Wednesday 12 March 2014
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Rolling Stock (North of England)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr David Evennett.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
The TransPennine Express service is without doubt a vital artery for the north of England, and it is worth explaining exactly why that is. Its routes cover most of the north, from Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria to Newcastle, and of course at the hub of the network are Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, connecting out to Liverpool and Cleethorpes. All in all, the area that its services cover has a population of more than 15 million people. That surprised even me, and I am an occasional user of the service and someone who has always lived in the north of England. To put that in perspective, TransPennine Express serves nearly as many people as live in the whole of the south-east of England, including London. That point is at the heart of today’s debate, which is about whether the rail network in this country provides equally for people in the north of England and people in the south-east and London.
Not surprisingly, the services provided by TransPennine Express are already busy. Indeed, the operator won the title of Passenger Train Operator of the Year in 2010, with record growth in passenger numbers from 13 million when the company started in 2004 to 23 million in 2010. That is an impressive record. However, it now seems that because of the shambolic nature of this Government’s handling of rail franchising, TransPennine Express is at the receiving end of a catastrophic series of decisions, initially triggered by the collapse of the west coast franchising process nearly two years ago.
Of course it is the north that will suffer the consequences yet again, because the end of the line of this terrible series of decisions made by the Department for Transport and Ministers is the loss of nine of the TransPennine Express Class 170 Turbostar train units, which will be transferred to Chiltern Railways. By the way, that figure represents a 13% loss in the capacity of TransPennine Express.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I have congratulated her on several occasions now on securing essential debates, and this debate is no exception. Was she as astonished as me last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions at the reaction to the raising of this exact issue by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)? Also, will she confirm that passengers are up in arms, including Helen Egan, a constituent of the Deputy Prime Minister’s, who told me that every morning she has to stand from Dore station in Sheffield to Piccadilly in Manchester?
I completely concur with my right hon. Friend’s remarks. Last Wednesday was an illustration of just how little significance is attached to the needs of train users in the north of England; there was an immature response from the Government Front Bench team to a serious question.
I myself used TransPennine Express only the other week and when I got to the station I found that one of the carriages on the train had been removed, and a significant number of people had to stand from Sheffield to Manchester. In fact, that is a regular experience for people using that line, the Hope Valley line, and it is just the same for people using the Leeds to Manchester line. This is a pressing issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she has gone right to the heart of the issue. Does she agree that this situation is not only a consequence of the west coast main line fiasco but a long-term consequence of the Government’s not investing in enough rolling stock throughout the whole country?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; he, too, always gets to the heart of the debate quickly. I will refer to that point later in my speech.
In his remarks about last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made an important point, because one of the consequences of what is happening is that at least the Prime Minister will benefit from a better service when visiting his constituency at weekends, even if the same is not true of my constituency and my right hon. Friend’s constituency.
It is also clear that the process that has led to the transfer of these trains has the fingerprints of Ministers all over it, with DFT Ministers clearly involved in the chain of events that has led us to where we are now. In fact, what we are seeing, as I have already said, is the end result of the botched failure of the west coast main line refranchising, which incidentally cost the tax payer £55 million, and Ministers cannot deny that they were at the heart of that process.
The other factor that has played a part in creating the situation that we are discussing today is the Government’s ideologically driven desire to privatise the east coast main line before the general election next year. To achieve that aim, the Government decided to negotiate costly franchise extensions with many incumbent operators, such as First TransPennine Express, being given a 10-month extension from April 2015 to February 2016. That is at the heart of the decision to transfer these carriages to Chiltern Railways.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. Does she agree that one of the difficulties that this situation creates for providers is planning their rolling stock needs for the future, and that that is particularly important when so many of the trains that serve my constituency will not even be Disability Discrimination Act-compliant by 2018?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will refer to the situation relating to the Pacer trains later. She is absolutely right that the leasing agreements for franchises such as Northern Rail and TransPennine Express end in 2015. TransPennine Express has been unable to secure leases for trains beyond then, because other operators can offer longer and more financially secure tenures to the rolling stock company, Porterbrook. That issue is at the heart of this debate.
The hon. Lady is completely right in saying that the 10-month extension period is at the heart of the problem and the commercial issues that it creates for the leasers of trains. However, I do not quite follow in her logic flow how that is related to the east coast main line. Perhaps she could explain that.
As my hon. Friend knows, we in the all-party group on Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire try to keep these debates on an all-party basis, and we have been very tolerant. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) shouted at her a little earlier. However, we are all in favour of the northern hub. Some of us think that High Speed 2 is a problem. Many of us would much rather get the northern hub sooner. However, there is a network across the Pennines that we must sustain and improve quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, I agree with him on most of those points, particularly about the northern hub, which was initiated by the previous Government and brought forward to completion, in terms of agreeing all the terms and the funding for it. That was a genuinely cross-party effort, and there was a genuine consensus on it, to ensure that the northern hub goes ahead. However, the problem with the northern hub is that although it opens up the network, frees it up and creates more capacity, there remains a potential problem, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) referred earlier, of providing the rolling stock that is necessary to ensure that we can make good use of the increased capacity.
We need to highlight the point about the differentiation in investment in different parts of the country. At a presentation last week to the all-party group on rail in the north, Network Rail outlined its plans for investment, including in the northern hub. However, the only reference to the north-east of England were signs on the map saying, “York”, and, “To Scotland.” The north-east of England was not an afterthought—it was not even a thought.
That illustrates perfectly that we have to defend it. It is one of the sad realities of parliamentary life that those of us in the north of England, including those in the north-east and the furthermost outreaches of the north-west and Cumbria, have to defend our corner at every twist and turn.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) wanted me to give way. I shall, but this is the last time, because I really must make progress.
I thank the hon. Lady, my neighbour, for giving way. I also praise my other neighbour, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who rightly said that we should not be harrumphing about partisan points here, because we have worked so well together in this Chamber.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to congratulate the Government on the £550 million investment in the northern hub and the electrification of the TransPennine route. Let us all work together to get better trans-Pennine services and better services on Northern Rail as well, which I use in my constituency.
I said a few moments ago that I acknowledge the consensus on the northern hub and I am pleased to see it go ahead. On the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, I assume that he will support the argument we are making today, to ensure that that rolling stock remains in the north of England and that we have sufficient rolling stock capacity to make good use of the northern hub, once it is completed.
I will not give way any more, because I have had 11 minutes and have some way to go and other hon. Members will want to speak. I am sorry.
In February, Porterbrook reached an agreement to transfer nine Class 170 trains from TransPennine to Chiltern Railways, as I said, where they will be used on new services between Oxford and London. I am informed that the DFT was kept completely in touch with these negotiations and therefore, I assume, so were Ministers. It is vital that the House be informed of who knew what and when. Indeed, I echo the questions asked by the esteemed Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Who decided to transfer the trains away from TransPennine? When did DFT officials first learn of the proposal? When were Ministers informed of the proposal? The trains concerned currently run on routes from Manchester to Cleethorpes, Hull and York, taking in Sheffield and a large part of south Yorkshire. They are modern trains built between 1998 and 2005.
The rail industry press is reporting that Northern Rail’s older Class 158s could be transferred on to TransPennine routes as replacement stock. If these stories are correct, the logical consequence will be a problem passed on ultimately to Northern Rail, which is already short of diesel-powered trains.
The other logical consequence of delayed franchising and the rush to privatise the east coast main line is that commercial imperatives encourage rolling stock companies, such as Porterbrook, to distribute their stock to train operating companies that can offer deals over a longer period. Hence Porterbrook signed a lease with Chiltern Railways in February, with the full agreement of the Department for Transport. I have had that in writing. This was confirmed in correspondence between Chiltern Railways and the DFT.
It is accepted that First TransPennine Express tried to negotiate with Porterbrook to prevent the trains from being transferred and leased to Chiltern Railways, but it is also accepted by First TransPennine Express that it could not enter into a new lease, because of the short period left before its franchising agreement expires.
The Minister has questions to answer. First, with these matters in mind, can he, today, offer a cast-iron guarantee that no passenger service will be downgraded or withdrawn, even temporarily, as a result of transferring these Class 170 Turbostar trains to Chiltern Railways? Will the Minister also confirm or deny the press reports that the Department is considering transferring Northern Rail’s Class 158s to the TransPennine franchise to plug the gap? After last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, when the Prime Minister said that he “will look carefully” at this issue, will the Minister tell me what progress has been made on resolving it, given that commitment from No. 10? Why does not the Minister just put our minds at rest by using powers under section 54 of the Railways Act 1993, which enable him, apparently, to secure the continued presence of the rolling stock in question on TransPennine services?
TransPennine runs some of the most overcrowded services in the country, as my hon. Friends have said. The franchisee itself has warned that, from May 2014 to the end of the current franchise term, it will require all its existing fleets to be able to deliver the significant capacity increase that it has committed to provide, and the same number of vehicles will be required to sustain the same level of service into the new franchise from April 2015. Let us not forget the other part of the equation, Northern Rail, which serves, as the name suggests, much of the rail needs of the north of England and which is also threatened, as I have explained, as a direct consequence of any loss of trans Pennine trains.
My hon. Friend rightly concentrates on the effects of this transfer on services in the north of England, but I remind her that the TransPennine Express also serves Scotland, including Edinburgh. Although I understand that the units that serve Edinburgh directly will not be affected by the transfer, I am told by colleagues in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers that there could be indirect knock-on effects from units that serve Edinburgh being used to serve other routes elsewhere in the network and that, therefore, we too will be affected by the changes that have been introduced.
Indeed. The turnout today draws out an important point in this debate, which is the far-reaching consequences of the weak decisions made by the Department for Transport and its Ministers over the past two or three years, leading to one short-term decision after another and, in turn, leading to consequences that reach far beyond the immediate TransPennine routes, which are, of course, Sheffield-Manchester and Sheffield-Leeds. The consequences reach right out into Scotland.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that Network Rail spent about £20 million on the Todmorden curve and another £20 million-odd reconstructing the Cliviger Holme tunnel. We will have a brand-new tunnel and a brand-new rail link from Burnley to Manchester, but we will not have any trains. [Interruption.] Is the suggestion that people walk the line to Manchester? When are we going to get some trains? I am advised that we are going to get them in December—they have should been coming in May—but even that is now in jeopardy. We are putting a lot of pressure on Northern Rail to deliver the trains, even in the state they are in, never mind getting new trains. If we can get the ones it has to run that link it would be good. Will the hon. Lady request that trains be provided?
The hon. Gentleman has encapsulated perfectly the lack of strategic grip that seems to be present in the DFT. Building a curve and new link but not being able to use them illustrates perfectly the stupidity of the position that we are in.
It appears that Northern Rail will receive fewer additional units from the south than it was promised in 2009, when Lord Adonis, the then Secretary of State for Transport, announced a major programme of electrification in the north. Back then, it was proposed that six Class 319 electric trains would be refurbished and transferred from First Capital Connect to Northern Rail in 2013—last year—and that they would operate between Manchester and Liverpool. However, it was recently reported that only three units would now be delivered, behind schedule and un-refurbished. A senior Northern source has been quoted as saying:
“We’ve told DFT we’re less than 10 months away from the proposed start of the electric service, we’re beyond the critical path, they’re not going to get refurbished and we’re not going to be able to operate the full service in the time we’ve got available.”
On top of these important issues there is another important perspective to this debate: just how serious are the Government about devolving power to the regions? The Minister knows well, following encouragement from the Department for Transport, that northern transport authorities have formed the Rail North group, with a view to taking responsibility for Northern and TransPennine services from 2016, and that date cannot come quickly enough for me. The proposed core of this network would cover around 21% of all UK stations. However, Ministers now appear to be rowing back on these proposals.
In November, it was reported that the Government were reconsidering their position, and in January a poorly defined partnership agreement between the DFT and the Rail North group was announced, without much of the devolution that was first promised. It subsequently emerged that the Department may force the Northern Rail operator to raise car parking fees. That move is opposed by the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive and flies in the face of true devolution. Given that the Department decided to move trains from the north to the south and is retreating on its promise to devolve rail network responsibilities, is localism now a phrase without meaning as far as the Government are concerned?
We in the north believe that we need efficient, well-run railways with modern trains providing the capacity that a growing network needs. We need those trains so that our economy can compete with the south—we all know how big that challenge is—if we are to close the north-south gap. On the Northern franchise, however, the average age of the fleet is 23 years, which compares with a national average of 18 years. Many routes are still served by the Pacer railbuses, which make up about a quarter of the fleet. I will not name my source, but I was approached several years ago by someone who asked whether the Pacer trains might have a future in the new country of Kosovo, but the trains may still be required on those Northern Rail services if the Government do not get their finger out.
The Pacer trains cannot be made compliant with disability access regulations without extensive refurbishment, and the oldest units are 30 years old. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 the trains will either have to be made compliant or be withdrawn before 1 January 2020. Ministers have already said that that is
“generally a matter for train operators.”
The train operators are having their arms tied behind their back by decisions made in DFT that do not give franchisees the security they need to secure deals with the rolling stock companies. Because of the shortage of diesel trains in the UK—this is the other big issue—Pacer trains, which are unsuitable, may have to remain in service for longer than they should.
No, I really must move on.
What assessment has the Minister made of the ongoing viability of the Pacer trains, which are heavily used on the Northern franchise? Passengers in south Yorkshire, on the Doncaster to Rotherham and Rotherham to Sheffield routes, hate those trains, which provide a terrible service and are like sitting on a trolley bus—they are awful. The trains give an awful ride, and they give passengers the impression that they are using a second-class, substandard service.
Has the Department considered applying for an exemption to disability access regulations for the Pacer trains that could see non-compliant vehicles in use beyond 2020? That is an important point. Northern Rail passengers need to know whether Ministers will allow those trains to be used beyond 2020. We need an answer.
I will now bring my comments to a close. It is becoming obvious where the Government’s priority lies when it comes to rail lines, and the priority is not with passengers in the north of England. As their ill-fated, illogical and shambolic franchising policy goes off the rails, it is the north of England that suffers. We are witnessing a situation in which the huge blunder that was west coast franchising has led to a comedy of errors, with the consequences landing squarely in the lap of the north of England and its railway services. The real issue, of course, is that the Government are just not getting to grips with the heart of the problem mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, which is that there are not enough trains in the system to provide the expansion capacity that the UK so badly needs.
At least the Prime Minister will be happy, now that he knows that there will be additional, modern 170 trains running into his constituency, making it easier for him to cope with the arduous journey to London. Hopefully he remembers that that comes at a cost to rail users in the north and beyond, as they will be left with less capacity, more crowded trains and, undoubtedly, frustrating delays as a result, unless we hear confirmation from the Minister today that the Government will ensure that that terrible decision does not go ahead. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and his answers to my questions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important debate, which provides an opportunity for us not only to complain about various aspects of the services that serve our constituencies but to acknowledge the massive investment that the Government have made in the railway network. My constituency is served by TransPennine Express’s Manchester airport station to Cleethorpes service, which is the most important link, as it provides connections at Doncaster and Sheffield to the rest of the network. My constituency is also served by East Midlands Trains, more of which in a moment. Northern Rail provides a Cinderella service between Cleethorpes and Barton-upon-Humber in the sense that it is completely disconnected from the rest of the Northern network.
TransPennine Express’s Manchester to Cleethorpes service uses a combination of Class 170 and Class 185 units. TransPennine Express’s clear intention, restated to me only last week, is to remove the 170 units from that service. Will the Minister clarify that? The 185s are far superior, and the 170s are only two-coach trains. The services at peak times are very overcrowded.
As my hon. Friend is aware, that route goes through my High Peak constituency. We are talking about the north today, but the route serves my constituency, which is technically in the east midlands. The route is widely used by my constituents to get to work in Sheffield and Manchester. I am sorry that they do not all go to Cleethorpes, but my constituents use the route, too.
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I recognise that people in his constituency would like to get to Cleethorpes, so anything we can do to improve that will be welcome.
When I spoke to TransPennine Express last week, it assured me that the 170s will be removed, that the 185s will continue and that extended four-coach trains will begin shortly. If the Minister is able to confirm that, or if he is able to get back to me, it would be much appreciated.
Understandably, much of the emphasis has been on the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail services, but East Midlands Trains also serves my constituency. This will be the moaning part of my contribution, because in the almost four years since I have been the Member for Cleethorpes I have made representations to TransPennine Express about the single-car unit that operates between Grimsby and Newark. When people board that train, it is announced that when the train reaches Market Rasen there will be standing room only. Passengers know that the 9.20 from Grimsby, which forms the 9.55 from Market Rasen, and the peak return journey from Lincoln at 17.23 will be overcrowded. The one-car unit is unsatisfactory. That point has been acknowledged by the company, and still, four years later, there has been no improvement. That is beyond reasonable. New units could have been built in a couple of years, let alone shuffling units around the network.
The decision by TransPennine Express has highlighted the possibility of further emphasising the north-south divide, which might be only a perception, but we all know that perception counts for a great deal in politics. Will the Minister confirm what responsibility his Department has for those decisions? Was the Department consulted? Does the Department have to agree, or is the matter entirely for the rail operators? If the Department has to agree, I sincerely hope that the decision was made by officials, rather than by Ministers. As I said earlier, the decision adds grist to the mill by emphasising the north-south divide. The Government have invested a lot of money in the network, including in the northern part of the network, and we do not want to lose the good will that that has created.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate. I want to make a few brief comments, particularly on the trans-Pennine service between Hull and Leeds and Manchester.
Members may know that Hull and East Yorkshire has a population of some 500,000 people, but we have one service an hour from Hull to Leeds and Manchester. The line is poor, so the maximum speed is 50 mph. We have problems with outdated signalling, so no trains can run after 10 pm and the rolling stock, as we have heard, comprises the two-coach 170 trains, which causes real problems with overcrowding at peak times of the day. As I understand it, we were originally supposed to have the Siemens Class 185 stock, but that has been used for other parts of the network. People living in Hull and East Yorkshire are saying, “If the Government are serious about securing the rebalancing of the economy and ensuring that the regions get the investment they need, why is our train service not very good and likely to get even worse with the plans afoot to move the rolling stock to other parts of the country?”
My hon. Friend has clearly set out that we have to have this debate because of the debacle in the Department for Transport on franchise procedures, but I want to raise the issue of the electrification of the trans-Pennine service. Some bright spark in the Department thought it was a great idea to electrify the line as far as Selby but not to go as far as the end of the line at Hull. That ridiculous situation, with that section left out of any electrification, has implications for the rolling stock that can be used. People and businesses in Hull were very annoyed about that, but they did not just sit and moan. They put together a bid of private sector money to allow that electrification to go ahead in the round of electrification that has already been announced. It only requires the Department to put in a small amount of money—I think it is £2 million—with the rest coming from the private sector. The bid has cross-party support and the business community is up for it. We had a meeting with the Secretary of State, and I hope that good sense will prevail and we will be included in the electrification arrangements up to 2019. Hull will be the UK city of culture in 2017, but how will people get to Hull with the ramshackle train service that is currently operating? There is one service an hour and no services after 10 pm to Leeds and Manchester.
