Tuesday 17 June 2014
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Organ Donation Register
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jane Ellison.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I look forward to your advice throughout this important debate, and I am also grateful to hon. Members for joining me for it today.
I think it was Daniel Defoe who in 1726 said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. That is true. These are issues that none of us really wants to talk about, but unfortunately, death touches us all. All of us in the Chamber and anyone watching will no doubt have been touched by the loss of a loved one. Many of us will have lost parents. Some will have lost a partner or a child, a son or a daughter. Those are terrible things to cope with—the sense of loss, and the pain and anguish that come with that terrible event.
The idea that, at such a sad and low time, when people’s world collapses, they should have the forethought, integrity and generosity to make the decision to give the organs of their loved one to support the lives of others is a very difficult thing for us all to contemplate, and we would all struggle with that question when asked. However, I have also spoken to people who have done exactly that: they have given the organs of their loved one for the use of others, to give life to others, and they tell me of the incredible meaning that it gives to the traumatic loss of a loved one. It puts that loss into context. In the words of one parent who spoke to me, their son will always live on. That is a tremendous thing for anybody to contemplate.
However, the reality is that in Britain today, some 7,000 people are currently on the waiting list for an organ transplant—right now, they are at home, ill, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the hospital to call, waiting for the chance of a new life. It is hard to put ourselves in their situation, but their lives depend on that phone call and on that organ being made available. The figures show that 1,300 of the people on the list will die. They will become too sick to receive a transplant. That is unacceptable, and it is what I hope we can address in today’s debate.
Last year, 1,323 people became organ donors, compared with 1,164 the previous year. That is good news; it is an increase of 13.7%. Transplants from those donors have risen by a third to more than 3,000. Currently, just under a third of the population of the UK are on the organ donation register. On 12 June this year, it was more than 20 million people—20 million people who have sat down and made the choice that after their death they would like to give life to others. I commend them for that choice and I hope that, by raising the issue today, we can encourage more to do the same.
I congratulate both this Government and the previous Government on the successes that have been achieved over recent years. There is a good news story to tell on organ donation. We saw a 50% rise in donor numbers by 2013 on the previous five years. Thanks to the implementation of the recommendations published by the organ donation taskforce in 2008 under the previous Government, transplants from those donors have jumped by a third. However, there is much that we can do, and much more that we must do if we are to give as many of those 7,000 people as we can the opportunity of life.
The numbers on the registers are still too low—pitifully low. As I mentioned earlier, just under a third of the people in the UK are now registered. In the UK, we have 13 donors per 1 million people, which is still one of the lowest rates in Europe. Compare us, for instance, with Spain, which has an opt-in system, rather than an opt-out system. There, the figure is 35 per 1 million people, which is almost three times as high.
So why are people in the UK not signing up? All the evidence shows—the surveys show—that 96% of the population support the principle of organ donation, yet only 30% of the population register, so what has happened to the remaining 66% or so? The rate of sign-up to the register varies dramatically across the UK. The highest sign-up rate to the register is, of course, in Scotland, where 41% of the population is a registered organ donor. I commend them north of the border, but why is it that in England and Wales, those signed up are only 30% and 31% respectively? Why is the figure so much higher north of the border?
I have been told that some of that is attributable to a simple, but hard-hitting television advertising campaign, encouraging people to sign up as a donor, and more importantly, to discuss their decision with their loved ones. The advert is very simple. A man in front of a camera suggests that people watching tell those they are with about their wishes for organ donation—“Right there, right now, look at everybody in the room and tell them. Make sure that your wishes are clear.” It is a hard-hitting advert, which is clear and effective.
I believe that we should have a simple, hard-hitting campaign just like that in England and Wales, and I push the Minister on it. I have previously written to the Secretary of State for Health encouraging him to do exactly that, and I urge the Minister to look again. Perhaps she could tell us whether she has any thoughts on an advertising campaign, because we all recognise that education, and talking about those things and raising awareness are key.
Education is a key way of encouraging people to sign up, and our schools also have a part to play. The “Give and Let Live” resource pack has been used in schools since 2007. It helps teachers to introduce 14 to 16-year-olds to the concept of organ donation, but it is not compulsory on the national curriculum. I am not suggesting that it should be; I recognise that we have to give head teachers the autonomy to make those decisions and to decide what is taught in personal, social, health and economic education lessons. However, raising awareness about the campaign and encouraging teachers to use the resource will encourage young people not only to sign up and get on the organ donor register, but to talk to their parents about it. That is also important. If we can get this conversation going on around the breakfast table between children and their parents, we will have much more chance of not only getting more people to sign up, but getting people to accept the wishes of their loved ones when that difficult question and difficult moment arises.
The use of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has also been incredibly successful in encouraging people to become organ donors. People are asked when they apply for a driving licence whether they also wish to join the organ donation register. It has been fantastic; over half a million people sign up every year as a result of that simple question, which takes seconds to answer.
I pay tribute to the Cabinet Office’s behavioural insights team—or “the nudge team”, as the press like to call it. They have done a study of this issue. It is a very interesting piece of work about the most effective way to frame the question to encourage people to sign up. Through a pilot that they ran, they found that just a slight change in the wording could lead to an additional 96,000 sign-ups every year. It is incredible how the human mind works and how it is affected by the questions that are asked. It is important that the Government think logically in that way to encourage people to do the right thing.
Of course, there is another important element to this. It is important not just to get people on the register. Also important is what happens once they are on the register and, sadly, in a position to become an organ donor. It is important that we convert people on the register into donors. We must increase the consent rates among the families. UK donation consent rates remain among the lowest in Europe. Four out of 10 families said no to a deceased relative’s organs being donated even when they were on the register. There has been no overall improvement in the consent rate since the organ donation register was introduced in 1994. How to deal with that is, for me, an important question.
It is interesting that as a person—I hope that the Minister would agree—of sound mind and body, I can decide to donate my organs after my death, yet my family can take that decision away from me and I have no choice about that. We do not do that in any other walk of life. We do not say that I can sign my will, saying that I am going to donate all my money to the Conservative party to secure Conservative elections in years to come, and that my family can then override that will, unless they can prove that for some reason I was not of sound mind and body. We must empower people to make the decision for themselves. Yes, it is important that they discuss it with their family, with their loved ones, but we must recognise that, as a free individual, I have the right to choose to donate my organs and no one should be allowed to take that right away from me. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any thoughts on that.
The aim of the NHS Blood and Transplant strategy, “Taking Organ Transplantation to 2020”, published last year, is to increase the UK’s consent rate for donations from 58.6% to 80%. That is a very big jump. It is an ambitious target, and I hope that we can meet it. In contrast, Spain has the highest consent rate in Europe, at 84%. Last year, the consent rate in the UK increased by only 2%, from 56.5% the year before.
There is a startling difference between what happens when donation has been openly discussed with family members beforehand and what happens when the decision comes as a shock or surprise. In 2013, 94% of families in the UK agreed to an organ donation when their loved one was registered and had discussed their wishes with them. That fell away to 80% when they were on the register but had not discussed that with their family, but most worryingly it fell to 43.5% when the person’s wishes were not known at all. That clearly demonstrates the need not only to get people on the register, but to ensure that people talk about that when they are. We must ensure, under the system as it stands at the moment, that it is not a solitary decision. If we do not encourage people to let their families know about their decision, unfortunately their wishes, their intentions, the good that they wish to do will be denied.
Of the 20 million people in the UK who have put themselves on the organ donation register, only 60% have told their families that they have done so. We can do the maths: the wishes of 40% of the people who have the potential to give new life to another human being are being denied simply because they did not tell their wife, their husband or their partner what they wanted to happen after their death.
In 2012-13, 115 families overruled their relative’s consent for their organs to be used. I understand why they did that. I understand the pressure, the grief, the pain that those people are going through, but we cannot allow a situation in which those 115 deaths were for nothing. Those 115 deaths, with the conversion rate for organ donation, could have given more than 300 people a fresh lease of life. That is what we must focus on.
The UK will never achieve its potential for donation and transplantation when more than 40% of families refuse to allow donation, sometimes against the wishes of the patient. Obviously, when anyone has lost a loved one, it is a difficult and emotional time, but if the deceased had expressed a clear wish to donate their organs, it seems odd that the family can overrule that. That is why I urge the Minister to think about changing the law so that we can make a choice for ourselves to do the right thing and donate our organs.
The Welsh Government, as the Minister will know, are seeking to deal with the issue. From December 2015, they are introducing an opt-out system of presumed consent unless a deceased person had expressed a wish not to donate their organs. A similar system has produced incredible results in Spain. I recognise that this is a hugely controversial issue. It has been characterised as a case of “Who owns your organs?” I recognise that there are deep and heartfelt reasons why people would oppose such a system. I am also aware that previously the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), said that the Government had no plans to introduce it elsewhere in the UK, because of those cultural, ethical and legal issues.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene; I hope that later I will catch your eye, Mr Hollobone, and can make a contribution. This is the first point on which I completely disagree with my hon. Friend. Does he accept that there is no evidence whatever that changing to an opt-out system, even in Spain, which I will deal with in my speech, has delivered more organs? To consider it an ethical issue—the Opposition and many of us base our view on the efficacy of such a change, rather than on the ethical position—is, I think, a mistake.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps he is just a little presumptuous. I was not intending to argue for the opt-out system. All I was going to urge the Minister to do was to look at these issues on the evidence. What I suggest is not that we should come forward with a similar proposal for England and Wales, but that we should follow the evidence. We should look closely at how the system is implemented in Wales and at its impact. My hon. Friend has said that he will talk about the situation in Spain. In Spain, there was a delay before there was an increase in the number of donor organs available, but all the evidence seems to suggest that the system has led to a big increase.
Not only is the debate important, but it raises awareness of organ donation. It gets people talking; it stimulates discussion, which is important. My hon. Friend will know that the principle of the opt-out system is supported by a number of organisations, including the British Medical Association, the British Heart Foundation and Kidney Research UK. As I said, I hope that the Government will look closely at the evidence—at the results of changing the law in Wales—and look to reconsider their position as the evidence develops. My hon. Friend may well be right that there will be no marked increase in the number of organs available for donation, but we do have to follow the evidence, look at the results and decide what we do in the rest of the UK as a consequence.
There was a call by those involved in organ donation committees in our hospitals to look at the issue of the lack of family consent overriding the wishes of the deceased.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate on what can be a very controversial issue. Does he agree that we should exhaust every possible avenue, whether it be schools or the driving licence organisation or whatever, before we even look at going down the road of an opt-out system, because it is a very controversial issue? In Northern Ireland, 527,000 people—32%—are on the register. The figure is increasing every month. A consultation is ongoing. I understand that in October a consultation will also be carried out on an opt-out system. I think that we need to exhaust every other avenue and then have further debate on that issue.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he talks a great deal of sense. The issue is very sensitive and we do not want a backlash in the form of people deliberately coming off the organ register because of ethical and moral concerns. I agree that there is more that we can do. I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved so far, but we can do a great deal more. The issue is important not only because lives are at stake, but because it has a massive impact on NHS costs, which I hope to touch on towards the end of my speech. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I want to address organ donation in the black and minority ethnic community. I am the Member of Parliament for Burton, which has a large Muslim population—mainly Pakistani and Kashmiri diaspora—who contribute massively to the community. However, there is no doubt that there is a problem with organ donation among BME communities. There is particular concern about the lack of donors coming forward from BME backgrounds. The startling truth is that people from BME backgrounds are up to three times more likely to need an organ but are less likely to donate; they need it more, but they donate less. Only 3.6% of people on the organ donation register are from ethnic minority backgrounds, despite their making up 10.8% of the population and a staggering 27% of the waiting list. Those figures show how skewed the numbers are and how desperate it is that we do something about the issue.
More than 30% of people listed for a kidney transplant are BME, compared with just 5.6% of deceased kidney donors in 2013. Why is that important? NHS blood and transplant statistics show that, on average, people from black and Asian backgrounds have to wait a year longer for a kidney transplant: between 2006 and 2010, the median waiting time for a kidney transplant in the UK for a white person was two years and 363 days, yet for a black or Asian person the wait was three years and 320 days. That is a whole year longer, just because of someone’s ethnicity. Family refusal rates among ethnic minority backgrounds also play a big part. The Minister will know that those rates are much higher than for the population as a whole, with 30% of BME families giving their consent to organ donation, compared with 68.5% of the white population—more than twice as many. That is why it is so important that we tackle the issue of organ donation among the BME community.
Ethnicity is hugely important in organ donation because a person is much more likely to find a match with someone from a similar ethnicity. It is vital that we do more to encourage people from BME backgrounds to sign up to the organ donation register. That is not the only answer; it is also vital that we break down the cultural barriers that prevent BME families from consenting. I commend the Government on the NHS blood and transplant team’s faith and organ donation summit in May last year. It was a good event, and it was agreed that sustained engagement on organ donation by and in ethnic minority communities is needed.
Those are all good words, but I am not seeing them reflected in my community. I am not seeing organ donation being discussed in churches, mosques and community centres. I am not seeing our imams and priests talking to their communities and encouraging them to come forward and donate—to do the right thing by signing up to the organ donation register. None of the major religions object in principle to organ donations, but of course opinions in communities differ. Organ donation is often not discussed, or is called, for example, un-Islamic. We must address such things if we are to break down prejudice and save lives in BME communities as a result. Leaflets have been distributed among different faith communities to that effect, but I hope the Minister will agree that much more can be done.
One way to increase donation that has been advocated is through the use of specialist nurses in organ donation—there is a wonderful acronym: SN-ODs—who were introduced following the 2008 recommendations. We now have 250 SN-ODs, who are there to support people going through the organ donation process and to raise awareness of donating. The National Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Transplant Alliance is calling for more SN-ODs to come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and I agree with it on that. I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that of those 250 SN-ODs throughout the country, just one is from a BME background. Is it any wonder that we are failing to break down cultural barriers at that terrible moment of loss, when we have only one person from a BME background to engage with people who are suffering such loss, and to encourage them to give life to others?
The proposed action plan arising from the summit in May last year featured a number of criteria on increasing engagement with ethnic minority communities. The aim was to fulfil them before September this year, and other criteria by a year hence. I would be grateful if the Minister would give us a little more information about what she and the Department are doing regarding those important criteria.
I know that other Members wish to speak, so I will soon draw my remarks to a close, but I want first to touch on a few points. First, I called for this debate at the request of William Saunders, the chairman of the organ transplant committee at Queen’s hospital in my constituency. It is fantastic to see William and his team, like others throughout the country, engaging as members of the community to try to encourage others to do the right thing and sign up to the organ transplant register. I hope that the Minister agrees that such people are doing a fantastic job in our community and that more must be done.
I also called for this debate because of a constituent, Katherine Sinfield, who sadly was diagnosed with leukaemia. My local newspaper, the Burton Mail, has done a huge amount to highlight Katherine’s case and to encourage people to come forward and undergo stem cell testing in order to find her a match. I am delighted to say that she has now found a match and had her treatment. We all wish her well, and she is doing incredibly well.
Through the Burton Mail’s campaign, I have seen the difference that raising awareness can make. The work of the Burton Mail and the Anthony Nolan trust has resulted in a large increase in the number of Burton residents who have come forward to be tested and who want to do their bit. It has also raised a huge amount of money for the Anthony Nolan trust. If we can encourage similar activity across the country—if Members will raise the issue in their constituencies—we can all play our part in raising awareness.
In conclusion, with such a high level of support for organ donation among the general public—96%—it is surprising that there is such difficulty in finding enough donors to meet the demand for transplants. It is clear that more work must be done. Despite these times of constrained public spending—we all recognise the difficulties in which the Government find themselves—I believe we can do more to solve this problem. Indeed, the “Taking Organ Transplantation to 2020” strategy says clearly that
“no additional funding is likely to be needed to move forward: much of what needs to be done is about working differently rather than increasing resources.”
I am sure that that is music to the Treasury’s ear, but I know that the Minister will put her shoulder to the wheel and help.
Without meaning to put it in crude terms, transplants save the NHS money in the long term. The entire transplant programme saves the NHS £316 million a year, which is money that would otherwise be spent on treatment. A successful kidney transplant operation, for example, costs £17,000, with a future cost of some £5,000 a year. A year’s dialysis for a patient with kidney failure, on the other hand, costs £30,800. The NHS blood and transplant service predicts that, for every year a kidney transplant remains functional, it saves the NHS £24,100 per patient while saving the patient’s life. If ever there was a win-win, that is it. From a financial perspective, it makes perfect sense to want to increase the number of organ donations if they can deliver such savings for the NHS, but more importantly, from a personal perspective, if any of us or one of our loved ones needed a transplant, we would do everything possible to ensure that we found a donor. We would move heaven and earth to give our loved one that chance.
I join the call of the organ donation committee at Queen’s hospital in my constituency and others across the country in saying that more needs to be done to increase the number of people on the organ donation register. Sign up; it saves lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) on securing this debate. Without doubt, this is an important issue. In his brief speech, he outlined the importance of organ donation to us all.
Some of us come to this debate with personal knowledge, and other Members with a very personal understanding will speak shortly, too. I will speak not only about cold facts but as a first-hand witness who was emotionally involved with a family member in need of an organ donation. Twenty-three years ago, my nephew, Peter, was born with one kidney that was not working and another that was the size of a peanut—I think that is how the doctor described it. That clearly inhibited my nephew’s quality of life. For many years, until he received an organ donation, he was unable to have the quality of life that everyone in this Chamber today is privileged to have.
