Tuesday 1 July 2014
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Humber Flood Risk Management Strategy
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. —(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Although I have been fortunate enough to secure the debate, the interests of other Members in the Chamber are at least as great as mine, so I will be as brief as I can. I will try to limit my contribution on this important matter to 15 minutes.
On 5 December last year, news around the world was dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela. The death of the greatest statesman in modern history rightly dominated all news coverage, as his achievements and legacy were celebrated. An unfortunate side effect of that was that it almost totally eclipsed one of the most serious tidal flooding events to hit the United Kingdom for more than half a century.
The tidal surge that hit the east coast of England that night was devastating. The floodwater overtopped more than 40 km of flood defences, and the Hull tidal barrier was inches away from being defeated. Had that happened, a significant part of the city would have been flooded, and thousands upon thousands of homes would have been rendered uninhabitable, causing misery for tens of thousands of people. In the event, although that did not happen, more than 1,100 properties in the area were flooded, which was still a miserable consequence for the families and businesses involved. The event was devastating, with the highest water levels ever recorded in the Humber, and we were fortunate that no one was seriously hurt or killed. When there was a similar but lesser tidal surge in 1953, more than 300 people in the east of England died.
For the people most closely affected, the flood has been a living nightmare. Warnings were not given in time, and in some cases alarms sounded only after the floodwater had inundated people’s homes. Across the Humber, most warnings were received only an hour before the waters rose. Those who were affected had no time to prepare and were forced to abandon their homes and their dearest possessions to the elements. They subsequently faced a living hell of temporary accommodation, not knowing when they would be able to move back into their own homes.
In the East Riding alone, 200 homes and nearly 50 business properties were flooded, and 15 miles of roads were submerged, which led to communities in my constituency being completely cut off. Blacktoft, Yokefleet, Saltmarsh and Faxfleet became virtual islands, and residents unsurprisingly felt abandoned and isolated. People in those remote villages were either evacuated while there was time or forced to abandon the ground floor of their own houses. They gathered what they could upstairs, but they were powerless to prevent the torrent of floodwater and debris from entering. For much of the time they were in complete darkness, because the power went as well. Some of them are pensioners, who moved to the area for a quiet and happy retirement only to see everything that they have worked for destroyed.
One respondent to a survey conducted by the local council had been informed that “Blacktoft never floods”, because of the defences, but in this case the defences simply were not good enough. Of course, defences that were perfectly adequate 25 years ago are not necessarily adequate today. In 2012, I asked the then Minister responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), how many homes in my constituency were at risk of flooding, and he replied that from 2008 to 2012 the number of properties at risk had increased by 1,000. That illustrates the fact that with sea levels rising, if defences are not improved, that figure is certain to grow.
My right hon. Friend rightly paints a picture of the devastation that occurred in December last year. Does he recognise that if the timing had been different by a couple of hours and if the wind direction had been different, the devastating event that we are talking about could have been catastrophic and caused major loss of human life?
I think my hon. Friend has read the next page of my speech, as happens so often. He is absolutely right, and there were a number of coincidences that could be described as fortunate, although it may seem odd to describe the events of December last year as such. Had the tidal surge coincided with the astronomical tide—he is right to say that the difference was two hours—the event would have been much bigger. Had there been the levels of rainfall that we saw in 2007, the Aire, Calder, Ouse, Derwent and Trent rivers, which all feed the Humber, would have been fuller. The Humber would have started from a higher level, and I suspect that the Hull tidal defences would have been overtopped and defeated. If that had happened, we would have seen a similar picture to that in the Somerset levels, where the land was flooded for weeks, if not months afterwards. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that had we not been fortunate with the other events besides the tidal surge, we would have faced a much bigger catastrophe, and the events of 5 December could have included fatal incidents. The situation would have been at least as bad as it was in the Somerset levels, but with the difference that there would have been three international ports and a city of 256,000 people in the middle of it all.
The danger is real. As all hon. Members present know, we have had serious flooding in the region twice in less than a decade—in 2007 and 2013—with other serious localised flooding in 2011. The Humber represents the second highest flood risk in the country, behind only the Thames estuary. The national risk register considers tidal flood, which is what we face, to be second in severity only to an influenza pandemic. That is the scale of the threat facing the region.
The economic case for action is clear, given the strategic importance of the region to the rest of the country. Local authorities have worked incredibly well together on the matter, completely ignoring party, regional or geographic differences. Using the Treasury guidelines for such calculations, they have identified £32 billion of potential damage, which includes straightforward damage, lost productivity, increased insurance costs and deterred investment.
The economic value that is at risk includes several industries of significant strategic importance. The Humber is vital to the UK power industry, and the pressure put on the UK power network by a major flood event of the type that is predicted to occur in the next 50 years would be colossal. In addition, 28% of the UK’s oil refining capacity is situated in the Humber floodplain, and the loss of such capacity could not be made up by shifting demand to other plants. That is an important point, because it underpins one of the criteria that the Treasury uses to assess such things. It is often assumed that if an industry is at risk, it can go somewhere else, but that is not the case in the Humber.
Oil and gas terminals in the region process 30% of the country’s gas demands. More than 30% of the UK’s coal and an increasing amount of biomass fuel lands at Humber ports and is transferred to power stations such as Drax, Eggborough and Ferrybridge on road and rail routes that are also at risk from flooding. The chemicals industry in the region is enormous, amounting to more than £6 billion. Altogether, more than 20,000 businesses in the Humber are at risk from flooding, and the area contributes some £15 billion to the nation’s economy.
That all makes the Humber a national strategic asset, and rising sea levels mean that the next flood risk to that asset is not merely some distant probability. It is not something that just might happen. In the next 50 years, if we do not enhance our defences, there will be a costly and probably fatal catastrophe. Given the region’s vulnerability and the number of people under threat, it is past time for action to be taken to deal with the flood risk. By comparison, London, where the Thames floodplain has the highest flood risk in the country, is protected from events on a one-in-1,000-year basis. To achieve that, the Thames flood barrier was built between 1974 and 1982 at a cost of about £534 million, with an additional £100 million of investment around it to make it work. It is hard to assess accurately, but in today’s money that would be equivalent to more than £3 billion.
What we are discussing today would cost a lot of money. For the Humber, we are talking about £888 million, but that would still be significantly less than a third—perhaps less than a quarter—of the spend on the Thames barrier, which I do not think anyone disputes was an absolute necessity and an act of serious foresight by the Government of the day. With those figures in mind, the people of the East Riding, north Lincolnshire and Hull will rightly ask questions if the Government do not take action to improve the region’s defences.
Once it is understood that the Humber represents a national strategic asset, it becomes clear that any system of flood defences must address all risk across the entire estuary. On both banks of the river, the floodplain is very flat, and some of it is even reclaimed land—using for the first time in Britain what were then innovative Dutch techniques, Vermuyden drained Hatfield Chase, which is now in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). Because the land is so flat and low-lying, it is impossible to separate any part of the defences from another. We cannot ring-fence the major population centres of Hull, Grimsby or Scunthorpe; we must deal with the problem as a single entity.
As Vermuyden’s involvement demonstrates, our area is in many ways as close to Holland as it gets in England. The Dutch do not do flood defences by halves, and neither should we. Perhaps we should reapply the lessons we learned from Vermuyden some centuries ago. To that end, the Environment Agency prepared the Humber flood risk management strategy in 2008 with the aim of improving the defences in the Humber, most of which dated back to the 1950s following the previous flood surge. The surge of last winter showed that the defences were inadequate and gave the agency new information that it is using to inform a comprehensive update to the strategy, with the aim of bringing defences up to such a standard that they could survive not a one-in-1,000-year event, like London, but a one-in-200-year event—that is the colloquialism, but it really means an event the probability of which occurring is 0.5% per annum.
The scheme is ambitious and will require co-operation across local and national Government, across party lines and across the north and south banks of the Humber. Much of that consensus has already been achieved: the agencies, local government, the local enterprise partnership and Members of Parliament have all acted completely without attention to narrow self-interest and with serious concern about the overall interest.
In the next 50 years it is highly likely that we will see a tidal surge event similar in magnitude to the one we experienced last winter, but worse in consequence. Factoring in the possibility of even less favourable conditions and rising sea levels, it is clear that the next major flood event could be devastating. There could be a serious threat to life and more than £32 billion of economic impact. It is not a doomsday event with an outside chance of happening; it is likely to happen at some point in the next half century. We were lucky to escape that outcome last year. If we do not act by implementing the Humber flood risk strategy, there is a serious risk of such a catastrophe being repeated.
Governments of all colours—Tory, Labour, coalition or whatever—find it difficult to take more than a five-year view, for obvious reasons; when it comes to flood defences, it is necessary to take at least a 50-year view, if not a multi-century one. We must start work on a programme that will take at least 10 years to complete. Yes, the numbers are enormous and run into billions of pounds, but the cost of doing nothing would be far greater in the long run. On 5 December 2013 we were given a timely warning—one might say God-given—of the consequences of inaction. We would do well to pay attention to it.
I will not be shocked if the Minister has not turned up with £900 million for us in his back pocket—I will be disappointed, but not shocked. Nevertheless, we must recognise that we are faced with a conjunction of several things: a major risk that we know is going to get worse; a historic demonstration of the harm of that risk if it is ever realised; and a clear strategic asset that is at risk in terms of industry, economy, links to the outside world and, most importantly, the hundreds of thousands of people of the area. Because it will take so long to carry out the necessary improvements and enhancements to the defences, it is vital that the Government take a strategic view in both direction and money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Sir Roger, and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
Floods do not recognise constituency boundaries. We Members of Parliament from across Hull, the East Riding and north and north-east Lincolnshire have come together because we are united with the local authorities, the local enterprise partnership and the Environment Agency in our diagnosis of the problem and our analysis of the solution.
The floods of 5 December 2013 were not unfamiliar to Hull. We were hit by devastating rainfall, along with the whole of the East Riding, in June 2007, when the problem came from the sky, not the sea. All the flood defences held and no rivers overflowed. A month’s rainfall fell in a couple of days, affecting 8,600 properties, 20,000 people and 1,300 businesses. What unites the two events? Various figures are thrown about as to whether the probability is one in 100, one in 200 or one in 1,000, but let us take a conservative view. The two events are united by the fact that in both 2007 and 2013 we were told that the chance was one in 100, so in Hull we had two one-in-100 events in seven years. That leads the population, as well as their political representatives, to question the whole basis of what constitutes sufficient flood defences. In 2007, one man died in Hessle in my constituency: he was trapped in a drain while trying to clear a blockage. Thankfully, such a tragedy did not happen again in 2013.