When the Chief Secretary came to Hull last week, he seemed completely oblivious to the private sector bid. That shows a problem in the Government. Private sector money is on the table and ready to go, but it is being ignored by the Chief Secretary, who did not seem to know anything about it. I hope the Minister can reassure me that the Government take the electrification proposal seriously. I also hope that he can answer the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge on why we need the rolling stock problem sorted out as soon as possible to put people’s minds at rest.
It struck me, Mr Turner, that you represent probably the most southerly constituency in the House. It is just as well that you are not able to contribute.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this opportune debate and putting her points in a feisty way, although I think she could have been a little more consensual. It was not this Government, after all, who decided that the best way to spend £6 billion was on Crossrail, rather than on improving rolling stock in the north. I speak as a jaundiced member of the Crossrail Bill Committee, to which I was sentenced for two years.
Rolling stock is not just a trans-Pennine issue; it is a quality issue in many areas, because, frankly, the quality is dire. I have had a long-standing campaign against the Class 142s, which are essentially Leyland buses on wheels. They were originally produced by Mrs Thatcher, almost as an emergency motion to keep Leyland Motors going. Most of them still running are on the Northern Rail franchise, although not all—some are on Arriva in the Welsh valleys. Those trains are not the oldest stock in the northern area—the oldest are the refurbished Merseyrail trains—but they are certainly the most uncomfortable and the most outmoded and they are not disability-compliant. They are probably not safe in either a collision or a derailment, and they certainly deter business passengers.
Any sane franchise arrangement would seek to get rid of the Class 142s, and I have tried to help with that. I have investigated the safety issues and I have contacted fellow northern MPs, some of whom are present for this debate. I have surveyed passengers, and I have spoken to franchise holders, the Department for Transport— particularly on the safety issues—and the media. The BBC did a good exposé of how bad conditions are on the trains, which are virtually cattle trucks. The responses I get are various: I am told that the trains are cheap to run and that, although they are rickety, one man with a decent set of spanners can usually repair them, saving an expensive trip to the repair shop; I am told they have utility, because they can be coupled and decoupled on the smaller lines; and I am also told that someone has to have them and, more horrifyingly, that they might be refurbished at some point. That sends a chill of fear down the spine of anyone travelling in the north.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern? The last time I was on a Pacer 142, I was horrified to see that where a seat had become detached from its iron frame, it had been bolted back and new cloth had been put on, with the likelihood that it would last a lot longer.
With that example, one surely has to think about what would happen in an accident where a passenger was thrown around the carriage.
Despite the appalling treatment of the northern franchises, patronage, profitability and demand are up. To be fair, the Government have started to realise the potential. They have started to put capital into the north, and we should all praise them for the northern hub go-ahead and the electrification. They have also, I hope, started to realise that we get a raw deal in the north. Recently, my colleagues and I submitted a document called “Grim up North?” to the Chancellor, which, among other things, analyses transport expenditure.
We are not fighting a particular Government but a Whitehall mindset. Frankly, Sir Humphrey knows all about Chiltern Railways. His friends travel on those lines and he has used them. Time and again in the Department for Transport, we come up against obstacles, whoever happens to be the Minister. We come up against what is called the business case argument, which basically says that transport investment should follow demand and profit, and the Department will point out that those are greatest in the south. That is not a false view, but it has to be set against the other principle that transport strategy and investment can drive demand, profit and economic growth. Unless we do something to arrest the downward spiral, we will continue to have a good case made within the Department for investment in the south and a rather mealy-mouthed case made for investment in the north.
It is rather like being in a strange family, where there is a large, obese child—a sort of cuckoo in the nest, rather like London—and when the food is doled out or, in this case, when franchises and coaches are doled out, we look at our meagre portions and we complain. We are told and will be told by the Department that the demand and the profits are greatest in the south, and that is where the franchises want to go, but we simply cannot go on like that. We have to contest the Whitehall mindset. We are already seeing signs of that mindset clawing its way back. Although we have the northern hub and electrification, there is anxiety about franchise devolution, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge pointed out; there is a lack of thought about the consequences of electrification for those areas that are not electrified, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) pointed out; there is confusion about the franchises; and we have rolling stock issues in abundance. Generally speaking, we have to recognise that, while we can carry on moaning and appearing like whingeing northerners, there comes a point when we collectively need to move from being whingeing northerners to becoming rebellious northerners.
As the debate so far has shown, rail in the north has long-standing problems that affect constituencies across the whole region. The problems include the rolling stock: in the north, the average age is 24 years compared with London Overground, whose rolling stock is, on average, 2.8 years old, and with C2C—the London to Essex line—where the average is 12 years. Those figures tell quite a tale. As hon. Members have mentioned, another issue is the availability of appropriate rolling stock after the welcome electrification, on which there is still no clarity.
In the short time available I want to focus on the key issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), which is the totally unacceptable situation of First TransPennine Express, which serves people across the north with an already overcrowded service, being set to lose 13% of its fleet to Chiltern Railways. It is a consequence of the west coast main line debacle and the way that franchises were changed and decisions were made for directly negotiated extensions of existing franchises. It appears that the interests of the leasing company, Porterbrook, rests with moving the trains to Chiltern Railways, rather than leaving them for the 10-month extension that has been awarded to First TransPennine Express.
That issue has been raised at the Select Committee, which has already written to the Secretary of State to ask several important questions. I want to focus on two of them. First, did Ministers know what was happening? We understand that they did. If they did not, they should have known that something so important was going on. Secondly, what will Ministers do about the situation? It cannot be right that the interests of a leasing company are put above those of passengers. There are other, more general issues about how rolling stock and franchises are organised, but that is the nub of the problem. The interests of the leasing company appear to be in moving these much needed carriages from the north to the south, because it can get a better financial deal.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on mentioning Porterbrook, because its role is crucial. I will be interested to hear from the Minister why Porterbrook has taken this decision. I understand that it was offered only a 10-month extension, but it is and has been customary for leasers to give trains to the next company that takes over the lease. Porterbrook was not at risk had it persevered with the 10-month extension and it really does seem an odd decision. Has the Transport Committee had any sight of the commercial terms of the earlier deal with First TransPennine Express?
The Transport Committee has not yet seen the deal; it is just asking questions at this stage. Everyone here today—or certainly everyone on the Committee—just wants to know what is going to be done. We have not yet received a response from the Minister to our questions, but one may be in the post at this very moment. What did Ministers know about the matter? If they did not know about it, why not? More importantly, what are they going to do about it for the interests of the travelling public right across the north?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate, which has involved much talk of the north of England. My seat is in the east midlands, but the line that has been discussed today actually goes through my constituency. It is a vital line, and I have similar concerns that the number of carriages will be reduced. We have lots of employment in High Peak, but people also travel to Manchester or Sheffield. I support the northern hub and the extra capacity that the Hope Valley line will receive, which is vital because the line also carries a lot of freight.
The matter has been brought to my attention by two constituents—a Mr Benson and a Mr Walker—who live in different parts of my constituency, which is also served by Northern Rail. If the carriages are removed, they will have to be replaced with carriages from Northern Rail, which will have an impact on not only the line that is served by First TransPennine Express, but the Northern Rail line that serves the rest of my constituency. Of the 10 busiest stations in Derbyshire, five are in High Peak and are served by Northern Rail, and there will be implications.
The matter is cross-party, as it should be, and I want some reassurances from the Minister. We have until April 2015 before the changes kick in, so we have time to examine the issue and to put it right. We can discuss the carriages that are being lost—I have sat on trains and thought that they could be a little bit comfier—but the capacity of the trains that go in and out of my constituency is causing my constituents great concern.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) is present today, and the Minister will remember from his previous role that we banged the drum about our bypass as another way of getting across the Pennines, which is what this is all about. We talk of building economic growth, but to do so we need to generate employment so that people can work. If they cannot get about, the whole project is stymied.
All today’s contributions have been about assisting people and about social and economic mobility. There is the new station fund, and I led the campaign for Ilkeston station, which will transform the town and enable people to get out and about and take opportunities. That should always be the focus of what we politicians are trying to achieve for constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend and give her great credit for the work that she did down in Erewash on Ilkeston station. She is absolutely right that this debate is not just about a few carriages being tacked on the end of a train; it goes far beyond that. I am mindful that many other Members want to speak and that time is short, so I will limit my remarks. I have a letter here that will go to the Minister and to the Secretary of State, and I will be interested to know the responses. Like the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, I have some concerns, as do my constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate. I want to focus on Hartlepool. Hartlepool and Seaton Carew stations had almost 580,000 passengers last year. Hartlepool is the sixth busiest station in the north-east, which is probably a result of the direct service to and from London operated by Grand Central, but also of Northern Rail services, which operate southbound to Middlesbrough and northbound to Newcastle, calling at Seaham, Sunderland and Heworth, with some services continuing to the Metrocentre, Hexham and Carlisle.
As has been said, to facilitate greater economic development, it is important to attract more people on to the railways through reliability, value for money, the provision of routes where people want to go, at a time that suits them, and, crucially, rolling stock that is modern, clean, accessible and comfortable for passengers. One of the Department for Transport’s 12 policies is expanding and improving the rail network. Within that policy the Department states:
“Rail is vital to the UK’s economic prosperity. If rail services are inefficient and do not meet people’s needs for routing or frequency, business and jobs suffer.”
I do not think that anybody would disagree with that, but the condition and suitability of the rolling stock is also about meeting people’s needs. I ask the Minister: why is quality of the rolling stock not included in that policy?
If the age of rolling stock is seen as an indicator of comfort for passengers, Northern Rail, as we have heard, is lacking. It currently has the oldest fleet of rolling stock in the franchised railway, with an average age, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, of 24 years. The average age has increased steadily since quarter one of 2008-09, indicating that no investment in newer stock has been made.
The line that my hon. Friend is talking about, which serves Teesside, the east Durham coast and Sunderland and goes through to Newcastle and beyond, passes through my constituency. The sad fact is that, although Teesside and Tyneside are only 35 miles apart as the crow flies, a train from Newcastle to Middlesbrough is timetabled to take an hour and 35 minutes. It is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is partly because of the age and condition of the rolling stock. Things are bad on that line, particularly for Hartlepool commuters, because, as we have heard, Northern Rail is still operating the old Class 142 Pacer trains, which were built as a stopgap in the 1980s. They are little more than cattle trucks and are totally unsuitable for a modern rail network.
A constituent who commutes to and from Newcastle for work every day wrote to me about Northern Rail services, which she described as “dilapidated”:
“I’m sure that you are aware that the condition of the train is also antiquated and they frequently break down due to age and disrepair... in winter they lack an operative heating system and are filthy...The service received by passengers on this line is worse than ever and something must be done in order to bring Northern Rail to account and operate within its rail passenger charter.”
I hope that the Minister will address those concerns directly.
I have several questions, but they boil down to this: when will my constituents receive modern, comfortable and appropriate rolling stock, with such things as customer information systems and suitable accessibility for disabled people, which seem commonplace elsewhere in the country, but are lacking in my area? Why are Hartlepool and the north-east so badly short-changed, given that fares have gone up remarkably?
Is the Minister planning to change the formula for spending on transport? Expenditure per head of population on transport infrastructure in London is £2,595; it is £5 per person in the north-east. I appreciate that the formula is based on population, but the Minister must accept that that gross imbalance is simply wrong. Will he consider levelling the track on transport spend for the north-east to help facilitate proper economic growth in my region? Secondly, will he use smarter procurement to stimulate more manufacturing of rolling stock in the UK, and particularly in the north-east? The Government’s handling of the Bombardier issue on Thameslink was little short of shambolic, although their handling of last month’s decision on Crossrail was better. Will the Minister endeavour to ensure that Hitachi, newly based in the north-east, can be as competitive as possible, enabling manufacturing to be retained and enhanced in the north-east, jobs to be created, and supply chains to have the long-term confidence to plan for the future?
My area is badly short-changed over the quality of train services and rolling stock, and I hope that the Minister will address that.
I want to start by saying that the moving of 13% of TransPennine Express trains is an unacceptable outcome. However, we need to understand why it has happened. It is still not clear to me whether it is an intended or unintended consequence—the tail-end result of a number of actions.
I want to respond to the north-south divide issue, on which the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) made an excellent speech. There are things that the Government have done that were not happening before, in relation to the northern hub and the electrification of the north; but that only partially rebalances the vast difference in spending per head mentioned just now by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). That is not something that happened under the present Government; it happened under the previous Government as well, and it is an endemic issue to do with the way the Department for Transport evaluates projects. That is what we need to think about in the next few years.
To return to the main issue, the 13% of TPE trains are being moved because a 10-month extension has been piled on. Porterbrook apparently takes the view that it can get more money by moving the trains to Chiltern Railways, away from TPE. The first question is whether the decision was predictable. I do not fully understand the reason for the 10-month extension, which is why I intervened earlier, to ask how that was related to the east coast main line. However, given the fact of the 10-month extension, perhaps Porterbrook is trying to protect its commercial interests by its actions. In that case, normally what happens, apparently, is that the owner of the trains leases them to the next winner of the franchise; so if TPE lost the franchise, the normal custom and practice would be for Porterbrook still to be protected, because the trains could remain in the north. I ask the Minister why that did not happen in this case, to what extent it was predictable by the Minister or officials, and whether it is only the officials who are accountable in that sense.
Is the contract that has now apparently been signed by Porterbrook and Chiltern Railways irrevocable? Can it be changed? If it cannot, another issue arises. I heard mention of powers under section 54 of the Railways Act 1993 earlier; would they allow the contract to be reopened and re-examined? As I said when I began, the outcome, whether intended or not, is unacceptable.
Porterbrook’s role needs a lot more examination. We shall not have time for that today, but I hope that the Select Committee will understand, when it investigates, what drove Porterbrook to make a decision that is not, on the face of it, rational, given the custom and practice that I mentioned—that whoever might win the future franchise, if there is a change, would in any event use the same trains. Finally, I want to ask whether the Department for Transport has sight of the full commercial terms of the Porterbrook and Chiltern Railways contract, vis-à-vis the Porterbrook TPE contract that is apparently being replaced.
Putting all that to one side, the outcome is unacceptable, and something needs to happen.
I hope that colleagues will forgive this cuckoo in the nest—a Scottish MP intruding on the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for securing the debate. Continuing my animal analogy, I want to address the elephant in the sitting room. Hon. Members, who are rightly angry on behalf of their constituents at decisions about rolling stock and franchises, will be disappointed if they believe that chastising a Minister, of whatever party, for the decisions of civil servants at the Department for Transport can be the equivalent of a magic wand, and make everything right. The structure and nature of the industry simply will not allow train operating companies to make their own decisions about which rolling stock is most appropriate for their passengers.
I have never been an advocate of the wholesale nationalisation of the railway industry and I am not about to follow in the footsteps of the late lamented Bob Crow by doing a 180° turn on that policy. However, I draw the attention of the House to my early-day motion 954, which points out that under the present Government the railway industry is about to be nationalised. The largest part of the railway industry is Network Rail. From September, it will be recategorised as a central Government body. It will therefore come under the remit of central Government: Whitehall—civil servants. It will no longer be a private company without shareholders, as it is today. May I therefore congratulate the present Conservative Government on nationalising the British railway industry?
Like many of my hon. Friends I am very much in favour of genuinely free markets. However, is not the point the fact that the market is mangled? It is not delivering for the customers—businesses and passengers—who are investing a lot of money, and for whom a properly functioning railway in the north of England is vital, just as it is in the south.
I will not declare an interest. I am not being paid the salary any more; I do not need to declare an interest. However, it is a fact that since 1993, railway rolling stock has been among the newest rolling fleet of any in Europe. We have an outstanding safety record and there have been record numbers of passengers. Nevertheless, it is clear from this debate and many others in the past that the current model is not delivering for a significant number of passengers. Rolling stock is one problem, and far too often Ministers and civil servants make those decisions over the heads of the train operating companies at the behest of the rolling stock companies. That is unacceptable and clearly must be addressed if we are not to have debates similar to this in future. Another clear failure in the market—I would say it is the biggest one—is that our constituents are paying far too much for their rail fares.
The market simply does not deliver on crucial aspects. It does deliver in some areas, however, which is why I am cautious about simply saying that everything would be wonderful under nationalisation. I remember when the railways were nationalised and everything was not wonderful. We have to be cautious about taking an ideological point of view, but this is not an ideological debate; it is a practical debate.
How do we ensure that our constituents get the best possible service from the rail industry? Let us cast ideology to one side and look at what can be done practically. We may well have to follow the Network Rail example and look at train operating companies and say that the private experiment has not worked.
There is an interesting dilemma for Government, as they have conceded on state ownership. When it comes to rolling stock and train operating companies, they agree with German, Dutch and French state ownership, just not UK state ownership. Is that not a paradox?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that that is a paradox. I have some sympathy with the Minister, because I know that his civil servants are going over the heads of the train operating companies and deciding which rolling stock is most appropriate to which franchise. I am attending this debate because every decision taken on rolling stock has a domino effect on every other franchise. The TransPennine Express franchise serves my city of Glasgow. The west coast franchise, which was badly handled, also serves my constituency and the east coast franchise, which should not be privatised before the general election, also serves Scotland. We are all in this together, as it were. All passengers rely on decisions taken by the DFT. The Minister will no doubt say that it is a privatised industry and that such decisions are out of his hands, but they are not; they are very firmly in his hands. The question we should address is: is that the correct way to make those decisions?
We must make a decision. Either civil servants and Ministers should take responsibility as well as the blame—at the moment all they get is the blame—or they should give all those decisions to the private sector and make it a truly privatised industry. My gut instinct is that that model would not work for our constituents and it is our constituents, not political ideology, that must take precedence.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate—it is really good to have it. I refer again to the major investment we have had in Burnley, which I raised in my earlier intervention, at the Todmorden curve and the Holme tunnel at Cliviger. We have a brand-new, £7 million station, and £20 million was spent on fitting the Todmorden curve back in so that there is a direct link between Accrington and Burnley and Manchester, which will bring much financial growth to that part of Lancashire. The opportunity has also been taken to refurbish the tunnel at Cliviger. The total bill for that would be about £50 million. We are grateful for that work. It took a long time to persuade the Government to do it and this coalition Government have done it.
Our problem now is that the trains that should have turned up at the beginning of May—I was looking forward to riding on the first one to Manchester—will not arrive on time. They might arrive at Christmas, but it might not even be then. Will the Minister give us some indication of when the first train will travel on this brand-new track to Manchester?
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) raised the state of Northern Rail trains. My wife regularly travels from Burnley to Leeds. At present, she has to rely on the bus because the line is closed while the tunnel is relined. Only recently, on the way back from Leeds, the York to Blackpool train broke down in an attractive part of no man’s land. The whole train was packed—no one could move on it. The guard apologised for the state of the train, but the passengers had to wait an hour for the next train to come along and literally push that train through Burnley, Blackburn and Preston and on to Blackpool where it could be repaired. Is that the way to run a modern railway system? Is that what the people of this country pay for?