My second son and my nephew were born at about the same time, so I was always able to compare their quality of life—my son, who was perfectly healthy, and my nephew, who unfortunately was not healthy as he awaited a kidney transplant. My nephew was restricted in height and in energy, and he was always a yellowy colour. That is hard for a family, but it is much more bearable when they know that kidneys are available in the organ bank ready to be transplanted. Peter was able to get that transplant, and it literally saved his life. That underlines the importance of organ donation to every member of my family and my family circle.
I do not want any parent or family member to be dealt the blow of knowing that a relative is in need of a transplant but there are currently no organs available. I do not want anyone to experience that, but that is what is happening in the UK today. That is why I feel so passionately about this debate. It will come as no surprise that I, as a Member of Parliament and as an individual, am a registered organ donor. Registering as an organ donor is much easier in Northern Ireland because whenever we apply for or renew our driving licence, we tick a box on the form to show whether we want to be an organ donor. Those who say yes will automatically become an organ donor should their time in this world come to a tragic end.
In Newtownards in my constituency of Strangford, a garden has been constructed for people who are having dialysis and renal treatment at the Ulster hospital in Dundonald. It was felt that we needed a garden in which people could have tranquillity and peace, and to thank people who had donated their organs over the years. The council and local representatives were both involved. Rather poetically, perhaps, just two miles from that garden, a young man—I knew his father well—died some years ago. After being injured in an accident, his organs were donated to save other lives, which shows that there is an opportunity to save lives. As the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, we can give an opportunity to those who have not had the quality of life that we have but could have it with an organ donation.
Despite all of our medical advances, some 1,000 people die each year in the United Kingdom waiting for an organ transplant, which is shocking. We desperately and urgently need to increase sign-ups to the organ donation register. With that harrowing statistic before us, what can we do, and what do the Government intend to do, to increase sign-ups? I am pleased that the Minister is in her place. I have asked her questions on this previously, and some of the answers are in the Library debate pack. There have been positive responses from the Government, and I have no doubt that we will get such a response at the end of this debate, too. We seek to add further contributions and evidence to the debate, and perhaps the Minister will be able to respond.
It is pleasing to read that, in the past five years, the number of people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland who donate organs after death has increased by 50%. That is good news and it matches a target set by the Department of Health’s organ donation taskforce in 2008. I suppose we are asking how we can do more. How can we make organ donation more appealing or more real to people?
We heard earlier that some 7,000 or 8,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we could dramatically increase the number of organ donors, a knock-on effect might be that it would end organ farming and the sale of organs on the black market?
That is a pertinent issue. I understand that organ farming is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we are aware of parts of the world where people are given a great deal of money to donate an organ for use elsewhere in the world. That is a travesty and an injustice for poor people who find themselves in financial difficulties and see this as a way out. My hon. Friend is right that that needs to be seriously addressed.
NHS figures show that there were almost 4,700 organ transplants in 2013-14, which is an amazing figure compared with 3,717 organ transplants in 2009. That is an increase of almost 1,000, which is a clear indication that Government policy is starting to take effect, with the general public’s co-operation. That is good news. It is about how we go over fences to get a wee bit extra and do more.
We must not praise ourselves too much, however, and settle for the progress that we have made. There is still a long way to go. NHS statistics show that on 31 March 2014, as my hon. Friend said, 7,026 people were on the transplant waiting list. Although that number has been decreasing for the past five years, it is still much too high. The Government must do more to cut those waiting lists dramatically. What new targets have been set by the organ donation taskforce, and how does it intend to raise the public’s awareness of the great importance of this issue?
During May and June 2013, Optimisa Research conducted market research on behalf of the NHS blood and transplant service to measure public awareness, attitudes and behaviour towards organ donation. The findings of that research highlight how much work the Government have to do to increase sign-ups. We must all energetically encourage those around us to sign up, but the Government need to lead, too. Some 54% of those questioned had not seen any recent publicity about organ donation. What is being done to highlight organ donation? The hon. Member for Burton referred to that, too. It is clear that, as a result of poor publicity, organ donation is not currently in the public consciousness as it should be. What steps have the Government taken to improve that and change the perception that organ donation is the exception rather than the norm?
Of those people questioned, 31% would consider donating some or all of their organs, but are yet to be fully convinced. Again, that indicates that there is a swathe of people who are susceptible to persuasion, which could lead us to the next stage for organ donation. Why are the Government not engaging with those people as they should? The research also found that the key personal barriers to donating include mistrust of medical professionals and discomfort in thinking about death. Death is a subject that we sometimes do not want to think about, but it is one that we must all consider. There is no better way of setting the scene than Mark Twain’s comment that the only two things in life we are sure of are death and taxes. Death is an issue for us all, and we must consider it.
It shows that the public are not sufficiently well informed. If the Government better presented information on organ donation, it stands to reason that the barriers preventing people from signing up would ultimately be removed, the number of people on transplant waiting lists would fall dramatically, the number of transplants would increase and, most importantly, the number of people in the UK who die while waiting for a transplant would fall significantly. We must consider that issue as well. We see so many stories in the press and on TV about those who are desperately waiting for a transplant and have a very short time between life and death. Every effort must be made to ensure that we can save the British lives of those whom we represent. Why is more not being done?
It is clear from the research that public awareness must be raised, and it therefore follows that the Government should focus on that, but there are also other means of increasing sign-ups. Although opinions are mixed on the issue of express or presumed consent, I would like to present my personal view. I encourage the Government to consider legislating for a soft system of presumed consent. Although some might disagree, I believe that such a system is right because it gives life. Perhaps the best time to ask a relative to consider organ donation is not when somebody is lying on their deathbed. Emotions take over. I am not saying that they should not; I am just saying that it is a reality of life, and we must address it. Personally, I believe in a soft system of presumed consent that allows relatives of the deceased to object to donation if the deceased died without expressly electing whether to donate their organs. Such a system is in place in Belgium, where the family’s prerogative is a legally defined right. I suggest to the Minister that we should at least consider it, debate the issue and put it at the centre of the organ donation debate.
Introducing a system of presumed consent would greatly boost the number of organs available for transplant. A 2006 study by Abadie and Gay found that countries with a presumed consent system had 25% to 30% higher donation rates than those with an opt-in system, which is a significant difference. If taken on board in the United Kingdom, such a system would cut the number of those waiting for a transplant and save lives.
I have asked the Minister what she is doing to encourage more older people to become kidney donors. She responded that there is no barrier preventing elderly people from being organ donors if their organs are healthy. It is not out of the question for those with a few more years on the clock to consider organ donation as well.
In my home province of Northern Ireland, only 32% of the population are registered organ donors, the lowest percentage of any area in the United Kingdom. That is unacceptable. Our devolved Assembly is currently processing a private Member’s Bill to increase awareness of organ donation, which proposes to provide people with an opportunity to sign up for organ donation when applying for a driver’s licence. The question will allow people to answer yes or no—they can make up their own minds—but it will be compulsory to answer; the question cannot be ignored. I am fully behind the Bill, as I feel that it will greatly boost the number of people who sign up for the organ donor register. How do the Government intend to work alongside Mr Poots, the Minister with responsibility for devolved health matters, to increase much-needed awareness in Northern Ireland? It is clear that a UK-wide strategy is the most effective way of dealing with the matter. The Minister will know that I often say here in Westminster Hall and in debates in the Chamber that it is important that the United Kingdom regions learn together and bring together all our knowledge so that we can present it.
Time has passed by, but my final point is to highlight the fact that research has found that if organ transplantation rates could be increased by 50% across the UK, the NHS would save money. The hon. Member for Burton mentioned a saving of more than £300 million. The figures depend on who is on the list, but the saving to the NHS would be significant. That cannot be ignored or denied. If we had that in place, it would help the Minister and this Government to manage their health budget better. In essence, if the Government save more lives through organ donation, they will have more money to spend on saving the lives of others. The Government and we as Members must not rest on our laurels and be happy with the progress made. The Government must take steps to ensure that the public are fully aware of the issue, and to save more lives.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak in this important debate on an issue that has featured strongly in my life. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) on securing the debate, and on the reasoned and comprehensive way in which he presented his case. I apologise to him and to you, Mr Hollobone; I did not notice that this debate was taking place until about five minutes before it started, so I have not prepared. I apologise if my comments are in any way disjointed.
Donating an organ is just about the greatest gift that anybody can make. It is great to do so on death, but it is perhaps even greater in life, such as when people donate kidneys altruistically. I know several people who have done so, and it is one of the greatest things that one can do. This is a particularly good day to discuss organ donation; the night before last, we watched Erik Compton, who has had two heart transplants, come second in the US Open golf championship. It demonstrates how a transplant can not only give life but allow the recipient to live a life that is completely full and to do the most amazing things. Coming second in the US Open is a pretty amazing thing to have done.
My own interest started with a woman I knew, Trudy, who was a constituent, although I was not the MP then. She had one of the first heart and lung transplants at Papworth. She was a most amazing person. Together, we worked to deliver kidney dialysis in Montgomeryshire, where there was none. A unit has now been approved and built, and is delivering a terrific service. Trudy died a couple of years ago, but the dialysis unit stands as a monument to the fantastic woman that she was.
I am a trustee of the Kidney Wales Foundation. One of my disappointments is that I disagree with the foundation—I am the only trustee who takes this view. I disagree completely with what the Welsh Government have done in changing the law to introduce presumed consent. I have always been a bit disappointed by that. The aim of every trustee—me and all the others, although we disagree—is to increase the number of organ donations and the number of organs available. I have always been driven by the evidence. I have never been influenced by the ethical debates; I am influenced only by where the evidence takes me in terms of how to deliver the most organs. I firmly believe that what the Welsh Government have done will absolutely not deliver more organs, despite what they say.
The only time I ever feel resentful in this sensitive debate is when, as has so often happened on the numerous times when I have been invited to speak about this issue in the media, somebody in desperate need of a new organ is interviewed and I am then asked why I want to prevent them from having an organ. I am utterly appalled by the media’s lack of objectivity and the lack of reference to evidence when dealing with the issue.
We need to move forward as best we can and I want to focus on policy for the future. I will make some specific points. We must look at what happened in Spain. Spain has been referred to in this debate on several occasions and it is a huge success story. However, it is often incorrectly referred to as a country that introduced an opt-out system. That claim is absolutely false, even if the Welsh Government used it as part of the basis for their argument. Despite people writing to them—I have written to them—to tell them that that claim is false, it is still what they base their consultation on. It was a disgrace to conduct a consultation on those terms.
What happened in Spain was that opt-out legislation was introduced in 1979. Twelve months later, it was pretty well abandoned. It remains on the books, but like a lot of laws it has never been implemented. Ten years later the Spanish Government realised that the legislation was not working and they introduced a series of other changes. I believe that it is those changes that we should concentrate on if we are to make a difference.
We should also learn from the organ donation taskforce, which my hon. Friend referred to several times. It did a terrific job under its great chair, Elizabeth Buggins, who is one of the most expert people on this issue. The taskforce considered the issue for two or three years. Everyone assumed that the taskforce would recommend a change to presumed consent. However, when it produced a report, all its members had changed their minds because they had looked at the evidence. The person who has taken over from me in Montgomeryshire believed that changing to presumed consent was a way forward. I said, “Look at the evidence.” As soon as she studied that evidence, she changed her mind.
There are things we should do and that we should learn.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for attending the debate, but for making such an important and heartfelt contribution; I think that we all value that. I understand what he is saying about the opt-in system versus the opt-out system and the need to follow the evidence. However, does he agree that ultimately organ donation should be my choice? It should be the individual’s choice as to whether their organs are used for donation after they die, and nobody else’s choice.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because that is a perfectly reasonable position to take. I do not know what the figures are—I do not know how often this situation happens—but I want to know them. I am interested in them because the situation seems wrong.
I accept the point that has been made, but the one counterpoint is that sometimes people can change their minds even though they are carrying an organ donor card. However, if people have joined a campaign, we should assume that that is their view. I would be surprised if there are many instances where a family would overrule an individual’s decision; it would be interesting if the Minister could give us the figures to show how often that happens. If it is a major issue, we should address it; I agree with that point.
The first issue that we must deal with is the specialist nurses for organ donation. That is what made a huge difference in Spain, and it is the area where we really need to concentrate. That is what has made the big difference here. Since the organ donation taskforce reported, the number of donations has increased by 50%, which was the target. That is good news, but it is the specialist nurses who have made the difference.
I spent some time talking to the specialist nurse in Shropshire and indeed he has agreed to visit local schools and to organise discussions and debates. We can use specialist nurses to help people to understand this debate, because it is such a sensitive time to talk to people. Talking to people when the person who perhaps they love most looks as if they are alive, because their bodies are still breathing, even though they are brain-dead, and saying that that person’s support system should be switched off and their organs taken is a hugely traumatic experience. We need trained nurses who have the skills to communicate with people in those difficult circumstances. It is the specialist nurses for organ donation who can do that.
Four out of 10 families refuse consent when they are asked to give it.
I think that that is a repetition of the previous intervention. However, the point is interesting and I would like the Minister to give us the figures to show to what extent that situation actually happens, and whether a specialist nurse in organ donation was involved in individual cases.
The second thing that is crucial, particularly in Wales, is the number of intensive care beds. A lot of people assume that an organ can be donated when there is a road accident or when somebody is suddenly killed in another way, but there can only be a donation when the person is in an intensive care bed and there is the facility to take a donation. We have a shortage of intensive care beds. The number of such beds in Spain is huge. It is much higher than the number in the UK, and in Wales the number is particularly low. That is the sector where the investment needs to go to ensure that there are intensive care beds. I know that in the last year there have been cases in Wales of organs that were available for donation but they were simply not used because there was not an intensive care bed to allow the donation to happen.
The final point I want to make is, I think, the reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Burton secured this debate today. It is about the issue of awareness. We should put every effort we can into campaigns to have everybody tell their next of kin their view on donation. That is what I say to people in schools when I talk to them; I say to people, “Tell your family what your view is, so that they know clearly.” Carrying an organ donation card is helpful in that respect, because it very much gives an indication of someone’s view. That is why I was interested in the point that my hon. Friend has made in his interventions on me.
What we really need, and the Government can afford it, is a big advertising campaign based on the message, “Tell the family. Make sure your next of kin know your wishes.” If we had such a campaign, we would raise the number of consenting next of kin. If we can increase the number of people in Britain who consent to organ donation to the level it is in Spain, we will not have the thousands of people dying that we have now.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to join in this debate under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) for introducing the debate in a sensitive but passionate way.
I recognise that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and I may come at this issue from slightly different perspectives, and may put slightly different emphases on the issues of presumed consent, opt-outs and soft opt-outs, but there is absolutely no difference between us—or between any of us who are present—as regards our fundamental motivation, which is to secure the optimum number of organ donations, and the optimum benefits for the lives of so many of our constituents.
Like other hon. Members, I have personal experience of this issue. I had a friend who, many years ago, benefited from a kidney transplant provided under the fairly primitive arrangements then in place in the grounds of the then Belfast City hospital. It did not seem to be the most propitious setting in which such a significant life-improving operation could take place, but it was life-improving, thanks to the skill and commitment of those involved. Of course, services have developed in so many ways since then.
I have seen a number of people in a family suffer from cystic fibrosis; that family lost children who died while waiting for transplants. Like others, I have made commitments and promises to do everything that I could in any opportunity that fell to me in public life to improve the prospect of more transplants being available for people in such circumstances.
I have also seen people take some consolation in their bereavement and grief from the organ donations of their loved ones, which has meant that someone else has had the gift of life, or improved life. Obviously, I have also seen people who have benefited from organ transplants, although perhaps not for as long as they would have wished. Again, those benefits will be achieved and extended if we can develop and improve the services of those very special skilled people who are involved in delivering the benefits of transplants to people.
I also speak as someone who witnessed, as we all did in Northern Ireland, an act of altruism by a fairly public figure, Joe Brolly, a brilliantly skilled sportsperson and all-Ireland championship winner who played for Derry back in the early 1990s. He donated a kidney to help a friend, Shane Finnegan, whom he had met as a volunteer coach in his local Gaelic Athletic Association club in Belfast, because he knew the difference that it could make. Unfortunately, the transplant has not worked out for Shane, but the cause goes on. Both Shane and Joe are absolutely united in encouraging politicians and legislators in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to achieve more progress on organ donation. They are categorically in favour of moving towards a soft opt-out system.
All of us are sensitive to some of the concerns that are feeding back to us in that regard, however. I was in this Parliament back in 2008, and was supportive of the initial indications coming from the organ donation taskforce, but we were all sensitive to the issues and considerations that came back to us. We want to move forward on this issue, and to achieve progress that is sustainable and durable, with no unforeseen consequences or counter-productive effects. I believe that presumed consent leads to higher donation rates, but the way that it is framed is important.
I note the important point, made by the hon. Member for Burton, that the current opt-in system is essentially a soft opt-in, in that families are able to override it. It might be more productive to discuss and take forward some of the issues connected to the soft opt-out, rather than to go for a hard opt-in; the latter might be more difficult and could create other issues or difficulties, particularly given the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the apprehensions or misgivings that are shown in survey research to underlie some of the concerns and reservations that kick in whenever people are asked to think beyond whether they simply support organ donation in principle. When they think about it in practice, reservations or concerns seem to come into play, and all of us who might have a different perspective on how to legislate on this issue need to be sensitive to those concerns. We should not conduct the debate in such a way as to create mixed signals, or leave people thinking that there might be something untoward going on in relation to how organ donations are secured.
