a much lower cost. If those risks had been included in the concession arrangement, the tolls would have needed to be higher or the end of the concession would have been longer than under the current arrangement.
Construction of the new bridge started in September 1992, and the new crossing was opened on 5 June 1996 by the Prince of Wales, almost 30 years after the opening of the first bridge. As part of the concession agreement, Severn River Crossing plc is authorised to collect tolls to meet its financial obligations. The tolls repay the construction and financing costs of the second Severn crossing, the remaining debt from the first existing crossing from 1992 and pay for the maintenance and operation of both crossings. It is worth stressing that that is the company’s only source of income. The concession period is limited to a maximum of 30 years. The actual end date will be achieved when the concessionaire has collected a fixed sum of money from tolls, which is £1.029 billion at 1989 prices.
The Severn Bridges Act 1992 applies a clear structure to the tolls to give the concessionaire confidence that it will be able to meet its liabilities and manage the risks that it accepted through the concession agreement. The toll levels were set for three categories of vehicles at the time of tender and are embodied in the 1992 Act. The Act sets out the tolling arrangements and the basis for yearly increases in the toll rates. Toll rates are fixed in real terms. The new rates are introduced on 1 January each year and are increased in line with the retail prices index using a formula, and rounded to the nearest 10 pence.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), asked about the possibility of introducing free-flow tolling on the Severn crossing, as is to be introduced on the Dartford crossings, but that depends on decisions on future charging arrangements that are yet to be taken. For example, it would be imprudent to invest in an expensive tolling system that operated for only three or four years, were the Government of the day to decide to discontinue charging. We would need to assess the costs and benefits of free-flow tolling on the Severn crossing as we did on the Dartford. However, as a general principle, the Government support moving towards more efficient ways of collecting tolls, which benefit traffic flow.
As the Minister looks toward the end of the concession in 2018, could he address the VAT issue and clarify what was meant in the letter sent to the Welsh Affairs Committee this week? When the VAT charge comes off the bridges, because they return to public ownership, will that mean a reduction in the tolls, or are the Government planning to keep the tolls at the current level?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. From 2003, when VAT was imposed, to 2012, about £120 million gross has been collected. However, some business users will have reclaimed a fair proportion of the VAT. It is the case that when this Parliament comes to an end, it would be open to the Government of the day to make a decision as to whether they continue to charge the same fee, or reduce it by 20% or whatever the prevailing rate of VAT. No decision has been made, and I suspect it would be above my pay grade to make that particular decision. It is probably slightly early to consider that point.
Will the Minister provide us with an update on the money that has been collected to date, since the VAT changes and the changes in the industrial buildings allowance, so that we can have a full update of how much money the Government have collected so far? I am happy for him to write to us.
On the VAT, may I clarify what the Minister said? I think he said that the Department for Transport can account for the gross amount of VAT collected, but it is not able to ascertain how much was reclaimed. It would be helpful, so that people can see the net amount that the Government have collected, at least to break it down into that collected for car users and that collected for freight. It would be a reasonable assumption that most freight users were VAT-registered and would therefore have reclaimed the VAT. It would be unhelpful for people to assume that the gross amount was collected and retained by the Government, and not to take into account the fact that for freight users, a lot of it would have been reclaimed, or would not have been a cost to their businesses.
Yes, it would be reasonable to assume that most business users reclaim the VAT, so when we write to Members participating in this debate, we will estimate that level. When there is talk of the Government using this as a cash cow, it must not be forgotten that every vehicle saves 52 miles by crossing one of the crossings, but on the long journeys going the long way round, they would actually be paying a fair amount of fuel duty. So it is not simply that the Government benefit from the VAT; there is actually a loss in terms of the amount of fuel revenue that otherwise would have been collected.
I want to stress an important point: the Secretary of State does not have the authority to reduce Severn tolls without amending primary legislation and obtaining the concessionaire’s agreement. The concessionaire would not be able to agree to anything that would affect its net revenue without compensation and agreement from its shareholders and lenders, which would result, if such an agreement were forthcoming, in a cost to the taxpayer. Any discounts or exemptions are a matter for the concessionaire to decide, provided that those provisions comply with existing legislation, such as the Eurovignette directive. Where that is not the case, such schemes cannot be introduced without changes to the concession agreement.
Discounts of 10% for vehicles of over 3.5 tonnes, and 20% for other vehicles, are offered by way of a season TAG, based on 22 trips per month. Blue-badge holders and the emergency services are exempt. There are significant discounts for users, including businesses that make multiple trips per day. Tolls are charged in a westbound direction only, from England into Wales. The current toll prices are: £6.40 for cars; £12.80 for vans; and £19.20 for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.
Once one-way tolling and the distance saved owing to the existence of the crossings are accounted for, Severn tolls compare favourably with toll levels on other crossings. On the points raised by the hon. Member for Newport East, I can give some examples. The toll for a car is £6.40, but, with the free return journey, it is equivalent to £3.20 for a saving of 52 miles; the Dartford toll is £2 for a saving of 22 miles; and the Tyne tunnel has a charge of £1.60 for a saving of only eight miles.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield mentioned lorries. In the case of the Humber bridge, lorries pay £12.50 for a saving of 45 miles, whereas on the Severn crossing—if we divide by two for the free return—it is £9.60 for 52 miles. Some of the comparisons made with other crossings in the country do not necessarily bear scrutiny, or perhaps Members can pick their example to support their case.