The train my wife uses to go to Leeds used to cost £6, but now it is nearer £16. The price has nearly trebled, yet the service quality has gone down and down. Is the Minister proud of how we now run the railways in this country? If he is happy with that, so be it, but he should tell us so that we know where we are. If not, will he tell us what he will do about it? I am not happy to see £50 million of taxpayers’ money spent on a brand-new station and a brand-new link to Manchester, which we have all asked for for years—the Prince of Wales supported the project at one time—and the £20 million-odd spent on the tunnel, which had to be done, when we do not have any trains to ride on. I urge the Minister not to send us the old buses that we used to have—some of those are so old that they still have the registration plates they had when they ran around Preston. Can we have something a little more modern? At this moment in time I will accept a continuation of the wrecks we have at present just to get that on that line to Manchester.
Thank you, Mr Turner. Given the shortness of time, I will get to the nub of the issues facing my constituents. First, there is the rolling stock. My fear for people in Middlesbrough and the wider Teesside conurbation is that the mainline services that link York with Blackpool and Liverpool will be given priority over the peripheral lines going north. That links into the lack of electrification on the east coast line to the north of Northallerton. Those two issues together cause fear for people in Middlesbrough and the wider Teesside area.
The rolling stock leasing companies are an issue. The TransPennine service was created by the state under British Rail and that model has survived until today, which is testament to its ability to assess the market then and going forward. In November 1995, the ROSCOs were sold for a combined sum of about £1.7 billion and, in 1996, they generated a combined pre-tax profit of £1.8 billion. We have three ROSCOs; one of which, Angel Trains, made a 60% profit in the seven months—
I would like to mention a couple of quick points. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) referred to nationalisation. It has been pointed out that we have a nationalised system, with Nederlandse Spoorwegen and Deutsche Bahn operating franchises. The purpose of a railway system is not to provide people with an opportunity to extract value for their own benefit.
We, too, are plagued with the Pacer 142 trains, the performance of which is shocking. The travel time from Saltburn to Darlington is 53 minutes—Usain Bolt or a domestic cat could give those trains a run for their money. In fact, my wife’s grandma raced the trains years ago, and I think she could still do that now. The height of our ambition—
There is almost no time at all, but I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate. I have nine train stations in my constituency. Stalybridge, in particular, is a hugely important railway town, which features our world-famous buffet bar.
The crucial point is the huge growth in passenger numbers on services through places such as Stalybridge, Mossley and Hyde during the past decade. Passenger numbers have doubled, yet we do not seem to have a system that can meet that demand in any way, so when news comes out that we will lose TransPennine carriages to an as yet unopened railway in the south of England to provide services to Oxford, that causes extreme and palpable dismay. I thought that, in this Parliament, we were moving towards consensus on greater rail investment in the north of England. That is what I want to see and I would like the Minister to address that. The point about the age of rolling stock has been made well. Do we have a system that allows new rolling stock on to our railways? I do not think we do and I would appreciate the Minister commenting on that.
I want to talk about the train service between Bolton and Manchester. The trains are incredibly overcrowded, especially during peak times. People often have to give up on one or two trains before they can get on one, and when they do they are completely squashed, as I know, because I travel on those trains myself.
The trains are small and need to be refurbished. We need more trains because those running between Bolton and Manchester are incredibly dangerous and overcrowded. A lot of people miss their trains as a result, and I have had letters from constituents who have lost their jobs because they have not been able to get to work on time and their employer has had no sympathy for the fact that they have been spending an hour or so travelling on a local train service.
It is regrettable that—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate. She is a long-standing campaigner for better rail services in her constituency. Alongside others here today, she lobbied to secure funding for the northern hub project. She gave a powerful speech, and it is entirely fitting that she should lead this important and timely debate. There is clearly an extremely high level of interest in this subject, reflecting the importance of rail services to constituents across the north and parts of the east midlands as well.
I would like to take this opportunity briefly to pay tribute to Bob Crow, who tragically died yesterday morning. No one could ever doubt Bob’s tenacity and effectiveness on behalf of the workers he represented. I met him a number of times in my capacity as shadow rail Minister. From talking to people who sat on the other side of the negotiating table from him I know just how deeply respect ran for him in the rail industry, from his opponents and supporters alike. He was a pragmatic fighter and a doughty defender of RMT members, and our national life will be poorer without him.
A year and a half after the collapse of the west coast mainline and Great Western competitions, we are witnessing another consequence of that debacle. The facts have been well covered by hon. Members. As a direct result of its 10-month franchise extension, TransPennine Express has found itself unable to negotiate new leases for its rolling stock. Its Class 170 trains, which make up 13% of its fleet, will be transferred to Oxfordshire, and we learn from the industry press that Class 158 trains may be taken from the Northern franchise to make up the shortfall.
As the Rail North group has said, the short-term direct awards appear to be causing potential and actual problems for the rail network. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is clearly not the solution that passengers need, so I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer when he sums up. First, for how long exactly has the Department been aware that TPE’s trains could be transferred to Chiltern? Did the Secretary of State consider exercising his section 54 powers in this case, and if he did, why did he decide against using them? Finally, will the Minister confirm that there is no protection against a similar fate for the remainder of TPE’s fleet? What is to stop the Class 185s, which are used on the majority of TPE’s services, being transferred to other operators?
I have to declare an interest in this debate as a constituency MP. Although, like the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), I represent a midlands seat, Nottingham station is served by Northern Rail—by the same Class 158s, in fact, that could be transferred to other franchises. Although I welcomed the decision to electrify the midland main line, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has previously said, we still do not know what rolling stock will be used, including on the line to Sheffield.
We already have real uncertainty over rail projects. The Todmorden curve is a case in point. Restoring that 500-metre section of track will enable new, direct services from east Lancashire to Manchester. Funding for the infrastructure was secured following a cross-party campaign, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). The track itself will be completed by May, but, incredibly, no trains will run on it until December, despite previous assurances that sufficient trains could be found. As Josh Fenton-Glynn, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Calder Valley, has rightly said, that is
“an inexcusable piece of incompetence about which local people are justifiably angry.”
I pay tribute to the work he has done to bring the issue to national attention.
Northern Rail said in October that
“there are no spare trains on the market at the moment”
The case illustrates both a failure to plan, and the lack of available rolling stock for expanded services. In the meantime, the strong growth in demand for rail in the north, ably described many of my hon. Friends, has resulted in severe overcrowding on some routes.
I am sorry, but I am not going to give way, as we have limited time.
We heard powerful examples of the difficulties commuters face from hon. Members from across the House, including the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Southport (John Pugh), my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and, briefly but eloquently, my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). As First TransPennine Express has said, even a relatively small reduction in the size of its fleet could have a profound impact on services. The company said:
“Our timetable from May 2014 through to the end of our current franchise term requires all of our existing fleets to be able to deliver the significant capacity increase that we have committed to provide. Similarly, the same total number of vehicles would be required to sustain the same level of service into the new ten-month franchise extension period from April 2015.”
If replacement rolling stock is transferred from Northern Rail, the same problem will be repeated. Passengers, transport authorities and operators now face years of uncertainty over rolling stock availability before electrification is completed. Drivers cannot be trained and new services cannot be planned. If still more trains are lost, those problems will only become more unmanageable.
I understand that Chiltern’s agreement to operate the Class 170s contains a sub-lease that would allow the trains to remain in use on the trans Pennine routes until replacement rolling stock can be found. I also understand that the Department for Transport, First TransPennine Express and Chiltern Railways are parties to that lease. Will the Minister tell us whether the sub-lease can go ahead only with the full agreement of the Department and Chiltern Railways? It is important that we have an answer to that question and to the other questions that hon. Members have raised today.
When the Minister responds I hope that he is not tempted to downplay the issue by saying that this situation is simply part of the normal process of cascading rolling stock. If that is so, why is the industry press reporting that the loss of the Class 170s is
“likely to produce a serious reduction in capacity”
on the TransPennine routes? As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who chairs the Transport Committee, has said,
“this issue is causing considerable uncertainty over the future viability of TPE’s timetable.”
The Minister might say that this is simply a matter for the market to decide, and, of course, the split between infrastructure, train operators and rolling stock companies was established in the botched privatisation by the previous Conservative Government. However, if it is simply something for the industry to decide, why has the Department been involved in discussions between Chiltern Railways and the rolling stock leasing company at every stage in the process? He might try to insist that the situation is simply business as usual, but after today’s debate, that simply would not be credible. The problem is the direct consequence of the panicked direct awards programme introduced following the collapse of the west coast competition. In turn, that was caused by Ministers imposing their new franchise model on one of the most complex routes in Europe. At every stage, Ministers are directly accountable, and they will be accountable for any reduction of services that results from that chain of events.
The truth is that, for all the talk of cutting red tape, the coalition will leave a record of five years of disastrous decisions in Whitehall, a top-heavy failure to manage key projects, and a huge expansion in the Department’s involvement in the rail network. I accept that the Minister may be an unlikely occupant of a Marxist universe, but perhaps we should not be surprised by the coalition’s switch to old-fashioned command and control. After all, last year, the Business Secretary said that a “rail revolution” was taking place. With services threatened and rolling stock taken away, we now know what the rallying cry of that strange revolution—it unites MPs across party boundaries—will be: “Passengers of the north, unite! You have nothing to lose but your trains.”
Season ticket prices have risen by an average of 20% since the election. Passengers deserve better than this. The Government must face up to the scale of the problem, set out a clear plan for meeting the north’s rolling stock requirements and get the improvements in the region’s rail services back on track.
I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for calling this debate on an important topic. Much has been made of what I may or may not say today, but I intend to cover directly some of the issues she has raised because the matter is important. Some people have suggested things I may say, but I will answer her questions.
There have been a huge number of contributions and I learned today that brevity is a virtue, and that the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) is a voice of experience and sanity. I always enjoy following the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who leads for the Opposition. She leaves me in awe of the fact that she can operate in a parallel universe. Is the real failure the 900 miles of electrification that this Government have committed to, as opposed to the nine under her Government, or is it the 11% rise in fares that would have happened had her Government been in power today?
I had an opportunity yesterday, during a Westminster Hall debate, to pay tribute to Bob Crow and to send condolences on behalf of the Government to his friends and family. Whatever our political differences, he was a doughty defender of his members and of safety standards, and I am pleased to reiterate that today.
I understand the frustrations that have been expressed today, but there must be recognition, as there was from some hon. Members, about the contribution and huge investment going into the north of England. The north of England investment plan will see £1 billion invested to improve services, to increase capacity and to ease overcrowding over the next five years. That massive investment will see electrification of the north-west triangle between Manchester, Liverpool and Wigan. The TransPennine route between Manchester and York via Leeds will also be electrified. Capacity improvements are being delivered between Manchester and Sheffield via the Hope valley line and the Chat Moss line between Liverpool and Manchester. Construction of the Ordsall chord will enable trains to run between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria stations.
I will not give way, because I have only eight minutes.
Line speed improvements will be made on routes including those between Manchester and Sheffield, Manchester and Preston, and Manchester and Bradford. Whatever anyone says, that is a huge investment in the area. It is estimated that the wider economic benefits to the region will be more than £4 billion and have the potential to create 20,000 jobs. The Government are investing in the north of England. However, all those projects have an impact on rolling stock decisions and we are taking a broader look across the country to see why some of the problems—I accept that there are problems—have arisen. The significant steps that we are taking towards electrification throughout the country, including in the north, undoubtedly means that the rolling stock market is preparing to invest heavily in electric units. There is less demand for diesel units, and there is a short-term mismatch.
Everyone agrees that electrification will help to transform the railways by introducing faster, greener and more pleasant vehicles. It will also set up the opportunity for cascades of newly run-in and refurbished stock to other parts of the country to meet rising demand. Moreover, it is not just investment in infrastructure that will make a difference to services in the north. The intercity express programme is a major investment in rolling stock that will bring benefits to regions throughout the country and faster journey times both north and south. The programme will create new jobs in the north and will be fully implemented by 2020. The first trains being built at Newton Aycliffe by Agility Trains will bring about more reliable services. That context is important and shows the huge investment that is taking place.
I will now respond directly to some of the questions that have been asked today. The issue with the TransPennine rolling stock relates to nine Class 170 trains, which comprise 18 rail vehicles—not a higher number. Those vehicles are equivalent to approximately 9% of the total fleet. The lease for those trains expires in 2015, which is the end of the current franchise.
I will not give way, but I will come on to Bolton in a moment.
As is usual in the commercial rolling stock market, the lease was offered from that point. The opportunity was taken up by Chiltern Railways, which agreed a new lease earlier this year. Hon. Members asked when the Department for Transport knew about that. It knew in October 2013 and the Secretary of State saw a lease in February. The Department was aware of the lease, but we cannot unreasonably withhold consent for it, so it was given.
Today, I have heard from many hon. Members about their concerns and I can report that the Government are well aware of the problem and will ensure that a solution is found. Discussions are taking place between Chiltern Railways and First TransPennine Express to allow the ongoing TransPennine franchise to retain the trains until May 2015. That will allow more time for a solution to be found. Discussions are taking place about how many of those trains Chiltern will need in 2015, and an opportunity will exist for TransPennine to retain some of the units until March 2016.
Commercial negotiations are taking place between the Department, Chiltern and others in the industry that will allow medium and long-term solutions to be found. The Department has made it clear that it expects train operators and rolling stock companies ultimately to resolve the situation, but it is equally clear that several possible solutions exist. By working in partnership, the Department can reach a positive outcome that will continue to provide the level of service that passengers are currently experiencing.
Comments were made about section 54 notices. They are only a one-way guarantee. Each guarantees the lease price, not that the lessee will not move the vehicles anywhere else. In addition, it is not contractually secure to transfer leases from one tenant franchise to another.
Some amusing but untrue comments and jokes were aimed at the Prime Minister. Anyone who knows the railways knows that Chiltern does not serve Witney, which is served by First Great Western. Moreover, it is important to make a point of accuracy that no one else has mentioned. Notwithstanding the issues involving TPE and the solutions the Government are putting in place, TPE is also taking delivery of 10 new Desiro EMUs immediately.
In the same vein, much has been said about Bolton and what might happen following the December timetable change. I met hon. Members from Bolton last week, and I understand the difficulties faced by passengers on that route. I am confident that an agreement will shortly be reached whereby electric rolling stock will operate on some services between Liverpool and Manchester from December 2014 and enable diesel trains to be released to address the capacity issues in Bolton and at the Todmorden curve. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that that is not a failure of strategic planning, but will see services running on that section of track for the first time in more than 40 years.
Much has been said about the Pacer trains that were introduced in the mid-1980s and have rightly received their fair share of attention. With the introduction of new rolling stock into the region, higher quality rolling stock will be released for use across the network. In the forthcoming franchise competitions for Northern and TransPennine Express, the Department does not intend to specify the type of trains to be used. However, hon. Members will have seen the Official Journal of the European Union notice that we set out for the East Coast franchise and we expect to ask bidders for the Northern franchise to put forward proposals for the removal of Pacers from the area. Furthermore, as hon. Members will have noticed, the new franchise competition gives as much weight to quality as to price aspects of bids, so we expect bidders to take that opportunity to reflect that in their bids and operating plans.
Some hon. Members have contended that the Government favour the south over the north. [Interruption.] The reality, of course, is a completely different picture. The Department is taking a whole-network approach, investing heavily in services across the country for the better of all passengers in this country.
I hope that colleagues from Yorkshire who have been listening to the debate on trans-Pennine rail would like to stay for this important debate on atrial fibrillation, but in truth I know that many would ask what on earth atrial fibrillation is. Part of the purpose of the debate, therefore, is to open up our understanding and knowledge of the condition. I am sure that some colleagues at least will know that atrial fibrillation is a disease of the heart—[Interruption.] Excuse me, Mr Turner; I thought that that was the Division bell. Atrial fibrillation is a disease that causes an irregular heartbeat. It can often lead to a stroke and therefore to either a disabling long-term disability or death.
I called for this debate because 750,000 people in this country have atrial fibrillation. We know that because they have been tested for it. They may or may not be receiving treatment, but we know about them. It is estimated that another 750,000 suffer from atrial fibrillation but are undiagnosed, so we do not know where they are, although we have an idea because we can do the stats. If we know the average number of AF sufferers in a given area, we can extrapolate the numbers across the country. Where we see very low diagnosis numbers, we know that the local GPs and health service are not getting to grips with discovering who has AF, checking them out and treating them.
I would like to tell a little fairy story. There is a fantasy world in which a dreadful heart condition affects more than a million people in our country. A great deal of research is carried out, because no one really knows how to tackle it, and then there is an enormous breakthrough: we discover a new class of drugs that can not only help people to avoid having a stroke in the first place, but allow them to live a good, full and healthy life. However, the wicked godmother arrives and says, “Thou shalt not have any of these wonderful drugs, even though the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says that they are good and should be available.”
I remind Members that the NHS constitution states that patients have a right to
“treatments that have been recommended by NICE”
when they are deemed “clinically appropriate”. That is the right of your constituents, Mr Turner, and mine. However, the fact is that most people with AF in this country are not getting the opportunity to receive such drugs. There is a real problem: we have a new generation of drugs that are recommended by NICE, but they are not available. What is the barrier? The barrier is the clinical commissioning groups and GPs.
If someone is a sufferer of AF—my wife is, which is why I know something about the condition—they are traditionally treated with warfarin, which is a very popular drug in this country. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr Turner, that even on the Isle of Wight GPs know—because they are highly skilled and knowledgeable —that warfarin is very cheap indeed. It is one of the cheapest drugs that can be prescribed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing such an important matter to the attention of Westminster Hall and of the Minister. Warfarin can be used to treat hyperthyroidism, as well as many other conditions. The issue that comes to my attention is that of GPs and their training, and their ability to administer to atrial fibrillation as required. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that GPs can do more in their own surgeries?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was going to come on to that issue and I am grateful to him for making that point. The fact of the matter is that a very high percentage of people who are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation are currently either not treated with anti-coagulants, or they are given aspirin. Everyone knows that aspirin is very cheap but not effective as an anti-coagulant.
People with AF may also be given warfarin, which is a good treatment. I can say that from the heart. I have watched a close member of my family—it does not get any closer than one’s wife—undergo treatment that must be evaluated day in, day out. It is quite complicated to ensure that the dosage is right. If someone does not have a home testing kit, they will have to go regularly to the hospital for their blood to be tested and their dosage evaluated. If they have a full-time job or family responsibilities, that is an onerous requirement. As a result, many of the people who are taking warfarin are not taking it in the right dosage and so are not getting the proper, balanced treatment.