It is important to respect the fact that there will be legislation at different levels, not just within the UK but within these islands. The Welsh legislation has been cited, and the Irish Government are committed, under their programme for government, to legislate for a form of soft opt-out. In arguing about the different legislative choices, we need to be careful that we do not send out messages that create any doubts or difficulties.
Steps taken here since 2008 have achieved a much higher rate of organ donation. If the legislation in Wales achieves a higher rate of donations, and if legislation in the Republic does the same—there is also a consultation going on in Northern Ireland—we need to remember that those organs may not necessarily all be used within the jurisdiction in which the relevant legislation has arisen. That is another consideration. If we are to optimise not just the number of organ donations but the number of people benefiting from donations and transplants, we need to look at the networks, systems and infrastructure, to make sure that we fully utilise as many organs as are donated. Some organs are available on a so-called national basis, and others on a regional basis. That creates a disparity in terms of benefits and effects.
One concern I have heard about whether organ donation was worth while came from a constituent, who told me that they had watched a TV drama—I am not sure whether it was “Holby City”, “Casualty” or something else—in which being able to get the relevant organ for donation came down to whether a doctor in one hospital knew somebody in another hospital. My constituent was concerned about the idea that whether the organ donation system actually worked could come down to something so coincidental; they were left thinking that the system was not that sophisticated, and was hit and miss. I do not know whether that anecdote is accurate. If it is, it proves that there is a need to improve networks; if it is not, it proves that broadcasters and others need to be careful about the kinds of indications and suggestions they give about topics such as this, and should not use dramatic licence in a way that gives people cause to doubt the efficacy of the transplant system.
The British-Irish Council takes in all eight Administrations around these islands who legislate and provide services in different ways. It seems to me that it would be a good forum in which to not just discuss the balance, comparability and compatibility of legislative arrangements throughout those jurisdictions—the more consistent they are, the better—but make sure that we optimise the networks, so that organs that become available in any one part of these islands can benefit anybody in any other part. It should not be left to a random mix of different networks, as that sub-optimises the use of organs. They are given for the best of motives, so we need to make sure that we have the best arrangements to extend the benefits of these important gifts.
We have 23 minutes left, so if the Front Benchers will split the time between them in a fair and equitable way, it will be much appreciated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) for calling a debate on such an important issue, and for his passionate reflections on organ donation and on the fact that the chance of life for one person can often come at a time of trauma for another family. There were also emotional and personal contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan).
Organ donation is surely one of the great success stories of the latter half of the 20th century, not just for science, but for humanity. It is a precious thing: there can be few greater achievements than to have given life to those who were on the verge of death. Fewer than 5,000 people each year die in circumstances in which they are able to become a donor. Despite the sadness of the moment, the act of organ donation can become a major comfort to bereaved families as time passes.
There have been major improvements to the infrastructure and organisation of organ donation over the past few years. Those improvements have been reflected in donation rates, which have increased significantly. I am extremely proud of the fact that in 2001 the previous Labour Government said that we would double the number of donors from 8 million to 16 million by 2010, and achieved that target a year early, by 2009. That was thanks to an enormous effort from large numbers of people.
The recommendations from the organ donation taskforce in 2008 set in train many of the reforms that NHS Blood and Transplant has made. It laid the path for many of the improvements we have seen, such as, for example, the creation of a network of specialist organ donation nurses—already referred to in our debate—who support families in considering organ donation at a difficult time.
As we have heard, over 20 million of us are on the NHS organ donor register. Again, that is testament to the changes that have been made at every level in hospitals, to the commitment of critical care and emergency department staff to donation, and most of all to the generosity of the donors and their families.
We cannot be complacent, however. As we have heard in the debate, we have lower registration rates than some of our European neighbours, and too many people still die while waiting for a donation—three people every day, which is three too many.
We need to raise awareness, and hon. Members have been right to emphasise the need to raise more awareness of the importance of joining the register and supporting our families and friends when they do so. This year marks 20 years since the NHS organ donor register was launched, and there are now many ways in which people can sign up. There is an online form and a 24-hour donor line. People can register through a text message, at their GP’s surgery, or when they apply for their driving licence. I signed up through my Boots advantage card. Yet we still have more to do. Are there any more ways in which we can ask people to sign up? Boots advantage cards are disproportionately owned by women. There are ways in which we can target men; many supermarkets have cards. Should we be thinking about that? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on the different ways in which we can encourage people to sign up.
We know from market research carried out by NHS Blood and Transplant that 51% of the population definitely want to donate their organs, and 31% would consider it. Only 31%, however, have actually signed the organ donor register. The question of how to bridge that gap is vital. As MPs, we will all have received e-mails telling us that national transplant week runs from 7 to 13 July, and that is a great opportunity for us all to raise the profile of the issue. Will the Minister share with us the Department’s plans to mark national transplant week and encourage more people to sign up to the register?
As the hon. Member for Burton mentioned, we need to get more people on the register from specific communities. The challenge is not only getting more sign-ups to the register, but targeting specific communities and areas that we know are losing out from the stark inequalities in the system. My constituency is in Liverpool, in the north-west, where patients are waiting the longest for a transplant. We also have the highest death rates among those waiting. In the north-west, 62.2% of patients waited more than six months for a transplant, whereas the average for England is 47.3%; and 23.2% of patients waited more than 18 months for a lung transplant, whereas the average for England is 15.8%. Those long waits are themselves concerning, but where some people are waiting longer than others for a life-saving operation purely because of where they live, it is something we need to address urgently.
It is not just where someone lives that can affect their chance of getting a transplant operation. As we have heard, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are up to three times more likely to need a transplant than others, yet because organ matching is likely to be closer when the ethnicity of the donor and recipient are the same, they have to wait much longer. On average, a person from a BAME community will wait a year longer for a kidney transplant than a white patient. Many die while waiting for an organ to become available, and the Government must urgently tackle that situation.
The debate this morning has centred on organ donation, although Members have referred to bone marrow donation, which is an important area for us to reflect on, and an area where we should look at lessons that we can learn. More than 90% of white patients in need of a bone marrow transplant find a match, but for the BAME population the matching rates can be as low as 40%, which is a difference of 50 percentage points. We need to look at that. I am of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and I joined the bone marrow register because I know how hard it is for people from my community to find a donor.
A number of campaigns have led to a massive increase in the number of people joining that register. The Berger family—no relation to me—led the campaign #Spit4Mum. A woman called Sharon Berger had a very rare blood disease. She was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, but she needed to find a match in a hurry. Her children, Jonni and Caroline, started the #Spit4Mum campaign, which has raised awareness among all BAME communities and had a high press profile. There was a 1,700% increase in Jewish people joining the bone marrow register in the year that they ran that campaign. We need to see that happening in all communities right across the country, and it needs to extend to organs as well.
We cannot accept that some of our citizens will be far more likely to die than others because of where they live or their ethnic background. Will the Minister address that point specifically and outline what concerted action the Government are taking to tackle it? In particular, what will the Government do to improve the diversity of the organ donation specialist nurses? Another Member raised that issue.
We need to ensure that the wishes of those on the register are granted, and we must do more to support families in that. In 2011-12, 125 families overruled the individual’s intention, as recorded on the NHS organ donor register, to become an organ donor. Of course, that is understandable. The decision to allow their loved one’s organs to be used is incredibly tough for a family to make when they are in the throes of grief. We know, however, that many family members were unaware that it was what their loved one wanted and found it difficult to come to terms with such a decision at such an awful time of loss. That is why it is vital that we encourage and support families in having conversations about organ donation. Family consent rates have been static at around 55% to 60% over recent years, but that shoots up to 95% when those family discussions take place. NHS Blood and Transplant is taking steps to address that, so I would welcome an update from the Minister on its progress.
Finally, I want to touch on the opt-out or presumed consent system. We have heard some Members’ positions on that, but if more Members had been in the debate, we might have heard a wider variety of views. Some professional groups, including the British Medical Association, consider the system to be the most effective solution in addressing the shortage of organ donors. The system has advantages. To return to an earlier point, there is a gap between the 51% of the population who definitely want to donate their organs and the 31% who have actually signed the register. We would, however, have to consider carefully the safeguards the system would need and continue to review the evidence from countries that already have it in place. Wales will be introducing the system later this year. Any change in legislation would need to have the backing of the public. Whether we agree with assumed consent or not, I hope we can all agree that it is time we started a major public debate about how we can best tackle the shortage of organ donors in this country. What steps is the Minister taking to start that national conversation?
In conclusion, this issue transcends party politics and is important to all Members. We are making progress, but we need to maintain our momentum. I welcome the Government’s strategy for organ donation, which was laid out last year. Its first goal is as follows:
“action by society and individuals will mean that the UK’s organ donation record is among the best in the world and people donate when and if they can.”
I would be very happy to work with the Minister to continue to build awareness of the importance of joining the organ donor register, and to work towards achieving that critical goal.
I will do my best to respond to all the points raised, although I suspect I have the least time of any speaker in the debate. I may prove challenged in that regard, but as colleagues know, I will always follow up afterwards if there is some point which I am unable to get to.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) on securing this debate. Just having this debate is part of the answer to the question he posed. The issue can affect us all, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise its profile and to have the debate ahead of the special week coming up in July. The debate is particularly useful in giving us a chance to reflect on how we can best use that time in Parliament.
I put on record my tribute to those who work in the NHS with such dedication, determination and commitment. They provide such fantastic care, particularly, in the light of what we are talking about, at difficult times in families’ lives. To try to address some of the specific points raised, I will take as read many of the facts and figures put on the record by my hon. Friend and others. We acknowledge those figures. The one thing I want to do is thank everyone who donates and everyone who takes part in the programme. I also pay tribute to local leaders, such as William Saunders, whom my hon. Friend mentioned.
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
We can take it as read that we do not have enough donors, but we have made significant progress. The Government are continuing the work of previous Governments by investing in the donation programme to optimise transplantation. The donation programme was strengthened between 2008 and 2014, increasing donation rates by 63% and transplant rates by 47%. The trend is positive, but today’s debate has explored how we can accelerate progress and address some of the more stubborn problems.
As hon. Members have already suggested, too many people are waiting too long for a suitable organ to be donated, even though organ donation has increased by over 3 million since 2010 to over 20 million. One organ donor can save or transform as many as nine people’s lives. The exchange is not one-for-one; it is an extraordinary opportunity to change many different lives. It is also worth recognising, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), touched on, that although half a million people die in the UK each year, fewer than 5,000 die in circumstances in which they can become donors: the pool of people is not as big as we often think and is actually relatively small. If I have time, I will discuss how we are considering how the pool might be expanded.
Much of the debate rightly focused on the UK’s consent rate, which is one of the lowest in Europe. Last year, four in 10 families said no to allowing their loved ones’ organs to be donated. In 2012-13, 105 families and in 2013-14 119 families said no even though they knew that their family member was on the organ donation register and wanted to be a donor. That equates to many transplants and many people’s lives that could have been saved or enormously enhanced. Family agreement is a crucial part of the donation process, but because people do not always want to discuss their wishes, relatives tend to say no when in doubt.
I want to explore some of the operational aspects of donation. We all agree that we want more organ donation and more people on the register, but we should consider some of the challenges, in particular the one put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton about why people’s wishes can be overridden. To be clear, we do not need to change the law, which currently protects the right of the individual to be an organ donor. The challenge comes from the complexity and sensitivity of operational issues and not legal issues. Clinicians have a duty of care towards the family. For example—I have every reason to believe that this is based on reality—if it is three in the morning and a clinician is faced with a family who do not want their relative’s organs to be donated and they are crying and clinging to the body, the clinician is likely to go with the family’s wishes.
Will the Minister give way?
If my hon. Friend does not mind, may I try to get through this point?
That example highlights a difficult situation for a clinician. Furthermore, if the family’s wishes are overridden and they make a big campaign out of it and express their grief and dissatisfaction publicly, even though they know the wishes of the deceased, the programme as a whole could be put in jeopardy. If the Burton Mail ran the headline, “They took my son’s heart against my wishes”, the impact on those on the donation register and on families who want to have that conversation could be significant. The issues are sensitive, but it is not for lack of will that people do not ensure that an individual’s wishes are respected. It is important to understand the pressure that clinicians are under in those difficult circumstances. I want to put it on the record that, once retrieved from a body, a heart needs to be used within six hours, livers and lungs within 12 hours and kidneys within approximately 24 hours. The decisions have to be made quickly. It is not like the reading of a will, which can take place weeks, months or years later once calm has been restored and people are more reflective. Such decisions must be made on the spot.
I hope that that provides a little context as to why clinicians face challenges. Most organ donors are not on the register, so the key thing is to change the culture around how we talk about the end of life and to make donation a natural thing for everyone to allow. For some people and communities, however, that is not easy.
I pay tribute to the specialist nurses for organ donation—the lovely SN-ODs—for their wonderful work. There is no doubt that having trained people who can have conversations at sensitive times is absolutely critical. I note the challenge about the number of specialist nurses drawn from minority and ethnic communities, who we know make a difference, and I will discuss it with NHS England and NHS Blood and Transplant.
Our strategy is evolutionary, but that does not mean that we cannot make big leaps forward in some areas. The nudge work to get more people to sign up has been extraordinary in some cases. In one of the largest public sector studies of its kind, over 1 million people took part to test eight different ways of asking people to join the register. That has resulted in some significant gains, as was mentioned by the shadow Minister. There is a range of other measures, including using social media and other points of contact. There is a schools project, “Give and Let Live”. Getting teenagers to discuss the subject with their families and become thought leaders is important. As a result of the work going on in schools, young people are often good at leading conversations within the family.
National transplant week is coming up. I do not have time to go into the details, but many things are happening around the theme of “Spell it out”. It is all about the conversation and about getting family members to talk to each other. Given the interest—I am sure that Members of Parliament can help—I will attempt to write to all colleagues with more details about the week and how we can play our part and do our bit in our constituencies to lead the conversation. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton visited a local mosque to see whether he could help to lead the conversation there, something which in many cases is far more effective than top-down campaigns. I do, however, note the challenges around some of the big, high-profile, in-your-face campaigns that have been run in places such as Scotland.
I want to assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others that work is going on to consider widening the pool of donors. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is doing some research on babies—a sensitive subject—to see what can be done about the challenge of child donation. The Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs is reviewing the evidence on the outcomes of UK transplants of organs from donors who had cancer or a history of cancer. We are beginning to learn more about the possibility of successful donation even when someone has suffered from cancer, and SaBTO is drawing up a series of recommendations to help transplant surgeons.
It is also worth saying that, even in Wales and in Northern Ireland were the private Member’s Bill to succeed, it is still the case that a family can override a decision in the circumstances that I have described. We must be sensitive to the circumstances in which decisions are being taken. In Wales, relatives will still be asked to support the donation and can object if they know that the deceased would not have consented.
In the remaining minute or so, I want to say that it is absolutely right for Members to place concerns on the record about donation from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, where the refusal rate to donation is nearly 80% compared with around 40% nationally, which is significant. My Department supports the National Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Transplant Alliance, which does great work in this area, including, for example, on consent rates. Subject to parliamentary business, I intend to visit Birmingham next week to launch a new project to train peer educators from the Pakistani Muslim community in Birmingham. We are training community champions there to go out and do some of that work. I am happy to talk to colleagues to see whether we can replicate that elsewhere. There are some significant cultural, rather than doctrinal, reasons why—
I do not think that I will be able to give way to my hon. Friend. I hope that he will forgive me. We can perhaps speak immediately after the debate.
In conclusion, we can do many things to encourage more people to register. We are absolutely open to ideas from hon. Members on both sides of the House and all parts of the country and the world. We review and are led by the evidence, as my hon. Friend said. Debates such as this provide an excellent opportunity to raise the issue’s profile and we can hopefully do more in Parliament as national transplant week approaches. I will end by paying tribute to the great work of the excellent NHS Blood and Transplant.
Junction 10A: A14
I thank Mr Speaker for granting me the debate, which is unusual in that you as Chair, Mr Bone, and the Minister who is responding, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), are in danger of being overqualified for it, because you are both familiar with the stretch of the A14 near Kettering about which I intend to speak. Indeed, I thank the Minister very much for visiting Kettering on 23 May and standing on the footbridge over the A14 at Cranford, which is the proposed location of the new junction 10A, should it ever be built. I am most grateful for the personal attention that the Minister has given to the issue.
Junction 10A does not exist. At the moment, it is a blob on a Department for Transport map, but it is a junction that the people of Kettering very much need if the town of is not to grind to a halt because of all the new house building taking place in the borough. As you know, Mr Bone, because your constituency Wellingborough is similar in this respect, Kettering is one of the fastest growing towns or boroughs in the whole country. The census figures for 2001 to 2011 place Kettering at No. 6 on the list of local authorities demonstrating the fastest increase in the number of households. Over that 10-year period, the number of households in Kettering increased by 16.8%. That is the fastest rate of growth in Northamptonshire and sixth in the whole country, after one location in the south-west, two in the east midlands and two London authorities. That rate of growth is set to continue.
The plans for 5,500 new houses to the east of Kettering, between the town of Kettering itself and the village of Cranford, were in effect imposed on Kettering borough council in the dying days of the previous Labour Government. There is a great deal of local concern about the rate of house building in our area. It is not possible, however, to undo the planning consent—those houses have permission and we have to make the best of it. We have to ensure that those houses form a vital, liveable community and not simply one big, soulless housing estate. In order to make that happen, we must ensure not only that the infrastructure is in place to serve those new houses but that the existing residents in the other parts of Kettering do not have the quality of their lives destroyed. For local people, it is the equivalent of bolting on to the town of Kettering another town the size of Desborough, which is located a few miles away. The rate of change for the local community will be absolutely huge.