If the hon. Lady looks into it in more detail, she will find that the Humber bridge review in 2011 found that the Humber bridge had a unique burden of interest in relation to its original cost of construction more than 30 years ago. Although the bridge cost only £98 million to construct, rolled-up unpaid interest meant that the bridge debt had grown to £439 million by 1992. Such unique circumstances justified the Government writing off £150 million of the £332 million owed to them by the Humber bridge board. I hope that provides some context. Some Members might even remember Barbara Castle announcing the construction of the bridge at a by-election in Hull.
At the end of the concession, the Severn crossings will revert to public ownership. The Government will need to continue tolling to recover the costs that they have incurred falling outside the concession agreement. The Department’s latest estimate is that they will be £88 million at the projected end of the concession in 2018, and it will take one to two years to recover that money. Once in public ownership, VAT will no longer be payable on the tolls.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) raised various issues. I can confirm that the bridges are indeed a UK asset for the benefit of all UK road users and taxpayers. Much has been said about the Treasury or the Government benefiting from this, but I humbly suggest that it is taxpayers who benefit, and the debt that we have inherited from the previous Government can be reduced by the tolls.
My hon. Friend spoke about maintenance of the bridge, which is of paramount importance. I am well aware of the issue with the cable on the old bridge, which I am pleased to say has now been stabilised, but the toll income already pays for maintenance. On his other point about a new bridge upstream, which would avoid a 33-mile round trip via the M48, there are precedents around the country. There is the Merseylink toll, although those bridges are slightly closer together, and many consider that a new lower Thames crossing could incorporate the existing tolls from the Dartford crossing to make it affordable.
I am more than happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with that information.
In conclusion, no decisions have been made regarding the operation and tolling arrangements for the crossings once the current regime ends. However, the Government have been clear that any future arrangements will need to make proper provision for repayment of Government costs and future maintenance, and reflect the needs of road users in England and Wales. I suspect that this is something that various political parties may visit when they write their election manifestos, although there is nothing to stop the hon. Gentleman making an announcement today about what a Labour Government—were we to get such a Government after the election—would do at the end of the concession, or at the end of the period when the tolls are paid off.
The Government are committed to the successful operation of such vital crossings. They have provided a huge benefit to the Welsh and English economies through quicker access to places and markets. As the concession draws to an end, the Department will work with key stakeholders, including the Welsh Government, affected local authorities, business representatives, the Welsh Affairs Committee, and other interested parties.
Rural Crime (Mapping Scheme)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
Those of us who represent rural and semi-rural constituencies face something of a paradox. We rightly want to promote their natural beauty, what seems like a timeless way of life, and the strong sense of community, but we must not shy away from the other side of the coin. What sometimes appears when we flip over to the darker side of the coin is poverty, social deprivation and sometimes isolation, poor transport and, as I will discuss today, rural crime. Rural crime is undoubtedly a very dark side of the coin, and it is made even darker, as the Countryside Alliance rightly pointed out in its manifesto for the police and crime commissioner elections, by the fact that the police face large cuts while being expected to provide the same levels of service.
Rural crime is unquestionably a negative aspect of rural life, but I come to the debate with a sense of optimism born of the story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme, which for the purposes of the debate I will refer to simply as the mapping scheme. It is the story of how a few communities came together and produced what I believe to be a unique programme to tackle rural crime. I hope that the Minister will allow me and the people involved in the scheme to be even more optimistic, and will agree to investigate the roll-out of the programme in rural communities across England and Wales.
In this country, there are a number of examples of local success stories being transformed into national programmes to tackle the menace of crime, and in the United States, a fledgling community safety scheme of the 1960s called Neighbourhood Watch was adopted nationwide in 1972 by the National Sheriffs Association; it was adopted in our country fairly soon after that. An excellent initiative of my party’s in government was the role of the police community support officer, which was first introduced throughout the country in 2003. That idea came from south-west England, but the value and impact of the programme, which totally revolutionised community policing in this country, is now felt nationwide.
In case the Minister is worried that I have not yet mentioned the coalition parties, a Conservative Home Secretary, albeit one from a little while back, Sir Robert Peel, established the Metropolitan Police Service for London in 1829. That creation proved so successful in cutting crime that in 1857 all cities throughout the country were obliged to have a police force; the idea went from local to national. The Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme is worthy of being rolled out nationally.
Only a couple of miles from the centre of Wrexham, one is in the heart of the countryside, much of which is beautiful. In addition to the scenery and the fresh air, however, local farmers, residents and the police were finding something else—something that was happening far too often. I am referring to a specific set of unwanted crime-related problems, which included the theft of farm machinery, fly-tipping, illegal hunting or lamping, car crime, including the burning of stolen cars, and thefts from outbuildings, sheds and gardens. The local police realised from the outset that it was vital to have the support of local residents in tackling these and other related crimes. I cannot praise highly enough those residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who battled away and organised with much-needed ferocity to tackle the problems head-on.