The term “above ordnance datum” is new to me—I hope that I pronounced it correctly—but one thing we discovered in December 2013 was that the defence at Albert dock was for a surge of 5.04 metres above ordnance datum, but it was hit by a surge of 5.8 metres above ordnance datum. The first issue on which I would welcome the Minister’s reassurance is the need to raise the Albert dock defence. None of us disagrees on that. It will be an absolute priority by the end of the year, and it would be good to hear the Minister’s reassurance because it is the most important issue in my constituency.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is right: the Environment Agency says that it got it wrong on 5 December 2013, in terms of the scale and the timing. It was amazing to see what happened. In my constituency, in the industrial area of Hull, Porter street went from completely dry to absolute deluge in four minutes. The severity of the flood was frightening. It hit a diverse range of businesses. It hit Smith & Nephew, a big, global, international company, which, incidentally, could base its manufacturing sites in other places, including China, if it believes that its business will be affected more regularly. The Indian restaurant on Hessle road was also affected and never reopened. The floods affected all those businesses across the centre of town.
The right hon. Gentleman emphasised this point, and I need to emphasise it, too: the floods were a warning. As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) pointed out, if the wind direction had been different, or if the floods had come two hours later at high tide, it would have been a devastating event because that was the highest water level ever seen in Hull—higher than 1953.
The Government publish the national risk register every year, and the last time—the only time since the war—a national emergency was declared in this country was the water surge in 1953. The surge on 5 December 2013 was bigger. The national risk register is of course updated every year, and the 2013 register makes coastal flooding the second biggest risk after a pandemic, which I will address in a second. The register states that 1953 was the only time that a national emergency has been declared anywhere in the UK, and it then states:
“A less serious storm surge of this nature happened in November 2007 without causing damage on the scale of the 1953 emergency.”
We now need to update the register, because a much bigger surge occurred on 5 December 2013. Thankfully, the surge did not cause the death and devastation that was caused in 1953, but it was a close-run thing.
I was Secretary of State for Health when a pandemic hit in 2009, which is not a comfortable place to be because the No. 1 risk on the risk register is—this is a horrendous thought for Government—people being confined to their homes and children being affected in schools. We thought that H1N1 was going to be such a pandemic. As things turned out, it was not, and now we look at that event as a dry run. We know things about Tamiflu and other issues that we did not know before. My message to the Government is that they have to view the tidal surge of 5 December 2013 in a similar way—as a dry run for what could happen if we do not address this issue effectively.
If we are to address the issue effectively, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, we need to consider the whole area, which is very diverse. Investment is coming into Hull from various quarters, including from Siemens, and Hull will be the city of culture in 2017. Incidentally, Hull is the biggest urban area in Yorkshire—it is the biggest city in Yorkshire if we just take the urban area of 311,000 people—but as I am sure the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) will point out, we have places such as the Isle of Axholme, which has 20,000 people living on 21,000 hectares. The Isle of Axholme is one of the most under-populated areas, but in a sense the scale of the threat is like having something that could affect the Somerset levels and Bristol at the same time.
The document we are preparing to put to the Government is headed “Flood defences cost money, no flood defences cost more.” I hope that today’s debate, together with the meeting we are due to have with the Prime Minister next week, will record that the scale of the problem has been shown to be far greater than the defences allow. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on the Opposition Front Bench, because this is not just a Government issue; it is a long-term issue that affects any party that is likely to be in government. All three parties are represented here, and the issue has to be considered on that basis.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden cited a figure of £888 million, which is of course £88 million a year over 10 years. He rightly said that Hull is closer to Rotterdam than to London—Hull may well have been a suburb of Rotterdam a couple of million years ago—so we look to the kinds of defences that we see across in Holland, and we believe that we are nowhere near having defences on such a scale. We are not throwing in requests for billions of pounds, and £88 million a year to bring us up to a one-in-200 defence, given the circumstances, given the national risk register and given what happened on 5 December 2013, must surely be a prudent amount of money for any responsible Government to spend.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this debate on a subject that, to different extents, touches all of us in the Chamber today. I do not intend to repeat the arguments that he adduced to the Chamber. He made an excellent speech and made the case very well, but I will reiterate a number of points.
Included in the area at risk of flooding in the Humber and east Yorkshire area are 30,280 hectares of agricultural land and the UK’s largest storm water pumping station. Those problems need to be addressed. One of my biggest concerns about the present situation is the flood defence grant in aid system, which determines who receives help. The system largely favours urban areas because it dictates that residential properties have the highest risk ratings. That means that rural areas have little weighting, meaning they have less chance of securing funding, which could have a serious negative effect on food production and the sustainability of agribusinesses in this country. With a significant proportion of the UK’s high-grade agricultural land in low-lying areas such as east Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, there is likely to be a danger to the UK’s food security and independence unless something is done.
Furthermore, smaller residential settlements in rural areas find it difficult to attract flood defence grant in aid funding because of the formula, which means that if flood risk cannot be addressed or mitigated, there is a danger that rural communities will not only remain at risk but may become less viable over the longer term. As east Yorkshire is comparatively remote, there are significant co-dependencies between work forces and businesses in rural areas and the East Riding urban areas. That should be taken into account in any adjustment of the formula by the Government.
One of my constituents contacted me a few days ago and said, “We have a climate change levy in this country. When assessing what to do with the money raised by that levy, surely there cannot be anything more important, in expenditure terms, than flood prevention. Why is the climate change levy revenue, among other measures, not being ring-fenced for flood defences?” Perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts on that.
I hope the Minister will agree to look again at the formula and agree that we need not only a properly funded flood defence system across the country but an integrated approach to flood risk management, which the current level of expenditure and the current formula do not deliver.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) mentioned the devastation across the whole eastern part of the country in 1953, and indeed there was widespread flooding and devastation then. After that disaster a fireman, Andy Devine, who was called on to help, said:
“Where we had to pump out, there was the sea one side and water the other side…we might just as well have tried to pump the sea dry.”
Such a hopeless situation must never be allowed to happen again. Being invaded by floodwater, from whatever source, is just as devastating to a thatched cottage as to a terraced house. I hope the Minister will now deliver effective action that will help east Yorkshire to face future flood risks with more confidence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing the debate, which is vital to all of us here and to the whole Humberside region.
It seems to have been forgotten—as my right hon. Friend pointed out, it was certainly forgotten by the national media at the time—that the tidal surge in December was larger than the one in 1953. Thankfully, as has also been said, it was not as disastrous in terms of loss of life. Clearly, investment in flood defences has been effective, but, due to the weather conditions, we came within a whisker of a major catastrophe, so obviously more needs to be done.
The recent surge did a great deal of damage to the Immingham and Grimsby port complex, which is the largest in the UK: about a quarter of all rail freight moved here starts or ends in Immingham. Much of that freight—coal for power stations, oil and other essential products—is strategically vital. To be precise, the port handles about 55 million tonnes per annum, and approaching 20 million tonnes of oil and 10 million tonnes of coal. The country’s strategic supply of road salt is also stored in Immingham.
Members here are in danger of repeating the same statistics, because we all have the excellent document produced by our local authorities, which lists the seriousness of what could have been. The port director, John Fitzgerald, said that we might have faced major power cuts and food rationing. I invite the Minister to contemplate what the consequences would have been if action had not been taken. The cost to the national economy would have been immense. John Fitzgerald was referring to the fact that although the port was up and running again in just two days, a third, fourth or fifth day could have been extremely serious.
The impact on essential infrastructure, the supplies that pass through the port and the national and local economy could have been major. The port was left without electricity and extensive areas were flooded. The Environment Secretary visited Immingham on the afternoon of Saturday 7 December. With him, we heard at first hand from Associated British Ports and Environment Agency staff about the incidence of flooding, not just in Immingham and Grimsby, but in the villages of Barrow Haven, Goxhill and New Holland. We heard from the dockmaster for Immingham and Grimsby, and it is clear that he made exactly the right decision in opening the Grimsby lock gates at exactly the right moment, which prevented a large area of Grimsby and the north end of Cleethorpes, where thousands of terraced houses are situated, from being overcome.
The Humber flood risk management strategy identifies up to 400,000 people at risk from flooding, and just short of 200,000 of them live in the most deprived 20% of areas in the UK, according to the Government’s own statistics. It is also important to point out, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), that agriculture is a significant industry in the area: there are more than 500,000 hectares of productive land in the Humber estuary, 97% of which is high-grade land. I reiterate the view that I expressed in my Adjournment debate in January, which has been repeated by many others: the experience of the farming community, including the work that they do on local drainage boards and the like, is invaluable in matters of flooding. Although a forum exists for farmers, there is a feeling in the agricultural community that their expertise is not used to best advantage. I urge the Minister to do all he can to put that collective knowledge to the best possible use.
It is not just existing industrial facilities that need protection; the estuary has been described by Ministers as having enormous potential, particularly for the renewables sector. The Government have supported that potential and we have had the investment from Siemens, the creation of the pan-Humber enterprise zone and the reduction of Humber bridge tolls. Only yesterday in Parliament, a special Committee began considering the final stages of the proposed development by Able UK on the south bank, which could bring a further 4,000 jobs to the area.
After the visit by my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), and the Prime Minister’s flood envoy for the region, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), also visited the area. The Government certainly have plenty of information and expertise available from the local authority and the Environment Agency. It is clear that the whole estuary needs greater protection.
If we are to provide greater protection, as we must, the Environment Agency must be allowed to consider how best to improve the protection given to strategically important facilities such as the port, as well as to residential properties. In sparsely populated areas, the cost-benefit ratio will always be low, but if one’s house is flooded, that is no comfort whatever. If the Environment Agency or the Government constantly reel out the statistics, it can sound callous and uncaring to people whose homes have been flooded.
The focus of my short contribution has been industry, but my colleagues and I have all had the rather miserable experience of visiting people whose homes have been flooded. It is not just about the immediate impact; many months of misery are involved, and many people forced out of their homes in Barrow Haven and other areas, such as South Ferriby in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), will remain in temporary accommodation until next year, and perhaps even beyond. That is simply not satisfactory.