The experts in the Department for Transport say that in order to cope with the 5,500 extra houses, a new junction on the A14 is needed—called junction 10A. It would be located by the footbridge between Burton Latimer and Cranford, upon which the Minister and I walked only a few weeks ago. The cost of the junction is estimated to be £39 million, and it is the Department for Transport that has said that the junction is necessary. Indeed, a planning condition is in place: that no more than 1,750 houses may be built unless a scheme is in place for junction 10A.
I am asking the Minister to consider giving a commitment to fund the junction. I am not asking him to get his cheque book out now and hand me a cheque for £39 million, although that would be very nice. Local people do need, however, a commitment from Her Majesty’s Government to fund the junction in the period 2017 to 2020. Such a commitment would give developers the necessary assurance that the funding would be forthcoming at a future date, which would trigger private sector investment now to ensure that the development takes place. Any delay by Her Majesty’s Government in giving that commitment will delay the development of Kettering East, which increases the chance of it not taking place properly. The chance increases of a soulless housing estate being created, rather than a vital, liveable community.
We are talking not only about houses but about jobs, industry and green energy. Located just across the A14 from Kettering East is the Burton Wold wind farm. In many ways, surprisingly, that is a popular local wind farm. A lot of money goes from the wind farm owners into Burton Latimer for community projects, and the number of wind turbines is going to increase from 10 to 17. The new turbines will be some of the most efficient in the world, with 40% efficiency, rather than 20% efficiency. General Electric and First Renewable Developments want to develop the Burton Wold wind farm into an energy park with solar generation, biomass plants and the recycling of heat. If the energy park were to take off, it would generate 60 MW of electricity, which is more than enough to power Kettering. That would make Kettering an entirely green town, in the sense that all its energy needs would come from its own energy park. GE has chosen Kettering because, apparently, it is the most typical town in England.
Kettering is a lovely place to live; I always try to describe it as middle England at its best, and GE has realised that. Kettering, because it is average on most indicators and is the most typical town in England, has been chosen by GE for that template energy park development. If such a development works in Kettering, the idea is to roll it out to other typical towns, not only in England but in other countries. Kettering has an exciting chance to become a template, a pioneer, for that sort of development. Alongside the energy park would be an employment park, between Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer, to provide thousands of jobs for all the people who are going to live in the thousands of houses being built. None of that can take place, however, unless there is a junction 10A on the A14.
In response to my question on the Floor of the House on 8 May, the Minister rightly said that those who stood to benefit from the new junction should contribute towards it. The biggest beneficiaries of the new junction, however, will in fact be Her Majesty’s Treasury, because of all the extra business rates and tax receipts generated, such as from VAT and income from employment. Indeed, the £39 million cost of junction 10A —there is an associated cost for another road, the Weekley-Warkton bypass, so the total would be £60 million to £65 million—would generate £1.2 billion of economic benefit, most of which would go to the Treasury.
Spending £60 million on these two road projects, including £39 million on junction 10A, would therefore trigger £160 million of private sector investment from General Electric in the energy park. Without the development of junction 10A, local economic activity would increase by £342 million; with it, total economic activity would be £1.2 billion. Spending £39 million on junction 10A would therefore produce a net economic benefit of £862 million, the vast majority of which would go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That spending would enable us to complete 5,500 homes in a coherent and sensible way and to have 60 MW of low-carbon energy production, as well as thousands of new jobs for local people. If we are to make Kettering East work, that seems a sensible way to go about it.
However, the absolutely pivotal decision—the key to this—is the Minister’s. If he can find his way not to fund, but to give a commitment to fund, this new junction from 2017 onwards, that will unlock extra private sector investment now in the local economies of Kettering and Northamptonshire. Indeed, the local enterprise partnerships for Northamptonshire and the south-east midlands have both included the junction in their strategic economic plans. On the Floor of the House just a few weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said he was impressed by the fact that they had come together to identify this key junction as a strategic priority.
I agree with the Minister that the developers of the houses, the business park and the energy park should contribute to local infrastructure improvements. Indeed, there is a substantial section 106 agreement for more than £70 million to go into infrastructure provision in Kettering. There will be badly needed improvements to the local road network in the town of Kettering, but there will also be private sector investment in the improvements that will take place to junctions 9 and 10 of the A14. Private developers are therefore contributing up front to the extra infrastructure costs. However, what they are seeking, what I am seeking and what local people need is a commitment from Her Majesty’s Government to new junction 10A.
The £39 million cost pales into insignificance when compared with the £50 billion for High Speed 2. There are not many economic projects across the country that could trigger £1.2 billion of total economic activity for £39 million. Indeed, I suspect that the Minister would agree that such a rate of return would be extremely attractive if it were applied to High Speed 2.
The Minister has a golden opportunity to make one of the best decisions he will have the chance to make in his tenure in the Department. I hope it is a long tenure, because he is assiduous. He is an excellent Minister, who weighs up all the pros and cons. He goes out of his way to visit sites to see for himself what local Members are talking about. When he puts all the things I have mentioned into the mix, I very much hope he will come to the conclusion that the right decision—not only to achieve extra economic growth for our country, but to make sure Kettering becomes a pioneer in joined-up, sensible development that is sustainable into the future, with a large element of green energy thrown into the mix—would be to give a commitment to fund junction 10A. In that way, Kettering will become an exemplar that can be rolled out across not only this country but other countries in the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate on junction 10A of the A14. I also congratulate him on his tenacity in continuing to raise the issue. With his concluding remarks, I think he gets the gold medal for buttering up Ministers.
I know the subject is of great importance to my hon. Friend, who has long campaigned for improvements to the strategic roads in his constituency. I very much recognise the important role the A14 plays play in facilitating movements in and around Kettering, as well as the need for transport infrastructure to support the area’s growth and development aspirations.
As my hon. Friend will know, I recently visited the proposed site of the new junction 10A, and I am grateful for the hospitality shown to me during my visit—I had a very pleasant breakfast at the Little Chef nearby. I also had the opportunity to see first hand the location of the Kettering East development and the proposals for it. Kettering borough council presented me with an umbrella and suggested that it would be a good deal if I could pass the scheme in return. It would have been a very good deal indeed. I recently put the umbrella to very good use in Newark.
My hon. Friend also showed me the Burton Wold energy park and demonstrated the sustainability of the development, which includes wind generation, biofuels and other forms of sustainable energy. In addition, we had a chance to look at the Weetabix factory, which is a big employer in the area. Later in the day, I joined the cavalcade opening the Kettering to Corby link road—a major project that demonstrates the Government’s commitment to investment in our road infrastructure.
On the Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network that are targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to delivering a step change in future transport infrastructure investment was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, which announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review. The Treasury’s Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s Future” said that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements to, and maintenance of, national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of the strategic road network.
The Government’s national infrastructure plan sets out the details of the commitments made on specific investment projects. In it there are a number of examples of where the Government have committed to the delivery of schemes that facilitate the delivery of not only further housing, but development-related investment.
My hon. Friend said he was not asking me to write the cheque today, but he did, in effect, ask me to write a postdated cheque. Unfortunately, I cannot go that far today, but I do hope I can make some encouraging noises in that direction. As I said, the Government are committed to investing in our national road infrastructure to improve capacity, reduce congestion and support economic growth across the country.
We have been clear about the importance of the Kettering East development and the need to overcome some of the barriers to its delivery. The scheme has been stalled for a number of years because of the challenges involved in co-ordinating housing, economic and transport issues at such a scale and the major costs associated with the infrastructure needed to get the scheme under way. As part of the Government’s commitment to unlock proposals for future housing development, the then Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), committed a number of colleagues from related Departments to work closely with the local authority, the LEPs and the private sector developers to make progress in delivering the scheme. A strategic partners group comprising several Departments, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Highways Agency, the LEPs, the developers and the local authority has been working to establish a common understanding and an agreement between the Government, local partners and developers on opportunities to move the scheme forward.
I sense that the Minister will not be in danger of over-running his time; I am enjoying his speech immensely.
The strategic partners group is, I think, regarded across Government as an exemplar of how to do the things in question. Indeed, the Department for Communities and Local Government has funded Kettering borough council and Northamptonshire county council to look at design options for junction 10A and the Weekley Warkton bypass. The Energy Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), has visited the Burton Wold wind farm site, and I have several times been to the Cabinet Office, with the local authorities and the local enterprise partnerships, to press the case. Will the Minister therefore recognise that the strategic economic partners group is working well, but that the key decision will be his?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right, although I suspect that the Treasury’s views will also be taken into account. Often announcements of this kind are made in close co-operation with the Treasury. The work of such groups and the fact that we are listening particularly to business interests underlines the importance that we give to such development, which can unlock, in particular, the housing development so much needed in parts of the country. Department for Transport and Highways Agency officials are also currently providing advice and assistance to the developers and Kettering borough council, to get a clear understanding of the opportunities that this important development proposal creates.
It may be worth providing a little background to the work that has been completed to date. Outline planning permission for the development was granted in April 2010, with a number of conditions including agreement over the access arrangements to the local highway network and the adjacent A14 trunk road. The first phases of the development will be served from the local highways network and by improvements to existing junctions 9 and 10 of the A14. Those improvements have been approved with the Highways Agency and they satisfy not only Kettering East but also the related development proposals for a major business park being developed to the south of junction 10. Later phases of the Kettering East development require the provision of the new junction 10A to the west on the A14. The planning conditions for that have been met and a basic design has been agreed with the Highways Agency. Ministerial approval for a new junction 10A was required and it was given by Transport Ministers in 2012. The proposal would mean a new grade-separated junction to the east of junction 10, involving the closure of the east-facing slip roads on the current junction 10, to comply with standards.
The Government have provided support and funding to assist in the work necessary to plan and deliver the proposals at Kettering East. As part of our local infrastructure fund proposals, we have also provided £1.2 million of LIF capacity funding to the local authority to enable it to establish a dedicated project team to drive the project forward and carry out the technical highways feasibility work to examine the need for and the cost and timing of the junction on the A14. In addition, the Government have agreed to the provision of £14 million of LIF capital funding to the private sector developer to enable key infrastructure to be put in place to get phase 1 of the development—up to 1,750 homes—under way. In short, it is possible for the development to commence without junction 10A but, of course, we understand the importance of the junction to the completion of the whole development.
My hon. Friend made the case for the Government to commit to the funding of the improvements necessary at junction 10A of the A14 and it may be useful if I say a little more on the Department’s investment planning process for future investment proposals for the national road network. My hon. Friend will be aware, with respect to other future investment planning processes, that the Highways Agency is currently conducting its route strategy process. That involves local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. Route strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and will mean greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the need for and nature and timing of future investment that might be required on the network.
The Highways Agency completed a series of local engagement events last autumn to help to identify performance issues and future challenges, and I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated in the progress so far. A finalised evidence report was published on the agency’s website on 23 April, and the agency and the Department will now use that evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions covering operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the A14 as part of the Felixstowe to Midlands route strategy.
The Government have also announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015-16 onwards, which will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships and will incorporate all funding for local major transport schemes. There is more than £6 billion of transport funding in the fund up to 2020-21. I am aware that the addition of a junction 10A on the A14, and the proposals for the local authority road improvements, have also been subject to bids through the local growth fund process and Government will take decisions on the local growth fund allocations in July. Subject to the decisions taken as part of the local growth fund process, my Department and other Departments will continue to work with the local authorities and partners to understand the details of the case for transport investment in Kettering East. To consider the case for future investment proposals, my Department and the Highways Agency will need to consider the transport business case for the junction 10A proposals, including the transport value for money assessment, delivery time scales and details of any potential third-party contributions to the capital costs of the project. I believe that those negotiations on third-party contributions will be important in how we are able to deliver the junction. I understand that the detailed transport business case is to be completed in due course. Once it has been presented, with robust evidence to underpin the cost and timing of, and need for, the new junction, the Government will be able to consider the case for an investment decision to be taken.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering on securing the debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale investments to improve our national strategic road network and help to facilitate economic growth. Indeed, there is nothing that I like better than the laying of tarmac, the pouring of concrete and the commencement of excavation work, to show that the Government are investing in our national infrastructure. We are committed to working closely with partners to ensure that we fully understand the impacts of what is an important development on the surrounding transport infrastructure. Ultimately, however, any proposals for future investment will need to demonstrate a strong business case, and to have secured third-party contributions, for Government to take an investment decision.
This has been a good debate on a subject that you, Mr Bone, might well have wanted to take part in yourself, had you not been in the Chair.
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I think is the second time. I am pleased to have secured a debate on the availability of bus services, an issue that affects Members of all parties, across the whole country.
Bus services are vital lifelines that connect together the places in our constituencies. They take people to work, children to school and shoppers to the high street, but as we all recognise from the experience in our localities, the frequency, quality and affordability of local bus services is, on the whole, decreasing.
In Corby in east Northamptonshire, the local county council has cut its subsidy by 55% since 2010—the largest such cut anywhere in the country. At the same time, Northamptonshire county council has imposed on my constituents a programme of switching off street lights, which has resulted in half of all the lights going out. With no buses and no street lights, it is no wonder that many of my constituents have told me that they feel like a prisoner in their own home. If we take into account the poor state of repair of our roads and the giant potholes we see all over Corby and east Northamptonshire, it is clear that road conditions and the local transport infrastructure are in a much worse condition today than when the Government came to power.
Before I turn to specific issues in my constituency, I want to speak briefly about the national context. Across England fares have been rising, services have been cut and passenger numbers are falling. The shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), made a series of freedom of information requests to upper-tier councils earlier this year. He found that local authority bus subsidies across shire counties and unitary authorities have been cut by 23% in real terms since 2010-11, and has said:
“It couldn’t be clearer to local residents that vital front-line services are disappearing dramatically as cuts to councils intensify.”
He also warned, as I do, that elderly and disabled residents were being left stranded at home. The Local Government Association has said that
“elderly and disabled people will be left…with a free bus pass in one hand but no local buses to travel on in the other.”
The Campaign for Better Transport said in December last year that cuts to bus services were reaching what it called “critical levels”, and warned that soon whole networks would begin to disappear.
The Government cannot claim that they were not warned about the effects of cuts to bus subsidies. A report published by the Select Committee on Transport in 2011 warned that cuts to council budgets by central Government, combined with changes to other support mechanisms such as the bus service operators grant and concessionary fares, had led to some authorities withdrawing subsidised bus services with “inadequate or no consultation”—those were the Committee’s words—affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The Minister will no doubt try to tell us that responsibility for such decisions lies with local authorities, but as the Local Government Association points out, councils know how important buses are for their communities and local economies and are trying to protect them. However, councils have had a 40% core funding reduction over this Parliament—the biggest funding reduction in the public sector. People should be in no doubt that cuts to bus services across the country are a result of the policies of this Government. There have been massive cuts to council budgets, which are compounded by their hugely unfair distribution; some of the wealthiest areas of the country have seen their resources increase. This is from a Government who are putting a tax cut for the richest ahead of the services that many people rely on.
The Minister will no doubt tell us that it is all okay. That is simply another indication to my constituents of just out of touch the Government are. Out in the real world, people know there are fewer services. I was door-knocking in my constituency recently and met a gentleman who pointed to the bus stop outside his house and told me that it had been replaced. Now, we might have thought that he would be happy, but he said that no buses had run down his street for years, so to him it was an insult that the bus stop had been replaced. To me, that is a symbol of the Government policy on buses: a new bus stop, but no buses. All of this is happening despite projections of 40% more traffic on the road by 2035—those are the Government’s own projections—at a time when rising fuel costs make it much more expensive for people to fill up the tank in their car, and under a Government who promised to be the greenest ever, yet are allowing bus services to be cut when those services can help reduce carbon by keeping cars off the road.
Bus services are vital for many people across my constituency, which is very large and contains five towns—one large industrial town, Corby, and four smaller market towns—and many villages over a large area of Northamptonshire. Many constituents have written or spoken to me about the lack of services and the problems they experience with those services that remain. I have travelled around by bus to talk to passengers and have conducted an online survey of people’s views and experiences. Over 80% of my constituents told me that they have noticed a decrease in services over recent years. Less than a quarter told me that they were happy with the quality and affordability of bus services in their area. Many people told me that they would use services more if they were more frequent.
My concern is that if things continue as they are, those who say that they use services sometimes will become “never” users, as we go further on a downward spiral, with cuts to subsidies meaning ever poorer provision of services, which in turn drives away passengers. The cuts may look okay on a spreadsheet, but a self-fulfilling prophecy comes about: if people are less able to access or rely on bus services, usage goes down and down until no services are left. Some constituents have told me that they can make a journey one way, and so might be able to get from their village to, for example, Peterborough; but what is the use of that if they have no confidence that they will be able to get home again? They therefore stop using the buses and either do not travel at all or find some alternative means.
There is another way: we could make those people who tell me that they sometimes travel on buses become regular passengers. Some 90% of the constituents who filled out my survey said that they would use buses more if services were better. We see examples of that all around the country, not least here in London, where Members of Parliament can see how beneficial regular and reliable bus services are to people.
My constituents raised a number of areas where they would like to see improvements. A key issue was having more suitable bus shelters, including ones that have seats for people to use while they wait and give better shelter from wind and rain in the winter. There are issues for wheelchair users and those who are blind and deaf. I know that many Members from across the House will have taken part in a talking buses awareness event organised by the Guide Dogs charity. I am pleased that my party has promised that we will seek to expand the UK fleet of buses fitted with audio-visual systems.