It is a scandal that 8.5% of atrial fibrillation patients are not receiving treatment, 35% are receiving aspirin, and only 56.9% are receiving oral anti-coagulation treatment. What is more, we now have three drugs that could be prescribed. We should be saying, “Isn’t it wonderful? We’ve had a breakthrough!” I hope that I can pronounce them properly—they are dabigatran, rivaroxaban and apixaban. However, compared to the 3p that it costs for a dose of warfarin, they are more expensive—I have seen an estimate that treatment would cost around £800 a year.
That might be considered an excessive cost compared to the tiny amount that warfarin costs, but strokes cost this country £2.5 billion a year. If we really want to wreck the national health service, we should not treat people with AF properly. They will have a stroke and end up in long-term care, making great use of hospital beds and highly qualified medical staff. Such a burden on the health service could be avoided.
I have been a member of the all-party group on atrial fibrillation for some time now, and I know that its chair, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), is going to speak after me. We served together on the Education and Skills Committee, Mr Turner—do you remember when we had a very good Clerk working for us? I think he is sitting on your left-hand side. When we were on that Select Committee, you will have heard me articulate many times the watchwords, “I like evidence-based policy.” The atrial fibrillation campaign is the one, against all others, for which the evidence shows that if we have a drug that can sort out the condition, it should be used.
NICE says that we should use it, and it is clear that it is the right of patients to have it. The people getting in the way are GPs—not because they are malign, but because the cost means that they are leant on by their practices about prescribing it. Also, a very substantial population of GPs do not understand the treatments and their effectiveness—which treatments work and which do not. It is a scandal that people suffering from AF are prescribed either nothing or aspirin by their doctors. That is a very serious problem for the profession, and we have been taking it up with the Royal College of General Practitioners.
There is a second barrier, which is that even with the cheapest of the drugs—warfarin—the sophistication of the treatment and the monitoring are very difficult for very large numbers of our population to deal with. My constituents and your constituents, Mr Turner, find it very difficult to get the right dosage and to maintain the quality of treatment.
The third barrier is the clinical commissioning groups. There is no doubt that the clinical commissioning groups are a barrier to this spending. These are relatively new drugs. They were approved by NICE about 18 months ago—I am looking at the chair of the all-party group in case that is not correct—and NICE said that by now it would expect about 20% of AF sufferers to be on the new anti-coagulants, but only 3.4% of sufferers are on them. Even NICE, projecting forward, thought that the figure would already be 20%.
I do not want to talk for too long, because other hon. Members want to speak, but it is a national scandal that people are dying today, are dying every day and are having incapacitating strokes, and that that is costing the national health service an enormous amount of money and requiring the use of an enormous amount of expertise. It is a burden on the national health service that should not be there.
There is an easy resolution. It is based on science, based on research, based on evidence. It is about time that the ministerial team took the lead on this matter, that GPs woke up, and that clinical commissioning groups heard the hard words that we will not allow our constituents unnecessarily to die or suffer long-term disability just because of the inactivity of the system. We are seeing this short-term saving, this mean-minded pettiness of saving a bit of money on the balance sheet of a CCG today, when the real cost to the health service is a generic one right across our country.
This is the beginning of a campaign. We have been campaigning for a long time, but it is at a new level. We are not going to let this issue go away. This is not party political. We will chase the Minister, chase the Secretary of State and chase the Prime Minister, because this issue is important and we cannot allow this injustice to continue any longer.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in a debate that is hugely important to me on a personal level. I agree with every word of the speech by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
Soon after I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2010, I was selected for Question 1 at Prime Minister’s questions. I immediately thought that that was going to be my great occasion. One knows that one is on national television and everyone is watching. It is a chance to support the thrust of the Prime Minister’s argument and I was really looking forward to it, but on the Monday morning I called my GP, because I had been suffering a bit of breathlessness, and I was rushed into hospital because he thought that I was having a heart attack. This is what influenced me greatly. I then spent three days in the assessment unit of the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, and it was probably the most expensive bed in the hospital.
As I said, I was there for three days with a supposed heart attack. No one was telling me what was happening. It was only because I became so angry that I almost had a heart attack that I had some reasonable treatment, and I was told that I was probably suffering from atrial fibrillation. I had never heard of this; I did not know what it was, but as I got to know a little more about it, I learned how, in many cases, it is very easy to put right. I was given electric shock treatment—cardioversion—which reversed the fibrillation on the first attempt, and I made a full recovery, but I learned quite a lot about the condition and I realised the sheer lack of awareness that there is of it. Then I understood what the hon. Member for Huddersfield has been telling us. The issue is not so much the atrial fibrillation itself—although it can be quite difficult for many people—but what it causes. It multiplies the chance of a stroke by about five times. That is a massive cost to the NHS, but it also completely destroys people’s lives in a way that AF does not necessarily do. There are several other diseases associated with it, but the key issue is the implications of the cost of a stroke.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point on an important issue. Those of us who work right next door to him are delighted that he made a full recovery at that time. Does he agree with me that part of making people more aware of atrial fibrillation and what can be done to help sufferers is providing defibrillators? Some very good work has been done across the country, but particularly in my constituency of Gloucester by the Rotary club, which has funded and installed a defibrillator in Gloucester cathedral; and I pay tribute especially to the Hickman family, who have raised huge amounts of money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, which is also doing good work in this area.
I certainly do agree with that. Defibrillators are being installed, through voluntary efforts and fundraising, in many parts of the country. That is not only a good thing in itself, but the way it leads the community to work together is also a very good thing.
I want to return to today’s issue, because I am aware of the time. Today’s issue is the uptake of novel oral anti-coagulants. Warfarin was my treatment and it was fine; it worked very well. However, there is a problem because of the number of occasions I have to visit a hospital. It was once or twice a week in the early stages. That is very difficult. In London, I happen to live next door to St Thomas’s and I could pop in as I was going to work in the morning, so it worked out quite well.
However, there is an issue with warfarin, for two reasons. One is that it is not as effective as the new anti-coagulants that have been approved by NICE and come on stream. Also, there is a negativity about warfarin because it is, in many people’s minds, a rat poison. I remember seeing a headline in a national newspaper, which could have been the Daily Mail, with a huge picture of rat poison—warfarin. The standard way of dealing with atrial fibrillation is still to ask people to take warfarin regularly, and there it was, being promoted as a rat poison. Nothing could be more damaging to the health of the nation than that campaign. I thought it was a disgrace.
I can understand in a way, because of short-termism—the way in which things are often done in Britain today—that there are financial reasons for the use of warfarin. Clearly, there is an extra cost associated with the new products. Warfarin is as cheap as chips. I dismiss aspirin because it does not have any effect anyway, and it is a bit of a disgrace that aspirin is still being recommended. As I said, warfarin is as cheap as chips, but of course it is not as effective. There may be a short-term gain, but there is a long-term cost. I understand the financial pressures. There are financial pressures on every organisation and service. I understand those, but I think that what is happening is wrong. However, the lack of understanding and knowledge of the new products—the lack of awareness—is what we really have to challenge.
There is a risk element. We know that there is a risk. There is a small risk, if one s thinning the blood, of an internal bleed, but there is a very large risk, in not doing it, of causing some heart-related illness. The balance of risk is just not clearly understood. We need a genuine campaign, with Government support and the NHS organisations’ full support, to move towards use of the novel oral anti-coagulants. There would be a long-term saving from that; I accept that it is not short term. It would remove the element of suspicion and of risk that is associated with the standard use of warfarin.
We have to deal with AF, because the numbers of people suffering from it and the implications of it are huge. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take from today’s debate, which is part of a campaign, the message that we need to move forward as quickly as possible on the best treatments for atrial fibrillation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time, Mr Turner. It is also a pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate, and to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for his important contribution about his own experiences of atrial fibrillation and its consequences. Although he spoke about the cardioversion treatment he received for sudden onset AF, much of the debate today has been about those who have chronic AF, which is often undiagnosed. The debate provides a good opportunity to raise such issues and ensure that those who are listening—in particular, bodies such as the Royal College of General Practitioners —take away messages about what more they can do to support GPs in earlier detection and diagnosis, where that is possible, and to make sure that the right treatment pathways and proper medications are provided to patients.
It may be useful if I talk briefly about the condition. The heart is not my area of medical expertise, but as a junior doctor I looked after several patients with AF, some of whom came through the front door of the hospital in a similar condition to that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, so I have seen it at first hand. AF is the most common sustained heart rhythm disturbance, and it occurs as a result of rapid, disorganised electrical activity in the heart’s upper chambers—known as the atria, hence atrial fibrillation—which results in an irregular heart rhythm. As we have heard, AF is a major predisposing factor for stroke and it accounts for approximately 14% of all strokes.
On that point, would it not be a fine idea for the Minister or one of his colleagues to write to every Member of Parliament with the statistics? In the Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust in my constituency, liaison between hospitals and GPs is not as good as it should be. When someone such as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) comes out of hospital after having an episode, there is no linkage of treatment between the hospital and the GP. Would it not be a fine idea to send a letter to every Member of Parliament giving them the statistics and urging them to talk to their clinical commissioning groups and GPs about the matter?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of raising awareness of AF. He is also right to point out that co-ordination between primary and secondary care is not always as strong as it could be, not only in this area but throughout the NHS. Part of the reason the Government are investing in the £3.8 billion integrated health fund is to ensure that health and social care are better joined up, to achieve a more co-ordinated and holistic approach that is about individuals’ needs.
If someone has been diagnosed in hospital, it is important that they are given the right support in general practice and in the community. There is a lot of good practice out there, and there are a lot of good and well informed GPs. NICE is producing new guidelines and new draft recommendations on treatment—it has been looking at issues such as the use of anti-coagulants—and it is important that that information is disseminated quickly and effectively. My commitment to the hon. Member for Huddersfield is that I am happy to write to NHS England, which oversees CCGs, to raise the matter and ask it to disseminate NICE guidelines to CCGs and ensure that they are mindful of them.
That is excellent news, but as someone with medical training, is the Minister not shocked that 36% of those with AF are being prescribed nothing or aspirin? Was he shocked to find out that rather than the 20% that NICE expected, only 3.4% of sufferers were on the new anti-coagulants?
The statistics that I am aware of are slightly less positive than those that the hon. Gentleman has cited. It is not for us in this place to micromanage medical professionals or to do their jobs for them. However, it is our job to raise legitimate concerns about care for AF or any other health conditions. We must do our best, as stewards of the health system, to push for good local commissioning that is mindful of best practice. I have undertaken to write to NHS England about that, and I will be happy to share the reply that I receive with the hon. Member for Huddersfield and other hon. Members and hon. Friends.
The exact causes of AF are unclear, but it is important to get the diagnosis right and to diagnose the condition as quickly as possible. We believe that some 18% of cases of AF are undetected, so there is more work to be done. NHS England has recognised that, and has suggested that CCGs should work with local practices to target people who are at risk from AF. The issue is already on NHS England’s radar, but I will write to obtain further assurances that it is being taken as seriously as it should be; I am sure that that is the case.
Research is under way into the condition. The National Institute for Health Research is funding a study into automatic diagnosis of AF in primary care using a hand-held device, which may help identify more patients who have AF and reduce the number of related strokes. If someone does not know that they have the condition, they do not know that they need to see a GP to get help. We must do as much as we can to support people to recognise that they have a medical condition and that help and treatment are available. I hope that the research into that technology provides better early detection of AF, and that that comes forward in a rapid and timely manner.
I thank the Minister for giving way and allowing me to correct an omission in my contribution. Does he agree that the excellent work of the Atrial Fibrillation Association in promoting knowledge of the disease has had a hugely positive impact, which we should all appreciate?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that work. When NICE draws up guidelines, it consults best practice and tries to engage with key stakeholders. In addition, the Royal College of Physicians has developed some national clinical guidelines for stroke with the objective of encouraging higher levels of anti-coagulation. That is directly linked to some of the things we have debated today.
It is a testament to the work of groups such as the Atrial Fibrillation Association that we are helping to raise the profile of the condition and to get early support and help for people. There is clearly more to do, and NICE must continue to develop strong guidelines to support understanding of the best care and pathways for people who have AF. NICE is updating guidelines at the moment and developing a quality standard on AF, which will set out what a high-quality AF service should look like and drive improvement locally by helping local commissioners and CCGs understand what good looks like in AF care.
It is not my medical specialty, but if new medication is developed, we need to evaluate it. The priority must be to give treatment according to clinical need. I, as a doctor, the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that it is right to treat patients according to clinical need and clinical priority. It is for CCGs to work with national guidelines, and we look forward to seeing the NICE quality standard on AF, which I hope will put CCGs in a much better position. I have already committed to writing to NHS England to ensure that it puts the matter high on its priority list, and that it supports and encourages all clinical commissioning groups to take AF seriously and make it a priority across the country.
Planning Policy and Wind Turbines (South-West)
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
It is an enormous pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, as well as to introduce a debate that is important to many thousands of people throughout the south-west.
A hundred or so years ago, when the cry went up, “There be gold in them there hills,” I do not suppose that our ancestors all that time ago would have thought it possible to mine gold from wind. They might have thought that had they heard my speech, and they would certainly do so if they looked around the countryside in constituencies in Devon and Cornwall, because springing up throughout the landscape of those two exquisitely beautiful counties are more and more large industrial wind turbines, which are becoming a prominent and dominant feature in the landscape—indeed, in many areas, they already have.
There is usually an announcement in a newspaper, or a neighbour knocks at one’s door, when a new application has been made for a wind turbine. Whether it is one that is 300 or 400 feet tall, for a single turbine or a cluster of them, small rural communities are plunged into what can only be described as a miserable ordeal. There is immediately a cloud of uncertainty over people’s lives. If they recently bought a house in a village and the proposed turbine would be sufficiently proximate to their dwelling, they are immediately concerned about the price of their house. They are concerned about the quality of the landscape, and about reports of the deleterious health effects.
Above all, they are concerned when they learn that applications are often made by distant developers with shareholders seeking to make great profits, and when they learn that the potential profits are extraordinary.
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on having secured such an important debate. In the previous Parliament, the town of North Tawton and the village of Spreyton, which are now part of my constituency, were in his constituency, so he will know the tortuous sequence of events in respect of the planning application for the Den Brook valley wind farm, which underwent two public inquiries and a judicial review. Those events occurred over several years, so my hon. and learned Friend’s points about the uncertainty, the impact on property prices and the general distress caused to the local population are well founded. I would be interested to hear his comments.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I did indeed represent those parts of what are now his constituency when the Den Brook application was first made. I vividly recall the disruption, dismay and distress caused to not only those who live in the area but those who run businesses there. I know very well a couple who run a bed and breakfast just a few hundred yards from the site. I know their feelings when they learned that some six or 10 wind turbines of several hundred feet in height were to be erected in full view of their establishment.
My hon. Friend reinforces the point I was making, which will be alive and real to and keenly felt by thousands of people who listen to or read this debate. The machines that we are installing throughout the countryside cause real disruption, dismay and distress to small rural communities. It is not enough to dismiss such concerns as subjective, partial or nimbyism. I dare say that any of us living within a few hundred metres of a 400-foot wind turbine would feel the same concern that my constituents feel when they hear of a new application.
It is striking that this year, for the first time, the amounts paid by energy consumers for onshore and offshore wind turbines has topped £1 billion. An annual amount of £1.2 billion is being paid by the energy consumer solely to subsidise the price of electricity created by onshore and offshore wind turbines. That is an astonishing figure when we consider that it falls, in many hundreds of thousands of cases, on those least able to afford the inflated energy price resulting from the renewables obligation. Many people in fuel poverty are having to sustain a price inflated by the £1.2 billion that is currently being added to the cost of electricity as a result of the extraordinary benefits received by wind turbine projects.
I specifically wish to address planning policy. One could speak about the economics of wind turbines, which have has received the frequent attention of the House and been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for not adding up to real value for money for the country. One could speak about the unsatisfactory noise standards that do not attract public confidence. One could, of course, speak of wind turbines’ efficacy in contributing to cutting carbon emissions. However, I wish for the moment to concentrate on planning policy.
The main planning considerations for wind turbine applications can be found in two primary documents: first, the national planning policy framework; and secondly, the national policy statement on renewable energy infrastructure. There is now a third document, to which I shall come, but my case is that the planning framework for wind turbine applications is still affected by a substantial bias in favour of renewable energy. That is a disappointing concession to have to make, because only last year the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced in a written ministerial statement that he was intending to rectify the balance.
The publication of the third document of which I spoke, the planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy, was widely publicised last year. By means of that third document and the written ministerial statement, we understood—I speak certainly for myself, and I know for some other Government Members—that there would be a concerted effort to rebalance the planning system so that landscape and other local considerations played a greater role in planning decisions. It is a pleasure to see the Minister present, but I must report with considerable regret that I seek his clarification on the planning practice guidance, because it is apparent from the decisions of planning inspectors on applications in my constituency that it has made little difference. That is certainly the opinion of the planning departments responsible for applications in Torridge and West Devon.
Often, the real issue at stake in the consideration of a wind turbine application is whether the benefits of the scheme, including the production of electricity from a renewable source, outweigh any harmful effects. That is the central question. Do the benefits outweigh the harmful effects? The inspector is mandated to have particular regard to the effect on the character and appearance of the area, including any cumulative impact from other permitted turbines in the area. He will also look at the effect on the living conditions of neighbouring residents. He will have particular regard to their outlook, the noise and the effect on nature conservation issues.
However, at the heart of the planning balance is this central equation: do the benefits of the scheme, particularly the production of electricity from a renewable source, outweigh its harmful impacts? The equation needs only to be stated for the listener to realise that if we are going to have a simple equation of that kind—whether the benefits outweigh the impacts—the answer is going to be influenced by the hierarchy of priorities on either side of the equation. Which is to take precedence? Is it the benefits—the production of renewable energy—or the impact on the landscape? Which, in the planning framework and the documents and policies that affect the decision, takes precedence?
The moment someone looks at the national planning policy framework, the answer starts to emerge. That document makes it clear that no overall demonstration of need for the development is required. In other words, the developer is not required to prove that his development is needed or to produce evidence that the proposed development will make any material or significant difference to the overall generating needs of the country in relation to renewable energy.
On the contrary, the NPPF, published in March 2012, makes it absolutely clear that there is a presumption that even small-scale developments make a valuable contribution to cutting emissions. Although the Government have stated that the onshore wind target of 15% has already been reached by applications that have already been granted, by wind turbines that have already been erected and by those that are pending, still there is no requirement on the developer to show that his development will make a significant or material contribution —indeed any contribution whatsoever—to cutting emissions.
Once we set up an equation that requires the planning inspector to question whether the benefits outweigh the impacts, and yet we excuse the developer from having to prove the benefits, we automatically have an unequal playing field. Regrettably, the issue goes beyond that, because the NPPF states that approval is to be mandated if the effects on the landscape are “acceptable”. Now, what does that word mean in the context? What it plainly means, and what it has been interpreted to mean by planning inspectors up and down the country, is that some damage to the landscape is assumed to be a consequence of a wind turbine development.