On that point, the hon. Gentleman might like to know that some of the people affected in Hull in 2007 have only recently moved back into their houses. Flooding was followed by secondary flooding. I am sure that that also applies to people on Hessle foreshore in my constituency and in areas all around the patch. Such misery is almost unimaginable.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. It is frightening to consider that people are still suffering in that way after six or seven years. As he also pointed out in his speech, floodwaters do not follow constituency boundaries.
We have been united in our approach to the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke about the united approach taken by local authorities. As those of us who live locally know well, the Humber can often divide communities, particularly political communities, but on this occasion we are absolutely united. The Government are putting together longer-term plans, and the figures—between £800 million and £900 million—have been quoted during the debate. I recognise that the Minister is not going to write us a cheque later today—
As my hon. Friend points out, that is extremely disappointing, but our constituents deserve nothing less than a serious plan, in the very near future, that will guarantee them the security and safety they need in their homes. If industry in northern Lincolnshire and the Humberside area is to go forward as we all want it to, it needs, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) pointed out, to know that the Government are behind it and that the Environment Agency and every Government agency involved will produce a long-term plan that provides the necessary security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the excellent speeches made by Members across the Chamber, which have given the Minister and the rest of the Front-Bench team a clear message about the unity of feeling around the Humber. As has been said—it is worth reiterating—that goes across party lines and includes local authorities working together under the industrial leadership of the local enterprise partnership. We are all united in this, alongside the technical input and understanding of the Environment Agency and other agencies.
I take the Minister back to December, when I visited residents of Kilnsea in my constituency, just above Spurn point, and met the chairman of the parish council there in his house, which had recently been refurbished. I saw his devastation and that of his wife, as their brand-new kitchen and recently installed facilities had been wrecked by the overtopping of the nearby bank. To his credit, he was not primarily concerned with his own interests, but was going out to meet other residents. He took me to meet them and their homes had similarly been devastated. Some of those people were less resilient than that couple, because of their age or infirmity. As the Minister will know, the personal impact on people whose homes have been flooded is utterly devastating.
The recent flooding comes just a few years after the 2007 floods. Last Wednesday—25 June—was the anniversary of those floods. They devastated Hull and the East Riding, led to Hornsea in my constituency being cut off, and led to flooding in every area of my constituency and in Hull, with many people being driven out of their homes—not just for months, but in some cases for years. Flooding is personally devastating, and that will always be at the forefront of my mind when I consider this issue.
If I may, I shall echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) around opportunity. We have a fantastic and phenomenal positive opportunity around the Humber. I pay tribute to Lord Haskins, the chairman of the LEP, and others, who are working together to take the area forward. We have lower than average incomes in Yorkshire and the Humber—in fact, they are among the lowest average incomes in England—so we start from a position of having great deprivation and some history of economic failure, relatively speaking, yet a massive opportunity is opening up. We are working on taking that opportunity, cross-party and across authorities.
The Government should take enormous credit for the steps they have taken to help. The halving of the Humber bridge tolls has meant that instead of that bridge acting as a barrier between the two banks of the river—stopping them working together for the economic betterment of the whole area—it is a catalyst. Cross-party, we made representations to the Secretary of State for Transport. He has agreed to the electrification of the line to Hull, which will make a significant difference. Of course, the previous Culture Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), announced that Hull had been made city of culture 2017, and that announcement, too, is having a galvanising effect. From the Prime Minister down and throughout Government, efforts were made to encourage Siemens to sign up to come to Hull and for the supply chain to come to Paull in my constituency, which is immediately east of Hull. That work was also successful.
It was my great pleasure to lead the members of the Education Committee to Hull last Monday and Tuesday, for them to visit schools there and see a real sense of renewal, energy and drive to raise standards. There is a massive opportunity for the area and it is waiting to be grasped.
If I look at clouds on the horizon, I see remarkably few. However, what I do see is the prospect of the chilling impact of the risk of flooding. If manufacturers such as Smith & Nephew, which the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) mentioned, see that their investment is at risk from a failure to provide suitable protection, they can so easily take that investment elsewhere. That is true of so many of the companies that we have made such an effort to attract to the Humber area, reinforcing the presence of industry there. We have that enormous opportunity and we cannot afford to have it chilled by a failure to take the long-term view of the need for flood protection.
The Government rightly recognise the challenges of climate change. Anyone involved with climate change will know that the risks around it are twofold, or in two areas: the need to mitigate and the need to adapt. It is not enough simply to mitigate; we also need to adapt. I have in front of me the excellent latest science briefing from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. It shows the sea level rise record since the beginning of the 20th century, including the acceleration of sea level rise in the last few decades, which is expected to carry on accelerating to the end of this century. Given that, how can we allow the short-term political time frames in which we operate—four or five years to a general election, or between local government elections—to inform our attitude to this subject? The danger is that we will and that we will not take the long-term view, which is so important if we are to get this right.
My message to the Minister is to look at how Government can create the frameworks to ensure that the resource that is required is invested in time to meet the long-term threat, because we recognise that the dynamics of the politics in which we operate on a daily basis are not very good for dealing with long-term threats. Therefore, we need to look hard at how we get a framework in place to ensure that there is an incentive to deal with those long-term threats, and that we deal with them, because although we will strongly make the case today, as we are doing, for the Humber area, the truth is that, nationally, we need to take the risk of flood damage more seriously. That fits entirely with the analysis that the Government have themselves made of the risks around climate change and rising sea levels, yet we do not see a co-ordinated, well thought through, long-term plan to ensure that the correct protections are put in place.
I want to make sure that the Minister is aware that, separately from the Humber efforts, the River Hull advisory board is studying the factors that contribute to flooding in the River Hull valley, which will have a strategic impact on the Humber, too. Across the piece, we are all working as hard as we can to ensure that we have a joined-up approach.
One criticism of the 2008 strategy was that, perhaps because of its funding and the brief it was given, it failed to understand the interconnectedness of city and rural areas, including how rural areas often act as a sponge for the urban areas. As I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said in his opening speech, we cannot view areas of the Humber in isolation. There is no way to ring-fence them, have just a limited spend here or there and somehow protect a particular place. We have to view the area as one joined-up whole.
To return to the issue affecting Kilnsea, the replacement of the bank that was overtopped in December will cost £450,000. The Environment Agency has promised £300,000 and £50,000 has been raised locally, but that leaves the project £100,000 short. The bank is important to defend the residential and business properties of the village, such as that fine purveyor of great ales, the Crown and Anchor pub, and it also plays a vital role in defending the road to Spurn point, which is a popular tourist destination of national significance. Spurn point also plays a phenomenally important role in protecting the Hull ports area. It provides a natural barrier that deflects the longshore drift away from the estuary, thus allowing the estuary to self-clean to an extent.
I must pay tribute to the local internal drainage boards, which do such an excellent job of maintaining inland watercourses. However, I have a point to make about them, which I hope the Minister might take up with the Marine Management Organisation, if he has not done so already: that new, fresh quango no sooner came into being than it slapped a £10,000 bill on my local IDB for carrying out work that, had it been carried out by the Environment Agency, with the same contractors, would have attracted no such bill, which represented more than 10% of the project cost. If we are to have local areas taking responsibility, investing money and making things happen, we need to ensure that large quangos do not come along to give an initial estimate of £3,000, which I think is outrageous, before finally charging £10,000, which truly is outrageous.
One final local point is the Welwick realignment scheme, which is ongoing, although delays are causing increased flood risk. The bank involved needs to be restored, but investment is being held back until the overall realignment scheme is confirmed. Decisions need to be made more quickly and action must be taken so that we have ongoing, sustained and sensible protection from the risk of flood for industry and for residential properties.
Minister, those of us here today will maintain our joint efforts in this regard—not only when we meet the Prime Minister next week, but thereafter. I will finish by referring to an issue that I touched on earlier, which is trying to get a framework in place that means that the MPs for a particular area do not have to make a united effort to get people to see the long-term risk when the technical evidence for that risk already exists. With rising sea levels and the risks of climate change, we need a strategic overview by Government of the risks around flooding. Without that, we are putting our constituents at risk of devastating flooding of their homes, and we are also risking investment in and commercial success for this country. Having made that plea, I shall sit down.
I did not intend to contribute to the debate, because the contributions that we have heard already have been of a high standard and have made the case well. I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that have been raised. However, I want to highlight one issue.
There is a knock-on effect from the investment that needs to go into the Humber area, and that relates to flood insurance. The Minister and I have had long debates about that issue in the past, but I want to highlight how important it is for the insurance industry to know that investment is going into the Humber area. That will mean that there is access to affordable flood insurance for domestic residential and business properties. I know that the Government have introduced the Flood Re scheme, which I think is to come into operation quite soon, for properties built before 2010, but I have raised with the Minister before the issue of properties built after 2010.
In my constituency, there is a large development called Kingswood, where houses are being built now. The Minister may also like to know that one of the most successful Help to Buy schemes in the country is operating on that estate. However, those properties will not be covered by the Flood Re scheme, so owner-occupiers there will be looking to the open market to get flood insurance in the future. Schemes to protect the Humber area are important in ensuring that they will be able to access affordable flood insurance.
My other point is about businesses. They will not be covered by the Flood Re scheme, either, so they, too, will be out in the open market looking for flood insurance. I am aware that in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), one business has already seen a hike of 490% in its insurance premiums because of the flooding last December. I therefore urge the Minister to think again about the problems that will arise in the insurance market if the Government do not make the right noises about providing investment over the coming years for the Humber region. It is devastating for home owners when their homes are flooded, and if they do not have flood insurance it is much worse.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), whose points on flood insurance are well rehearsed. I supported her on the matter during proceedings on the Water Act 2014. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing the debate. Coming on last means that unfortunately I will be repeating not only what he has said but what many other right hon. and hon. Members have said, but as we have 10 or 11 minutes until the Front Benchers start to be called, I am sure that you will indulge me in that endeavour, Sir Roger.
The Minister will, sadly, hear again many things that I have previously said, not least because at the time of the tidal surge we were considering the Water Bill and I was serving on the Committee. I used that opportunity on more than one occasion to regale the Minister with accounts of what was happening in my area, but just for the record I want to talk about my constituency again now, with specific reference to what happened in December.