Many constituents raised concerns about the lack of bus services after 7 pm or 8 pm and on Sundays. They told me about many specific services. In east Northamptonshire, those include the Nene Valley Traveller service, or No. 23, from Peterborough to Oundle via Wansford, Kings Cliffe and Nassington, which was one of the first casualties of the county council’s cuts. That cut has left the entire northern part of my constituency with no public transport except for services subsidised by local supermarkets on a weekly basis.
Constituents have told me that they would like the No. 49 and No. 50 Stagecoach services to run much later in the evening. The last bus from Kettering to Irthlingborough, for example, runs at 10 minutes to 8 each weekday, so people cannot travel and access services later in the evening.
People want a direct route to Peterborough from Raunds and Thrapston at weekends, which would be hugely beneficial. There is demand for Sunday services to Irchester and Raunds and a better service to Finedon on Sundays. The X4 service between Oundle and Peterborough stops too early in the evening, and constituents have told me that that means having to spend upwards of £30 on a taxi from the train station to Oundle when the buses stop running. My constituent Amanda Swain of Thrapston told me that her son had to obtain special dispensation from his school to arrive after assembly because he could not catch a bus from Thrapston to Kettering early enough to get him there.
My constituents in Corby would like a direct bus service from the Kingswood estate to Asda. At the moment, they have to take two buses, sometimes with a 30-minute delay in-between. They also want a bus service from Kingswood to the Earlstrees estate, because many people work in the town. Throughout Corby, the issue of late buses comes up time and again.
Richard Mills, a constituent, told me that the £2.10 all-day ticket—I purchased one the other day and travelled around Corby—is real value, but we need a better bus service after 6 pm because people have to go to and from shifts at work. Whether they are at work or having a day out, if they return to the train station in Corby after 6 pm, there is no bus to take them home.
I have been told that the X1 is also bad and never runs on time. It takes people to hospital in Kettering, so it is particularly important. My constituents are disappointed that there is only one bus shelter at Oakley Vale for the 19 service to Corby town.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
My constituents have been telling me about a range of issues locally, and I want to finish by putting a few more of those on the record. Of course, I will then be raising them with Stagecoach, Centrebus and others. If there is any way in which the Minister can assist us, too, that will of course be welcome, but it seems to me that many of them are about looking locally at the services and whether we can improve particular services.
The X4 route in Corby no longer uses Colyers avenue, which is disappointing for those residents. There is a lack of service to the Patrick road area of Corby—an issue that many people have raised with me. Sionah Rielly has told me that Stephenson way does not have a very good service and has suggested that it would be a particular improvement to have a service that goes to Asda in the town. The CallConnect service is very useful, I am told. Many people find it useful, but it does not provide access to the railway station at Corby. That means that many of my constituents who use that service have to rely on taxis, which are expensive.
My constituent, Ann-Marie Leonard, summarised all the issues when she told me:
“It’s a real problem that the local buses all finish running by 7pm. Unless you use a car or a taxi you can’t go to the theatre, adult education, swimming, tennis club, bingo, Asda late night shopping, visit friends, support elderly relatives…well, anything! Kids can’t get the bus home from youth clubs or Adrenaline Alley or sports clubs. And now there are medical centres that open until 8pm”—
we are pleased that we have the Corby urgent care centre—
“but you can’t have a late appointment if there isn’t a bus running that late. It’s like living under curfew”.
Corby’s local economy is such that many people work shifts, often finishing after the buses stop running or before they start running in the mornings. That means that lots of my constituents walk home or travel by bicycle. That is okay on a long summer day, such as today, for some of my constituents, but in the winter, when it is cold and dark and the street lights are out, my constituents are rightly concerned about their travel to and from work.
Then there are those travelling further afield. Paula Boulton told me that Corby is in effect
“marooned from the rest of the county”.
Anyone who can brave the X4 via Wellingborough to get to the county town of Northampton, she says, is a hardy soul.
There are two main operators in my constituency. Centrebus runs through Thrapston and Raunds and has, more than any other bus service, been causing my constituents particularly high levels of grief. Lateness and breakdowns of buses have been experienced frequently, as has the failure of buses even to turn up. I have provided details to Centrebus of specific occasions when buses have not turned up, but I have not had a very good response. It has shrugged off those experiences as isolated incidents and denied the existence of any real problems, yet every time I have a surgery in Thrapston, for example, constituents will come to tell me about continuing problems with Centrebus. That is partly about the ageing vehicles that operate on the route. That is why I have written to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to raise my constituents’ concerns about the vehicles themselves: it has a role in regulating or inspecting the quality of buses used for public transport purposes. I will follow that up, but I would be grateful if the Minister could provide me with any help or advice that I can share with my constituents about the quality of the buses themselves, because that is important to the reliability of the services.
I can contrast that with Stagecoach. I was delighted to help it to launch a new fleet of double-decker buses. It was very proud of the handmade Italian leather seats. They did look very smart. They are mostly modern buses. Those buses were in east Northamptonshire. The bus that I rode on yesterday in Corby was also a very good modern bus.
I have received some complaints about services from Stagecoach, and of course it would expect me to acknowledge that its services are not always up to scratch, but I have to say that I have been incredibly impressed with it—with its staff, its bus drivers and its managing director. I heard on Radio Northampton the other day, in response to my questioning the level of cuts in the county, the county council cabinet member for transport, Councillor Michael Clarke, saying that the level of cuts to services has not been equivalent to the level of cuts to funding. He is right, but my view is that the county council takes little credit for that. It is actually because of the way in which Stagecoach has worked to keep a lot of the routes going and to keep the network going as far as possible.
I have been very impressed by the fact that Stagecoach has been very open to discussing with me the concerns that constituents have raised. For example, there was a campaign in Corby a year ago, when significant changes were proposed, and the managing director, Steve Burd, came to my office, talked to me about those concerns and addressed many of them as far as he could. But clearly Stagecoach is a commercial company. It is trying to optimise what is delivered in the public interest while of course having its own targets to maintain as a profit-making entity. I think that it does that as well as we could expect it to. I wanted to put that on the record.
Sometimes overlooked in debates about the availability of bus services is how important they are to young people. Before I close, I would like to raise some issues that affect young people in my constituency, many of whom use buses to get to school, whether they are going to schools in Corby or across east Northamptonshire. For example, young constituents in places such as Kings Cliffe and Thrapston travel to Prince William school and constituents in Irthlingborough and Raunds travel to Kettering, Wellingborough or even to Corby to access services.
There is one particular issue that I shall ask both Front Benchers to think about. It may have been raised with them previously. I am talking about what seems to parents and young people I meet to be an inconsistency in relation to the fact that young people are now required to stay on at school until they are 18. I believe that giving our young people that extra opportunity in terms of education and training is the right thing to do in order to have the skilled work force that this country needs, but they do have to pay the costs of transport, which can be very high for them or for their parents, from the age of 16 to 18, and that is of course if the services are available. I would be grateful for any response on that and any encouragement to my constituents that there may be some way of dealing with those concerns.
Looking forward, I am very keen to try to make services better. At local level, I will work closely and constructively with Stagecoach, and, as I said, it is open to finding new ways to improve services. Indeed, when I have talked to people from Stagecoach about businesses that might want to make contributions, they have been very open to looking at that and whether it could be viable.
Corby borough council plays an important role. In the past, it has negotiated section 106 agreements that have helped to fund bus services, including, for example, services up to Priors Hall. I will be asking that council and East Northants district council what further plans they have to help to maintain local services. In east Northants, the new Rushden Lakes development could be a source of both funding and demand, possibly acting as a form of local hub for services. I am keen that we look at and investigate that and see whether it would help us to improve bus services and, in particular, the connections in that part of the county.
Community and voluntary transport schemes have a role to play. In my view, they should be in addition to, rather than a replacement for, core public bus services, but they do have a role to play. I recently opened the new CANDO day centre for older people in Raunds. It has volunteer drivers who provide transport so that people can get there. I pay tribute to the people involved in that—the volunteers. In Corby, there is interest in developing a new community transport scheme. Again, I would appreciate any advice from the Front Benchers on how we can turn that into a reality and particularly on whether there are any grants that could help or any good practical examples that we could look at to help us to find a way forward.
In the longer term, the key is to take a much more strategic approach to how we provide bus services. Quality partnerships can be important to that, and there are quality partnerships across the country, but I want to see quality contracts being adopted. Those were a welcome idea on the part of the previous Government, but experience shows that it has been difficult in practice to get them agreed locally, although I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) is going to tell us that there will be a beacon in the north-east that we can all look to in order to see how to get them agreed. I am encouraged by the fact that Labour Front Benchers are looking at how a future Labour Government could make the adoption of quality contracts possible across the country, making them much more widespread.
I hope today’s debate will keep bus services high on the agenda. I hope local operators and other local partners will respond to many of the issues I have put on the record, which constituents have raised with me. I would like to think that Northamptonshire county council will take some notice and consider the effect of its decision to cut bus services more than any other county. I will not hold my breath, but I hope the county council will listen, because we are talking about not just my constituents, but the council’s residents. I hope that local operators—particularly Stagecoach, which is generally good—and other key local partners, including district councils, businesses and the voluntary sector, will work with me. Together, we can improve the bus services in our local area, despite the difficult financial context we face.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration.
Let me, at the outset, set the scene in Northern Ireland: transport is a devolved matter, so decisions lie very much with the Minister in Northern Ireland who is responsible for it. We face many issues, including making transport work for those with disabilities. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raised are the same as those we face in Northern Ireland. Although transport is a devolved matter, the issues in Northern Ireland are very similar, and I will outline them.
The debate gives me an opportunity to highlight an issue close to my heart: the lack of rural public transport in my constituency. Strangford is made up of a mixture of urban and rural, isolated areas, and I suppose most Members here would say the same. That clearly illustrates the issue for those who do not have their own transport and who do not, unfortunately, have access to public transport in the way they should.
I am well aware of the beauty of living in the country, but I am also aware of the drawbacks, and one of the main issues is rural isolation. Even small errands can prove difficult for some of my constituents, never mind travelling to and from work or school. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issues that are paramount for young people, and I want to touch on those.
From those with a passion for being green, I can already hear the cry, “Get on your bike!”, but we cannot do the same as Boris Johnson here in London. It is not possible to cycle, because people have to take long rural roads to get to their work or school, and there are also the safety issues that come from that. Cycling is not an option for my constituents, and I do not believe it is an option for the hon. Gentleman in his constituency.
Many of our country roads are not suitable for bikes, and although the Government have done a lot to encourage cyclists on to the roads, through the use of cycle lanes, cycle lanes do not stretch into the most rural parts of Strangford, so cycling is often simply too dangerous to be a serious option when it comes to getting to and from work.
The only other form of public transport is the bus, but the timetables and routes are not particularly convenient. The hon. Gentleman outlined the issue with timetables, and I am sure that those who speak after me will do the same. If we can get everyone to use the buses, they will be profitable. The problem is that buses are not always available at the time people need them. The result is that services are full, and that is apparent in my constituency.
For example, a constituent from Kircubbin cannot get a bus straight to Belfast and has to change in Newtownards. Furthermore, if that constituent works in Newtownards until 9 pm, they have to wait until 10.35 pm—almost 11 pm—to get a bus to Portaferry, arriving in Kircubbin only at 11.5 pm. That illustrates the need for public transport to be available at times when people need it.
Such situations are simply ridiculous, particularly for many 16 and 17-year-olds who work part time in the town and rely on the bus to get to and from work. I am pleased that the economic outlook for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is much better than it was and that unemployment is dropping, and we all acknowledge that. However, I am talking about people with part-time jobs—they have a foot on the ladder and they can go on to other employment when it comes along—who cannot, unfortunately, use buses because they do not always run when those people are doing their shifts.
The Government are trying to encourage public transport in an effort to become greener, but how can we encourage it when the timetables for rural constituents are so poor or young people are forced not to work because they are afraid of travelling home late at night? I must underline that, because there is a safety issue particularly for young girls and young ladies when they are travelling late at night through a town. Again, if the buses were earlier, that would suit them best.
We are bringing in park-and-ride schemes in Northern Ireland—they are probably in many other parts of the United Kingdom—but they are not yet available everywhere. Those who come from the peninsula can park their cars in Newtonards and get the bus to Belfast, therefore reducing the gridlock in the city of Belfast. Again, that is a positive way of getting more people to use public transport, which will then be profitable. We must look at that.
Unsurprisingly, people are left reliant on cars, but they are not the answer. Not only are they not environmentally friendly but the high cost of fuel puts pressure on families and can lead to rural isolation. That is yet another aspect of the lack of flexible transport links.
Taking children in my constituency to the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls’ Brigade, after-school clubs or sports activities is a costly venture. Sports clubs often require children to attend two afternoons’ training and a Saturday match—six trips over three days. That is in addition to taking the kids to social events. Those of us here who are parents will know very well that parents are really a taxi service for their children—I am not, but my wife is—and that is also one of the negatives of living in the countryside. For many families, these journeys simply cost too much, and parents and children really feel the impact of rural isolation. It is even more difficult for the elderly or vulnerable, who do not necessarily have access to cars.
The lack of flexible bus times between Newtownards, Belfast and the Ards peninsula is completely unacceptable and unworkable for those who depend on buses to get to their jobs. Newtownards is a central business district, and the buy-out of Hughes Insurance, which employs more than 310 staff, by the very successful American firm Liberty Mutual should attest to that. Newtownards is a vital feeder for Belfast, with huge numbers of workers and schoolchildren travelling back and forth each day.
We must consider how best to use money to enable people to get back on public transport. One way would be to ring-fence funding for rural transport schemes and improvements in bus timetables and routes. In Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, we also have the Rural Community Network—a very good group of people who interact with charities, voluntary organisations and rural community organisations. There is some subsidy to enable the network to reach out to rural areas. In his response, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there is a similar scheme on the UK mainland. If so, how does it work? The scheme in Northern Ireland at least addresses some of the issues, if not all of them.
In another part of Strangford, the story is the same. Carrowdore is a small village just outside Newtownards that does not have a pharmacy—services are not always available in parts of my constituency. The closest surgery is not within walking distance, so many elderly or vulnerable constituents who require frequent prescriptions have no option but to wait for half a day for a bus so that they can get to their nearest pharmacy.
I once went on a bus journey with a constituent who lived in Portaferry, and I mention it just to illustrate what the problems are and how acute they can be. My constituent had to go to a hospital appointment in Lisburn. It took seven hours there and back, and it cost £39.40. It takes me half that time to drive to the airport, wait for boarding, fly to London and get from Heathrow to Parliament. To illustrate that point, I went with my constituent—we wanted to highlight transport costs and the difficulty of going for hospital treatment.
That state of affairs is unacceptable for someone who is ill, and it needs to be addressed. The groups who are affected are those that society and elected representatives must protect. We should make life easier for them in any way we can. How can we make a difference to the lives of those who live in our rural communities—the children who cannot afford to go to after-school activities and clubs, the stay-at-home mums who have no car and no opportunity to meet other mums for some adult company and social interaction, the people who are ill or disabled and cannot drive and who no longer have an affordable taxi service, and the elderly who often end up all but imprisoned in their own homes? What difference can we make? A reduction in fuel duty—I know that is not the Minister’s prerogative—would be a step in the right direction for those of us in Northern Ireland who have an issue with the cost of running a car, but more needs to be done. Specific ring-fencing of funding for my rural constituents is needed so that bus services in rural communities can be made more frequent.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby on obtaining a debate on the matter, and apologise, Ms Dorries, because as I said to you previously I have somewhere else to be; but, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the film, “I’ll be back.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this important debate. Our constituencies are in many ways different, being at opposite ends of the country, but we seem to share many of the same problems with local bus services.
My constituency is composed of both urban and semi-rural areas—towns, villages and estates spread out across the city of Sunderland—but what we have in common throughout the constituency is the fact that we do not enjoy the benefits of a rail or light rail connection. We entirely depend on local bus services, which is why I have campaigned on the issue since I was elected to Parliament.
For metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear, there is a solution: the introduction of a quality contract scheme—a mechanism that would allow the local transport authority to reregulate local bus services if certain criteria were met. That new system would have routes set by the transport authority, with bus operators bidding in an open competition to run services. I am proud that, despite fierce opposition from bus operators, and threats of legal action, the combined authority in Tyne and Wear continues to lead the way. I shall briefly outline why I believe such a scheme has the potential to benefit constituents in other areas, too.
I should perhaps at this point mention that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Corby and I share many problems with bus services, our views diverge when it comes to Stagecoach. I am pleased about its helpful, consensual approach in east Northamptonshire, and I hope it may take the same approach in Tyne and Wear as we press ahead with options for the future of local bus services. I am pleased at my hon. Friend’s experience and I hope that in the fullness of time I shall share that positive experience of co-operation from bus companies in trying to deliver the best to our constituents.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for quality contracts, and I agree with her. The Souter family who own Stagecoach have become billionaires since buses were deregulated. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows that privatising and deregulating bus services has not helped the travelling public, but has allowed people such as the Souter family to game the system and make bus services worse?
It is my view that deregulation has failed in my area. I am not opposed to bus operators making a profit, although I think the profits made by operators in my region, particularly Stagecoach, are excessive. I want some of that profit to be reinvested into the region and into subsidising services that my constituents depend on to get to hospital, school and other places. I have been disappointed by the approach taken by Stagecoach, but I appreciate that there is much at stake. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby mentioned, many people are paying careful attention to see what Tyne and Wear will decide, and no doubt Stagecoach has been motivated in its approach by that clear factor. I hope that we will find a way forward.