How did the project come about? Local residents and the police recognised the police’s lack of rural knowledge. Let me make it clear that I am strongly of the view that our local police officers and PCSOs are outstanding, especially given their financial constraints, but they faced an awareness that not even thousands of rural versions of the characters from “Inspector Morse”, “Bergerac”, “Kojak” and “The Bill” all rolled into one could have possibly dealt with the situation on their own without the collective knowledge of the local communities.
To start with, we are talking about an area too large geographically for visible policing. Then, to take the example of hunting rights on a plot of land, in many cases it is simply unknown whether such rights exist. There were instances of people who claimed to be lampers making bogus claims about a right to hunt. They were not bona fide hunters, because no such rights existed, and in many cases they were not even any sort of hunters at all. They were finding an excuse to be on land, in the dark, that they had absolutely no right to be on so that they could commit theft or other crimes. The situation was made worse by the fact that there were inevitably delays in tracing landowners when there were incidents.
A new programme was needed to deal with the situation. The ideas formulated came from local residents, councillors, PCSOs and the police at monthly community police meetings at the Aberoer Institute. It is fair to say that the mapping scheme was able to develop because the area in question already had a Farmwatch and OWL—Online Watch Link—alert system, through which members can contact police with information or be warned if thieves are about. OWL is used by North Wales police and local co-ordinators to build and communicate with thousands of other watch schemes.
The mapping scheme in my area was developed to support our local policing team in cutting rural crime incidents. It is run by members of the local community, and information about key areas is compiled on one central digital map. The map includes details specific to local areas, such as information about land ownership, permissions for hunting, where household closed circuit television is installed, livestock and public footpaths. Contact is made with residents throughout the area, some of whom live in scattered communities and on farms. Residents are encouraged to complete an information form—in fact, they need to do so in order to participate. They give information about their land, state what they know about other land, say whether they have household CCTV, and give details about hunting rights, land ownership, livestock, public footpaths and more. The information collected is put on a digital map, which is issued to the North Wales policing team on tablet computers. With that equipment, police officers may open the map, which is fully compliant with data protection laws. Details are constantly updated, and that is integral to the success of the project. An updated map is issued monthly on the tablet devices.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the mapping scheme has resulted in a major resource to assist rural policing teams. The data device at the heart of the project has provided police officers with information on demand—things such as a contact name and telephone number when they are dealing with an incident. This has proved extremely effective when officers need to ascertain local land ownership in order to get in touch with the owners of the land. The scheme has already proved useful when animals have been reported loose on the public highway and the police have needed to ascertain the name and telephone number of the animals’ owner. Details on hunting rights are also provided, so the project has enabled police officers to check up on lampers, real and imagined, and to stop certain individuals who have claimed that they were rabbiting. Officers confirm that no lamping permissions are in place and then move the individuals from an area. That happens quite frequently.
The programme is also able to orientate police officers and give specific geographic details about rural areas. The resource might be used, for example, to locate a reservoir. The project can provide potential back-up intelligence from available CCTV coverage. To clarify, the mapping resource has a number of household cameras highlighted, and officers have used that information to view CCTV data on several occasions.
The mapping resource has proved extremely useful in many incidents, and although, understandably, it is not always possible to link the pilot scheme directly to a successful outcome on a specific crime, it has undoubtedly assisted the policing team, at least indirectly, with rural crime incidents. Indeed, some situations have not involved an actual crime, but have been ones in which reassurance or intelligence gathering has been required. That too is, of course, vital.
Since its inception, two police officers have been piloting the mapping scheme. On average, the resource is referred to two to three times per week. It is highly significant that crime in the rural area implementing the programme is in decline. One sage community member, who has taken a leading role in the project, rightly makes this point:
“Word has got out, and many offenders and potential offenders now get the message that we know more about the area than they do!”
As anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with any element of the criminal fraternity in rural Britain will know, that in itself is no mean feat.
One local farmer who is very involved in running the programme made this point:
“If there is theft of farm machinery, sheep worrying or a breach in a livestock boundary, it will help the attending police team to have immediate access to know who the field belongs to.”
Another local resident observed:
“The aim is a police officer or PCSO attending a rural crime will have this tablet to hand making it quicker to orientate themselves to the outlying rural areas and giving them immediate access to data.”
Meanwhile, a local PCSO has described how much local PCSOs and the police have welcomed the project and the approach of the local residents who have worked collaboratively with them on it. In the PCSO’s own words,
“They have a ‘can do’ attitude which has led to this great development, and it is important that we have as much information as possible, and as quickly as possible”.
The team that runs the programme continues to develop the scheme by introducing their objectives at monthly community police meetings, and by visits to rural households and farms to promote the system and sign up residents to the pilot scheme.
Although I am delighted to have the opportunity to share the success story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme with the House and the Minister, my purpose in this debate is not merely to provide a good story. I would like to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, will he agree to meet representatives of the scheme? Secondly, will he investigate the feasibility of rolling out the programme across England and Wales, and then report back to the House? Finally, will he investigate new funding streams within his Department to support community programmes that help to tackle rural crime? I look forward to hearing his response.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone. I congratulate not only the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on introducing the House to what she rightly describes as a good news story, but the residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who developed the mapping scheme.