My constituency was hit most of all in December and, as any flood extent map will show, it remains the constituency with the most land at risk of flooding. Unfortunately, we were hit from three sources. We saw the Humber coming over at South Ferriby and Winteringham, the Trent coming over at Burton-upon-Stather, Burringham, Keadby and Amcotts and the Ouse coming over at Reedness, so in total about 11 communities and 300 to 400 properties were flooded. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, we were lucky, although we do not feel particularly lucky, that the impact was not a lot greater.
I live right on the bank of the River Aire, and I was standing by the river at the time of the surge that evening. The water was within inches of coming over, even though we enjoy very high levels of protection there—the highest that the Environment Agency offers. I was also standing on the banks the next morning for the high tide of the River Ouse at Goole, which also had a near miss and where there are 18,000 residents. Had the circumstances come together in the way that other right hon. and hon. Members have said we were lucky to avoid, our area would have been devastated.
Unfortunately, such events are not new to our area or, in particular, to my constituency. We had flooding in Goole in 2011, 2012, 2007 and 2008, and in Crowle in 2012. It is a recurring theme in our area, not least because of the geography. The flood risk extent maps explain why. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden gave a potted history of the draining undertaken by Vermuyden in our area. That was hundreds of years ago. People have been living happily in our area since then, and it is of concern to people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) said, that previous regimes and previous flood plans seem to operate on the premise that the rural areas can operate as a sponge, or be sacrificed, for the benefit of other areas. I want to explain why that is particularly dangerous in my constituency.
In 2007 we were faced with the first draft of the River Trent flood catchment management plan. Had it not been for the IDBs and several farmers who were well educated on the issue of flooding, that could well have been the policy that the Environment Agency adopted. It was only by arguing—we got up petitions and all the rest of it—that the Environment Agency was made to think again and to reassess the matter. It concluded that had it adopted the policy that it originally wanted to adopt, which was one of withdrawal, retreat and sacrifice, the entirety of the Isle of Axholme, apart from two high spots at Epworth, would have been underwater within a decade or two.
That is an interesting idea. I think that we would all prefer it if farmers were allowed to continue producing food, but my right hon. Friend raises one of the biggest criticisms of the current funding regime: the value placed on agricultural land is not sufficient. I am not against flood alleviation projects—of course not—and that includes the sacrificing of land at Alkborough flats in my constituency. That operated very well and possibly lowered water levels in the Trent to such an extent that it prevented a couple of communities from flooding. We do not have a problem with some of these schemes, in appropriate areas. What we have a problem with is the value placed on agricultural land and rural communities generally under the current system. In the original drafts of the various flood catchment plans for our area, there seemed to be a policy of retreat and sacrifice of rural areas. That has abated somewhat through various processes, for which we are very grateful.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others, including the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), have highlighted the nationally important infrastructure in our area and the national risk register. In my constituency, to add to the list of nationally important infrastructure that we all seem to be trotting out today, there is of course the port of Goole, which is England’s busiest and biggest inland port. We also have the power station at Keadby, which of course was one of the communities flooded in December. There is the Drax power station just across the way, and biomass imports come through my constituency via the railway lines. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) talked about petrochemicals, and of course we have the motorway and rail infrastructure and agricultural land. I believe that 55% to 60% of our land is grade A agricultural land, so it is some of the most productive land in the country.
We have mentioned the Isle of Axholme, but of course the defences along the Trent and the Ouse do not just protect the 50,000 acres and 20,000 residents there. They are also major defences for Doncaster and Thorne. A catastrophic breach of those defences would have a significant impact on Doncaster, but although that is sometimes taken into account, it is not always accounted for in funding decisions.
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to something that has not been mentioned so far? Even though residential accommodation is given the highest score in the ranking, that is based on property value. One thing that works against the north of England is that properties there tend to be of lower value, which leads to a cyclical effect: the house is cheaper, so it gets less defence and therefore gets cheaper. It feeds on its own poverty. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has a distorting impact on flood defence funding?
Absolutely. I want to talk about the problems and failings in the current system, but before I do—I do not want to be entirely negative—I will praise the Government. The response in my area after the December surge was welcome. We appreciated the flood repair and renewal grants, and the support for business has been well received. Also, additional Government funding since December has been of particular benefit to my area: a £5 million scheme to raise the banks at Reedness has been approved, as has £3 million to shore up the banks at Snaith, and work will begin in a month’s time to shore up the banks at Burringham, which were not breached but were severely damaged.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on his leadership on this matter, from which the whole region will hopefully benefit.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) referred to the response to the floods. The local agencies responded well, but for future learning I draw attention to the Humberside fire and rescue service’s plans to develop the Ark flood preparation and response centre, which would be of major benefit not only to the region but nationally. What does he think about that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that excellent bid, which aims for transition funds from the Department for Communities and Local Government and will be decided on towards the end of the year. He recently met the Humberside fire and rescue service to discuss the bid, which would create a national flood training centre. We do not currently have such a centre and firefighters must undertake training in fresh water, which is not always as clean as it could be. Events cannot be modelled in such water, but, more importantly, many firefighters come back with stomach bugs, which makes the practice expensive. Where better could a training centre that can model flood events be placed than in the Humber, which has the second highest flood risk after London? The bid has support from both sides of the Humber and from MPs of both parties, so if there is anything that the Minister can do to push it along with his friends at DCLG, it would be greatly appreciated.
I praise the Government for acting swiftly with the surveying work and for providing additional funding, which will benefit my constituency in the short term, but it is only a short-term fix. Although we are grateful for additional funding, today’s debate has been about the long-term strategy that is desperately required. Our region—the Humber, east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire—is on the edge of an economic renewal. The Siemens investment has been talked about, and there is the potential Able site, so a lot is happening. The greatest risk to economic renewal must be the potential failure properly and adequately to deal with the massive flood risk. £888 million does sound like a lot of money, but it is not that significant when spread over 10 or 15 years. The potential return tells us all we need to know about the value of that money.
I do not have time to go on about the problems with the current funding system, such as building in future development and the value of agricultural land—the Minister has heard those arguments before—but I urge the Minister, who is gracious in all debates and knowledgeable about the flooding that hit our area, to do all that he can to support our proposal for a long-term solution to the problems. Although I said that it was outrageous that he would not write us a cheque for £888 million today, it is not actually all that outrageous—
As my hon. Friend says, tomorrow will do. We simply need to build support within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and across Government for a long-term solution to a unique problem. Everybody claims that their area is unique, but the Humber really is, for all the reasons that have been expressed today. There is a massive flood risk to infrastructure there.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden on securing the debate. We will move forward as a united group to meet the Prime Minister next week, which will not be the end of it. We will continue to push the matter to ensure not only that businesses get the required investment to encourage them to create jobs in the area, but also that the homes of the people whom we represent are better protected in future.
This has been a quite extraordinary debate in many ways. Not only have some eminent Members of this House spoken, but the debate has been cross-party and good-natured. I never thought that I would live to see the day when certain Members from different parts of the House would call each other “Friends”. Someone less risk-averse than I am might have referred to Members present as the Yorkshire mafia. I would never dream of doing such a thing, but they have certainly made a powerful case, and I am sure that the Minister has taken note of it. I am also sure that the Prime Minister will have taken note of it before he meets them next week.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in particular because the topic is not something that he has simply taken up for this debate. His parliamentary questions and previous contributions have focused clearly and repeatedly on moving the debate about flood risk away from rhetoric and on to the simple facts, and that set the debate off on exactly the right tone. I want to pick up on some of those facts: the Government’s capital spending plans up to 2020-21, which will result in a significant increase in the number of properties at risk of flooding; the fact that flood risk is increasing due to climate change; and the fact that the Government’s maintenance spending plans for tidal defences will result in the deterioration of existing flood assets. The issues are serious and it is right that they have been debated so thoroughly this morning. I want to focus primarily on the first two points: increased flood risk and capital investment.
The Government have set out their forward projections for capital investment in flood defences, which say that they will spend £370 million a year in 2015-16 and in every year through to 2020-21. What percentage of that money will be for new-build flood defences, and what will be for major capital repairs and maintenance? The truth is that we do not know. The Government have chosen to use capital spend as a proxy for spending on new flood defences. As a result, many people will think that they are building more defences and defending more properties when in fact, because of climate change and storm damage, they will simply be spending more on major repairs to existing defences. In other words, there may be no increase in the number of defences, or indeed the number of properties and homes defended.
The Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has analysed the claim made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, that 165,000 properties would be “better protected” in the current spending period. It warns that only a proportion of the 165,000 will actually see their flood risk reduce. Many capital schemes are simply replacing or refurbishing existing defences on a like-for-like basis, and to the same crest height. That is not good enough, for all the reasons that hon. Members have outlined this morning. With climate change, many of the houses will be less well protected than they were when the defences were built. Defences may have been repaired, but the risk that they will be overtopped as a result of changing climate has now increased. Too many homes and properties are still at risk, because the defences that we have are less effective than they once were as a result of the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather.
That is one of the reasons why the UK Statistics Authority is still not satisfied with the Government’s flood spending statistics. The UK Statistics Authority has yet to be satisfied that the Government are telling what it calls the truth about flood defence spending. Needless to say, that makes the job of planning for everyone involved in flood risk management incredibly difficult. The Government’s failure to provide a straight answer to the question of how they plan to reduce flood risk has made effective scrutiny of their policy difficult. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has on previous occasions called for the Government to be more strategic in their interventions, and to stop being
“penny wise and pound foolish”—[Official Report, 10 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 570.]
He is exactly right.
The Humber flood risk management strategy produced in 2008 seems to strike the right balance on the basis of the best evidence available at the time. However, we must be clear that the evidence on flood risk has changed rapidly and significantly over the past six years. Let me give an important example: the 2008 strategy states that the Environment Agency considered that it would be necessary to withdraw from 11 of the 33 flood management areas in the Humber plan; those 11 areas contained 1,961 homes in 2008. Significantly, in his opening remarks, the right hon. Gentleman said that he has been told by the Government that the 2008 numbers in his constituency have increased by more than 1,000 already.
Since 2008 our understanding of how flood risk is changing has increased significantly. The Met Office has stated that what was a one-in-125-days extreme rainfall event is now to be considered as a one-in-85-days event, and that trend is expected to continue. It is also chastening to consider that sea levels in England are rising by around 6 mm per year. The evidence is clear that the risk to the people of the Humber has increased. The simple message is that since 2010, while the assessment of the risks has continued to rise, the Government have chosen to cut investment in flood defences. We need to run simply to hold flood risk at existing levels. The Humber risk assessment must be redone to reflect new evidence on flood risk and the backlog of work that has not been delivered because of the cuts.