An investigation in 2011 by the Competition Commission was highly critical of deregulated bus services. It found that there was limited competition between operators, which tended to result in higher prices and lower quality for passengers. The report also found that head-to-head competition for services was unlikely between dominant operators. There was heavy criticism because some bus companies were accused of colluding to avoid direct competition altogether, which resulted in geographic market segregation, including in my area. Just as in the energy market, a small number of companies dominate the bus market; we all know them. A quality contract scheme would create a level playing field, allowing new entrants to break into the market; it would open up competition and deliver better value for the taxpayer and passengers.
Such a scheme would also provide long-term security to bus operators, their staff and bus passengers. Too often, bus companies change or even scrap routes, which frustrates passengers and leaves people isolated and cut off from vital services. It also puts jobs at risk. A clear example of that can be found at the Doxford international business park in my constituency, which houses thousands of staff, many of whom are employed in contact centres. Businesses and staff have told me of their concerns that buses run infrequently after the main evening rush hour and that services do not fit with shift patterns. That leaves staff who work shifts with little choice but to travel by car or risk waiting for an infrequent bus service.
On Friday I visited EE, one of the major businesses that employs staff at Doxford, and heard at first hand what the situation means for staff: those who finish shifts at 8 pm run—literally—out of the door and catch the bus at five past 8. If they miss it, they face a lengthy wait for the next bus. Often staff must come to work far earlier than their shift start time, because unless they catch the hourly bus service they risk the consequences of being late for work. No doubt that affects staff retention as well as business growth and our ability to support the growth of jobs in the region. As we know, the north-east still faces big economic challenges and is the region of the country with the highest unemployment rate. We need to support business growth and job creation, but a public transport system that can support that is essential.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby about the challenges for disabled passengers, and particularly those who are blind or partially sighted. I recently took part in a guided walk, which was facilitated by Guide Dogs, to get an understanding of how difficult and disorienting it can be for blind and partially-sighted passengers when they try to access bus services. I travelled on a Go-Ahead bus that was fitted with audiovisual information. I recognise the importance of extending that facility, which is quite unusual in my area. The bus was one of the express bus services that offers it, and although it was far from perfect it is a step in the right direction. Bus operators must do far more to recognise many passengers’ additional needs and make sure that public transport is accessible to everyone.
We have a long way to go on fares and ticketing. A benefit of a quality contract system would be the possibility of introducing a London-style Oyster scheme. Passengers would then have the best fare worked out for them automatically. At the moment there is a huge array of options, with a confusing price structure and different operators offering different fares and tickets that do not work across buses. That discourages people from using buses. Far more must be done to encourage people to use buses, but if that is to happen fares must be affordable and simple. Integrated ticketing is also vital.
Understandably, there is a national focus on our current rail infrastructure, and I agree with that. However, very little attention has been paid to what happens when commuters reach their final rail stop and are confronted with the reality of local bus services or, indeed, to what happens when there is no rail link, only buses, as in my area.
I believe deregulation has failed. Bus companies have a social responsibility to local communities, but, sadly, too many fail to deliver. They vehemently oppose solutions in my area that would give local people a greater say. Their negative campaigning, scaremongering and threats of legal action have gone far beyond rational opposition and are irresponsible. We need action now to help communities and to grow the economy. It is clear to me that that can best be achieved through a quality contract scheme and I hope that later this year Tyne and Wear will be the first area to proceed with one.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing the debate. He described in some detail the circumstances in his region, Northamptonshire, demonstrating the trueness of the phrase “All politics is local”. The information that he drew on came from the excellent freedom of information request made by the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who discovered that Northamptonshire was the hardest hit of all boroughs, with 55% of its funding for local bus services cut since the coalition came to power in 2010.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby also made the point that the issue truly is a national one. He discussed the challenge faced by the most vulnerable—the elderly and the disabled—as well as issues relating to quality of life, and spoke eloquently of a constituent who saw a new bus stop outside his house when no bus had gone past for years.
I also pay tribute to the other two Members who spoke. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) underlined the fact that bus services are truly a United Kingdom issue and eloquently described the effect on those in rural and sparsely populated areas in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) championed the idea of the Tyne and Wear combined authority taking forward a quality contract system. She rightly made the point that constituencies that are urban and semi-rural and that have no light rail connections are particularly vulnerable to the problems in the current context. As she said, we want companies to get a reasonable return on their money, but what is actually delivered is often not reasonable. Excessive profits must be reinvested into the community. Her reference to the Competition Commission report reminded us of some of the issues at stake.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is an indication of the exploitation of the travelling public that goes on outside the regulated system in London that the profits made by private bus companies in places such as Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and Merseyside are between 25% and 50% greater than for the same companies operating in London? That is indicative of a failed system that is exploiting the travelling public in the English regions.
My hon. Friend serves with great distinction on the Transport Committee. He highlights a key issue for us all to ponder. If things can be done in London, they should certainly be examined elsewhere, particularly in areas such as Greater Manchester—I speak as a native Mancunian—where the tradition of good, strong, integrated public transport is sometimes hobbled by practices he mentioned.
All regions have seen support for local services stretched as never before in recent memory, losing an average of 25% of bus funding since 2010. Yet buses remain the most frequently used mode of public transport. Their use is widespread and important outside of as well as in London and our major cities, where media coverage of transport issues is sometimes focused. They are vital in both urban and rural areas, and are a lifeline for groups such as the elderly and disabled people. They also offer opportunities for all passengers to expand their horizons and engage socially in local areas and further afield.
The previous Labour Government showed an unprecedented commitment to strengthening bus services throughout the country. In 1997, the overall level of Government subsidy for bus services—including public transport, the bus service operators grant and concessionary fares—stood at less than £1 million; by the current decade it had risen to more than £2.3 billion. The present Government did not inherit a situation in which buses were a second-class service with a disintegrating network and fleet of vehicles, but, sadly, their cuts to the local government grant and lack of forethought about their effect on local transport demonstrate that they have reverted to an isolated and siloed vision of what public transport can do, rather than seeing it as the environmentally friendly, efficient and inclusive driver of economic growth that it should be.
Campaigning groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport have done some excellent work, particularly in highlighting the value of supported bus services. Such routes are not believed by operators to be independently viable, but often serve the hardest to reach and most isolated communities. The CBT’s research, published earlier this year in the report “Buses in Crisis”, highlighted that in 2013-14 almost 50% of local authorities cut supported bus services, at a total loss of £17 million. Since 2010, more than £56 million has been cut from supported bus services, with many routes and services being cut completely. No wonder that in his foreword to the report the chief executive of the CBT, Stephen Joseph, highlighted the impact of those cuts on two particular groups:
“young people unable to access their place of education or training”
“older people who are left in isolation after their lifeline to the outside world has been cut.”
Supported services are particularly important for the elderly. The difficulty of accessing health services can mean that conditions go untreated and undiagnosed, or that the taxpayer ends up paying more for ambulance trips and unnecessary overnight hospital stays because of a lack of transport options. The difficulty of maintaining social links where public transport is poor reduces quality of life and can anger families, especially those in rural areas who cannot easily see their elderly relatives.
The local economy also suffers as shopping centres and services are made inaccessible. Age UK’s report, “Missed opportunities: the impact on older people of cuts to rural bus services”, brings into stark relief the many facets of isolation that the elderly can experience when services are cut; in some places a taxi to the theatre could cost 10% of their weekly pension. People with disabilities also rely on bus services and are hardest hit when support routes are closed, for many of the same reasons. I will come later to other approaches that can improve the services used by disabled people, but the fundamental point is that the service must be operating in the first place.
As we have heard, young people also suffer when services are cut: jobs and training in hard-to-reach areas can no longer be pursued. Young people are among the biggest users of bus services, as the National Union of Students has pointed out. More than 2 million young people come from low-income households, and 64% of jobseekers either have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive. The role that the bus can play is clear: a joined-up network allows aspirations to thrive and prevents young people from being unable to take up job opportunities. It also boosts their productivity, and it is estimated that £1 of public investment in buses can provide between £3 and £5-worth of wider benefits.
We all know from our experience in our constituencies that bus travel is key for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred to his experience, and recently I have had a number of meetings with young people in which they have all said that the issue is not simply not being able to get about socially; bus services are a lifeline to their college, as well as to get to job interviews and eventually to take up work. It really is a key issue. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the inconsistency of requiring young people to stay in education until they are 18 when they do not have the wherewithal to do so.
The provision of transport in rural areas, which has already been touched on, can also become a matter of inequality. Recent research by the Centre for Social Justice showed that people who live in rural areas can spend between 20% and 30% more on transport than those in urban households. Such areas therefore have more to lose than most when support for local bus services is reduced. As a former shadow further education Minister, I know how crucial that can be for young people in rural areas who want to access college courses. Campuses in rural areas often require a five to 10 mile journey, as opposed to a one to two mile journey in urban areas.
We also have a right to expect quality provision from bus operators because public subsidy accounts for 45% of bus operators’ revenues. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South on the situation in Tyne and Wear are pertinent. Virtually all the major bus companies have pointed out that cuts at that level have inhibited their ability to provide services. The example of her county council is not isolated. There has been a 50% subsidy cut in Suffolk, a 40% subsidy cut in Hertfordshire and a 30% subsidy cut in Somerset. They are all Conservative-controlled authorities in which issues of social cohesion for the elderly and economic opportunity for the young have not been sufficient to retain the subsidies. Those authorities’ own Government have made their ability to do so even harder.
I commend colleagues who have stood up for their local services, and I commend my hon. Friends who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) has been fighting for bus services in her constituency, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has been vocal about services in his area.
What other pressures do local authorities face, and what powers do they have to respond? The LGA has raised concerns that funding has been cut by £261 million and that often it cannot do much about it. Concessionary fares and supported services must work in tandem, rather than competing for an ever-reduced pool of money. People continue to receive the benefits of the bus pass, but we must ensure that its funding reflects the effects of social and independent living. We want actively to explore what more we can do to incentivise and extend bus support for young people so that we make a further impact to bridge the gap to jobs and skills and, incidentally, to make a real impact on economic growth.
Current contract arrangements give little power or incentive for local authorities to have mechanisms to maintain protected services, and the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on quality control are highly relevant. We would increase the amount of money devolved to regional bodies, which would be a major driver of new initiatives and transport projects to improve the quality of services and the transport network for people across those regions.
We must also consider what we have to do to make access a reality for people with disabilities. In the House, we have raised the issues of bus driver training and audiovisual systems. They will not go away, particularly when loud voices from consumer and public organisations are saying that it is time that Ministers heard the clarion call to take a lead on access.
Government at all levels must never lose sight of the fact that bus services not simply are the preserve of bus operators but exist for their passengers. Public transport must never be relegated to the status of a second-class service. A well funded and prioritised bus service can be a key driver of economic growth. The Government need to be fully committed to those ideals to make them a reality, rather than sidelining millions of people to what my hon. Friend’s constituent eloquently characterised as curfew living.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Thanks to the Members who made the excellent contributions that we have heard, we will finish by the time at which we hoped to finish.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this debate on the availability of bus services. I will touch on many elements of his speech, and I will answer a couple of his questions directly. I now feel so much more knowledgeable about Corby bus services. He undoubtedly has weeks of press releases and leaflets planned, and I congratulate him on his speech. I also recognise the contribution of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who rightly pointed out that a number of issues affect not only the mainland but his constituency. He made a long speech, and he accepts that some of the issues are not necessarily under this House’s jurisdiction.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and I obviously differ on quality contracts; she will not be surprised about that. My view is that they are a race to the bottom—to poorer services and higher costs. She spoke about services being withdrawn, but any operator has to give 56 days’ notice before a service can be withdrawn. The overall thrust of the Competition Commission’s view, as she will want to recognise, is that the bus market is working well.
I recognise that buses play a vital role in our economy, as any look will show. In England, more than 2.2 billion journeys were made on local buses outside London last year. That number is broadly flat; it is down about 1% on the year before, which is absolutely in keeping with the trends that we have seen since 1997.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said about our difference of opinion on quality contracts, does he respect that local decision-making bodies should be able to introduce schemes that they think best serve the needs of local areas? Will the Government continue to offer support on that?
I accept the proposition that locals know what is best for their area, if they wish to go down that line. The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that Ministers would probably express the view that that would be ill-advised. I will continue to express that view, but it is for local areas to make that decision.
If we look at ridership numbers since 1997, and indeed at the broad sweep since the second world war, we see declining ridership on buses, but more than 60% of all trips on public transport are still made on local buses. Some 49% of bus trips outside London are made by people who do not have access to a car. Buses are, of course, essential for many people to get to work, education, doctors and hospitals. The bus is a lifeline for many people, particularly in rural areas. Without the bus, those people would be unable to access essential services, go shopping or socialise.
Yet if one listens to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), one hears an attempt to portray a network that has fallen apart. Inconveniently, as I have just pointed out, some of the facts do not bear that out. As he will have wanted to acknowledge, the falls in ridership numbers were severe under a regulated regime. Between 1997 and today, the annual fall in ridership, as a percentage, has been almost the same every year. The idea that there has been a complete collapse in bus ridership since 2010 is simply false.
Combined with that is the fact that customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high. In all national surveys, 88% of passengers say that they are satisfied with the service. It is important to recognise, in looking at that number, that under-21s make up about a third of bus passengers, and use among the older generation has increased over the past few years, as the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge.
I accept that bus satisfaction is high, but that prompts the question of whether people are satisfied because they are able to get a bus in the first place. The point that my hon. Friends and I have made is on the disproportionate effect of the coalition’s cuts on key vulnerable groups. The Minister will not find statistics that gainsay that point.
The Minister certainly will. I am happy to read out the ridership numbers, but there is nothing in those numbers that suggests there has been an increasing rate of decline in bus use since 2010. That is simply true. I am happy to check my facts in the Library. I have the numbers before me, and I can read them out if the hon. Gentleman wants them. The fact of the matter is that the numbers do not support his argument.
It is true, of course, that bus usage and access to buses are important for a healthy, growing economy. The recent survey by the university of Leeds reinforces that point. Bus commuters generate some £64 billion in economic output, and one in five journeys is a journey to work. Shopping and leisure trips generate annual value of some £27 billion.
The Government, far from what is suggested in some portrayals, remain committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that: 42% of all bus operator income comes from public funds. This year, the Government will spend more than £1 billion on concessionary travel entitlement and more than £340 million in direct subsidy to bus operators in England. More than £300 million has been allocated to funding major bus projects in the last year; that is on top of the provision through the better bus areas fund to deliver improvements in 24 local authorities, which cost more than £70 million, and the £20 million to support community transport. Many bus improvement schemes have also been funded as part of the £600 million local sustainable transport fund.
A total of £95 million has also been provided for four rounds of the green bus fund to improve environmental performance. We are also jointly funding a three-year project with Norfolk county council to determine a delivery model for smart ticketing across England, recognising that smarter ticketing will continue to drive easier access. In the 2013 spending review, we protected bus spending until the end of 2015-16, despite the current economic circumstances. All that demonstrates a commitment that was not recognised in some of the contributions.
The Government recognise that improvements can and must be made. In 2012, our document “Green Light for Better Buses” set out our plans for buses. The proposals included reforming bus subsidy, improving competition and incentivising partnership working. The hon. Member for Corby gave a clear example of what partnership working can deliver in his support for Stagecoach, some of the services that it is delivering, and the way that it has improved a number of them. Improving partnership working is increasingly important.
There is no doubt that these are challenging economic times. Government and local authorities have had to make difficult decisions about some spending priorities, but we want to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators—large and small, urban and rural—by ensuring that funding is allocated in the fairest way, giving the best value for taxpayers and ensuring the best service.
For the record, the services that I mentioned have not improved; they have been reduced significantly. My praise for Stagecoach relates to it having worked with me to keep as many buses on the road as possible. If the Minister’s argument rests on saying that rider numbers are not declining any more steeply than in previous years, it is a pretty disappointing argument. The Minister for Transport ought to set out a vision of how to improve public transport. People still need to get to work, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) illustrated; they now just have to wait for an hour, or two hours, and struggle to access bus services that should be much more reliable and available.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, I remarked a moment ago that we have set out a vision for how to improve bus services throughout this country and a view on how we can ensure better services in various areas. I will make some remarks about rural buses in a moment. However, neither he nor I can ignore the trend of declining ridership, whereas for the deregulated rail service, ridership has doubled since privatisation. The idea that we can simply ignore the numbers is not true.
The bus service operators grant has been paid directly to bus operators. To be fair, it has been paid for many years in a blunt and relatively untargeted way based on fuel consumption. Local authorities have told us that they can make the bus subsidy deliver better value for money by working in partnership with bus operators to grow the bus market. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the characteristics of local bus markets differ, so different solutions will undoubtedly be appropriate in different local areas. The Government therefore believe that it is for local authorities to decide which route to pursue. This year, £43 million in BSOG funding will be paid directly to local authorities rather than bus operators; that will relate to the services that councils fund. That will give communities more control over how the money is spent. The funding is now ring-fenced until the end of 2016-17 to provide a period of stability.
The hon. Member for Corby asked several questions, one of which involved concerns about the quality of Centrebus. He will know that all vehicles must meet the relevant standards for roadworthiness enforced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. If he has any concerns about that, I will be delighted to help him ensure that the DVSA undertakes that operation. He also discussed the poor reliability of service. Again, that is entirely a matter for the traffic commissioner; I encourage him and his constituents to raise any concerns with the traffic commissioner, who has powers to take regulatory action against operators that are failing to deliver the service that they are contracted to deliver.