Again, when we look at whether the benefits outweigh the impacts, when we take into account the fact that the developer is exempted from proving the benefits and that the framework document requires a planning inspector to assume that some adverse impact on the landscape is implied in every such application, we can see that the equation is set up to make it far more difficult for the objector to succeed on the grounds of the intrinsic value and unique and precious nature of the landscape, and far easier for the developer to do so every time.
In case any of my hon. Friends listening to me doubts what I say, I shall cite a case study. In an appeal relating to three turbines of 100 metres in height at Dunsland Cross in Torridge, generating a proposed 7.5 MW, the inspector making the decision said that
“within a distance of about 1.5 km of the site the height of the wind turbines, anemometer mast and the movement of the turbine blades would contrast sharply with the form and scale of existing elements of the landscape and the largely unspoilt qualities of the surrounding countryside. This would entail a high magnitude of change to the character of the local landscape and result in a dominant and overtly man-made addition to this rural area…Between 1.5 km and 3 km of the site the form and height of the turbines and the mast, as well as the movement of the turbine blades, would entail a medium-to-high magnitude of change to the predominantly unspoilt rural character of the landscape…this change would be at odds with and harmful to the existing character of the local landscape… At these distances the proposal would be a prominent feature within this part of the countryside and would be very different to the landscape qualities of the local area.”
With so scathing an assessment of the damage to be caused to what the planning inspector described as a valuable landscape, one might assume that it played the decisive and tipping feature in that decision. However, I must report with dismay that the inspector allowed the turbines to be built. Regarding the despoliation of the countryside, he commented that as “some harm” to the character of the landscape is an “inevitable consequence” of renewable energy development, he attached only “moderate weight” to the harm he identified.
Let us examine what that means. The inspector acknowledged that, up to a radius of 5 km from the three 325-foot wind turbines, there would be serious harm to the quality, visual appearance and amenity of the landscape, yet it is said that that harm must be endured for the sake of renewable energy development, the need for which is unproven, and despite the fact that the Government’s target has already been reached. It is said that the harm would be contained within a 5 km envelope, but how many 300-foot turbines does one have to build, and how many envelopes of 5 km in which the damage on the landscape is serious and severe, before eventually, like blisters appearing on someone’s skin, an area of exquisite landscape is permanently and irredeemably harmed? How many pockets of 5 km of serious harm to the landscape does it take to have an overall cumulative impact that ineradicably alters the fundamental character of the landscape?
Torridge is facing dozens of such applications. The last time I consulted the district council, in Torridge alone there were 60 pending applications for wind turbines. How many of those need to be constructed before there are multiple pockets of harm to the countryside?
We need to pause—I urge the Minister to reflect. There are parts of the south-west whose intrinsic character has been severely harmed—on the inspectorate’s own analysis, in this particular case. Why are the applications still allowed? It is because there is an inherent bias in the planning system, which has still not been eradicated despite the good intentions of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. That bias is still active and it still influences planners. I urge the Minister to provide some assurance today so that we do not leave the problem untackled.
It is simply not enough to say, as the Secretary of State announced in July 2013, while introducing planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy, that
“it is important to be clear that…the need for renewable…energy does not automatically override environmental protections”.
I fully accept that he intended that that new document would have the effect of restoring the balance in favour of landscape, or that it would at least even that balance a little, but it does not work. The document explicitly says that
“the need for renewable…energy does not automatically override environmental protections”.
However, the answer that an experienced planner will give someone when confronted with that document is, “Well, it never did.” It was never automatic in any planning decision that the landscape value would be overridden by the need for renewable energy, but there was always an inherent bias in the system towards allowing wind turbine applications, and that inherent bias is not addressed by simply making it clear that the need for renewable energy does not “automatically override” landscape and local concerns, because the planner will simply say, “Well, it never has. We’ve always carried out balancing. It’s just that in that balancing, the hierarchy of values and priorities favours renewable energy.”
What the July 2013 document needed to say was something along the lines of, “The visual impact on valuable landscapes must be considered to be a priority at least equal to the need for renewable energy.” What the document actually said is entirely otiose; it does not address the fundamental problem. I do not wish to downplay the well-meaning and—I have no doubt—convinced opinion of the Secretary of State that what he did was intended and was in practical effect to make a change. The problem I have is that planning departments throughout the south-west do not interpret it as a change. I can tell this House that, for example, Torridge district council’s planning department does not regard the July 2013 document as effecting any significant or substantial change in the planning equation and—as I have sought to identify—there is already an inherent bias in that planning equation. I submit that we as a Government must attempt to do something about that bias.
I fully accept that the Secretary of State’s intention was to do that; I accept that the cutting of the tariff will make a difference; and I also accept that other measures, such as the Secretary of State’s recovering a number of planning appeals, might very well continue to reduce the number of applications. I regret, however, that although the initial effect of the July 2013 document may have been salutary, the number of applications, along with the number of applications that have been granted, continues to rise in Torridge and West Devon, and throughout the south-west, and it is that concern that I ask the Minister to address.
What is going to be done and what can be done to redress the balance in the planning equation? I say to the Minister that throughout the south-west, and I dare say wherever rural communities and others are affected by these applications, there is a genuine and growing sense of frustration. There is a sense of helplessness, as communities realise that, although applications may have been refused by their local planning committee, more often than not those decisions are overturned on appeal. In July 2013, the rhetoric surrounding the publication of the document on planning guidance was ramped up—I must say that to him—to suggest that a substantial departure from existing practice was about to occur, but people’s expectations that that would be the case have not been fulfilled. That is why I say that although what the Government have done is welcome, there is much more to do.
The feed-in tariffs are astonishingly generous. It was recently reported that the introduction of the carbon price floor last year would bring even greater benefits to those who construct wind turbines, and that it would certainly benefit those who had already constructed wind turbines, by 2017. The Minister may not be in a position to help me with that issue, but it is clear that the combination of the bias in the planning system and existing incentives and rewards has led to multiple applications throughout the countryside to build these kinds of wind turbines.
This issue concerns those I represent in Torridge and West Devon—from Dolton to Lifton, and from Brandis Corner to Bradworthy. Communities have come to me in desperation because of what they see as the alien invasion of their homes and their familiar landscapes, which are some of the most exquisite and beautiful in the country. Those communities include business owners who make their living from the tranquil and unspoiled fields and pastures of Devonshire. All the people in those communities feel that their interests are being harmed, and that they do not have a voice. They look to this Government—dare I say that they look to the Conservative party, which traditionally has had the closest affinity with the aim of preserving our countryside and landscape?—for redress. In responding to my speech today, I profoundly hope that the Minister will be able to give those people some comfort that it is the Government’s intention to move in a direction that will suppress at least some of the numbers of these machines that have come to disrupt their lives.
I conclude by saying that this issue is a real and serious one; it will have political ramifications in the south-west. I know that hundreds of people are listening to and following what the Minister will say this afternoon. I also know that they hope he will offer them some comfort, that he will at least acknowledge that this issue is regarded at the highest levels of Government as one that needs resolution and that he will say something to give them the hope for which they desperately yearn.
Before I call other colleagues to speak, may I tell them that an hon. Member approached the Chair and asked about the parameters of the debate? The debate is entitled, “Planning Policy and Wind Turbines in the South-West”. I hope that is helpful for colleagues. The debate is predominantly about the south-west, given that the Member who secured the debate is from the south-west. I call Neil Parish.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) for securing the debate, because it is very important that we discuss this issue. We have had changes to the planning policy, but I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is still not strong enough.
People who come to Devon to live, and the vast majority of people in Devon who are indigenous, do not wish to have the whole of their countryside—all the rolling hills of Devon—covered with wind turbines. If both the residents of Devon and those coming to the county thought that wind turbines were the answer to our electricity and energy needs for the future, perhaps they would accept them a great deal more than they do.
One point that I want to make is that, even in one of the windiest spots, if such a spot can be found, very often wind turbines work only for some 30% or 35% of the time. Therefore, the intrusion into the countryside and the amount of energy that they produce just do not stack up. Also, on a very cold, frosty morning, when we all have our fires on and we need the maximum amount of energy, what will happen? Nothing will come from the turbines. On a very windy day, the turbines have to be stopped because they may rattle and come off the end of their—I do not know the technical term, so I will call it their “stalk”, for want of a better expression.
We also have to wake up to the fact that what is happening in Devon, Cornwall and across much of the west country is that, because wind turbines are so lucrative in the form of grant and subsidy, all sorts of companies are just using a scattergun approach. They say, “Let’s try this authority. Let’s try Mid Devon, let’s try Torridge and West Devon, let’s try East Devon. Let’s just see if we can get those applications through.” And because the planning system is not strong enough to protect our countryside, those applications are coming through.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument, saying that wind turbines are not effective at generating electricity, but are effective at accruing subsidy. Does he accept that it is only through generating electricity that the developers of wind turbines attract any subsidy and that it is because wind turbines in the south-west of England generated 20 TWh last year that any subsidy was paid to them at all?
My argument is about whether such an amount in subsidy—basically, from those who pay energy bills—is warranted to produce that amount of electricity, and whether that electricity was produced during a valuable time of day or not. The thing is that that process can be controlled only when the wind is blowing.
Comparing wind with nuclear power, it is apparent that nuclear produces a base load all the time. Yes, I admit freely that that is quite highly subsidised, but there is a base load that can be used at all times of the day, when it is needed. Wind turbines do not achieve this. I assure hon. Members that I can be pretty certain that, if I did a straw poll in my constituency, the majority of people there would far rather have a nuclear power station than the rolling Devon hills covered in wind turbines.
It is interesting to note that Hinkley Point in Somerset will take up some 165 acres and will produce 7% of the UK’s energy needs. To achieve the same energy output, 6,000 wind turbines would need to be built on 250,000 acres of land. That is the difference and what we are up against. This is why people are so fed up with those turbines appearing everywhere.
I suspect that the planning Minister will reassure us that the Department is coming forward with tougher rules all the time. The rules have to be much tougher. Local authorities often turn down planning applications for wind turbines, but they are often granted on appeal. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon makes a good point; all the time this planning process is going on, there is a blight on people’s lives. That is apparent.
This is an opportune moment to look at wind turbines and the planning system. Let us look again at the economics of wind turbines. If I thought that this was a free market approach and the answer to our energy needs, that would be one thing, but it is not, is it? Without huge subsidy, the turbines would never, ever stack up. It was not rocket science to work out that subsidising green energy and piling that on to energy bills, driving them up between 8% and 12%, would put more people into fuel poverty, so I do not know why this was not thought of; it is fairly logical.
My hon. Friend is right. If that figure of 58% by 2020 is correct—I have no reason to doubt him—it is a concern, because we are told so often that we need a basket of green energy that is not targeted just towards wind.
Another green energy that is much more acceptable to Devon is the biodigester, which uses waste from farms and food waste and creates energy all the time. It works not on the nuclear process, but generates gas and electricity throughout the whole day and, therefore, again contributes to a base load in electric supply.
One bone of contention with the whole system is that wind turbines do not produce electricity for a sufficient length of time to make them necessary in our most beautiful countryside.
In my constituency, we had an application at Bampton Down farm for 20 wind turbines, 22 metres high, in a prominent position on Bampton Down, above the Exe valley. This is the highest land south of Exmoor and east of Dartmoor in Devon and it goes down to semi-permanent pasture land. That application has, at the moment, been withdrawn and I hope it stays withdrawn and disappears. But is the planning policy in place strong enough to stop that coming back and will it be strong enough to stop the application being awarded on appeal?
At Blatchworthy farm, an application for nine wind turbines was withdrawn, but for how long? At Highlands farm, there was an application for one wind turbine, with a height of 34.2 metres; again, that was withdrawn, partly after local objections from Hemyock parish council. An application at Plainfield farm in Withleigh for one 100kW wind turbine with a maximum height of some metres was withdrawn. At Rifton farm there was an application, which is still going on, for a turbine with a maximum height of 77 metres. At Sydenham farm, one wind turbine has been rejected
Planning applications are happening all the time in my constituency. Planning policy needs to be so much stronger, so that people know that, under the process, there can be local objections and that they can, along with the local and district councils, put a case together and be certain that they will be able to reject large turbines in prominent positions. Turbines need to be in an area where there is maximum wind, even though they will still be working only some 30% or 35% of the time. They will always be in the most prominent spots. We are a Government who look to the countryside and to rural areas for support, but we are not providing protection for those areas as far as wind turbines are concerned.
Some people refer to wind turbines as windmills, but they certainly are not. Three or four turbines would probably require nearly half an acre to an acre of concrete in the ground. I can assure hon. Members that a mast some 180 metres high would need an awful lot of concrete to keep it in the ground. Infrastructure, including roads, is also needed to allow access to the turbines, to service them. They are not the fluffy wind turbines and windmills that they are sometimes portrayed to be.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On the visual impact of turbines, I do not want to get into a bragging war about who has the largest turbines, but those that he mentioned were probably no higher than 60 or 70 metres. Those that are likely to be built now in the Den Brook valley will be 120 metres high; that is almost the height of St Paul’s cathedral. Whether they are smaller turbines up on hill ridges, which are obviously visible, or turbines down in valleys, they are often of such a magnitude that they are visible for miles around.
My hon. Friend knows that Devon’s tourist industry is valued at about £1 billion a year. There will be huge, cumulative detrimental impact on that business if we continue to despoil our landscape in this way.
My hon. Friend talks about a mast that is 120 metres high; in real money that is 400 feet, which is a huge height. People must remember that it will be seen for miles. Turbines will be put in prominent positions to catch the wind in the first place and they go 200, 300 or 400 feet up in the air, so they can be seen. They cause huge detriment to the visual aspect of the countryside, to the people living there and, as my hon. Friend says, to the people coming to visit Devon, Cornwall and the west country. Believe it or not, people do not come to the west country to see wind turbines; they come to the countryside to see the great landscapes and, dare I say it, the lambs, sheep and cattle in the fields, along with our beautiful rivers. People do not come to see massive wind turbines that are being built in the countryside not because of the economics but because they are over-subsidised.
The Minister cannot be held responsible for the over-subsidy of wind turbines, which is not in his Department’s portfolio, but the Government should consider the over-subsidy more closely because I am certain that if we killed the economics of wind turbines, we would kill the applications, irrespective of planning. The Minister might not be able to answer that today, but it needs to be passed down the line.
I support microgeneration: a single turbine in a farm or business that provides power to that business, with any spare capacity being sold to the grid. We are now seeing more and more single turbine applications that are not microgenerating; they are clearly just cash cows. Would my hon. Friend support a moratorium on single turbine applications that neither provide power locally nor microgenerate for a farm or business?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point because speculative single turbine applications, especially for very large wind turbines of some 300 or 400 feet in height, are the ones that particularly need to be stopped. Some of the smaller wind turbines that generate for small businesses, farms or communities are acceptable. The other problem, and the Minister may be able to talk about this, is that such wind turbine applications are not linked to local communities. If a local community thinks it could benefit from a wind turbine, despite all my rhetoric this afternoon, people might find them a little more acceptable, but they are foisted upon communities that receive no benefit from them. All a community sees is a vast wind turbine restricting its view.
The flight paths of birds are also affected. One application in my constituency, for instance, is very close to a wood that has a lot of buzzards. Such applications can have a hugely detrimental effect. If I were a bird, I would not want to get caught in a wind turbine. We have to take all those things into consideration.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for securing this debate, and I look forward to what the Minister has to tell us.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate. I anticipate that I will be a dissenting voice—[Hon. Members: “Lone voice.”] We shall see. I may find that the Minister agrees with me, but certainly among Beck-Bench Members, I anticipate being a dissenting voice in this debate.
I start by setting out some common ground in the interests of a cordial debate. I support renewable energy, and I welcome the contribution of onshore wind turbines. Members may agree that renewable energy developments, like all forms of development, should be judged on their individual merits by planning authorities and considered in the light of planning policy. There will be some development proposals that are suitable and some that are not. As I listened to the many skilfully deployed arguments earlier, it occurred to me that I might have been inclined to make those arguments against other sorts of developments, such as certain housing developments in some situations. Although we certainly need housing, and there are developments for which authorisation is right, there will be settings in which a development is simply not appropriate. We ought to have planning law and planning policy, and I believe we do, that enable local authorities to make individual decisions about individual applications.
As I listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I asked myself how on earth the Didcot power station ever got planning permission. I am sure hon. Members pass the power station on the train as often as I do. Our planning system has to consider the benefits that developments will bring, which will often be further afield than the development’s immediate locale. Although some hon. Members have considered the full breadth of this debate’s title, I came here intending specifically to address planning because of our experience in Wiltshire during the development of Wiltshire’s core strategy, with which I hope the Minister is familiar. If not, I am confident that his aide is familiar with it.
Policy 42 of Wiltshire’s core strategy is heavily based on Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill, the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distances from Residential Premises) Bill. The core strategy has not yet been adopted. In fact, such was the controversy surrounding policy 42 that, when the planning inspector considered the strategy, he spent the best part of a day hearing evidence on the merits or otherwise of that policy. Although I cannot be sure of exactly why the core strategy has not yet been successfully adopted, policy 42 is one of the issues on which the planning inspector had to deliberate following his examination of the local plan.
Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill did not become law. Members who have already spoken did not advocate the Bill’s proposals, and I do not know whether they support them, but the proposals are not law. Yet almost by the back door, and with changes proposed at the last minute in Wiltshire council’s deliberation on the local development plan, the council sought to take the Bill’s provisions, which do not have the authority of our democratic Parliament, and introduce them into our local plan. I recognise that there are certain locations in which development should be approved and other locations where development should not be approved, but a policy for minimum separation distances is a clumsy way of making that distinction.
The point I am making is that a separation distance, in itself, does not take into consideration all sorts of other factors, such as the quality of the landscape, that we would expect councillors to consider when making a planning decision. My understanding, and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, is that it is not our coalition Government’s policy that minimum separation distances should apply to such developments in England.
The other argument that I wish to deploy this afternoon is that we ought to be making policy and planning decisions on the basis of evidence. We have heard many genuinely held concerns this afternoon. Some of the objections relate to how people genuinely feel, and I do not suggest that they are anything but a genuine reaction to the situation, but we are in a position to test some of the concerns that have been cited. It would be helpful to consider the evidence. I have heard concerns, but I have not heard evidence, and perhaps hon. Members can at least provide anecdotes. For example, it would be useful to understand how far away from the development of a wind turbine there is evidence of a fall in house prices, or whether there is evidence of the tourism economy in Devon or other parts of the south-west suffering in a different way from the rest of the country. We may want to consider international evidence: on a holiday to France not so long ago I saw plenty of onshore wind turbines, but the region I was visiting clearly had a vibrant tourism economy.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman argues for the precautionary principle, which is not supported in many other areas of policy making. I am sure that he would like consistency about that.
We have heard about developments that have already happened. I am not suggesting that we embark on an experiment; I am suggesting that we consider the evidence of what has already happened. It may be reassuring to people to know that house prices have not fallen near other developments—although I am sure it will not greatly reassure those in some parts of the country who are yet to be able to afford housing. I make a plea to the Minister, who will respond to the genuine concerns that are being voiced in the debate, to ground his policy making firmly in evidence. It is not beyond the wit of man, or indeed of his colleagues in the Department, to stick to that principle.