Like the hon. Lady, I represent a semi-rural constituency, so I know all about the tensions between the policing of rural and urban areas; people in each area feel that those in the other area get more than their fair share of the cake. It is always difficult for police forces to decide where to point their efforts. However, it is obvious that in rural areas local information such as land ownership and livestock details can be important to police attending incidents. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s constituents for gathering the information to provide the digital map that she described, which will help North Wales police tackle rural crime in the area. The other key element to the scheme is that the information can be accessed via a tablet, helping the police to get the information while they are out on the ground. That keeps police on the street—perhaps in this case, in the field, but certainly out of the station—for longer than would otherwise be the case.
The hon. Lady rightly laid great stress on what wider applicability there can be for this type of local initiative. The answer is, “a great deal.” As I set out in a speech to police and crime commissioners in January, and again at a recent conference we held for digital pathfinder police forces, one of the biggest opportunities for the police to improve the service that they give the public is through embracing new technology. It allows the police to address not only the challenges posed by rural crime, but new emerging threats.
I will talk about the wider national scene first. Clearly, technology of the type the hon. Lady has described is shifting people’s behaviour and expectations of public services. Policing is responding to that, as the example of the mapping scheme shows, but the question that I pose regularly to those running individual forces and to PCCs is whether we are responding fast enough. Technology will be a significant key to the police continuing to cut crime in the future, and the intelligence input from the local community will continue to be vital in ensuring that technology is a success.
The hon. Lady referred to Sir Robert Peel; his famous dictum was:
“The police are the public and the public are the police.”
Part of that is an instinctive daily—hourly, if necessary—information flow between the police and the public. Technology makes that much easier than it ever has been, not just through social media but by various other means. The capacity of an informed, intelligent and helpful citizen to tell the police that something is going on somewhere where we could not remotely expect a police officer to be at that moment is greater than ever before.
The other side to that is that officers should have access to information while out on the streets, so that they can make quick decisions and avoid having to go back to the station to fill in forms or access IT systems. In a world of apps that allow people to book a taxi, find out when the bus is coming and do their banking on a smartphone, online police services and information should become business as usual. All forces now provide information via their website and Twitter; nearly all forces provide information via Facebook, and two thirds do so via YouTube. The public can contact individual officers or specific neighbourhood teams in many forces directly.
It is disappointing, however, that people cannot routinely do relatively basic things, such as reporting individual crimes, online. There are exceptions. Sussex police force allows the public to report crime online, and in Avon and Somerset, victims of reported crimes can track the progress of the police investigation online. I would like to see that spread across all forces.
We want to be ambitious, not simply doing old things with new tools but harnessing the potential of technology to bring about transformational change. That is what digital policing is about. Many forces are serious about digitisation, and I am delighted that 32 forces have signed up to be digital pathfinders. The College of Policing digital pathfinder programme is about bringing together forces that are serious about forging a digital path to share innovative ideas and identify collaboration opportunities. The programme will identify what a fully digital force will look like, highlighting how technology can improve the public experience of dealing with the police, and how officers can be more efficient and effective while out on the beat and can streamline processes to link up with their criminal justice partners. I hope that North Wales police will consider becoming a digital pathfinder, building on the innovation the debate today has highlighted. I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to challenge her local force and PCC on this matter.
One of the hon. Lady’s questions was about funding. She may be aware of the Home Office innovation fund. Recently we allocated over £11 million to IT projects from the 2013-14 precursor police innovation fund. There will be another round of allocations next year, for which the fund will be two and a half times the size. Much of that money is used on precisely the type of development in IT that she has described today.
For example, Avon and Somerset will use the funding to set up a citizen portal, which will allow the public to report and track non-emergency crimes. Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire were successful in their joint bid to support their work to build innovation in IT into their end-to-end business transformation project to make all possible processes digital. South Wales is using global positioning system technology linked to police data to provide officers with relevant information and intelligence about the area they are in, or a person they encounter. Building on that money, the police innovation fund will have £50 million available next year to support further innovation, including digital projects.
The Home Office has recently awarded a contract for the provision of evidence-based decision support, a service that will enable the right team of experts from industry, small and medium-sized enterprises and academia to be assembled to focus on the customer’s specific problems before making critical decisions. It will ensure that transformation programmes are fully sighted on the latest technical innovations. By using the service, forces can be confident that they are investing in the right things and not just the latest gadgets. Those things combine to provide an opportunity for forces to bring about real, transformational change.
The hon. Lady was right to praise the innovative work that the PCSO did in partnership with her local community in developing the system in Esclusham and Ponciau. PCSOs have played a huge part in providing effective neighbourhood policing, and they are a highly visible presence in communities. As that work shows, PCSOs have proved an invaluable link between the police and the communities that they serve by understanding and identifying local priorities, solving local problems and low-level crime, and engaging with the community. That is even more important in rural areas, which, as the hon. Lady knows, can present different challenges because of their size and the remoteness of their communities.