The Government are also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to about 11 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. The concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities in local areas, helps them keep in touch with family and friends and brings benefits to the wider economy. The issue of young people’s travel and fare levels is complex. There is no statutory obligation to provide discounted-price travel to young people. Many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available.
Bus services in rural areas do not depend only on public funding. Commercial operators will provide services in areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in very rural areas of Britain has increased rather than decreased over the past year. However, the Government accept that where commercial services are not feasible, local authorities must and do play a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Almost 30% of bus mileage is in predominately rural authorities, and it is therefore for local authorities to decide what is the best support to put in place in response to local views.
It is vital that local authorities have the opportunity to maximise the funding that they provide. To help with that, last year my Department met its commitment to publish revised guidance to local authorities on best practice when procuring local bus services and other types of road passenger transport. Although I recognise that a lot of innovative and hard work is done by councils all over the country, there is certainly scope to do more. The best practice document sets out some really good practice and highlights some of what local authorities can achieve.
Providing bus transport solutions in rural areas can be challenging. Undoubtedly, the traditional fixed-route service operating to a timetable cannot be and has not always been appropriate. The combination of lower passenger numbers and longer journeys can also put pressure on funding. That is why many local authorities, learning from best practice, are considering other solutions, whether they involve supporting community buses provided by voluntary services, dial-a-ride or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis and minicabs. My Department is undertaking further work to examine the barriers to procurement of better types of service, and we are committed to ensuring that that knowledge is spread through the industry.
In conclusion, this Government believe in buses. Since 2012, we have set out a clear vision for a better bus service with more of what passengers want: punctual, interconnected services, greener and more fully wheelchair-accessible buses, and widely available smart ticketing. That will encourage more passengers to use the network, cut carbon and encourage economic growth.
DEFRA Communications: Hill Farmers
Thank you very much indeed, Ms Dorries, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon.
I am raising the issue of the communications by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with hill farmers. I requested this debate following a meeting I had with Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services—UTASS—a charity that works with hill farmers in my constituency, and I have also had discussions with some of the farmers themselves. I should just say that the hill farming in my constituency is very long-standing and it is rather unusual in that most of the farmers involved are tenant farmers farming on common land. There has been hill farming in this way for about 500 years in my area.
The problem is that DEFRA requires farmers to communicate online, and the Government have failed in their project to roll out broadband across the country. Across the entire country, 5 million people do not have access to broadband and the problem is particularly severe in the rural areas. The counties with the biggest problem are Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, the East Riding, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northumberland, Rutland, Shropshire and Somerset. I think that we can all agree that there are large farming communities in all those counties.
In my constituency, only 46% of the farmers who go to UTASS have broadband. Obviously, therefore, a Government policy of delivering public services that is digital by default is doomed to fail, and DEFRA should be the Department that is the very last to introduce digital by default in its communication system and not the first, which it seems to be at the moment.
On 6 May, UTASS found that 19 farmers were booked in to the charity to complete their application forms for the online single payment scheme, but the system was down, just as it had been on the previous Friday and on several days in the previous weeks. This meant that farmers were driving several miles to access the IT point, but then the Government’s IT system was down and they were unable to transact the business. This process is time-consuming and stressful; it is the very opposite of what we expect from DEFRA.
I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), here in Westminster Hall today, but I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is not present, because he replied on 3 June to my initial letter about this issue. His response to me was wholly inadequate. He wrote:
“Although I accept that these intermittent problems will have been frustrating for RPA customers”—
customers of the Rural Payments Agency—
“the system has been performing well for the majority of the application period.”
What level of failure does DEFRA believe is acceptable or unacceptable? The problem is that if the farmers’ applications were not in on time, they could lose money, but it was difficult—indeed, for some farmers it was impossible—to get their applications in on time due to the failures in DEFRA’s own system.
In his letter, the Under-Secretary of State continued:
“The Agency has had record numbers of on-line submissions with almost 70 per cent of the nearly 102,000 submissions received to date (16 May) being made online.”
However, he does not know or does not take into account in that statement how much time, energy and work was involved in submitting them on time; nor does he seem concerned about the 30% of farmers who, by 16 May, had not completed their submissions. So he says:
“Given that overall picture, I cannot give a blanket assurance that penalties will not be applied.”
That seems to be wholly unreasonable.
The animal reporting and movement service also has a history of crashing online, and it is simply not practical for farmers to take several hours out of their day to travel to ICT facilities.
The next problem is the number of personal identification numbers that farmers are required to have in order to interface with DEFRA, which is a staggering 27. There are so many different systems run by DEFRA and on each one farmers are required to have a different PIN. I do not know about you, Ms Dorries, but I find it difficult to remember my code to enter the House of Commons and my bank number. The thought of having to have 27 different identifiers, or maybe even 28 for some farmers, is absurd.
Let me inform the House what those numbers are for. For the RPA, there is a single business identifier; a personal identifier for each partner in the business, because obviously many farms are family-run; a vendor number; an integrated administration and control scheme number; a PIN to access the single payment scheme online; a holding number, which is called a county parish holding number, with an additional one required for each block of land that is more than five miles from the boundary of the main holding; a herd number; and a flock number. For Natural England, an “AG number” is required for “ELS/UELS/HLS agreements”, which relate to the high-level scheme and the systems of support for the rolling out of the common agricultural policy in this country; and a Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 access number is also needed. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has its own system of identifying numbers; for the Environment Agency, a groundwater authorisation number, a waste carrier number and a waste exemption registration are required; and for DEFRA itself, a holding transport registration number and a City and Guilds number for the transport of animals and PAl to PA6 and so on are needed.
Of course, farmers are running businesses, so they need to interface with other parts of the Government, which involves a national insurance number, a health service number and a passport number. In addition, of course, many farmers have shotgun and firearm licence numbers; they have VAT numbers; they have Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs numbers, both individual numbers and business numbers; the Government Gateway has a number and password; the British Wool Marketing Board number is obviously important for sheep farmers; and the breed societies have numbers. Also, there are separate numbers for every bovine animal and sheep over the age of 12 months on the premises, and separate transaction numbers for every movement or passport issue. That is a proliferation of numbers that we would think incredible if we read it in a novel by Kafka. However, it is not incredible in modern DEFRA.
There is also an extremely important set of further numbers, which are individual field numbers. These feature highly in the operation of the SPS applications. Most of the SPS forms are now pre-populated by the RPA, but all information needs to be cross-checked by the farmer, as the onus is placed on the farmer to correct errors made by the RPA. Each field number needs to be checked by the farmer against four further items: the correct size is stated for that particular field; the net land area is eligible, as detailed on the rural land register for that particular field; the claimed area details are correctly detailed for that particular field; and the land use code is correct for that particular field. If the farmer does not spot an error made by the RPA, the farmer is liable and financially penalised.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I will just point out that in my constituency the farmers have 20 fields, so 80 administrative cross-checks are required in this process.
I had not come to Westminster Hall with the intention of making a political point, because I sympathise hugely with a lot of what the hon. Lady has said. Therefore I hesitate to say this, but almost every one of the regulations that she has mentioned were introduced under the Government of her own party. Therefore, is she here today to support the coalition’s efforts to reduce red tape in farming?
I will come on to this Government’s attempts to cut red tape in the red tape initiative, which—as I have read out the 27 numbers, plus the field numbers and I have not finished yet—has been a miserable failure, frankly. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in this House in the last Parliament, but I was and I criticised the system under the previous Government, because I am very concerned at the way the hill farmers are treated by DEFRA, the RPA and Natural England. And if I might say so, I thought that a coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats with more rural seats than the previous Labour Government would do better, but that is not the case. It has not done better. If anything, the situation is getting worse and this causes a huge number of problems.
Let me move on to the costs to farmers of running the various schemes. Every sheep needs an electronic identification tag. These used to cost 10p each, but now they cost 85p each and each sheep needs two. There are 100,000 sheep in Teesdale, so immediately we see that Teesdale farmers are landed with a bill for £170,000. Every farmer needs a tag reader, and those cost £700 each. DEFRA is putting massive costs on to farmers.
The cattle need passports: their movements have to be recorded, as do their births and deaths and medicines they have been given. The system for medicines must be even tighter than that required for humans in the NHS. One farmer told me that he has to
“report movements, births, deaths—
“not marriages in our Holding Register for sheep and Herd Register for cattle. All veterinary medicine treatments have to be recorded with the identity number of the animal, batch number of the medicine, dosage and expiry date”.
He said that the impact of the red tape initiative has been
“so small as to be imperceptible.”
As well as changing the rules of the CAP, DEFRA is trying at the same time to move the system online, and that is getting worse at the moment. That is being done by this Government and their failure in that regard is totally their responsibility.
There are also changes to the timing of higher level stewardship payments. One big problem is that, whereas farmers received regular in-year payments, now, because of the changeover, most will have to wait for 18 months for a payment, rather than six months. However, some farmers will have to wait as long as nine years for payments. Therefore their incomes are severely pushed down and they are not paid any interest while they wait for money for long periods.
In case Government Members are under any illusion about the farmers in my constituency—I have already mentioned that they are tenant farmers—Newcastle university estimates that the average income of a hill farmer in my area is £11,000 a year. These are not people who can cope with severe fluctuations up and down in their cash flow or cuts to their income.
The RPA online system is, as I have said, deeply problematic. The farmers feel that DEFRA has not done an adequate job in negotiating with Europe.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I think that Members of Parliament of all parties from rural constituencies will have a huge amount of sympathy with what she is saying. I was a livestock farmer before being distracted by politics. Although I would not phrase it in the same aggressive, political way that seems to be part of this debate, this is a serious point that the Government should take on board. We should try to persuade the unions to help, wherever possible, as they are doing in Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Let me just tell hon. Members what the farmers are saying about the Rural Payments Agency online system. They want clarity about the definition of “active farmer”, about whether the scheme refers to net or gross income and whether it should include the single payment scheme. Since more than 200 farmers in my constituency rely on the SPS, they need to understand what the rules and mechanisms are. I asked for clarification on those points more than a month ago, but we have not received it. I am disappointed that the Minister has not responded to my second letter.
Let me now return to the fact that the tenant farmers are grazing their livestock on common land, which is unusual in the European context, because there are not many parts of Europe with commons on the English pattern, but the European legislation does not really take that into account. I urge the Minister to sort out the issue of definitions of “naturally kept land” and commons grazing.
The farmers are worried that, if the system does not get sorted out, DEFRA does not have a plan B, although it really needs one. It cannot continue to put the farmers under such pressure.
This is the worst kind of government. Far from being a supportive, helpful public service, the farmers experience it as oppressive, bureaucratic, arrogant and insensitive. Furthermore, as is obvious from the amount of time and energy that has to be spent on this problem, it is quite clear that the systems are ineffective and counterproductive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this important debate. There has been agreement throughout the House, among all parties, that those of us who represent rural areas, and those who love those areas, want those farming in some of the toughest environments in our country to get the support that we would aspire to provide. I will come back to some of the specific points that she made, but I should like to frame the debate a little bit and talk about the common agricultural policy reform and current progress on the new programme.
Last week, we submitted to the European Commission the programme document for our 2014-2020 rural development programme for England. That sets out our proposals for providing £3.5 billion of funding over the next six years to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. Overall, across the whole CAP programme, we are looking to provide more than £15 billion of support in these areas.
Developing the programme over the last couple of years has been a massive undertaking. At each step, we have consulted our stakeholders and taken account of their views. I have seen farmers taking part in local consultations in my part of the world. I look forward to their continued support as we move to implementation and delivery from 2015. There is still a lot of work to be done. We are now liaising with the European Commission on the programme document to secure Commission approval by the end of October.
A significant change in the CAP for upland farmers is our decision to uplift payments under pillar one. That means that we will almost double the direct payment rate in the moorland from 2015—I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that; I am sure that her upland farmers will—and equalise the direct payment rates in the severely disadvantaged area and the lowland. Taken together, these changes will distribute direct payments more equitably across English farms. They will also ensure that upland farmers on large areas of moorland are not put at a disadvantage in comparison with other upland farmers. The changes should give all upland farmers greater security.
I hope that the hon. Lady found that bit of background about reform helpful. I also hope that she will welcome the significant funding that we will provide under the CAP, particularly when viewed against the severe budgetary constraints that are in place. However, I agree with her that access to 21st century communication is one of the most important challenges of our time. I know that she takes a wider interest in this issue, in urban and rural contexts across the country. That is an absolute top priority for the Government and supports our long-term economic plan. I cannot accept her criticism that this Government will fail in that regard. We will move on a lot more rapidly than the previous Government did and we will do a great deal to broaden access to that vital telecommunications infrastructure. Telecommunications is a key part of that long-term economic plan and, because of that, rolling out broadband to rural communities is a top priority for the Government. That has the potential to be transformative. There are already areas where that has happened.
Clearly, such provision is important for hill farmers, as the hon. Lady mentioned, due to their remoteness and the associated difficulties they face in accessing services. That is why the Government are investing heavily in the roll-out of broadband across the country. We are making good progress under the £530 million roll-out programme.
More than 20,000 homes and businesses a week are currently gaining access, and that will rise to 40,000 a week over the summer. Projections suggest that we will reach 90% superfast coverage in early 2016. By the end of the current programme, virtually all homes and businesses will have access to standard broadband at a minimum of 2 megabits per second. An additional £250 million will extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by 2017. We are exploring how to reach the final hard-to-reach areas with superfast broadband—the areas that she is talking about and the areas that I represent, some of the upland and more remote parts of Cornwall. Pilot projects testing how that might be achieved are due to be announced shortly.
Having 21st century telecommunications networks also means having high-quality and fast mobile connectivity, including in more remote rural areas. Improving mobile phone connectivity is therefore another top priority for the Government. We are investing up to £150 million through Broadband Delivery UK’s mobile infrastructure project to build new masts for areas where there is no coverage for voice calls or text messages. Those will be used by the key mobile network operators, who are working together as never before to find ways to extend coverage to remote areas. Once built, most of the new sites will also have the capability to provide 3G and 4G coverage.
For example, I have seen the introduction of a project in Cumbria, where a rural area that does not have superfast broadband now gets 4G coverage from one of the networks. That is making a huge difference to businesses and people who live in that area. That is being done on a commercial basis by the company, which I very much welcome. The first new mobile infrastructure project site went live in Weaverthorpe in north Yorkshire in September 2013. That site is now providing coverage to 200 homes and businesses that did not have the mobile signal before.
I have heard all that a thousand times from his colleague in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I probably know that better than the Minister does and the record is not that great. What I am interested in is DEFRA’s performance on this matter, given that the roll-out is in progress.
I wanted to come on to the concept of digital by default, which the hon. Lady raised, and how DEFRA uses technology to interact with all the people who rely on the support we give. The common agricultural policy information service is one of 25 Government Digital Service exemplar projects that are leading the Government’s digital transformation agenda, which aims to deliver efficiencies within the public sector and savings for taxpayers. That is crucial to us, but no matter how fast we are able to move to deliver broadband and mobile access across the country, there may be problems for some farmers, as she pointed out, who have either no or slow broadband. We recognise that that could have implications for submitting applications and forms online from 2015 under a single, digital, easy-to-use application and payment system as part of the CAP reform. That is why, in the early days of the new service, we will look to provide support to those customers who need more time to adapt. We will also ensure that our digital uptake campaign makes it clear to customers how to find paper-based guidance. Online guidance will be available in printable formats and will of course be the most up-to-date version.
The hon. Lady mentioned some of the problems being experienced by hill farmers in her part of the country. I believe that she has been looking at the current online system and the problems that happened with that. Those have been addressed. We are now looking at how to take forward digital by default under the new system. Offline assistance will always be there for those who need it. It could be in various forms, including through intermediaries, by telephone or face-to-face help through digital support centres across the country. If she can give me, subsequent to this debate, more information on how many days the service that the charity was dealing with was failing, that is something I can report back on. A huge amount of effort has been put into getting this right and improving the service for customers.
The hon. Lady and I were both elected in 2005. She will remember the chaos around the implementation of the single farm payment at the time. We have moved on hugely since then. Even she, who is seeking to find as many ways as she can to criticise the Government, would recognise that the system under the Rural Payments Agency is much, much better than it was at the time of the transfer under her Government. Some of that improvement happened under her Government, but considerably more has happened under ours. I very much welcome how colleagues in the RPA are delivering a much improved service.
A large number of organisations provide digital skills training across the country, and I know that the hon. Lady is interested in that. Local libraries and advice centres will be able to help users to find details. We are also working closely with the charity Go ON UK to map providers that can help users to access a computer and get online in their area. That is being rolled out regionally. She mentioned the number of numbers involved in day-to-day farming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, that is the history of the system that we work within. The Government are making huge efforts to minimise the number. We will operate within the boundaries of the directives that we have, and some will add layers of complexity. The important thing is that we are moving to one PIN being needed for the new common agricultural policy system—the identity assurance. That will be a big step forward, and I can send her further information on that.
DEFRA provides no digital support. It does not give a grant to Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services. The Government’s total spend on digital inclusion, via the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is £3 million. The Minister needs to be realistic. Moreover, Durham county council has had 60% cuts. When he says one PIN, does he mean per farmer, one for each animal, or one for each field? What does he mean?
There is a difference between PINs, which one must enter to get into the system, and reference numbers, which can be written down and are less of an issue for security. Those reference numbers will in different circumstances be needed for different aspects. We all have these numbers in our daily lives. In terms of accessing the system, we are moving to one PIN. I am happy to talk or write to the hon. Lady about that.