I want to consider the question of benefit to the local area. I have been pressing another Department in relation to the Government’s long-awaited community energy strategy, which was finally published at the end of last year. I believe it is important that as we reform the energy sector, we empower many more stakeholders than the owners of the big six companies. Renewable energy gives an opportunity—it could slip through our hands but we could grasp it, with good policy—to democratise the relationship between consumers and producers in our energy system. An example would be Delabole in Cornwall, where a reduced energy tariff is available to people living near the wind farm. I should like more to be done to enable local people to benefit if their community contributes to decisions—we need those decisions to be taken somewhere in the country—to secure the energy supply. I look forward to that happening in my constituency, where a major solar project presents a substantial contribution to the local councils, to ensure that the community will be a beneficiary. I do not want to stretch the parameters of the debate, Mr Pritchard, but we have heard of at least one alternative source of energy this afternoon.
The recent rush—and there has been quite an increase—in applications for solar power projects in Wiltshire may not be unconnected with the effective blanket ban proposed under policy 42 of Wiltshire’s draft core strategy. The contribution to energy needs in Wiltshire is perhaps more likely to be provided by solar because of the blanket ban, which is not in the least pragmatic and which is effected by the minimum separation distances proposed in the local plan. There may be consequences, and I do not know how they would be received in sunny Devon, should its councillors go down the same route as those in Wiltshire.
I wanted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about evidence of an effect on house prices. A study in Cornwall analysed 201 sales transactions of houses within half a mile of a 16-turbine wind farm and found a noticeable effect. It said that both the noise and the flicker from turbine blades could blight certain properties, and that the view of the countryside enjoyed by the occupier had some value, which might be affected by a wind farm. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors argues that there is evidence suggesting an effect on house prices. The matter is not evidence-free. There is growing evidence of an effect, certainly while there is uncertainty about whether a development will be built.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention, but I was rather hoping that in looking for evidence of the effect on house prices, we might examine prices rather than assertions about what might or might not influence them. I understand that house prices have continued to march well out of reach of affordability in Cornwall and other parts of the south-west of England.
I hope that Ministers will stick to an evidence-based policy to avoid the unwanted consequences of unnecessarily closing down one option for a clean and secure source of energy.
The debate and the issue are hugely important. I live in Montgomeryshire, which is a long way from the south-west, and I did not intend to speak when I came to the debate. I came because I have a great love for the south-west. I spend much of my holiday time there. St Ives and Padstow are beautiful, and I find the Isles of Scilly irresistible. We spend a great deal of time in the south-west, so I travel through it. Inevitably one notices the impact of the development of onshore wind turbines while driving through Somerset and Cornwall. They are quite dominant. I was hugely impressed by the power of the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). Because the issue is so important to me, I felt an irresistible urge to speak in the debate.
My aim is to speak about planning policy. I would not want to incur your wrath in any circumstances, Mr Pritchard, and particularly not when you are in the Chair. I have a special interest arising from my constituency, but I shall make a passing reference to what makes this such a big issue for me: it is scale. My constituency has more than 240 turbines already, and we have a proposal for probably 35 miles of 400 kW cable, a 20-acre substation and about 500 extra turbines—it is a dedicated line—and about 100 miles of cables criss-crossing the constituency from the centre. The proposal would completely change a beautiful part of Britain, which shares a standard of beauty with the south-west. Anyone representing such an area is bound to be involved in the debate. It is a question of scale.
We have a general Government policy, supported by the Opposition and all parties, of seeking an energy mix. I think that that is right, and have never argued that wind should not play a part in it. The question is about the scale. The Government do not have a target, other than having 15% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. As for onshore wind, there is, I think, an expectation of what it would provide. That expectation is between 10 GW and 13 GW of power. Currently, we have 7 GW of power that is up and operating, 6.8 GW that has passed planning and another 6 GW that is in planning. We have achieved the target that the Government expected to achieve by 2020. Clearly, the level of support is so high that there would probably be an onshore wind farm on every hill in Britain if planning permission could be gained, but the case for a moratorium is strong. As manifestos are prepared, I hope that all parties seriously consider a moratorium to protect the most beautiful parts of Britain.
There is a real issue with local democracy and how people feel locally. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon referred to hopelessness, and that is exactly how people feel. A research project at Aberystwyth university looked at how wind farms impacted on mid-Wales. The research found a sense of hopelessness and helplessness throughout the area about being able to affect the implications of Government policy on where they lived. The council signed off on the development and gave up believing in local democracy. It is probably one of the poorest local authorities in Britain, yet it felt that it had to set aside £2 million to support its decisions and defend its policies at a public inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other baleful effects of the proliferation of applications for out-of-scale wind turbines is that it tends to turn people against renewable energy as a whole? As they search for arguments to defend their communities, they immediately start to look at the whole case for cutting carbon emissions and do so from a hostile point of view. That cannot be a good thing for a cause that we would all support.
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend on that issue. In 2004, I was thought to be a strong supporter of renewable energy. I campaigned for the principle of renewable energy. When the project that impacted on my area came forward, I said that it would damage the view of renewable energy in a part of Britain that was the most supportive of it—the Centre for Alternative Technology is in the middle of my constituency—and, indeed, the opposite is now true. Some 2,000 people came to Cardiff to protest on the steps of the Assembly with me. The impression is that we are now anti-renewable energy, but that has been driven by this obsession with onshore wind. It seems crazy to me.
I have a few points to make before I finish. The first is on cumulative impact. How can cumulative impact not be a major part of planning? I was a planning committee chairman for seven years, and with every development the cumulative impact was a hugely important factor. Suddenly, as with everything else, there are special rules for onshore wind, and cumulative impact hardly matters. We are seeing huge proliferations close together. We must pay real attention to cumulative impact and take into account the new pylons that the National Grid has to build as part of that development.
The second point is about the individual turbines that are popping up everywhere. The local planning authority has to have a policy that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, accepts a certain number, where they support the community. We would support a farmer who wants to use the policy to develop their own energy production. Local planning authorities, however, do not have a policy and are approving those turbines on a hit and miss basis. I have seen them go through when the planning officer has recommended refusal, and we are destroying the most beautiful parts of our country.
Finally, we need to have an appreciation of landscape at the core of our planning policies. Before coming to this place, for three years I was the president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, which is the equivalent body to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. We worked together. It is heartbreaking to see policies being adopted that pay almost no regard to the value of landscape. The planning inspectors have got one view only, which is this mythical target. They say, “We have listened to what you have told us and we accept everything, but it is trumped by the target.” It is devastating for rural parts of Britain, it is devastating for the south-west and it is devastating for my constituency. It is time that the Government recognised that and came forward with a policy based on a moratorium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to respond to an interesting and thoughtful debate. First, as a constituency MP, I fully understand the concerns that our residents express from time to time about significant planning applications, and the strength and sincerity with which those concerns have been reflected by Members will be welcomed by their constituents. I am replying today on behalf of the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) usually leads on these issues for the shadow Government, but she is not able to be here.
Like all Members who have spoken today, I have a constituency interest in these issues. My constituents have a broad range of views. Most, to be frank, do not get exercised about wind energy. The issue does not come up regularly when I am out and about on the doorsteps in many parts of the constituency, although I find advocates for it as well as opponents. I can think of very few examples where those who are opposed to or concerned about wind farms are opposed to wind energy in principle. It is more often about planning applications that residents feel are inappropriate for one reason or another, such as proximity to existing homes or the impact on the landscape. Members have highlighted those issues, and that is where the planning process needs to take account of local views.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) spoke strongly about the concerns of his constituents. Similar concerns have been put to me regarding applications in my constituency, and I have tried to support my constituents. Many Members have said that local public opinion should be taken into account, and that must be right. I pay tribute to the local authorities in my constituency, which is unique in nature. I represent one very Conservative area that is covered by East Northamptonshire council, and one area that leans heavily to Labour in Corby borough council. Both councils are different in character, but they generally do a fair job of weighing up the representations they receive from the public on planning matters. As an MP, I recognise that I often amplify the concerns of the local public. I do not, however, have the same responsibility as a decision maker to weigh those concerns against other considerations of the wider needs of our communities.
Planning applications, whether they are for new housing, new industry or new energy supply, are inevitably not always popular with those who live close to them. At times, people are cynical about that, but we have to be honest. We would seek to protect our communities and what we love about them, and I am fully respectful when my constituents tell me that something is on their doorstep and is not welcome.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to comment on something that I would have to see in context. The voices of those concerned about planning applications should be heard in the planning process. I always endeavour, as an MP—I am absolutely sure from the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon that he does so, too—to ensure that they are heard. However, the voices of those who want the housing, jobs and energy supply should be heard as well, and that is why the debate about wind energy must be considered in context.
Like my constituents, I am sure that many people across the south-west, particularly in the light of recent events, are concerned about climate change, energy prices and energy security. Climate change is a security threat for families, businesses and the country as a whole, because it could destabilise entire regions of the world and cause the mass migration of millions of people and conflict over water and food supplies. The events of the last few weeks have shown that it is an issue in our own country, too, with people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods under attack from extreme weather, particularly in the region that most hon. Members present represent, and that is the focus of our debate.
Political division at Westminster, some of which has been reflected today, means that we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The science has not changed, and the terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call. The climate change consensus that once existed in this country has frayed. My party stands ready to work with people from all parties who are prepared to do what is necessary. The contribution from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), which was slightly different in character, helped the debate by rounding it somewhat. The need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel based energy sources is real. Over 160 Governments, including our own—although that seems to be a moveable feast—and the United Nations agree that the burning of fossil fuels is causing our climate to change dramatically.
The transition to a low-carbon economy is essential, but it also presents a huge opportunity for the UK, with the potential to be a major source of jobs and growth that we need now more than ever. The Government started out by promising to be the greenest Government ever, but the reality is that they have a terrible record on climate change. We see squabbling and inconsistent messages from Ministers and policy uncertainty on decarbonisation and support for renewables. The Prime Minister says that he has not changed his mind, but, in the face of pressure from his Back Benchers and the UK Independence party, he has ignored the issue or allowed it to become downgraded across Whitehall. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs apparently refuses to be briefed on climate change by his own civil servants.
I am very short of time.
Government Members have today described their own Government’s approach as “obscene”. As a direct result of the Government’s failure to get behind green businesses and to set a decarbonisation target, the UK is falling behind with investment in green growth, meaning that the jobs, growth and industry that should be coming to this country are now going overseas.
Order. Just to be helpful to the shadow Minister, given that he has three minutes left only, given the debate’s title and given the interest, I am sure that he will want to narrow his contribution down to wind farms in the context of climate change.
Mr Pritchard, you have anticipated my next remark, which is, “Let me turn specifically to wind energy.”
The UK is the windiest country in Europe. We are the world’s eighth largest producer of wind energy. It is our second-largest source of renewable energy—[Interruption.]
Government Members seemed keen a moment ago to hear my response, although they may of course not like it.
Wind energy is our second-largest source of renewable energy, with the capacity to power 3.3 million homes. The UK should be a world leader in wind energy, but since the coalition came to power, the UK has slipped from third to 13th in the world for investment in green growth, and investment in wind power has fallen by 40%. The wind industry alone employs more than 10,000 people in the UK, but it has the potential to employ thousands more. Foreign companies, such as Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens, are lining up to invest hundreds of millions of pounds, to create new industries and to bring new jobs to the UK, but they will not commit until the Government get behind green British businesses. Evidence from all over the world suggests that wind power is cheap and is the most developed form of clean energy. It has the potential to create thousands of badly needed new jobs in Britain, but Government splits are undermining this key growth industry and putting Britain’s energy security at risk.
Offshore wind has the potential to be a vital part of decarbonising the UK’s energy supply, too. This debate has focused on onshore, but offshore must be part of our consideration of how we take forward a wind energy strategy.
The Government’s lack of policy is damaging not only to renewable commitments and tackling climate change but to localism, because it creates an uncertain, ever-shifting context in which local authorities must determine planning applications. My party has made it clear that local communities should be able to shape their local areas, and we want to provide local authorities with the tools to do so. I am unsurprised, however, that communities are sceptical of the Government’s evolving changes over the past year around the extent to which local communities will be consulted. Will the Minister assure us that the statutory instrument introduced in December, which introduced pre-application consultations for all onshore wind developments of two turbines or more, is more than a tick-box exercise?
The Government’s own figures show that more than a third of applications are refused. There will be examples of where hon. Members have disagreed with applications in their constituencies, some of which we have heard about today, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) acknowledged the need for a new energy mix. The way forward is to consider a national strategic plan that sets out clearly how we will manage the need for renewable energy in the future. We cannot simply say that we do not want wind farms anywhere. We need to say how we will meet the nation’s energy needs and how we will ensure that the public’s views are more properly considered when determining where wind farms are sited. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate and commend his excellent work on representing his constituency’s interests.
I want to set my response in context. I have a constituency. It is a constituency with some beautiful landscape, and it is a constituency where some individuals have sought to place certain applications before planning committees, and I have views on that. I am also aware that another Department has discussed, contemplated and brought forward this Government’s policy on renewable energy and it is for that Department to address that matter. Members have mentioned the costs and merits of mitigating our carbon figures, but I will leave that to those individuals. Although I am tempted to participate in some political knockabout with the shadow Minister, my role is quasi-judicial and I will discuss the matter strictly in that context.
Will my hon. Friend address three specific points? First, does he agree that the document of July 2013 has not had the effect that was desired or intended? In other words, does he agree that there is an inherent bias in the system, which was intended to be addressed by automatic overriding? Planning departments are telling my hon. Friends and me that it does not do what the Minister thought it would. Secondly, can we get some improvement in the planning framework so that landscape value is accorded the weight and priority that the Secretary of State said last year that it should have? Finally, will the Minister consider giving further guidance to planning departments as to how decisions should be taken in the planning system? More specifically, can he say anything about the recovered appeals that the Secretary of State is currently considering and the purpose and intent behind that consideration?
I have 12 minutes. I heard all those points when they were made in my hon. and learned Friend’s initial speech, and I want to address them, so I would appreciate the opportunity to respond. The issues are important and we can provide people with some confidence as to where we are.
It is quite right to challenge the Government on how our planning policy for wind turbines and our recently published planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy are impacting on particular local areas. I hope that I can provide some clarity. I recognise that wind farms have created a lot of interest and debate among local communities in the south-west and right across the country, and people are often concerned about the cumulative and visual effect of wind farms on landscapes and local amenity. We understand that there are concerns over the development of onshore wind, but such issues are addressed by the policies and, in particular, the new planning practice guidance that the Government have put in place.
There is, however, no excuse for putting wind farms in the wrong places. The national planning policy framework is clear that applications for renewable energy developments, such as wind farms, should be approved only if the impact, including landscape, visual and cumulative impact, is or can be made acceptable. We are committed to safeguarding the natural and local environment and we are clear in the framework that planning should take account of the different roles and character of different areas, protect the green belt, recognise the character and beauty of the countryside and support thriving rural communities within it. National parks, the broads and areas of outstanding natural beauty have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving that.
The framework is clear that local councils should design their policies to ensure that any adverse effects from wind farms are addressed satisfactorily. To ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance expected by the framework and that the views of local people are listened to, we published new planning guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy last summer. Those were integrated into a new web-based resource, which has been accessible since 6 March.
The new planning guidance resource is a key part of the reforms that the coalition Government have introduced. We are committed to making the planning system simpler, clearer and easier for people to use. The new practice guidance is designed to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual applications.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) raised the fundamental question of whether the new planning guidelines have provided the rebalancing, which the Minister has argued for, of the planning decisions more in favour of the environment and less in favour of renewable energy. A test of that would be the number of applications that have come through and been successful since that new guidance came into effect. Will the Minister tell us whether applications are coming through at the same sort of level, or are there more or less than before the planning guidance came into force?
I reassure Members that I will answer every question that they have asked, but I have just had another minute knocked off my ability to answer. Please give me the opportunity to get through these—[Interruption.] I will come to the points made, which were valid.
In particular, we are clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local authorities. The guidance is clear that cumulative and visual impacts require particular attention and it sets out criteria on how to assess them. It also sets out the importance of protecting local amenity, including concerns about noise, and such consideration should be given proper weight in planning decisions. We have made it crystal clear in the guidance that great care should be taken to ensure that heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance.
Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, local planning authorities have a statutory responsibility to consider planning applications for renewable energy developments of 50 MW or less. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the statutory development plan for that area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Those material considerations include national planning policy and guidance.
Local authorities will take into account relevant representations from the local community on the planning merits of a proposal. The Government aim is that every area should have a clear local plan, consistent with the national planning policy framework, which sets out local people’s views about how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications and planning appeals will be judged.
I am aware that West Devon borough council put its core strategy in place in 2011, before the publication of the NPPF, and that North Devon and Torridge district councils are working together to prepare a new plan to cover north Devon. It is important that local councils get up-to-date plans in place as soon as possible and use those to set out their plans for the development of renewable energy, and clearly indicate where developments should or should not take place take place in line with the framework. Where councils have identified areas suitable for renewable energy, they should not feel that they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.
Bearing in mind the fact that time is running short, I will leave decisions on a site-by-site basis to one side. Planning inspectors’ decisions and recovered appeals are something on which Members wanted clarity. If applications are refused locally and taken to appeal, they will be judged by an independent planning inspector. As is the case with local councils, planning inspectors determine planning appeals in accordance with the development plan for their area unless material considerations indicate otherwise, as I said. In reaching a decision, the inspector would take account of all the relevant material in such planning considerations, including local community views and the national planning policy framework.
I understand the frustration that local communities can feel when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead to a proposal that they opposed. I will give some reassurance, however, that since the publication of the guidance last summer, appeals for “more significant” wind turbines have been turned down in greater numbers than the numbers approved: 68 were turned down and 56 approved. In the 12 months before that, 85 were approved and 77 were refused. We therefore see a clear turnaround in the numbers compared with the previous 12 months. I am happy to give Members more details if they so require.
Applications can be recovered so that Ministers can check that an application or process meets the published criteria. Instead of an inspector making the decision, he or she will write a report that will make a recommendation on how the appeal should be determined. That will be passed to the Secretary of State to make the final decision.
We are determined to give communities a greater say over the proposals that affect them. On 17 December, the planning regulations were changed to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned his concern that applications were appearing without an opportunity for people to contribute. We now have a pre-application consultation period, which is really important as it will ensure that nothing is sprung on communities; they will have an opportunity to voice their concerns clearly. That will also allow the developer to understand the level of support, or lack thereof, for an individual application. That consultation is required in a development with more than two wind turbines, or if the height of a turbine exceeds 15 metres.