The Environment Agency carried out an updated Humber flood risk management strategy in 2011, which makes it clear that more new defences and the improvement of existing defences will be needed, and that more managed realignment of the coast, as well as increased flood storage, will be essential. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) rightly quantified that at £880 million over the next 10 years. The Minister, however, must be clear about who exactly he expects to deliver the strategic approach to flood risk reduction required in the Humber.
Since 2010 the number of Environment Agency staff working to fulfil the statutory consultation role on flood risk has reduced by 40%. The Government have made adapting to future flood risk voluntary for all local authorities. That is not the co-ordinated, long-term, well thought through plan that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) spoke of—he is now, I trust, the toast of the Crown and Anchor pub, to which he referred so liberally. Furthermore, the Government have decided not to implement sustainable urban drainage, which would have required developers and water companies to meet some of the cost. No wonder the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has called for the Government to be more strategic.
I am conscious that the Minister needs to speak, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way.
Last week, the outgoing head of the Environment Agency used a speech at the RSA—the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—to call for cross-party consensus of the kind that we have seen this morning. That is what we had with the Pitt review: an approach that focused on building the capacity for strategic intervention. There were 92 recommendations, but only 46 were implemented. That approach, however, saw improvements implemented at Brough, Swinefleet, Burringham, Gunness, Stallingborough and Halton Marshes.
Since 2010 many of the projects named in the Humber flood risk management strategy have become stuck in the pipeline, because Government cuts have closed off, and in some cases indefinitely delayed, the available funding for essential projects. Examples include the Sutton Ings flood alleviation scheme, a sustainable drainage retrofit that would have protected an area of central Hull in which there are 2,982 homes at significant risk of flooding. The Ulceby flood alleviation scheme would have protected an area of Grimsby in which 2,164 homes are at significant risk of flooding. We urgently need to get back to an evidence-based flood management policy that all parties in the House can support. Nothing else will deliver the risk management strategy required for the Humber.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As is conventional—but I say this in a heartfelt way—I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing the debate, which has given hon. Members across the region and across parties the opportunity to add their voices to a collective strategy at the political level, and to work with the technical expertise and the communities involved to move forward in addressing flood risk in the area.
As the right hon. Gentleman set out, and as others have reminded us, on 5 December 2013 the east coast experienced a very serious tidal surge, causing flooding to communities along the banks of the Humber, and indeed upstream. The defences were overtopped, and there was flooding to more than 1,100 homes and businesses, and 700 hectares of land around the Humber. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about the importance of some of that land. The Government and I very much appreciate the impact that had, and the distress caused to the communities and businesses affected. I sympathise deeply with those whose homes and businesses were flooded. I have seen at first hand the effects of flooding around the country. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) mentioned that a number of Ministers have visited his constituency and the surrounding area to look at the impact.
I am grateful to the Environment Agency and all the other risk management authorities in the area, and to the emergency responders, for their excellent work in preparing for—that is important—and managing such events, without which the damage would have been much worse. When the flooding happened, they responded quickly and efficiently, so I particularly thank, as I have done in previous debates, all the professionals and volunteers for the way in which they responded to the exceptional weather.
Twelve thousand warnings were sent directly to homes and businesses, allowing people to prepare. We should not forget that our defences protected 156,000 properties in the area during the surge. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes said that it was difficult for people who have been flooded to hear the Government talking about what has been achieved, but as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) pointed out, it is important to send a message to those considering investing, or those who take decisions about levels of insurance premiums, excesses and so on, that defences do protect communities, and that many such defences operated successfully in this instance, as in others.
The 2013 event was of a similar magnitude to—it was slightly greater—the disastrous surge of 1953, in which 24,000 properties flooded and more than 300 people died. Surges such as the ones we saw in 1953 and in December last year will occur again, and it is possible that climate change could make such events more common and more severe. We cannot stop those events from happening, but we can ensure that our planning, preparation and investment in defences protect communities when they do happen. That is an ongoing process that right hon. and hon. Members present are at the heart of, on behalf of their communities.
I am grateful to the Minister. On the point about putting a strategic framework in place, will he reflect on whether we need to establish, as in Holland, flood protection standards that trigger the resource to deliver the standard, rather than having a certain amount of resource and doing the best possible with that?
I will come on to resourcing. The hon. Gentleman has made a point about the approach in another jurisdiction; a number of people referred to Holland—or the Netherlands, as I should properly say.
One example of the ongoing investment I referred to is the £20 million defence improvement project that is under construction to provide better protection in Grimsby. That will be completed in autumn 2015.
I will say a little more in a moment about what is being done in the Humber area, but let me first put this issue in the national context, following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). I have worked with him in Select Committee, and I now face him in debates—he is one of the two Opposition Front-Bench Members his party leader has thoughtfully provided to shadow me, and I am obviously grateful to both of them for the way in which they do that.
Let me reiterate that flood management is a Government priority. We are spending £3.2 billion on flood and coastal erosion management over this Parliament. For the future, we have made a record six-year capital commitment of at least £370 million a year, as the hon. Gentleman said, to improve flood defences, and that will rise to more than £400 million in 2020-21.
With the 2014 autumn statement, we will publish a pipeline—to use the jargon—for flood defence improvement projects for the next six years. That will provide protection for at least 300,000 further households throughout the country, meaning that, by the end of the decade, we will have provided a better level of protection to at least 465,000 households. That is on top of our achievements over this Parliament.
Despite taking a terrible battering this winter, our defences have protected a significant number of properties. About 1.3 million properties and 950 square miles of farmland were protected during that period. In response to the exceptional events of the winter, the Government acted quickly. We not only made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain critical defences, but made available recovery money for those most seriously affected.
The £270 million of additional funding is being used on the ground now to help the Environment Agency and other risk-management authorities to ensure that important defences are repaired before the coming winter, and are returned to target condition as soon as possible. From time to time, it has been implied that some of these defences will not be there to do the job for which they were originally designed; that is why it is crucial that the money is spent to ensure that they are back up to target condition.
In 2007, the then Government approved the Humber flood risk management strategy, providing the Environment Agency with a strategic business case to invest up to £323 million over a 25-year period up to 2032 on works to manage and reduce tidal flood risk in the area. Although the strategy was led by the Environment Agency, it was developed with, and supported by, other risk-management authorities and key stakeholders in the area. The first programme of improvement schemes started to be delivered in 2009, including schemes at Brough, Swinefleet, Halton Marshes, Stallingborough and Donna Nook. Schemes have since been delivered at Burringham, Gunness, Tetney and Grimsby, and the scheme at Cleethorpes is under construction. Defence improvements are also being planned for Hull.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) set out the importance of the protection at the Albert dock. The temporary defences are there, so they are in place to increase the level of defence. The work he was concerned about, which will make those defences permanent, will be completed during this financial year. Even if the defences are not made permanent by this winter, the temporary defences are in place, and they will be made permanent. It is important that the right hon. Gentleman raised the issue, given the level of risk. In the time remaining, I want to pick up on a few points.
May I respond to the points that have already been made? I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but there is a great deal to get through.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned the importance not only of new defences, but of assessing existing defences to see where improvements need to be made. That very much has to be part of the strategy, and he is right to mention the issue. Hull is an example of that process.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the effects over the entire estuary. It is possible to ring-fence some of the major population centres. Other Members have referred to the times when farmland can be used as part of a short-term measure to absorb water. Although I accept the point the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) made about the importance of farmland to the local economy and to the country’s food security, there are schemes—there is one in Kent—in which farmers have been paid to take flood water as part of a local strategy. Where a case can be made for doing that, it can certainly be part of the solution.
We have put in place the flood recovery fund for farmers, so that they can apply for funds to restore land that has been affected. A number of farmers in the west country have done that, but the money has also been made available to people who were affected by the early December flooding in the region we are talking about. It is important to put on record that that funding was available to help people deal with the shorter-term effects.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and other Members for their recognition of the fact that I do not have a cheque book with me and cannot sign over up to £1 billion of investment today.
Although I accept that hon. Members are disappointed to hear that, it is important to note that the work they are doing, along with the technical advice that is being received and the work that all the local authorities are involved in, will make a strong case for a long-term investment plan. The Government will then be able to consider that, along with the most up-to-date information.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle set out events that took place under the Labour Government, which were of huge concern and had a great impact particularly in Hull, although also in the surrounding area. We must always be aware of the severity and the likelihood of such impacts.
On the flood risk to smaller communities, one strength of the Government’s partnership approach is that it has allowed some of the smaller schemes in rural areas to go ahead. We think that up to 25% more schemes will go ahead because of that approach, which has provided an opportunity to raise money locally to partner with Government investment. Some more rural schemes would not necessarily have been scored as highly as some of the bigger schemes, but partnership funding means that they are taking place, and I am aware of many that are going ahead as a result.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned hypothecation and using the climate change levy and other things. Clearly, it is for Her Majesty’s Treasury to decide how the taxes it receives are spent. The position of successive Governments has been not to focus on hypothecation, but to look at investing in things that are necessary. Members have made the case today for investment in flood defences, and we have heard that very clearly. That is why we are spending more than previous Governments have.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes set out, as he has done consistently since the flooding took place, the impact on the local economy and the importance of the port in the area he represents. It is crucial that colleagues in all Departments and agencies are involved in our plans and strategies as we move forward—the flood envoy covering the area is a Minister in the Department for Transport—and that we take account of what they can do to secure critical assets and infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned local knowledge and what local land managers, farmers and internal drainage boards can offer. The Environment Agency is keen to work with them to make sure it constantly improves provision. Of course, many of the people who work for it also live in the areas affected and have worked there for many years, so the agency has great expertise when looking at local areas.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) talked movingly about the personal impacts and about how some of the responders—he mentioned a parish council chairman—took action on behalf of their community, even though they themselves were affected. It is important to recognise that. He talked about climate change and the national picture. While the Members gathered here will want to focus on what they want for their area, it is important to ensure that everybody can make their case, because there are many vulnerable areas, including further down the east coast, for example, where people will be looking to take forward schemes. He also mentioned a number of local schemes and described the impacts and the repairs that are under way, and I would be happy to write to him about some of them to make sure that we maintain progress.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North rightly mentioned, as she has done consistently, the importance of making sure there is room for development in areas prone to flood risk. The Government and local authorities want to send a strong message that we want to make these areas resilient and as well-protected as possible. We do not want just to add to flood risk. The Flood Re scheme builds on what was there before, which was set up for properties flooded in 2008. While 2009 remains the cut-off, we are investing in flood defences to protect other areas. That is why it is important we are talking today about protecting areas affected more recently.