The hon. Lady raised the important issue of consultation. She painted a picture of farmers in upland areas who are very busy, dealing with tough weather conditions and farming on low incomes at the very margins of what is possible. She said that we are moving ahead without talking to them. That is very much not what we have done. We have made the changes on payments that I set out earlier to split the money more equitably across the country, to support upland farmers and to recognise the great job that they do, and all the landscape and other benefits that they offer society in providing access and in producing food of which we can all be proud.
The rural and farming network was created in January 2011 and consists of 17 self-determined local groups representing rural communities, business and farming interests across England. Its purpose is to enable two-way communication between DEFRA Ministers and rural businesses and communities. The RFN helps to underpin Ministers’ roles as rural champions within Government, ensuring that the dialogue between national and local decision takers is more joined up. Ministers agreed to meet with all RFN chairs twice a year. The last RFN chairs meeting took place in January, and three DEFRA Ministers attended: Lord de Mauley, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and me.
There is also the upland stakeholder forum, which is chaired at senior level in DEFRA and has senior members drawn from a range of upland interests, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Moorland Association and the Foundation for Common Land. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the way in which farming happened in this country might be different from the way it happened in some other parts of the European Union. The forum considers many strategic and cross-cutting issues that impact on hill farmers.
Equally important is that we keep customers up to date and well informed on changes and how they are likely to be affected. Indeed, DEFRA, working with the RPA, Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the rural development network, is determined to implement the CAP in a way that is as simple, affordable and effective as possible and to not repeat the problems we had in 2005. We want to ensure that the countdown to the new CAP is as smooth as possible for our customers and we have published a “Countdown to CAP” timeline. At each stage, information will be made available to help people to understand how the new CAP will affect them, what they need to do and by when. The new CAP reform countdown symbol on the cover of the information is being used to flag up important information about CAP reform. Farmers, including those on the hills, and land managers will see that symbol on web pages and other documents in coming months. The gov.uk website provides a single point of access to information on the CAP and we are looking to further develop those pages in the light of feedback from users.
In April, we published, “An introduction to the new Common Agricultural Policy schemes in England”, which provides an overview of what the new schemes will mean for customers. Information has also been provided about the greening rules, including an overview of permanent grassland, crop diversification, ecological focus areas, definitions, exemptions and crop lists, so that farmers can start to get seed in the ground. That is the sort of detail to which the hon. Lady referred. Although that is of less relevance in some respects to hill farmers, because they are not generally farming arable land, it is an important step forward that has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union.
In conclusion, we will be providing more than £15 billion of funding to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. We are moving forward rapidly on broadband and mobile access, and we are taking steps to ensure that we offer alternative support for those who cannot immediately benefit from our single and more efficient IT service.
Business Loans Appeals System
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, although it is probably a pleasure that neither of us would have expected in an earlier existence. It is good to be here, and it is good that the Minister is also here. I hope that he gets his breath back and will be ready to listen.
This subject has come up at an appropriate time, because Professor Russel Griggs’s third annual report on the performance of the banks’ appeals system for businesses refused finance by them was published yesterday. It is also only three weeks since the British Chambers of Commerce commissioned its Business Banking Insight website, which provides bank customer feedback and gives a clear picture of the performance of some 74 banks, as set out and decided by some 5,000 businesses across the country. Plenty is going on, and I will certainly acknowledge the Government’s good work. However, I am driven to bring the matter back to the House, having first done so some 15 months ago, by the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises in Hazel Grove. The Government have done a lot, but there is more to do. I will set out why that is and some things that should be done.
The most obvious problem is the huge gap between what the banks tell the Government and Members of Parliament about what they are doing and about their performance on the one hand, and what they tell small and medium-sized enterprises when they knock on the door and say, “Please can we have some help” on the other. Every Member of Parliament—it is certainly true for me—is approached by small and medium-sized enterprises in their constituency who say that they have been treated badly by the banks and do not believe that they are in a friendly environment.
The figures for the number of small enterprises are astonishing. There are 4.8 million companies with fewer than 50 employees, employing 11 million people, so they form a significant part of the industrial and commercial ecology of this country. There are another 30,000 SMEs with between 50 and 250 employees that employ 3 million staff, so there are many enterprises out there.
I received a letter in January from HSBC, one of the principal banks, that stated:
“SME demand for finance is low…. In Q3 2013, 78% of SMEs were ‘happy non-seekers of finance’. These businesses have neither sought loan or overdraft facilities in the 12 months prior to interview, nor felt that anything had stopped them from applying for credit.”
That quote was in the context of HSBC saying that everything was fine, as banks often do. I took a ruler to that: 78% were happy, which means that 12% were not happy, and 12% of the total number of SMEs is 585,000 companies. According to the survey quoted by HSBC, therefore, 585,000 companies were discontented. If that was evenly distributed, it would be 900 enterprises per constituency across the whole country. I want to put that in the context of the briefing sent to me by the British Chambers of Commerce when it heard that I was speaking today. On accessing finance, the BCC said:
“In 2013, 60% of first-time applicants ended the process with no facility in 2013, compared to 51% of applicants in 2012”.
In other words, the number of first-time SME applicants getting banking facilities had dropped, with the refusal rate increasing from 51% in 2012 to 60% in 2013.
As a consequence of all this and of my previous discussions, I wrote to the big five banks at the beginning of this year, asking them, “How much has your bank loaned out to SMEs in the last three years? How much was repaid by SMEs to your bank? What proportion of all loan applications for SMEs that you received was approved, and what proportion was refused? Of those who were refused applications, how many appealed? How many of those appeals were successful?” I did that because I was less and less happy that the bank review process overseen by Professor Griggs was really giving us the kind of information that would be useful in deciding whether the system was working.
I should perhaps say that the system is internal to each bank, but it is closely supervised and monitored by Professor Griggs and his team. Each year, he produces a report, the third of which was produced yesterday, and I am happy to have had a conversation with Professor Griggs yesterday, in which we discussed some of the report’s findings. He has published how many appeals were made to banks and how many were successful. The figures are used quite widely, including by the Government, to illustrate that the system works. Just over 11 months ago, I received a letter from the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), in which he said:
“Results out recently showed that for the second year running, 40% of decisions to refuse lending were overturned on appeal. This shows that the process works.”
If 40% of appeals were overturned in another system, it would seem that something was wrong with the first round of decision making. I discussed that with Professor Griggs and his report comments on it quite extensively. It is worth noting that that figure has been reduced to 31.7% in the latest report, so the overturn rate is lower and the number of appellants is higher, which has to be good news. However, that does not provide a good indication of anything at all when one thinks about it.
The responses that I received from the banks were somewhat disappointing. I will deal only with the response from what I will call bank A. Bank A told me that in 2013 it received 265,000 loan applications, of which it granted 80%, resulting in loans of £2.7 billion. That sounds pretty impressive, but the 20% equates to 50,000 refused loan applications. Of the 50,000 refused, 2% decided to appeal, which is just over 1,000. Bank A gave me a precise figure of 1,063. It tells me that 11% of the appeals were overturned, meaning that 117 appellants had success.
In his report, Professor Griggs says that last year he paid particular attention to the people who did not appeal, but who were refused, to see whether any of them could or should have appealed, and if they had, whether they would have been successful. I must say that he did that in a thorough way. He sampled the different banks, and he reports that between 2% and 5% of the refusals where there was no appeal could have had a case for being reconsidered. He does not say that they would have been successful, but that they could have had an opportunity, had they appealed.
I do not know whether bank A has a 2% rate or a 5% rate, but a 2% rate would mean that 10,000 SMEs were refused, but did not appeal, and yet had a chance, Professor Russel Griggs believes, of having their decision overturned if they had appealed. If the rate was 5% in that particular bank’s case—we do not know which bank has which figure attached to it—then 25,000 applicants were potentially in that position. Quite a large number of companies are not being drawn into the appeals system, but should at least have considered an appeal, according to Professor Griggs’s study of their cases. The appeals system is therefore delivering fairly well, but as the figures from bank A show, appeals are not yet running at a level that can give us real confidence that that system is doing its job fully.
The British Chambers of Commerce refers to many businesses being discouraged from applying in the first place. I certainly have a case in point in my constituency—a company that came to me in the most recent quarter to say that it needed some short-term bridging finance from its bank. The company applied and was refused, but decided not to appeal simply because the appeal would have taken so long that the short-term bridging finance would have been irrelevant to its circumstances. The company made do with other arrangements. The BCC also made the point about there being no effective transparency or open competition between the banks on business by SMEs. The five banks that I wrote to cover 90% of all business accounts and lending in this country. There is a widespread call for the Government’s new business bank to be more active and, in particular, to be in direct contact with businesses, rather than using the banks as its proxy.
The Minister might say that all that can be explained away if the banks were in fact lending more to businesses, weeding out the bad guys—the defaulters and the no-hopers—and giving money to everyone who might possibly deserve it. In fact, however, lending by banks to small business has gone down in each year; in the two years since the Government’s funding for lending scheme was introduced—in which time the Government have provided £41.9 billion to the banks to lend to businesses—the amount of outstanding loans to businesses has gone down, not up, by £25.9 billion. In other words, the banks have fattened themselves up to the tune of £67.7 billion. SMEs around the country are not accessing the appeals system as much as they could—and, in Professor Griggs’s view, should, because it would benefit them.
Please will the Minister promote greater transparency of data? I should not have to say “bank A”, “bank B” or “bank C” to the House; we should know the performance of each bank. If there is to be open competition that is meaningful for small businesses seeking finance, we certainly need such transparency. I had the information provided by bank A, and I got some information from bank B, but the other three banks simply said, “We conform with the process established by Professor Griggs.” In other words, they were not prepared to tell me whether they were 40%, 11% or 20%. They had no information that they were prepared to disclose about how good their systems, including their appeals system, were.
I want the Minister to say that he wants to work with the British Bankers Association and with the banks—I had in mind the word “push”, rather than “work with”—to get more of those who are refused applications into the appeals system. Some money is being spent, and there is a campaign, but it still strikes me as odd that a refusal letter is not automatically required to have information about the appeals system set out at the bottom of it. Some banks do that, but not all.
I also want the Minister to respond to what the British Chambers of Commerce is saying about the British business bank. The BCC has welcomed the £1 billion that the Government have put into the bank, as I do, but the BCC is also saying that it needs to be bigger—the bank needs to be sufficiently big to lever in external finance. It also needs to be organised in such a way that businesses can approach it directly, rather than having to go cap in hand to the banks, with their miserable performance. The banks are of course taking all the credit for the loans that they give and, on the whole, are not saying, “We’re giving you this money because of the Government’s finance for lending programme”, yet they are sheltering behind that programme to fatten themselves up to the tune of £67 billion and counting.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. I hope that he and I can work together to loosen the grip of the banks on the Government’s money, in order to ensure that small businesses in my constituency become the beneficiaries.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, I think for the first time. I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) and to answer his questions about bank finance.
The context is of course that the economy is recovering from the biggest financial crisis in generations and, while bank finance is important—most of my response will be on bank finance and the specific points made—sometimes too much focus in the UK is put on it, as opposed to other sources of finance. As we recover from the financial crash, the use of new technology to allow peer-to-peer lending, the growth of crowdsourced finance, the increased private placements market and the development of challenger banks increasingly offer a positive and long-term solution to some of the problems that my right hon. Friend outlined. Alongside the strategy for deficit reduction, of course, turning around the banks is a mission-critical part of the economic recovery, to ensure that small businesses can obtain the finance necessary for investment and growth.
The business lending appeals process is an important part of the answer. In 2011, the banks agreed to give businesses with a turnover of less than £25 million the right to appeal if turned down for credit. As my right hon. Friend said, appeals are to the same bank, but they have to be handled fairly, promptly and transparently—I will come on to that point in more detail later—and the whole process is subject to external audit by Russel Griggs. I want to pay tribute to his work over three annual reports, with the latest one published recently. It is important that that process takes place internally to the banks, because an external appeals process would leave an external decision-maker de facto in charge of a bank’s decision-making. People may ask questions about whether that is a good thing when bank loans are good, but when loans are bad, the question of who takes the hit would be a real one.
The report from Russel Griggs shows an improving picture. Over the past year, there have been more than 3,500 appeals and in 32% of cases the original decision has been overturned. It shows that the process is robust, but, as my right hon. Friend says, that means that since 2011 more than 9,000 small businesses have appealed a bank’s decision and, of those cases, 36% on average have been overturned, so nearly £42 million in additional lending to small businesses has occurred that would not have occurred otherwise.
Equally important has been the increased attention that the appeals process has given to lending processes and improving dialogue between banks and their business customers. The decline in the overturn rate is an indicator that things are moving in the right direction.
As my right hon. Friend said, there is a concern that some businesses do not or might not appeal when they could have secured finance if they had decided to do so. The fact that only between 2% and 5% of declined borrowers would have succeeded in obtaining finance if they had chosen to use the appeals process suggests that that is not a significant problem. It affects some borrowers, but those figures are relatively low.
I appreciate that 2% does not sound very large, but in the case of bank A, which I quoted, it would double the number of people who came into the appeals system and more than double the number of people who would have succeeded.
If 2% of the total proportion of those applying for finance are in a position where they could have succeeded had they chosen to appeal, that will be relatively small in terms of the process’s macro impact. Of course the situation has an impact on the companies affected, but out of the 100% applying for finance only between 2% and 5% chose not to appeal but would have been able to obtain finance had they done so. There may be other reasons for their choosing not to appeal that we do not know of.
Awareness of the appeals process among the small business population at large is still too low. The latest SME Finance Monitor figures, for the first quarter of this year, show that awareness is at only 12%, a decline of 2% on the previous quarter’s results. There has been discussion about whether the right population to measure is the small business population that is actively seeking finance or a broader set of businesses that may not be seeking finance because they suspect that they will be turned down. Clearly we need to make inroads into the broader small business community. The banks have started to take steps to raise awareness of the appeals process, and launched an industry-wide campaign in January. But those efforts need to be sustained and picked up by individual banks.
Introducing a lending appeals process and raising awareness of it is just one part of our broader efforts to improve access to finance for small businesses. Recently we published research showing that 37% of businesses appear to give up their search for finance and cancel their spending plans after their first rejection, without looking elsewhere—a problem that my right hon. Friend mentioned. That figure of 37% is far too high for us to be comfortable with it, so we have recently launched a consultation on whether to mandate banks to refer businesses that are declined finance to alternative providers. That would be good for the businesses concerned, which would be able to explore a wider range of alternative financing options, and good for the development of a more diverse sector with challenger banks and a competitive market for business finance, as well as augmenting the current appeals process. The consultation closed at the end of April and the Government will respond shortly. Although I cannot possibly prejudge that consultation, my right hon. Friend may have noticed my enthusiastic tone.
The Government are also committed to legislating through the small business, enterprise and employment Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech to require banks to share credit data on their small and medium sized business customers with other lenders through credit reference agencies, a measure that I think will have a big impact. Again, it is designed to help challenger banks and alternative providers by helping them to conduct accurate risk assessments on borrowers, so making the market for access to finance more competitive.
Another measure to improve the situation, announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 28 May, is the decision to commission a survey of banks to measure how more than 5,000 businesses rate their banks against factors such as value, appetite for lending and how well they keep their customers informed. The survey is being taken forward by the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce. The first results were published in May, and the survey will be repeated every six months. The idea is to develop a tool that over time will help businesses choose the best lender for them, based on the opinions of their peers. It is similar to a ratings system that small business borrowers can use to rate their bank.
A further area allied to the problem of access to finance is late payment, which continues to have a serious effect on the cash flow of some small businesses. Professor Griggs’s report yesterday pointed to 48% of declined loans over £25,000 being declined on grounds of affordability. Late payment squeezes cash flow and has a direct effect on the ability to repay loans. Through measures in the small business Bill, we will require large businesses to report on their payment practices and performance. We consulted broadly on the options for those measures, which will give small businesses the opportunity to judge better which companies they should trade with and to plan for external finance.
We will also introduce legislation that will override contractual bans on the assignment of receivables. That sounds rather technical, but it will allow companies to make effective use of their trade debt as an asset in access to external finance. If a company is engaged in international trade, that will give it more assets that it can use to access finance.
Finally, the British business bank has been established to make finance markets work better for smaller businesses. One of its key objectives is to help create a more diverse market for small business finance, with greater choice. That is reflected in its combined investment programme, which has a current portfolio of 10 commitments to nine finance providers totalling £172 million. It will support lending capacity of over £800 million through leveraging in other finance. That will support a whole range of alternative finance providers. Those include direct lending funds, peer-to-peer lenders, to make sure they can get up to scale, and supply chain finance providers.
To date, over £280 million of lending to smaller businesses has been supported as a result. We hope that the bank will also help to accelerate the development of competitors and alternative providers in this space. There is clearly further to go on that, and the British business bank is working hard to seek options to continue to expand competition in this market.
In conclusion, overall credit conditions are starting to ease. Gross lending to small businesses is ticking up, but repayments by small businesses are also increasing. There was £12 billion of new lending in the last quarter, up 18% on the same period a year before. New financial technologies such as crowdsourcing, the support of the business bank and Government policy changes mean that the position is more encouraging than it has been for some time, but I have no doubt that vigilance is required. We stand ready to take action as necessary to make sure that small businesses get appropriate access to finance. That is necessary to ensure that we can continue to finance the recovery, so that small businesses can create prosperity and jobs and ultimately work to strengthen the financial security of families around the country, which of course is central to the successful pursuit of our long-term economic plan.
Question put and agreed to.