We are clear that communities must be properly engaged with and see real benefits from hosting wind farms. Last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced a fivefold increase in the value of community benefit packages that wind farms developers fund for local communities. That is an important part of the package. I will not comment on individual applications, but if Members believe that a particular planning application has not been processed appropriately, I encourage them to write to me. I will consider the recovery of such applications.
Mitochondrial Transfer (Three-Parent Children)
I am grateful that the debate has been granted and for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) will reply, because she is one of the most highly regarded Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all her help in preparing for the debate, as well as Dan Boucher, Helen Watt and Luke Gormally.
It is important to begin the discussion by explaining what is at stake with three-parent babies and mitochondria. Mitochondria are the organelles within every cell responsible for the generation of cellular adenosine triphosphate energy. That passes entirely in the maternal line and can carry serious diseases.
There are two means of replacing the mitochondria. Maternal spindle transfer, or MST, takes place before in vitro fertilisation. The spindle, which carries the genes in the nucleus of the egg, is removed from the healthy donor egg and replaced by a spindle taken from the egg of the commissioning mother—that is, the woman at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease. All other parts of the donor egg, including the healthy mitochondria, are left in place. The combined egg is then fertilised by the father’s sperm, and the embryo has three parents: the spindle mother, the egg donor mother and the father. Genetic parenthood is complete in the case of the father but fragmented in the case of the two mothers.
In pronuclear transfer, or PNT, two embryos are created by IVF. One, the embryo of the commissioning women, will have its mother’s affected mitochondrial genes. The other is the healthy embryo of an egg donor. The embryos are combined using a technique somewhat similar to that in the cloning of Dolly the sheep. Interestingly, the licence for the experiment was adapted from the licence originally given for Dolly-style cloning.
Given that this is obviously an incredibly important matter, akin to cloning, with a child having several parents—I know of no other country in the world that has done this—does my hon. Friend think it should be the subject of a full debate on the Floor of the House?
I certainly think that this matter ought to come to the Floor of the House. I understand from an earlier debate that the Government are committed to full parliamentary scrutiny, but no doubt the Minister will confirm that.
To continue on PNT, at the one-cell stage the donor embryo pronuclei containing the nuclear genes are removed, killing that embryo. The partially gutted donor embryo with its healthy mitochondria is then used to form a new embryo when the pronuclei harvested from the commissioning woman’s embryo are inserted. Harvesting the pronuclei from the commissioning woman’s embryo kills that embryo.
It is important to understand that the techniques are non-therapeutic. They are in no sense a cure for children who are already born, nor do they pretend to be. Rather, the techniques create new people with altered genetic composition—genetically designed individuals who will not inherit mitochondrial disease. Although the mitochondrial DNA is around only 0.1% of a person’s total DNA, a little leaven leavens all the bread, and a different person is thereby created.
The proposed techniques all promote germ-line genetic modification. That is an infinite change that will lead to all the descendants of someone treated in this way being changed, the consequence of which cannot be known.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this critical subject. Techniques for mitochondrial transfer deliberately create a child who has three genetic ancestors, or, in the case of PNT, four. Is that not extremely concerning, raising as it does serious issues of personal identity for those born through the technique, particularly since Government guidelines propose that such individuals will not be allowed to know the identity of their third or forth parent? Will that not then transfer into future generations, too?
I was going to come on to that. As an aside, the reason we were able to determine that Richard III’s body was his was through the female line, and because we could establish the continuity of the DNA. I do not believe Government promises of secrecy. They promised that to sperm donors historically. Governments cannot be relied upon, because society becomes more open and so demands greater openness. I have no doubt that if the technique is ultimately used the donors will be identified and people with three or potentially four parents will find out.
On that point, the worry that occurs immediately to me as I listen to my hon. Friend is that if someone does not know who the third or fourth person who created them is, through sheer chance they may well find themselves marrying their brother or sister.
The head of the United States Food and Drug Administration advisory committee on this matter, Evan Snyder, has said that there are not enough clinical data to suggest that mitochondrial transfer is safe. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the present UK regulator and the UK Government should be cautious in approaching this technique?
Another issue occurs to me with regard to knowing who the third or, indeed, fourth parent is or was. Let us suppose that, in subsequent generations, further scientific research finds that another fault is being passed down generations. Without knowing whether the third or fourth parent several generations back carried some other gene that has come to the fore only after 150 years, someone would not know whether they were affected. There is a Pandora’s box of problems.
That must be right. It ends up being a multi-generational experiment with the lives of people.
To return to the PNT technique, it is effectively cloning. As I said, it is telling that the licence for the experiment was adapted from the licence given to create Dolly the sheep. Cloning is widely regarded as a dangerous technique. Essentially what is being done is eugenic.
The company that developed Dolly the sheep received funding from an organisation of which I was chairman. I remember visiting it and expressing a concern that it was one step from cloning sheep to cloning humans. I was reassured that no such thing could possibly ever happen, as the human race was far too sensible. This issue challenges that, big time.
As so often, my hon. Friend is right.
The dictionary definition of “eugenic” is:
“Of or bringing about the improvement of the type of offspring produced”.
The 1922 Eugenics Congress called it
“the self direction of human evolution”.
There is grave question mark about eugenics. It frightens almost every sensible person. It is not only people who share my views who think that. In a letter to The Guardian dated 15 March 2013, that fear was made explicit by a number of medical experts. It is interesting that they chose The Guardian, which is not a bastion of right-wing reaction, to make that point. In a country nervous about genetically modified crops we are making the foolhardy move to genetically modified babies.
There are three categories of risks and dangers that have not been fully considered. The first is the category raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), namely practical risks relating to the long-term efficacy of the therapy. An article published in Nature in October 2012 said:
“Pioneering work in nonhuman primates is critical for the development, and safety and efficacy evaluations, of new treatments.”
That view has been discounted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority without any good reason being given. Current research using PNT in macaques has yet to be shown to be successful. Macaque zygotes do not survive the PNT process well, even though their oocytes are less prone to abnormal activation and fertilisation than human ones. If that is the case, surely we should continue with such experiments first, rather than relying on the fact that four monkeys have reached the age of three.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I also think that mankind is of a different order of magnitude from other animals. I do not view myself merely as a senior ape—nor indeed do I view Opposition Members as merely being senior apes or monkeys. I think much more highly of them than that. [Interruption.] I will gloss over that point. In their article in Nature, Mitalipov et al showed that they had discovered that 52% of human embryos created through MST had chromosomal abnormalities. If there is a high failure rate early on, how can we be certain that there will not be a similar failure rate later, potentially when people are in their 30s or 40s? It is a life-long, generational experiment.
There are also difficulties with the experiments on fruit flies.
An article in Science on 20 September 2013 states:
“MR in fruit flies had little effect on nuclear gene expression in females but changed the expression of roughly 10% of genes in adult males. The mitochondrial haplotypes responsible for these male-specific effects were naturally occurring, putatively healthy variants. Hundreds of mitochondrial-sensitive nuclear genes identified in that study had a core role in male fertility. For example, one of the five combinations in which mitochondrial-nucleus interactions were disrupted by mismatching was completely male-sterile but female-fertile. In other fly studies MR resulted in male-biased modifications to components of ageing”—
that is very important because we do not know what the effects will be as people get older—
“and affected the outcomes of in vivo male fertility. Together, these results suggest that core components of male health depend on fine-tuned coordination between mitochondrial and nuclear gene complexes and thus the HFEA conclusion that ‘there is no evidence for any mismatch between the nucleus and any mtDNA haplogroup at least within a species’ is incomplete and unsubstantiated.”
It has also been discovered from research in mice and invertebrates that deleterious effects on mitochondrial replacement would not be discovered until adulthood, which goes back to the point that we would have to wait decades.
The second category of risk is moral and ethical. I make no bones about the fact that my thinking on this matter is strongly influenced by the Catholic Church concerning the dignity of the human person. Equally, the Minister and the Government should respond to non-theological, non-religious concerns. I will set out briefly the religious concerns.
Thomas Aquinas wrote in his “Summa Theologica” that
“the soul is in the embryo”.
I certainly believe that to be the case. It means that tampering with embryos is tampering with human souls—tampering with what sets us apart from animals. As Benedict XVI in the Instruction “Dignitas Personae” said,
“the body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well defined programme with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”
That, too, is absolutely correct. No human, whatever their stage of development, is merely a group of cells.
We must be concerned about the unknown consequences of tampering with the genes of an embryo, and for the unreligious there will be mental issues to be faced by those who find out later life that they have three or even four parents. The gravity of the change is such that it should not be made without the most careful thought and properly tested research. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Prichard. Silence is golden.
The third risk is legal, and I am slightly reluctant to raise it because it concerns the European Union charter of fundamental rights. It is not a document I often quote in support of an argument, but there is a question about its applicability in the United Kingdom. It is not directly applicable in UK law except when it coincides with EU law. There is considerable debate about how far the overlap between UK and EU law goes. Article 3(2) refers to the
“prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at the selection of persons”.
I have established that this is eugenics, so it would be in contravention of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I do not believe that the Government would want to contravene that accidentally.
Essentially, the Government have started too early and are putting the cart before the horse, which makes travel difficult, by consulting on regulatory approval before sufficient research has been done into the safety of the therapy.
I apologise for not being here earlier. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was being discussed in the House and I had to be there.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept my concerns on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland who are very worried by what was suggested the other day—that the Department of Health is pressing forward with regulations without full consultation and without the impact being fully known? I hope that the Minister will assure us that that will not happen.
Will my hon. Friend explain what evidence he has seen of any preparatory work on the ethical considerations that would be necessary? Is it not the case that many of the regulatory approval processes have commenced, but no proper work has been done with respect to public opinion on the ethics involved?
There is consultation, but it worries me that it has been done before the prior research has been completed, so we cannot be certain about safety.
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises the issue of public opinion, which is unpersuaded. A ComRes poll for Care will be released tomorrow, and I can exclusively reveal some of the results to the House. It found that 34% are opposed and 35% are in support, so there is no strong balance of support but, crucially, 44% agree that as it is currently illegal to grow most genetically modified crops for commercial purposes on the ground of safety, it ought to be illegal to create genetically modified children.
I return to the point that change of even 0.1% leads to genetically modified children. It is not sufficient to say that that is a tiny modification so it does not matter. It is the essence of the line of inheritance that we all have from our mothers through successive generations and centuries.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worrying that the assumption is that this will happen and that the consultation is more about how it will happen? Would it not be better for the Minister to say today that the Government will stop the consultation and continue with the research until they are satisfied that the procedure is safe?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If the Minister would say that, her standing in North East Somerset would rise even higher, although it is hard to believe that is possible.
The Government’s own consultation—this is crucial—says:
“It is estimated that 1 in 200 children born every year in the UK have some kind of mitochondrial DNA disorder.”
The number of serious disorders is much lower, but one in 200 has some kind of mitochondrial disorder. It is worrying that that is in the consultation because the premise is that 0.5% of the population are born imperfect and that in future only perfect people should be born. Many of us have imperfections, but they make up humanity, and the mixed variety of interest, thoughtfulness and development that is humanity often comes from our faults, as well as our abilities. It is a fundamentally dangerous road to start down because, although the technique cannot at this stage affect eye colour, some clever scientist will eventually work out how to ensure that babies have blue eyes and blonde hair, or whatever people want. Every time something like this happens, we go to the next stage and the argument becomes, “Well, we’ve done this, so it is logical to continue.” When that line has been crossed, the argument against going further is merely a matter of degree; it is not absolute.
One aspect of political correctness that I like is calling disabled people “differently able”. People with disabilities have different abilities and skills, and contribute to the benefit of society in a different way from those of us who have the use of all our limbs, and so on.
Although the current aim is small, 10 children every year, who might have been born, will be replaced by 10 different babies. That is not a major problem crying out for an urgent solution, but the solution that is being proposed is a fundamental change in our understanding of our own humanity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. With the limited time available to me, I will set out some of the process by which we got to this point, but it goes without saying that these are extremely serious issues. I listened respectfully to colleagues’ concerns. There were some technical interventions and I will get back to colleagues about any concerns that I cannot answer now.
This is exactly why we are having consultation, and why I can confirm that the matter will be debated on the Floor of the House. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure and there will be every chance to return to the issue and to debate it in full. I give that assurance. I know that I will not have time to respond to some points that are technical and scientific and I do not want to get them wrong, so I will write to hon. Members after the debate.
When the debate does come before the House, right hon. and hon. Members will look at things such as Library briefing notes and Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology notes, which normally I commend in the highest terms. My concern about the POSTnote entitled “Preventing Mitochondrial Disease”, which is Number 431 from March 2013, is that it talks about people who oppose this as simply being in a pro-life camp. That sort of language is very unhelpful, because the opposition is far wider than that.
I did not write that brief. I have never used that language and I would not. I accept—indeed, it is right—that this will be a subject of parliamentary debate, because it involves important issues. Just as Parliament has previously debated advances in science, such as IVF, and considered and weighed in the balance the concerns and the potential benefits, so that will happen again. I am certain that people will come to their own conclusion. These matters are normally decided by votes of conscience. I would be very surprised if this matter was not decided in the same way; in fact, I am sure that it will be.
Let me try to respond to some of the points and at least go through the process by which we have got to this point. I should say, though, in response to the intervention that was picked up by colleagues that we will arrange parliamentary briefings with, for example, some of the scientists involved and with the chief medical officer. I hope to be able to give hon. Members the opportunity to put questions directly to some of the people involved. There will be opportunities at all stages along the way, I hope, for colleagues to ask questions and get answers. What they think of the answers will obviously be down to them, but we will try to make it possible for people to come to a very informed view.
I am grateful for this opportunity. I am grateful that hon. Members have had a chance to put some of their concerns on the record, because that helps us in preparing for debates ahead. It gives us a heads-up on some of the areas of particular concern. Obviously, I have also been receiving correspondence about the matter.
The chief medical officer for England announced last year that the Government would go ahead with the development of draft regulations to allow mitochondrial donation in treatment. The consultation began on 27 February and will run until 21 May. I have already recognised the deep sensitivity of these issues. Since we were first approached in 2010 to make the regulations, we have been comprehensively collecting expert opinion and public views, and I will explain how that has been done. However, I understand that for many hon. Members and for many members of the public, this will ultimately be an ethical question. There will be strong views on both sides of the House, as we have seen today.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) touched on what mitochondrial disease is. It is a genetic condition of mitochondria—the part of the body’s cells that produces the energy that they need to function. It tends to be described, for the benefit of the general public, as the “battery pack” that powers a cell.
A person’s mitochondria come from their mother’s egg. Therefore, if a woman has mitochondrial disease, it is likely that she will pass it on to any children she may have. Mitochondrial DNA is separate from an individual’s genomic DNA, which is in the nucleus of the body’s cells. Mitochondrial DNA disease can be devastating, but the disease affects everyone differently. The range of different effects can include heart disease, liver disease, poor growth, loss of muscle co-ordination, visual and hearing problems and mental disorders. Rare conditions caused by faulty mitochondria include forms of Leigh’s syndrome, which can cause multiple symptoms in infancy, such as muscle weakness, heart and kidney failure and nervous system dysfunctions.
Some affected children live short and painful lives. They are constantly in and out of hospital. The quality of life for them and their families is seriously diminished. I have been contacted by a family in that position in my constituency and I suspect that other hon. Members will be as we continue to engage in this debate in the coming weeks and months.
The condition affects approximately one in 5,000 adults, although one in 6,500 babies are born with a severe form of the disease that can lead to death in early infancy. It is estimated that about 12,000 people live with a mitochondrial disease in the UK, and there is no cure. However, research has been ongoing at the Newcastle centre for life, among other places, for many years. In anticipation of significant advances in this field, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was amended in 2008 to introduce a regulation-making power to allow mitochondrial donation to treat serious mitochondrial DNA disease. At the time that amendment was made, Parliament was made aware that there was the potential for these techniques to be developed. The Act was thus amended and that was included.
The mitochondrial donation techniques involve removing the nuclear genetic material from an egg or embryo with unhealthy mitochondria and transferring it to a donor egg or embryo with healthy mitochondria, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not. I have been left with very little time to respond. I doubt that I will even get through the remarks that I have prepared. However, I would be very happy to talk to him after the debate, and of course we will have much lengthier opportunities to debate the issue, so I do not think that I am cutting off debate.
Allowing the new treatments would give women who carry mitochondrial DNA mutations the choice to have genetically related children without the risk of serious disease. Recent estimates from the scientists leading the UK research in this area are that about 10 to 20 families a year could be helped initially. The scientists and clinicians at Newcastle university believe that allowing these techniques will also advance their understanding of mitochondrial function and mitochondrial diseases. It will enable them to gain a greater understanding of the way in which mitochondrial DNA mutations are passed from mother to child. It could also provide them with a better understanding of how mutations vary in different cells, which may lead to the development of new treatments for those currently suffering from mitochondrial conditions.
The use of the techniques would also keep the UK at the forefront of scientific development in this area and demonstrate that the UK remains a world leader in facilitating cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs. I know that that might be an uncomfortable point for some hon. Members, but other hon. Members have expressed great support for that. There are different sides to the argument. I completely accept that.
I understand that some hon. Members—this has been touched on today—are concerned about a slippery slope. Let me be very clear. Parliament has only provided a power to allow
“a prescribed process designed to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease”.
That is all that is prescribed in relation to the regulation-making power. We are proposing only to allow the donation of mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA, so that is a further strengthening in terms of the regulation-making power. There is no intention or legal mechanism to go any further.
The draft regulations that are now out for consultation set out how the techniques would be allowed in treatment, the regulatory tests that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would have to use to give approval to a clinic on a case-by-case basis and how the mitochondrial donor would be treated in terms of information available to any children conceived through the new techniques.
In 2010, the Newcastle researchers approached the Department and requested that, in the light of their progress, we give consideration to the introduction of regulations. Recognising the complexity and sensitivity of this subject, we asked the HFEA to arrange public consultations and oversee a number of independent scientific reviews. An expert advisory group was established and a report passed to the Department in spring 2011. It found that the techniques were not unsafe, but recommended that some further research be undertaken.
After careful consideration of the report, the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commissioned the HFEA in autumn 2011 to undertake a comprehensive public dialogue and set of consultations in order to understand the public’s views on and understanding of this issue. The HFEA consultation was held between July and December 2012. It looked at the social and ethical issues raised by mitochondria replacement, as well as addressing a range of practical regulatory issues. Sciencewise, which plays a key role in helping the public to understand complex scientific issues, commended that public dialogue and the HFEA as an exemplar in its approach to gathering public views on a complex issue. As I am sure colleagues can understand, it is never enough, on an issue as complicated as this, to do a press release-style consultation. A simple “for and against” does not suffice to explore the complexity of the issue and ensure that when people express an opinion, they are doing so with a slightly wider understanding of it.
The HFEA gave a full set of advice to the Government in March 2013 based on the findings of the public dialogue and including further advice from the expert panel that it had reconvened. That concluded that although there continues to be nothing to indicate that the techniques are unsafe, further research on some specific aspects should be undertaken. Overall, the advice from the HFEA, informed by the balance of views from the public and stakeholders, was that the new treatment techniques should be allowed so long as they are safe and carefully regulated.