The debate has given local Members the opportunity to show that they are working together, working with local communities and local authorities and using the Environment Agency’s expertise to make a case for investment in their area. I am delighted that they have secured a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to take that forward, and that there is an opportunity to work with Departments on community resilience and the resilience of critical infrastructure.
Skills and Training Facilities
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. This is an important debate about improving skills and training facilities in small cities and towns, and the subject is close to my heart. In my maiden speech four years ago I said that
“here in the UK, it is possible to help a child out of poverty and improve their chances in life if they receive a good education. However, we are not doing enough; we are not lifting enough people out of poverty. In my constituency, like in so many others across the UK, there are children who have tried so hard in school. There is a cadre of dedicated and professional staff who have helped them along the way and invested so much of themselves in helping those children try to improve their life chances, but the system does not seem to work. Those children are being forced through an education system that pushes them out the other end with little chance of getting a job, as they do not have the skills that local employers want.
We need to encourage employers to work with local schools and colleges, to get fully involved in education, to highlight the skills that are missing and even perhaps to take preventive action, possibly by designing some of the more vocational courses. Perhaps the prize at the end of the course should be a job or an apprenticeship with the employer. We need to be innovative and flexible, so that courses can reflect the skills gap locally and more local people can get local jobs.” —[Official Report, 1 July 2010; Vol. 512, c. 1063.]
When I said that four years ago I set myself a target—to help 1,000 young people into apprenticeships.
I could not agree more. Apprenticeship fairs are powerful tools. I held a jobs fair recently in my constituency at which a large number of people—employers, people from educational institutions and young people—came together. That led to a number of people getting apprenticeships.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does for the people of Stevenage, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that apprenticeships have value in combining training and work? In Dartford we have doubled the number of apprenticeship places since 2010. Does he agree that the Department for Work and Pensions should continue its policy of supporting them?
I completely agree. That is an important point.
The target I set myself was to help 1,000 young people into apprenticeships in my first term in Parliament. I am delighted with the progress that has been made in Stevenage in the past four years. Six weeks ago in Prime Minister’s questions I asked whether the Prime Minister would
“join me in congratulating the educational institutions and businesses in my constituency that have increased…apprenticeship starts from just over 200 in 2010 to over 800 a year now”.—[Official Report, 14 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 747.]
That is a fantastic figure, and I am incredibly proud of it. The progress that has been made is amazing, and I congratulate the Minister for working to ensure that an apprenticeship means training for a real skill, with a real job and a real future at the end of it. I had the pleasure of meeting the Minister’s parliamentary apprentice last week. She is an enthusiastic young lady and committed to learning. I hope that he will tell us a little more about her experience when he responds to the debate.
There is much more to be done, however, nationally and locally. In my constituency we have smashed the 1,000 apprenticeship starts target for the present Parliament. I now want 1,000 apprenticeships to start this year alone—that would be 1,000 young people choosing skills and training for their future. What a statement of support that would be for young people in my constituency from employers and educational institutions that have skills and facilities.
Some hon. Members may have old-fashioned ideas about the quality of apprenticeships and the roles and careers that they offer. They may, at the mention of apprenticeships, think of a time-served traditional skill set such as plumbing, bricklaying or working as car mechanic—and what is wrong with that? Those are great jobs, offering a great future with skills that can be transferred all over the world. I promise hon. Members that there is more demand around the world for plumbers, brickies and mechanics than for Members of Parliament. They are far more likely to get a visa for the United States or Australia than we are. However, there are also a range of other apprenticeship opportunities in my constituency that will surprise some hon. Members. There are apprentice accountants, apprentice missile builders and apprentice rocket scientists.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that the quality and range of the apprenticeships that are available is extraordinary. In my constituency an engineering company is expanding its apprenticeship programme to bridge the skills gap that has, unfortunately, grown up in the past 15 years. Does he agree that apprenticeships of that quality are a way of bridging the skills gap, and that they will help us to deliver our long-term economic plan?
I agree completely. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers work in my constituency. The skills gap is a huge issue for companies in the area, which need people who can deliver such skills; they need investment in the future work force, so that they can continue to compete.
I agree with that valuable point. My hon. Friend stands up for Carlisle in his usual robust way. It is important for large towns and small cities to have those skills and training facilities; they should not just be attached to large employers.
In my constituency there are 4,000 research scientists employed at GlaxoSmithKline; there are 1,500 people employed at MBDA, which has a range of missiles in development; and another 1,500 are employed at Airbus Defence and Space, as it has just been rebranded, which builds 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites. However, 90% of apprentices in the area are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises, and that happens only because they have access to training facilities and skills.
It is important to address this issue. A company in my constituency called Astral Training runs a training package that is attuned to the things that employers want, which will bring their employees’ skills on. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should focus on what employers and trainers want? The focus should be not on what we think is right, but on what employers think. They will employ the people, so we should make sure that they are trained to their needs.
I completely agree. The juxtaposition between employers and education is important. Top-down centralised targets do not work, because places such as High Peak, Stevenage and Carlisle have different employment needs. There is a need for local skills and training facilities that can deliver to those areas.
People sometimes say that what we are talking about is not rocket science; well, in Stevenage it actually is—we have apprentice rocket scientists. Why have we been so lucky in Stevenage? The simple answer is that we have always had a great respect for apprentices in particular, and I have managed to persuade many SMEs that taking on an apprentice is a way of investing in their work force and future turnover. I will visit any company I can that takes on an apprentice, and meet them personally. Perhaps if I did not make those visits we would already have reached my target of 1,000 apprenticeship starts for this year—that is something for me to think about.
I have also worked with a local bank, which was close to agreeing to complete any apprenticeship-based paperwork for its SME business customers that took on a new apprentice. Unfortunately the individual that I was working with has moved on, so I need to revisit the matter and try to rebuild the approach. That would have released a whole range of new, smaller companies that are concerned about paperwork to move forward and employ an apprentice. The Minister has simplified the system, but fear of paperwork remains a barrier for many SMEs. I urge him to continue to reduce it as much as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on small towns and cities. Does he think that one of the psychological barriers in small towns and cities is that they rarely rate a mention? In the north-west, Lancaster and Fleetwood are rarely mentioned in articles and speeches. It is always Manchester, usually meaning Greater Manchester, and Liverpool, usually meaning Greater Merseyside, that are referred to.
I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend about Manchester, but with my accent I cannot agree about Liverpool. Lancaster is close to my heart—my sister-in-law went to Lancaster university, which is a great institution. Many people are interested in Lancaster and Fleetwood, where there are good companies employing apprentices. My hon. Friend is doing a great job to ensure that they are pressing ahead with that.
Another reason why we are lucky in Stevenage is that we are so close to London—only 26 minutes from King’s Cross on the fast trains. For many employees that means that it is easy to move jobs and to get a pay rise of £3,000 or £4,000 just for going into London. It is easy to obtain quick career progression by popping into London. Many of my local companies recognise that by employing young people with strong roots in the area, they tend to stay with the company and build a career with that company. The retention rate among apprentices locally is incredibly high, and I am sure the Minister will be able to inform us of the average retention rate of apprentices and time served with a company. In some of my local companies, people who were apprentices many years ago now serve on the board, and some of those are multinational companies.
Schools and local colleges accept that they have a role and responsibility to help their pupils into work and to develop the skills they will need to enable them to compete in the workplace.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. What is important about apprenticeships is that we are moving away from the obsession with everyone going to university, and creating a work force that people need. Winder Power in Pudsey has a young apprentice who designed a new power supply that will save that business billions of pounds over the next 10 years. Is that not the sort of thing we should be encouraging, instead of telling people to go off and get a degree from some university?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am about to come to the fact that nationally, there is a lot of pressure on young people from parents and teachers to go to university. If that is right for the person and they want to pursue that option, that is their decision, but they should be given a choice. I have had some issues in my constituency with parents pushing their children towards university. Those 18-year-olds, who are old enough to fight for their country, are pushed into university because their parents feel that that is what is best for them, but it is often not best for them.
When my hon. Friend comes across parents who are keen for their children to go to university rather than to take on an apprenticeship, will he use the example of Case New Holland in my constituency, which manufactures one in 10 of the world’s tractors? The current managing director started as an apprentice, building tractors on the shop floor, and now runs a £7 billion export company.
My hon. Friend gives a classic example of the importance of apprentices to the local economy and local community. I would be delighted to meet that individual and to see some of his tractors in action, because—this may surprise hon. Members—we have a range of farms in Stevenage.
The Minister has done a huge amount of work on level 5 and 6 apprenticeships. A level 5 apprenticeship is equivalent to an old higher national diploma and a level 6 apprenticeship is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. Some companies in my constituency already have level 5 apprenticeships and are working towards level 6 apprenticeships. Other companies provide their apprentices with day release and pay for them to go to university to secure a degree. Pursuing an apprenticeship is a huge opportunity in my constituency.
On the whole we are lucky, because we have created a culture locally whereby apprenticeships are highly sought after and the local community is engaged in helping our young people into work. During national apprenticeship week, I visited a local company in Stevenage, Solveway, at its training centre in Barnwell school to launch its IT apprenticeship programme. A local company has a training centre for apprentices in a secondary school in Stevenage—that is a fantastic example of the great partnership work we are promoting in Stevenage between the business, education and training communities.
Solveway is working in partnership with Barnwell school, which now has two IT apprentices and has already placed several other apprentices since the programme started in 2014. The aim is to provide an alternative career path for students who are interested in IT that should lead to permanent employment. Barnwell school’s head teacher, Tony Fitzpatrick, said:
“We have been very fortunate to be approached by Solveway to work in partnership with them. It makes perfect sense to have Solveway based at Barnwell School, there are many benefits for both parties and in particular for our students’ future career opportunities.”
Solveway director, Keith Swain, said:
“We have been overwhelmed by the support received from Barnwell School, local business and the community in support for this venture.”