Lasting success in tackling rural crime will lie in local police and communities having a tailored joint response to the problems that they face, as we have seen in the partnership in north Wales. Although crime rates in rural areas tend to be relatively low, it is right that rural communities can know what crime looks like in their area and can hold somebody to account for doing something about it.
We provide the public with local information about crime and what the police have done in response to it. That information is regularly updated, so the public are able to hold local forces to account. Police.uk, the national crime and policing portal, provides rural communities with local information about crime and antisocial behaviour. Police.uk information is presented clearly and concisely, which enables the public to access crime and policing information in a way that is useful to them. The number of hits on police.uk since it was set up is evidence of how useful people find it.
We have shifted power to local communities through locally elected police and crime commissioners, who ensure that the public have a stronger voice in determining local policing priorities. A national rural crime network has been set up to tackle countryside crime, and it has been endorsed by 18 police and crime commissioners. It is good that PCCs in rural areas are coming together to discuss issues of mutual concern, and, as with the system that the hon. Lady spoke about, to spread best practice. As she rightly said, local initiatives can turn into national or international initiatives, which need to start somewhere.
I was saving that for the end. I promise the hon. Lady that I will get there.
The rural crime network includes organisations dedicated to rural communities, which will be able to learn from one another and work collaboratively on new ideas and solutions that will benefit local people. Several PCCs have prioritised rural crime, which shows concretely that rural communities are able to have an effective say. In North Wales, the PCC has put in place a rural crime plan to engage with the rural community and address their concerns, including theft from rural areas of equipment and livestock. The force is providing a presence at farmers’ markets and agricultural events, and a rural crime team, comprising four full-time police constables and a sergeant, has been created.
Such schemes are not restricted to Wales. In Suffolk, the PCC has introduced a dedicated team of special constables to work with safer neighbourhoods teams to tackle offenders who target farms and rural communities, and rural crime police officers who will focus on hare coursing. The PCC in Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, has also prioritised rural crime, and has introduced the “Country Watch” messaging system. So far, more than 7,500 people have signed up to the system to receive crime alerts and witness appeals, to see galleries of wanted criminals or suspects, and to receive information on community groups, events or meetings and details of operational work, by e-mail, text or telephone. Those examples from around the country illustrate that there is welcome new thinking and activity in the hon. Lady’s constituency and other parts of the country to deal with the problems that rural crime creates, and to enable police forces around the country to become more effective in stamping it out.
The hon. Lady asked whether I will meet her constituents. Of course I will; I am happy to do so. As I said, spreading best practice is an effective way of ensuring that good ideas have benefits beyond the local communities in which they were created. I hope that other communities will be inspired by the initiative that she spoke about and some of the others that I have mentioned. Rural crime is one the key examples where the use of new technology can, and will, transform policing, so that we deliver a better, more efficient service to the public. I hope that the good idea in the hon. Lady’s constituency will bring benefits to not only her constituents but many others around the country.
Mental Health Services (South-East Essex)
I make this speech in sorrow and anger—in sorrow because as a result of the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, SEPT, my constituents are suffering, and in anger because I am a parliamentarian who takes his job extremely seriously and I have simply not been listened to.
In this very place on 1 March 2001—13 years ago—I made a speech outlining in graphic terms how disgracefully the mental health services that look after people with problems in Southend were run. I see no purpose in having Adjournment debates if when Members of Parliament raise an issue, Ministers say that they are glad it has been raised and then it gathers dust. Let me make it clear that I will not remain silent on this issue until something is done. The Minister is a Liberal, and will understand me well. Liberals like to dig themselves into their constituencies and have a high profile. That is what I did in Basildon and in Southend West. I know my area better than the Minister, the Care Quality Commission, Monitor, the civil servants and the trustees and directors of SEPT. I really do know what the service is like. I will be making a presentation to the House about the organisation. It will be horrified when it has a private meeting and reads what I have to say about it and how it will be reported. Let me use new Labour terms: the organisation is not fit for purpose. Let me then use terms that the Minister might respond to: there are lessons to be learnt.
Then there is the issue of governance. I can remember only too clearly the then Labour Minister listening to what I was sharing with the House, but absolutely nothing was done about it and people suffered. Under the Labour Government of 13 years, the organisation did extremely well under its previous chief executive. I will outline all sorts of honours that he received—he did extremely well.
Thinking about my old constituency of Basildon, when Sir John Major visited Basildon hospital, it was a first-class hospital. I am very proud to say that; it is where all my five children were born. We use local health services. I do not have private health care; I use the national health service. The previous Labour Prime Minister visited Basildon hospital just before the election on a public relations exercise, and the media reported how marvellous everything was. In the past three years, as the Minister knows, an inspection was done of the hospital. What went on with that fabulous hospital breaks my heart. Fortunately, new management is in there and it has been turned round in a remarkable fashion. It has perhaps the finest cardiac unit in the country, so I cannot speak highly enough of Basildon hospital now. I am only sharing that with the House because a public relations exercise can mislead in a graphic way.
What am I after in this debate, so we do not lose sight of what is happening? What went on is totally wrong; the previous chief executive was on his huge salary and all those personal things happened with the trust that we, the residents, had been paying for. It is absolutely outrageous that the governing body, whose duty is for governance of the organisation, then appointed the deputy, who has been with the organisation since 2005. What is so wrong about the organisation is the management. That is why they are not going to like what I shall say, but it is absolutely disgraceful.
Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have observed how little power Ministers have these days. It was under Tony Blair’s Government that gradually powers seeped away, so I absolutely accept that the Minister is limited in what he can do. I have had meetings with Monitor and the Care Quality Commission—my hobby horse is that, for the life of me, I do not know why we have two organisations, one of which is in Wellington house, very close to the health service—and when I challenged them on these issues and on all the complaints, they were completely lost, so it is very frustrating.
When I first became a Member of Parliament, I could get things done. I saved Basildon A and E with just two days to go—there is a long list of things. Now we pass things to Ministers. It may take four weeks, eight weeks or 12 months for the civil service to produce a letter that is topped and tailed, and at the end of it all, it is a complete waste of time. I will not have that with this issue, because the mental health service is the Cinderella service of the country, as we all know. I applaud what the Government are doing with all their notices on the tube, as has been pointed out to me, and the way in which they are trying to turn round, in real terms, the way people see others who are suffering from mental health issues such as depression, so they are seen in a better light. However, I am not holding my breath that the Government will take action on this matter. Frankly, I think it has to be done through people power.
When I first became a Member of Parliament, I never saw as many people with mental health problems as I do now. They are growing in number. Whether it is depression or all sorts of matters, the numbers are definitely increasing. I really feel for my constituents who have a loved one with a mental health problem—not just through drug or alcohol abuse, but a real mental health problem—and then they have to go through the sectioning process, which is not easy. Of course, that process involves the police, and that is another subject as well, but what I want from the mental health service that looks after people in Southend is some honesty. Is it that they can no longer cope or that they do not know what they are doing? I am sick to death with my constituents’ endless list of complaints about mental health services. They are not part of the nanny state, wanting to dump their problem on to the state; they are in complete anguish about what it is like to get someone sectioned.
Of course, there is then the nightmare that when someone is sectioned, people are told, “Well, we can’t talk to you directly because the person being sectioned has a number of rights,” yet when they are released, the families, who can often be aged, have to cope with these very difficult circumstances. Sadly, I say to the Minister that all the figures seem to show that the number of people with mental health problems is growing.
According to figures provided by SEPT, in 2004 there were 184 complaints. There was no record of any of the complaints being upheld. I would have thought that someone, somewhere in Government, when I complained about it, would have said “How on earth can that happen?” In 2012-13, under an enlarged organisation, which of course seems to be an excuse, 434 complaints were made against the service. Of those, 243 were upheld, so more than half the complaints were upheld. We do not have the time to go into the details of the stress caused by raising a complaint and the length of time it takes to deal with it. Those figures in themselves should have set alarm bells ringing in the Department of Health, but I do not think that has happened.
My question today is: why on earth has this service, which in the early 2000s was already in a shocking state of affairs, been allowed to continue in that fashion? Why did no one intervene when I raised it in this Chamber in 2001? It really is not good enough, frankly, that nothing has been done. What makes matters worse is that the organisation is rewarded for failure.
Many people in the organisation, and there will be lines to take on the matter, were not there on the journey I have been on. After 31 years, I have a real picture, but I go back to the appointment of the present chairman, who has been with the organisation since 2005. In 2010, 118 employees earned more than £60,000. That was up from 99 in 2009. More recently, in light of the numbers of complaints that I have just quoted, in March 2013, 161 staff earned more than £70,000, 49 of whom earned between £100,000 and £150,000. That is absolutely crazy—50 earning between £100,000 and £150,000.
It gets worse, however. Although complaints to the trust were increasing exponentially, SEPT staff were rewarded with higher salaries—rewarded being the norm. In 2009, while many ordinary people were suffering from the worst effects of the global recession, the salary of the chief executive of SEPT rose from £170,000 to £200,000, and then it became much higher than that. That is absolute madness, and it is all in Hansard. This is supposed to be the mother of Parliaments, which runs the country. I have complained about this time after time and yet nothing at all has happened. It is an absolute disgrace that my words of caution have been ignored about this matter. Apparently, the salaries were justified
“to recognise the trust’s exceptional performance”.
Well, that is a joke if ever there is a “Tick the box” exercise. The constituents and whistleblowers who have contacted me would certainly question it.
Following my Christmas pre-recess Adjournment debate, in which I raised this issue, I was informed by a Minister that the CQC currently has no concerns about SEPT’s services in Southend. Well, that is a laugh in itself, frankly. No concerns? What on earth has it been doing? It is absolutely ridiculous. I do not necessarily dispute whether the inspections of these services were carried out rigorously enough, but what I would dispute is that a recent inspection, in September 2013, when I started to make a fuss about this again, found no overarching concerns for any of the “four essential standards”, one of them being “complaints”. Surely the increased number of complaints in the past 10 years is evidence enough to suggest that we should question an inspection that declares that there is no cause for concern at all. Surely I should be listened to, as a local representative. I have been there longer than all these other people; I have 31 years’ experience.