We have also taken account of other published reviews—for example, the 2012 report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics entitled “Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review”.
Some press headlines have suggested that a child born as a result of the new techniques would have three parents. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset also alluded to that. I do not have time now to go into the detail of why we do not believe that that is the right characterisation. It is important to understand that mitochondrial DNA comprises a very small proportion—0.1%—of total DNA. However, these are issues that we can explore further. I have heard the concerns that have been put on the record today. It is also the Department’s view that this process does not constitute a form of human cloning. The techniques are not equivalent to reproductive cloning, because any children resulting from the use of the techniques would have arisen from fertilisation and be genetically unique.
However, there is clearly a great deal more for us to explore. Today’s debate has been a very helpful chance to hear the concerns of hon. Members expressed on the record. It gives me time to go away, look at the issue with officials and with the experts and ensure that we put in place the right advice and the right level of consultation as we go through the parliamentary process, in terms of—
Neath-Port Talbot Magistrates Court
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Pritchard. I look forward to your presiding over it. I ask the Government to reverse their decision to close Neath magistrates court, which has served the town for generations. Written records show that from the early 18th century, and probably much earlier when they were situated in the castle from which the town gets its name—in Welsh, Castell Nedd—magistrates in Neath were so busy that they sat almost continuously, not just four times a year as they did in other places. The current facility has been open since 1977.
Although I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting me on two occasions, I totally refute what he said in his letter to me of 5 February confirming his decision to close Neath magistrates court and move it to Swansea. I challenge the costing that he presented to justify the closure, which will have a seriously damaging impact on the quality of local justice for local people. I also challenge some of his basic facts, such as those on the usage of the Neath court, which are simply wrong.
I presented an incredible low-cost alternative that would have delivered savings, namely to transfer the magistrates court to the nearby county court facility, which is underused and might easily be modified for that purpose. That suggestion was rejected, seemingly arbitrarily, which caused deep local anger. More than 1,800 signatures were collected in a matter of weeks on a petition that circulated in the town.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him warmly on his success in securing the debate. His point about local feeling is a strong one. Does he agree that alongside trial by jury and the appointment of local magistrates, one of the central tenets of our common-law system, which has been developed over centuries and of which we are very proud, is the importance of the local delivery of local justice? My constituents share his concerns, because Neath magistrates court also serves Port Talbot.
Indeed, and I am happy to be corrected by my hon. Friend from the neighbouring constituency. Having examined the Secretary of State’s argument, the proposal document and the consultation response from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, I am convinced that the transfer of the magistrates court service from Neath to Swansea will severely and detrimentally affect the town and its citizens, and will erode the provision of local justice for local people, as my hon. Friend has eloquently pointed out.
The decision to merge has been driven purely by cost reduction, as part of an exercise across England and Wales in which 130 courts have been closed since 2010. In recent years, the Neath and Port Talbot area has lost two magistrates courts in Pontardawe and Port Talbot. The loss of the third and final magistrates court in the county borough will leave nearly 140,000 people— a population bigger than that of Middlesbrough or Cambridge—without a magistrates court. Instead, the Swansea court will serve a population of 380,000 people. Local topography, transport and economic issues have been completely disregarded.
The timing of the consultation was perhaps no coincidence, coming as it did alongside the start of work on Neath Port Talbot county borough council’s long-awaited regeneration of the town. The implication in the executive summary of the consultation document and the impact assessment of August 2013 that there was no other option because the county borough council required the land seems to have been designed to lay the blame firmly at the door of the local authority. However, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had known about the county borough council’s intention since 2008, when alternative venues, including a new courtroom nearby, were being explored. At that time, my suggestion to the then Secretary of State to move the magistrates court to the county court only 300 metres away was being examined, and Neath Port Talbot county borough council had even budgeted for its contribution to the estimated cost of £1.4 million to facilitate the move. Had that been pursued and any problems overcome, which I believe could easily have happened, not only would the Government have made their savings, but Neath would have retained its magistrates.
The costs associated with the proposed merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts are far greater than those involved in the conversion of Neath and Port Talbot county court to a new Neath Port Talbot magistrates court. That new facility would have minimal additional operating costs, because the crown court is already fully functioning. There would be no additional travel costs for magistrates or staff. The county court has free car parking, so there would be no additional car parking fees. There would be a net saving of operating facilities costs, estimated to be between £100,000 and £110,000 per annum, which includes utility costs, cleaning, waste disposal, security and maintenance, because those are already in place at the county court.
The projected enabling cost of the Swansea merger is £165,000, but the true figure will be significantly greater. I give notice to the Secretary of State that should he continue to disregard our representations and the case I am making to the Minister today, I will carefully monitor what those costs actually are and report them. Court 6 in Swansea, for example, has no retiring room. Court 5 has neither a secure dock nor secure access and egress for magistrates, so it cannot be used for criminal cases. Even if it is physically feasible to correct those deficiencies, major alterations will be required. Only criminal cases would be heard in Swansea magistrates court after a merger, with all family work being transferred to the Swansea civil justice building. Travel costs after a merger would increase by £55,000 a year.
Had those figures been objectively analysed, not only would the Government have made their savings but Neath would have retained its magistrates court, albeit in a new location. There is a suspicion that the Government decided to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts with little or no investigation of the real costs and savings involved. Consequently, they appear to have undertaken the consultation exercise without intending to take much notice if the facts demonstrated that it would be far less costly to convert the county court than to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts.
The option of converting Neath and Port Talbot county court and connecting it by secure walkways to the adjacent cells in the police station is supported by local magistrates, local politicians, the local police and local court users. The police in Neath no longer require the cells, but they wish to retain a presence in Neath. Because there is a low-cost option for a new court in Neath, there is absolutely no justification for merging the court with Swansea. The conversion of the county court is a viable alternative that can deliver savings in addition to the £300,000 that will be obtained from selling the existing building to Neath Port Talbot county borough council. That is more than enough for a careful remodelling of the county court.
Conversely, if the Government press ahead with the merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts, they will incur transition costs estimated to be at least £150,000 and additional annual travel costs of at least £55,000, in addition to the cost of establishing a new digital service proposed by the Secretary of State, which would have to be housed in the county court in Neath anyway. That facility would have to be staffed by relevant personnel, a legal adviser and an usher, duplicating the staffing in Swansea magistrates court. Only one video link can operate at any given time, and the Swansea courts will grind to a halt if solicitors and defendants have to liaise via a video link rather than face to face. Few witnesses will choose to attend Swansea magistrates court for a trial if video link facilities exist locally in Neath, thus denying magistrates the opportunity to assess witnesses’ countenances when they give evidence, which can be a crucial or even determining factor in their assessment.
Even the original, deeply flawed impact assessment produced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was not clear on the extent of savings from the proposed closure. It did not adequately take into account the increased travel and parking charges that would accrue in Swansea. As the Neath county court is fully functioning and has adequate security, there would be no increase in total running costs if the county court were to become the magistrates court—indeed, there would be savings to both court services through the merging of overheads.
To accommodate the magistrates, the family and civil work currently undertaken at the county court could easily be transferred to the justice centre in Port Talbot, which cost £3 million some five years ago but currently averages just 13% usage. There are no cells in the Port Talbot building, so criminal cases cannot be heard there, but the transfer of civil work would increase its utilisation. Thus, the county court could become the new Neath magistrates court and the justice centre in Port Talbot could become the new family and civil justice centre. It is just 8 miles from Neath to Port Talbot, so the journey time would be considerably less than the proposed increased journey time to Swansea from the many towns and valley villages.
The times and distances quoted in the consultation document are deeply inaccurate and ignore the difficulties of travelling from valley communities such as Banwen, Glynneath and Onllwyn. A simple journey to Swansea can involve two or three buses, and it could take well over an hour to complete a journey. Getting to Swansea court involves negotiating Fabian way, which is notorious for long delays owing to the volume of traffic—especially at peak times—which can add half an hour to a journey. That is on a good day when the bus services run well, whereas often the tricky topography and poor weather mean longer and more convoluted journeys. In a county borough where 30% of households do not have a car, the difficulties of public transport should surely have been recognised instead of simply ignored by the Government.
Even if, as he indicated to me, the Secretary of State is less concerned about inconvenience to defendants, surely he should concerned about witnesses, victims and court staff who will have to make the same trek to attend at Swansea court, incurring additional running costs. We must also remember that magistrates are unpaid volunteers; they are the bedrock of the justice system in this country. In Neath, we have notably dedicated and able magistrates serving in a well-respected team. To suppose that they will just move wherever Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service decides, adding gratuitously to their precious volunteering time, is to presuppose and expect an awful lot.
Many living in Neath will be thinking long and hard about whether they wish to relocate, and prospective magistrates will certainly think twice if that means not being able to deliver local justice locally and continue to serve the local community they cherish, and, in Neath’s case, are proud of. With such uncertainty over their future, the staff, to whom I pay tribute, have acted with great resilience over the past few weeks, as they did during the recent storms, which saw a huge upheaval for the work force when the Neath court roof blew off—but I will come on to that later.
Despite assurances to the contrary, I am concerned that the closure of Neath magistrates court will result in possible redundancies for staff who live locally and cannot commit to a longer commute. The suggestion in the consultation document that
“some staff and judiciary may experience slightly higher costs having to travel further to the receiving court”
is disingenuous, given that increased costs are almost certain because of the much longer distance to travel and the high cost of parking in Swansea. The loss of that local knowledge will be a huge blow to local justice.
Local solicitors representing defendants in Neath will inevitably relocate to Swansea in order to be closer to Swansea magistrates court. A number of solicitors firms are key employers in Neath town and provide well-paid, skilled jobs. If they relocate, it will leave a gaping hole in the economy.
Access to the probation services based in Neath courthouse will be affected, and probation service staff will also have to be redeployed. There will be upheaval and a cost effect on the youth offending service, the victim support service, and the witness service, all of which often work with the most vulnerable in our communities. Relocating all such professional and support jobs will also significantly damage the local economy.
It is wrongly asserted that Neath court rooms are currently 55.3% used. That figure is calculated on the assumption that there are three courts available for criminal work, whereas in fact only two courts are suitable for criminal work, with a secure dock and secure access to the cells. The correct calculation would be 75% usage in Neath court building; Swansea has 74% usage and Cardiff 59%. Of the 16 magistrates courts in Wales, 10 have utilisation figures well below those of Neath.
On efficiency, Neath court staff and magistrates have an exemplary record. Cases are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, fines are collected, and court utilisation is often among the highest in Wales. Neath compares very well with Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff in all areas. There is no justification for the closure of Neath court on the grounds of efficiency, and detailed and up-to-date figures are available to substantiate that statement. It is also the case that, unlike other areas of the UK, crime in south Wales is increasing, and the number of cases being heard in magistrates courts is going to increase as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s review of out-of-court disposals, which was instigated in 2013.
Recent damage to the roof of Neath magistrates court caused by bad weather caused all work to be transferred to Swansea court. The damage has since been repaired, but the staff and magistrates from Neath coped brilliantly. They were welcomed by the staff and magistrates in Swansea, who did everything they could to make them comfortable. Nevertheless, the key point that I want to make is that there is no avoiding the fact that justice suffered, particularly as Swansea’s court rooms 5 and 6 are not fit for criminal court work. All the evidence shows that if Neath is merged with Swansea, the same will happen, except permanently.
One example case illustrates the point. There was a joint alleged assault, and the defendants were in a relationship. They received the letter reminding them of the new venue for their trial—Swansea—but the accused woman, a drug addict, had to get her methadone prescription from her chemist at 9 am, then try to get a bus to Swansea. Receiving the methadone and taking it in the chemist, as addicts must in order to prevent them selling the methadone on the street to buy heroin, she missed the 9.15 am bus, but caught one at 9.45 am. Her partner had given her the fare, leaving him with no money. He eventually found a friend and borrowed the fare.
Meanwhile, the court began hearing the case and, as the defendants were not present, there was considerable delay while options were considered. The woman then arrived, so the trial began again, and an arrest warrant was issued for the co-defendant. Just as it seemed that the trial was concluding, the man arrived. The arrest warrant was cancelled and the trial concluded. One and a half hours of precious court time was totally wasted. Had the trial been in Neath, both defendants would have arrived before 10 am and the trial have been concluded by 10.45 am. That may seem trivial compared with work in our Crown courts, but if there is to be justice for all, courts must be available to deal with the less high-profile cases as well.
The temporary arrangements demonstrated that, despite the best efforts of Neath staff and Swansea staff, Swansea magistrates court was ill-equipped to handle the additional work and the delivery of local justice—indeed, it was pushed to the tipping point of being unworkable. Although I have described extraordinary circumstances, the proposal to move services from Neath to Swansea will make such events the norm.
To conclude, the situation I have described highlights the fact that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has no contingency plans for such scenarios, and has major problems of organisation and viability, making both the decision about Neath and the refusal to countenance the alternative of moving Neath magistrates into the county court very short-sighted and damaging indeed. If Neath and Port Talbot court is merged with Swansea magistrates court, public money will be wasted. That is unacceptable at a time of Government cuts everywhere. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reverse his decision—I hope that the Minister will take this message back to him—and transfer Neath and Port Talbot magistrates court to the local county court.
Local justice should be carried out by local people in a local venue. That is a fundamental principle of our justice system. Should the Secretary of State push ahead regardless, he will be responsible for the erosion of local justice. I put it to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that Neath is an exception in the list of countrywide magistrates court closures because there is an alternative solution that will save money for the overall court service. I strongly urge the Government to change their mind and allow common sense to prevail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing this debate and for his continued interest in the subject. As is clear from his comments and from the record in Hansard, he has taken a huge amount of interest in the subject.
I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to proceed with the closure of Neath magistrates court is a deep disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman, who has already met the Secretary of State for Justice twice, as he mentioned. I know that on one occasion he met the Secretary of State with others, who presented a petition opposing the closure.
At those meetings and throughout the consultation process, we have listened carefully to the points made against the proposal to close the court. The consultation on the future of Neath magistrates court was published on 26 September 2013. It proposed that the court should close and that the work should move to Swansea magistrates court nine miles away. The consultation document set out that Neath Port Talbot borough council wished to purchase the site of Neath magistrates court and to demolish the building to enable development of the site as part of its plans to regenerate the town centre.
The impact assessment of the consultation concluded that the closure of Neath magistrates court would save £220,000 a year, whereas retaining and undertaking the required maintenance to the court would cost a minimum of £1.3 million.
The right hon. Gentleman made it abundantly clear from his speech that he has looked into all the figures. Clearly, he will not be satisfied with whatever figures I give. I have a limited amount of time, because he used more time than is customary for the person opening the debate, and I am keen to put the Government’s view on record. Therefore he will forgive me if I do not repeat the figures, but I will state them as I see them. I will deal with the county court shortly, but as far as figures are concerned, the maintenance work for the current magistrates court would cost £1.3 million.
Several factors were taken into consideration before developing the consultation proposals, including work load, current and projected future utilisation, and whether there was a suitable alternative location where the work could be accommodated without a detrimental impact on service levels.
When the consultation was published, local stakeholders, partners and elected officials were directly engaged to ensure that they were aware of the proposals and could provide a considered response before the consultation closed. The consultation was conducted in line with the process set out by my predecessor’s written ministerial statement on 17 July 2013, which set out that future consultations on courts and tribunals would be locally focused, run for six weeks, and reduce parliamentary and administrative bureaucracy. Any proposals on the future of a court would be considered with emphasis on the local area and how justice would be most efficiently delivered there.
Some 63 responses were received to the consultation. I am happy to put on the record that most respondents supported the closure of the court house on its current site to enable the regeneration of Neath town centre. However, I am also happy to put on the record that most responses argued for the retention of a magistrates court within the town’s boundaries. That view is clearly shared by the right hon. Gentleman and, I understand, many local magistrates. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman discussed that during meetings with the Secretary of State. In particular, he suggested that Neath and Port Talbot county court could be converted to conduct magistrates court hearings.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has been aware of the council’s regeneration plans for several years. There have been a number of informal discussions with the council about potential options to relocate the magistrates court in Neath. However, the alternative sites suggested by the council were all in unsuitable shared facilities. A site was identified for a new building, but estimated costs at the time were between £6 million and £11 million and simply not affordable.
HMCTS officials have considered in detail the option to relocate to Neath county court. It would have required the use of a custody facility in the adjacent police station. Costs for a custodial facility were estimated at £1.46 million. While there were some preliminary discussions with the council regarding funding, no formal agreement was reached. There would, in any case, have been additional costs, including an estimated £285,000 to transfer the work of the county court to Port Talbot justice centre.
I accept that there will be an impact on court users, justices and staff. Many will have to travel to attend court in Swansea, including some who will have to use public transport. However, I do not believe that that prevents access to the courts system or compromises the quality of the service provided. HMCTS will seek to make arrangements for customers who are unable to attend court at a particular time and will continue to explore ways to reduce the impact of the closure on court users.
I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman said about the number of people in his area who do not have cars. In any case, travelling to Swansea by car will be within an hour. For those using public transport, 65% will have travel times of less than an hour. Travel times will be reduced for people living nearer to Swansea. For those who use trains—there is a train service—the extra travel time is 15 minutes each way, with trains running every half an hour.
Discussions are currently under way with South Wales police to consider whether it is possible to establish a facility for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in criminal proceedings via a live video link from a location in the Neath area. That would provide a safe and secure environment and avoid the need for victims and witnesses to travel to court, improving their experience when giving evidence at trial. Contrary to the concern expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, HMCTS does not intend to locate any video link facility to Swansea magistrates court from Neath county court.
Since the decision to close Neath magistrates court was announced, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the court suffered extensive storm damage in February 2014. During that time, court business and staff were transferred to Swansea magistrates court for 10 days to minimise disruption to hearings. That proved to be a successful contingency arrangement, during which no significant issues were raised. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman would disagree, but from our point of view, that worked well. That Swansea magistrates court was able to accommodate that work at short notice is a reassurance that it will be able to absorb successfully the work of Neath magistrates court when it closes.
I am pleased to say that, following safety inspections and a new fire certificate being issued, hearings resumed at Neath on 3 March 2014. Officials are finalising plans for the smooth transfer of work, justices and staff to Swansea, and an announcement of the closure date for the court will be made locally.
As is the case with any publicly funded body, HMCTS has a duty to ensure that its estate is utilised as cost-effectively as possible. We must ensure that we provide value for money for the taxpayer.
Let me emphasise that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to close the court was not taken lightly. It was made after a detailed analysis of the work load of the Neath and Swansea courts, and in consideration of all the points raised in the consultation responses. While it was clear to the Lord Chancellor that many people in Neath, including the right hon. Gentleman, had sincere concerns about the closure, on balance, they did not outweigh the benefits of the proposals or suggest that access to court services would be genuinely compromised.
Question put and agreed to.