That is a classic example of how people can come together in a local community and focus on giving young local people jobs and opportunities.
We spend a lot of time talking about what qualifications young people will get. I got my GCSEs, my A-levels, my first degree and then my master of science degree. I cannot remember what my GCSE results were. The point is that as we get each set of qualifications, the previous ones are no longer relevant, but if we had the opportunity to pursue apprenticeships, those skills would have been skill sets for life. It is important that people can go to university, but it is also important that they have the opportunity to pursue an apprenticeship if they want to.
The progress we have made is truly amazing, especially in such a short time and under such difficult economic circumstances. With our long-term economic plan working and unemployment continuing to fall in many of our constituencies, it is incredibly important that we push harder and faster to increase the number of apprenticeships and to improve skills and training facilities in our constituencies. Investing in our young people is investing in our future. I want to see more ventures like the one at Barnwell school, but the reality is that that requires a dynamic company working with receptive school leadership who want to see their pupils make progress. There is no reward mechanism for schools and companies that come together in this way, and the costs are taken on board. I would like the Minister to incentivise that type of initiative and to help more schools to help more of their pupils into work in more of our constituencies.
After that tour de force, I am not sure I can respond other than with trepidation. It is great to see such a strong turnout from hon. Members in support of skills in towns and cities across the country, and particularly in support of apprenticeships. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), not least for his heartfelt and enthusiastic support for the long-term economic plan, but also for securing this debate and allowing the issues to be aired and discussed so that we can consider where we need to go next. It is undoubtedly true that we have made a lot of progress, but we must always look to the future.
We know that skills are directly responsible for growth, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents would want me to pay tribute to his work in increasing the prevalence and knowledge of apprenticeships in his area. As he said, there were 830 in the last year for which full figures are available, and I give my wholehearted support to the target of more than 1,000 apprenticeships next year. I am sure that with his energy, he will reach that. In Stevenage, youth unemployment on the claimant count has fallen by 34% over the past year, due in part to the great employers of Stevenage, but also in part to his efforts.
Many important points have been raised in the debate. The doubling of apprenticeships in Dartford is an important element of reducing youth unemployment there; it has been reduced by over 30% in the last year. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), have had apprenticeship fairs, and I wish her every success with the one that is coming up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) correctly identified the false target that was set in the past, which was that 50% of people ought to go to university. Like many hon. Members, I went to university, and it works for some people, but the fact that people felt that they were pushed in one way when it may not have been right for them was a mistake. It also led to a policy focus on those who went to university, rather than on ensuring that all young people, whatever their circumstances, can reach their potential. We have a vision that it should become the norm that as people leave school or college, they go either to university or into an apprenticeship. Our job is to ensure that there are high-quality options for both and that the choice is theirs, according to their circumstances, so I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend said.
Likewise, in order to ensure that those high-quality options are available, it is important that we have high-quality apprenticeships. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has done in supporting that direction of travel. It was a pleasure to go to Lancaster recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and see the work that is being done there, not least in the local college, on driving up the quality and provision of apprenticeships.
Similarly, there has been a big expansion of apprenticeships in Carlisle. I learned lessons in Carlisle and brought them back to try to improve, in particular, the access of small businesses to apprenticeships. That is an issue across the country, but it was really highlighted to me by the discussions that we had in Carlisle.
None of this is possible without the support of employers. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) made the point that the focus on the needs of employers must be front and centre, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage in his maiden speech. That thread goes through the heart of our skills reforms to ensure that training is both rigorous and responsive to the needs of employers. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak made a very important point about that. Stafford, for instance, has seen the biggest fall in the youth claimant count over the last year—it has gone down by more than 40% in just one year. We should all congratulate Stafford on that and learn from what it has done—more than most places—to improve the job prospects of young people.
We are making a lot of progress, but we need to do much more. The expansion of higher apprenticeships has mentioned, and it is important. Ensuring that we fill the gap between lower-level training and academic, university-level study is close to my heart. Some of the biggest skills shortages that we have as a country are among higher-level technicians. Higher apprenticeships are a big part of the answer to that, supported by the new national colleges that we are bringing in. We will announce very shortly the location of the first national college—the national college for rail, to support the development of HS2.
I was asked what I thought about retention among apprentices. The statistics are very interesting; they show not only that retention is higher among apprentices, but that retention and morale are higher in workplaces that have apprentices, even among the non-apprentices. I think that is because if employers are putting something into their staff, it increases the morale of the whole work force. People feel that they are building something for the future and have a stronger relationship with their employer. That is something that any employer, whether or not they have apprentices yet, can heed. It is certainly true in my parliamentary office, where we went out to hire an apprentice and came back with two, because the quality of the applicants was so high. They are both brilliant. They are working on casework and constituency issues and learning about the House of Commons and the democratic process, and they are doing a brilliant job for me. I am delighted to put on the record publicly the support they have given me, and I would encourage any hon. Member who is thinking about it to take on an apprentice—in fact, I would encourage an hon. Member who is not thinking about it to think about it and take on an apprentice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage also mentioned the importance of ensuring that we get the best quality training, and I want to dwell on that for the final couple of minutes. We have to ensure that we make the best use of technology to spread opportunity. Every learner should have the chance to gain from increasingly prevalent and cutting-edge technological solutions for learning. In the same way that in the past, most of the rest of our lives has been changed by technology, so learning can be improved by the use of technology.
We set up a group, the so-called FELTAG—the further education learning technology action group—to investigate the barriers to the use of technology in further education, and we are now looking across the board at the whole of education. We found, for instance, that as many as 80% of colleges were relying on a single broadband connection. Bandwidth is vital, as more and more people bring their own devices and use them while they are learning. We are now helping colleges to install more bandwidth. Some 73 colleges, including Hertford regional college, which serves Stevenage, are being upgraded in the first tranche, and we are stimulating innovation in education technology through the Technology Strategy Board.
I want to put on the record that apprenticeships, in the past, have been in traditional industries, but they increasingly cover the whole range of occupations in the modern British economy. We must be on the front foot in looking at how technology can support the provision of education, especially within the workplace, where it can have the biggest impact, not least by keeping people engaged in learning when they may otherwise have been disengaged. Ensuring that we can bring that to bear on increasing the number of apprenticeships is very important.
Companies in Stevenage have taken an active part in what is called our trailblazer programme for rejuvenating apprenticeships and making sure that the training that is delivered is the training that employers need. Companies such as BAE Systems, which I know has a big presence in Stevenage, have played a vital role, because it is not we politicians who know what training is necessary in any occupation; it is the companies themselves. I am very grateful to the companies that have put in time and effort to get this right. We need to come up with a product that works across the whole sector that the apprenticeship is designed for, but companies large and small that get involved right at the start in designing what the apprenticeship should look like play a particularly important role. They come from all over the country, including from Stevenage, and I want to thank them for their help.
Finally, in the coming weeks, we will be delivering on local growth deals, many of which involve strong skills elements. I hope that I have the support of hon. Members as we roll out those growth deals, so that we can ensure that the training is what is necessary in local labour markets and fits local need, rather than being at the direction of a Minister. It should respond to demand on the ground from employers to make sure that we can truly do what is necessary to build economies and make them stronger right across the country.
Perhaps more important than that being an economic exercise, vital though restoring the economy is, is that it is also an exercise in promoting equality of opportunity, social justice and social mobility. It is ultimately about doing what we can to make sure that everybody in our society has the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth, to make the most of their talents, to have their expectations raised, and to build for themselves a career—and the stability of finances that comes with it—that is rewarding and valuable to them and their families. In that way we can build not only a stronger economy, which so many crave, but a stronger society and sense of purpose. The apprenticeship programme that we in this Chamber all support plays a important role in doing that.
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have had rather a lot of experience of that recently, and long may it continue.
I want to offer some definition and context to the discussion about legal highs, spell out some of the problems that they are causing for my constituents in Chesterfield and push the Government to act on this appalling blight. Legal highs are a growing menace in our communities, endangering the health of young people in particular, breaking the hearts of their families, leading to crime as users steal to fund their habit and terrifying shoppers and shopkeepers in the surrounding areas. The truth is that some retailers are mocking the law, laughing at powerless regulators while visiting misery and mayhem on our communities, and the time has come for us to decide whether we are willing to have that happen or whether we are seriously and finally going to act.
I will start by defining legal highs. They are often referred to as “new psychoactive substances”. They are chemicals that have been synthesised to mimic the effects of conventional illegal drugs. People often think that because they are legal, they are safe. That is a dangerous myth and a message that the Government must be much stronger at combating. People selling these substances on the high street next to respectable chemists, photography and chocolate shops only underlines the impression that they must be okay. Legal highs are called “legal” only because they have not been banned yet. People need to be aware that the name in no way indicates that they are safe to use.
Legal highs are being developed at a speed never before seen in the drugs market. They are now widely available from a range of shops, takeaways and petrol stations. Legal highs are often even more dangerous than currently illegal substances. That has been clearly demonstrated by the spate of deaths from fake ecstasy, which is the name for various kinds of new psychoactive substances that are extremely dangerous.
Deaths are not caused just by overdoses. Legal highs can also cause accidental deaths and suicides, which is why it took several years to reveal the true death statistics for mephedrone. Only in 2012, following a review of all the different causes, did we get the true figure for mephedrone deaths in 2010, which was 43—43 lives pointlessly wasted as a result of something that was legal at the time.
The number of drug-related deaths in Britain is more than double the average across Europe, according to a report from the European Union drugs agency. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction warned that so-called legal highs are involved in a growing number of deaths.
We know that there are more than 100 legal highs on the UK market. We have found out that these drugs are now available from more than 200 head shops on UK high streets. Today, we can see that they are also available from a range of other local shops and takeaways. It is estimated that 670,000 young Britons aged between 16 and 24 have taken legal highs. In the “European Drug Report” of 2013, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said that the average mortality rate in Britain due to overdoses of all drugs was 38.3 per million of population—more than twice the average for Europe. The agency found 73 new synthetic drugs in 2012. It surveys the number of internet sellers in the UK, which rose from 170 in 2010 to 690 in 2012. Just in those two years, the number went up by more than 500. The UK’s market is now the biggest in the EU and the second biggest in the world. There are also estimated to be hundreds of high street legal high sellers.