Perhaps the CQC is not missing something, but in 2010 a whistleblower, who was a practising doctor for the service, claimed that the previous chief executive of the service would often circulate e-mails to encourage staff members to “talk up the service”. That actually happened when inspectors came to visit. Nothing at all was done about the people who were responsible for governance. In fact, according to the whistleblower, internal surveys that were meant to help the service to improve itself would often be loaded to ensure that a negative response could not be input into the questionnaire, so the service was either “excellent”, “very good” or “quite good”. And we, the mother of all Parliaments, have, as power has seeped away, allowed all this to happen. What is the good of elected Members of Parliament if we have become so impotent?
I recognise the motivation behind what the Care Quality Commission does to ensure that the health services across the country are serving the interests of patients, but I cannot help but feel that the inspectors are missing something or being misled by staff at SEPT, who have in the past been reported as ensuring that patients are on their “best behaviour” when an inspection takes place. I think that it is important to link that with the statistics that I referred to; the numbers of complaints have increased. How the CQC does not consider that to be not only incredibly concerning for patients and their relatives but very suspicious is alarming. That said, I welcome the recent report on Bedford hospital.
I talked in the Christmas Adjournment debate about the previous chief executive, Patrick Geoghegan, who left in September, and his history. I have mentioned in this debate the very large salary increase. I do not have time to go into how he described himself as a doctor. I have my own view as to what a doctor is. I will leave it to others to reflect on him. But I think that it is curious how that chief executive went from the modest role of a hospital porter when I was Member of Parliament for Basildon to become one of the highest paid chief executives in the whole country, and the mother of Parliaments has done absolutely nothing about this disgrace. We have just had heads down and a rule of silence: “This is the line to take, Minister, and let’s just get on with it.” Well, I am certainly not going to remain silent about it. For example, in 2009, under Labour, Mr Geoghegan received the NHS leader of the year award, beating 700 other candidates, and he was rewarded with a huge pay increase.
One of the most consistent complaints that I receive is with regard to the number of locum staff that the service employs. There is evidence to suggest that agency staff often work two jobs and, as a result, will turn up late for shifts.
In 2008, an independent inquiry criticised the staff turnaround rate after a murder was committed by the schizophrenic Gary Roberts. There was a report on that. I am rushing through this because I have so much to say. John Vesey, former chairman of SEPT for six years, has told me that there was a problem getting staff when he was there and he knew of extra money being offered to prospective psychiatrists on the side. He said that the directors—this is coming from the former chairman—
“lied through their teeth about this”
when it was brought up at a board meeting. In 2007, the trust was still facing staff shortages, and the board discussed the issue but concluded that the shortages had no detrimental effect on the quality of care. What an absolute joke. And the trust went on ignoring things.
In response to a freedom of information request that I put in to the trust in September 2013, I was told that £600,000 was spent on promoting this organisation. That was three times the salary that Mr Geoghegan was receiving at the time. We could have employed a number of hospital consultants for that. The uses of the public relations techniques are an absolute disgrace
Sharon Tattoo, a constituent of mine, became a whistleblower. I want briefly to talk about two issues now. John Vesey, while chairman of Thameside mental health service as it was then called, recalled how he was forced to dismiss a member of the board by the regional chairman after he was threatened with dismissal if he did not dismiss that individual from his post. That example of bullying is absolutely typical of SEPT, and the corruption does not end there. There was a particular incident in which Mr Vesey, in response to a large and elaborate party that had been held for his birthday, approached the director responsible for finance and inquired how the party had been paid for. The response unnerved Mr Vesey: the money had come from funds donated by what the then finance director called “grateful patients”.
Sharon Tattoo worked for SEPT. She became aware of what she saw to be the misuse of funds by the leadership. She told Mr Vesey, the chairman, about the funding being redirected. The chief executive then warned her that if she were to raise these issues with the chairman, his job would be at risk, and she was advised that she should refrain from making further complaints. I could go on and on about what happened.
Mr Geoghegan left in September, but what on earth was going on with the board when it replaced Mr Geoghegan with his deputy, Sally Morris, who had been there since 2005? I have looked at the present board members and where they come from. It is now a much larger organisation. But what on earth has Lorraine Cabel been doing, as the chairman of the trust, in overseeing all this? I think that what has been happening is an absolute disgrace; and all the time, my constituents have been suffering as a result of this poor care.
For instance, there is a young girl who is now in Rochford hospital as a result of having suicidal thoughts. She recently escaped, with another patient, from a ward, and the staff apparently allowed that escape to happen. I want to ask how the staff on duty at the time, bearing in mind that these patients have fragile minds, allowed two patients to escape from a secure unit. What has happened is absolutely disgraceful.
I want to end my speech by paying tribute to the work of one of my constituents, Cheryl Higgins, who in 1999 recognised how poor the health services were in my constituency and, supported by John Barber, set up Trust Links to address the gap in mental health services. That organisation is still flourishing today.
I say to the Minister that I am not going to let this matter drop—I am really not. I am very, very angry about the way I have been ignored on this issue. I have no doubt that there will be a line to take and that I will be told, “All is well.” It is not well. This is a very expensive service, and it seems to me that we want a complete clean sweep of the management. That is what I am asking the Minister to achieve. Mental health services have always been the Cinderella service. When the Government whom I support came to power, under one of our colleagues who was then a Minister, a pledge was given that it would no longer be the Cinderella service and it was going to be front line now. From what is happening in my own area, I am not at all satisfied that the organisation that is in charge is fit for purpose. I will not shut up until I get some real action on the matter.
It is clear from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) how strongly he feels about the matter, and I absolutely respect that. I am not interested in any line to take from the Government. I have a speech here, but I want to address directly what my hon. Friend has had to say. I share his passion for trying to improve mental health services. That is something that I feel strongly about. I never like the idea of sweeping failures of service under the carpet. He has raised some serious concerns, although he did not have time today to go into the detail of all the things that he wanted to raise, and I would be keen to meet him to discuss those issues further.
I want to say a word about what I am trying to do in mental health. I agree that it has always been the Cinderella service, and there is what I would describe as an institutional bias against mental health in the NHS, which manifests itself in all sorts of ways. The spotlight is not on standards in mental health as it is in other areas of the health service. When the Government responded to the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire, we made it clear that addressing the concerns he raised about culture in the NHS was just as important in mental health as it was in any other part of the health service. If my hon. Friend reads the Government response to Francis, he will see that that is the case.
One of the ways in which we have responded to Francis is substantially to change how the Care Quality Commission goes about its work. My hon. Friend sought to make the case—by putting it in such a way, I do not suggest that he is wrong; I am not in a position to judge —that there is a massive gap between what he knows about a local service and what the regulators say about it. I know from my own part of the world, Norfolk, that when one raises acute concerns about, for example, the ambulance service, the response is often that everything is fine even though we know that it is not. We must try to ensure that inspectors and regulators reach a clear and accurate view of the quality of services.
The inspection regime that we are introducing, first in acute hospitals but soon in mental health trusts as well, is much more rigorous than anything that has gone before. One of the things that the previous Government did in 2008 was to remove specialist teams of inspectors, so that everyone in the CQC became a generalist. They might one week inspect a dental practice, a GP practice, an acute hospital and perhaps a mental health trust. That is no good; we must have people who know what they are looking for. It is also critical to involve clinicians and service users, who may well have an insight that others will never achieve. The CQC has appointed a deputy chief inspector who is in charge of the inspection regime for mental health, and I urge my hon. Friend to contact him directly to raise the concerns that he has expressed. At the end of the inspection process, mental health trusts will be rated so that the public has a much better view of the quality of a service in their local area.
Regulation on its own does not change culture; I absolutely get that. There must be carrot and stick. We must do things to change the culture within organisations as well as seeking to secure good standards through regulation. Regulation and inspection are a critical part of the overall picture, however, and we must have confidence in the inspection regime.
Everything that has emerged from the CQC’s work under the new leadership of David Behan and David Prior—a former colleague of my hon. Friend’s whom I happened to beat in North Norfolk to give him the opportunity to become the chair of the CQC—shows that they understand about compassionate care and high standards of care. We will shine a spotlight on mental health services and other parts of the health service in a way that has not happened before. I think that that will be of some value.
Does the Minister understand how frustrating the whole thing is for me? The previous chief executive, Patrick Geoghegan, was in an unusual relationship, which I will not enlarge on, with someone who was first installed in a property in my constituency—there was a dispute about that—and later became a top-earning member of the board. With all this due diligence and inspection, how on earth was that allowed? What has happened is absolutely crazy, and I will need quite a bit of convincing, whoever the Minister introduces me to. It seems to be only when we air things publicly in Parliament that there is any interest—“Yes, Minister. Let’s get a brief ready.” I am not going to let the matter drop because my constituents deserve better than they are getting at the moment.
I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that I have sought to address his concerns directly, rather than reading from a pre-prepared speech. I share his concern about levels of pay in the upper echelons of the NHS, and I believe that that must be addressed.
On a more positive note, in the short time that I have available let me mention some of the positive things that we are doing. In January, we launched a document called “Closing the gap”, which directly addresses the fact that mental health services always fall behind physical health services. We have stated publicly, and we have put into legislation, that there should be parity of esteem and equality between mental and physical health services. The document identifies 25 areas in mental health services in which essential change is needed. One example is the widespread use of face-down restraint. Such restraint is not acceptable or necessary in a modern mental health service, and many areas have demonstrated how to create positive regimes without the use of such a barbaric approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing this important debate. There are various shades of mental health problems, and care in the community is an important aspect of looking after those who suffer from such problems. However, day centres up and down the country, including Mundy House in my constituency, are under threat. Will the Minister look at what more can be done to support day centres as a means of caring for not only mental health patients but other patients and community members generally?
I am conscious that I am close to running out of time, but community services often do enormously good work in their local areas. The focus on mental health must shift towards a prevention approach. We must intervene early rather than allowing a problem to deteriorate and acting only after something has happened. We must also focus much more on recovery. So often, we seek to contain people’s ill health rather than helping them to recover in a meaningful sense.
Finally, I would like to mention our crisis care concordat, which will set high standards of crisis care in mental health that have never existed before. We expect every area to implement that concordat to ensure that people, wherever they are in the country, get access to the right standards of care.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).