Legal highs are a relatively new challenge in drugs policy and are difficult to control under traditional drugs legislation such as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because new versions of substances are developed at a swift rate to avoid the current controls. I would like now to talk about what the situation means to us in Chesterfield.
Chesterfield is a town that is performing well. Our town centre famously has fewer empty retail units than Windsor, and we outperform the local and national averages considerably. We have retained an old-style cobbled market feel with one of the UK’s largest outdoor markets, and we have an award-winning new indoor market. We have a successful fusion between the new retail offer and the traditional high street.
However, for retailers and traders on Packers row and Knifesmithgate, the existence of the Reefer store and the antisocial behaviour that surrounds its sale of products such as Clockwork Orange is turning trade, which is difficult enough in the present climate, into a total nightmare. No one should be frightened to go to work or to support shops on our local high street, but that is the reality for many retailers and shoppers in that area. Local cafés have had to deal with users falling asleep on their floor. Retailers have had the experience of terrified friends of users rushing in demanding that they call an ambulance. Market traders have been abused. Police have arrested those causing trouble only to find that the miscreants were back on the streets before the police had even finished their paperwork. Teenagers at the bus stop have been urged to buy legal highs for users who have previously been banned and have been asked for money to support the drug habit of those users. Shoppers have heard appalling language and witnessed much worse levels of antisocial behaviour. Shopkeepers have now branded Packers row a no-go zone, saying that it has become overrun with antisocial behaviour and drug use.
Chesterfield borough council and the community safety partnership have endeavoured to get the tenant’s landlord to take action using the immoral use clause in their tenancy agreement, but the landlord does not feel sufficiently empowered to do so. I feel that the landlord is wrong, but we need to do much more to support commercial landlords who want to get rid of antisocial retailers but do not feel able to do so.
I place on the record my thanks to Councillor Keith Miles, who is here witnessing the debate, and Councillor Sharon Blank. They continue to work on the issue with me. They, the community safety partnership and the police are rightly looking to us, as legislators, to back them up. I hope that we will not continue to disappoint them.
To give a sense of the impact that the problem has on the retail sector, let me read the words of Bridget Jones from Chocolate by Design, a retailer in Chesterfield:
“It’s absolutely horrendous, the shop”—
“is attracting an unsavoury group of teenagers that are hanging around here day in day out, their language is absolutely appalling and they are abusing old and young people…Just recently an ambulance had to be called out to somebody who had collapsed from taking these substances, somebody was actually treated in the shop next door too, after taking some sort of powder.
People won’t come up to this part of the town because they are ruining it, this behaviour isn’t just a one off, it happens all the time, we have just had enough.
My business is being affected tremendously, somebody is going to get killed out here from the stuff, that’s a definite.”
Bridget runs a store that holds parties for children who want to make chocolate and other confectionery. People come in to buy chocolate for their family and friends. Let us imagine someone trying to run a business in which they are trying to encourage young people to come from right across the east midlands to have an exciting birthday experience, and being greeted with that sort of conduct outside the store.
David Hilton-Turner, whose 14-year-old son almost died in Chesterfield as a result of legal highs, wrote to me to say:
“My son has been a victim of a legal high drug which he was lucky he survived. The shop in Chesterfield ‘Reefers’ sold it to a 17 year old who made an inhaler (bong) and gave it to my 14 year old son. He had never done this before but he ended up with a crowd of people who had. What I want is the shop closing down and somebody in government to ban this drug. It is sold as an herbal essence to over 18s but the shop does know what happens. Because of a legal loophole they get away with it. The police cannot do anything because of the loophole and I’m hoping you can before it causes fatalities. The substance in question is known as Clockwork Orange.”
In addition to the impact on the community, the police say that the problem around Packers row and Knifesmithgate is draining officers’ time and taking them away from solving other crimes. Nick Booth, police sergeant for the town centre, said that a lot of time was being spent in that troublesome area. He said:
“This is an area we are having to target for anti-social behaviour and perceived drug use. Kids are buying legal highs from Reefer and using them there.
Members of the public believe it is a big drug problem and it is still causing people harassment, alarm and distress.
Some of these young people are actually turning to criminality to fund this drug habit.”
Retailers are under siege from people who have taken legal highs or are involved in their distribution. This is a blight on our town centre, is frightening for the vast majority and brings shame on all those involved in it. Sergeant Booth said that the police had “their hands tied”, as the issue is difficult to manage. He said:
“Ideally we could do with a change in the law at government level that enables us to tackle them effectively.
Although the drugs are legal, they are similar to illegal drugs in the effects they have.”
The police are busy trying to educate people about the dangers of legal highs, and have made it one of the local policing priorities for Chesterfield, but they face an uphill battle. The Derbyshire constabulary sent out a warning about legal highs in May 2014 following the admission of two teenagers to hospital, but the Government’s current approach of attempting to ban them individually, substance by substance, which means that they are always one step behind the vagabonds who market these products, is clearly not working.
I understand that the Minister has appealed to the Chinese and Indian authorities for help in preventing the production of such products. Although I wish him well in that endeavour, surely we need to do more to target the retailers of the substances. On 27 February, he was reported to be within two or three months of publishing a review on legal highs, but four months on there is no sign of that review. I am informed—I hope that he can assure us that this is not correct—that he is considering the option of regulating rather than taking action to try to get rid of such substances. I think we need a much more robust approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making an excellent contribution. He has described the situation in Chesterfield, and it is one that I absolutely recognise in Barnsley. He has spoken about what Government can do to resolve the issue. Does he agree that part of the way to tackle legal highs nationally is through cross-departmental co-operation? We are not just talking about the Home Office, although it clearly has an important role to play; we are talking about the Home Office working in partnership with the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to tackle the challenge. Does he agree that cross-Government working is important in resolving the problem?
That is an important point, and the problem has an impact on all those Departments, as my hon. Friend says. We must get cross-Government and cross-party work on it. I pay tribute to him for the work that he is doing in Barnsley to try to rid his constituents of this nightmare, and we will look at that and learn from it.
The owner of Reefers, the store in question in Chesterfield, apparently told the Derbyshire Times that the packets of Clockwork Orange that he sold made it clear that the product was not for human consumption. However, his store has a provocative name, graphics of spliff designs were originally painted on the side and it sells products that are used in the consumption of drugs. It mocks the law by claiming that it does not encourage drug use.
The Minister is on record as saying that we are ahead of other countries in our response, but Ireland, through the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, has already sought to ban legal highs. I would like councils to be given much greater powers to stand up for their local communities. I would also like us to take a lead and say that we are not willing to try to pursue the problem on a substance by substance basis, because the people involved are always one step ahead of us. They change the compound marginally, change its name and say, “You have not banned this.” I want us to get on the front foot and say that the producers of psychoactive substances know what they are doing and we know what they are doing, and that we will work collectively to get such substances off our streets.
We have rightly, over many years, taken the approach of refusing to legalise illicit and illegal drugs, despite the call from some quarters to do so. It is absolutely right that we treat legal highs, which are just as dangerous in many cases, in the same way. It is no good saying that products such as cannabis are illegal, but allowing producers of legal highs effectively to mock the law by creating new substances that have the same effects while we attempt to chase them item by item. It is time for us all to work together to develop a more constructive approach.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on an issue that affects the constituencies of all Members, regardless of party. Does he agree that the approach taken by the US in the Federal Analogue Act, which banned substances that are similar to certain chemical compounds, could be a way of dealing with the whack-a-mole approach that he has correctly identified when it comes to proscribing so-called legal highs?
There is a lot of potential in that, and I think it is well worth investigating. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has more expertise in that area.
When our communities feel under siege, we must not simply wring our hands and say, “There is nothing we can do. We know that there is a problem, but it is up to you to deal with it.” Our colleagues in local government and in the business world, and those in the police and the health service who are left to deal with the problems caused by legal highs, are looking at us and asking what action we will take. The time has come for us to act, and the steps that have been taken in America and Ireland offer us a potential way forward. There has to be a real sense of urgency. We should not seek to legislate in haste, but the situation is a national emergency. The scale of the response I have received since I secured the debate suggests that legal highs are a problem in communities up and down the land and that communities want action to be taken.
Alongside the potential for legislation, which I hope the Minister will confirm the Government are considering, I would like councils to be given greater powers to stand up for their local community. In the same way as they can deal with antisocial tenants, they should be able to curb the activities of antisocial retailers. We are facing a growing epidemic, and we must stand here impotent no more. It is long past the time for action. We must work together to cleanse our streets of this blight, and to protect our young people and communities. To do anything less would be a dereliction of our duty to our constituencies. The time for hand-wringing is over. The Government need to get back into the driving seat. Let us clean up Chesterfield and Britain, and rid our streets of legal highs once and for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this important debate. I am seriously concerned about so-called legal highs—as the hon. Gentleman said, their proper title is new psychoactive substances—which are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because, according to some, they have not been well enough researched to legislate over. That does not allay my fears that those substances are at best dangerous and at worst fatal.
At a town in my constituency on Sunday 22 June, four teenagers aged between 17 and 19 had to be treated by the emergency services for the effects of a legal high. One boy became so violent towards paramedics who were trying to help him that the police had no choice but to taser him. The emergency services considered the situation to be so critical that the four boys were rushed to Derriford hospital in Plymouth under police escort so that they could get the treatment they needed. At least one of the boys was reportedly classed as being in a life-threatening condition and would have died had he not received the treatment he was given at the hospital. Because of the expert care given at Derriford hospital, all four boys made a recovery, but the outcome could have been so very different and tragic.
The products we are discussing are marketed as bath salts or plant food because they cannot be sold for human consumption, but people who seek to get high on such products know which are actually plant foods and which are merely sold as such. If that information is in the public domain, surely we can identify such products and restrict or ban them. When they are tested, it is not uncommon to find that they contain substances that are banned under the 1971 Act, which are not always listed in the contents. I appreciate that the Government cannot stop individuals using substances in a manner for which they are not necessarily marketed, but surely it is within our ability to legislate to restrict or even ban the sale of such products. I urge the Minister to seek ways to end the ready availability of legal-high substances to prevent any more people from being killed or injured, as so nearly happened in my constituency on 22 June.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing such an important debate at such a critical time, as the Government consider their future approach to the issue.
I start by making the Minister and the House aware of the results of an investigation conducted by the North-West Evening Mail last year as part of its “Ban Them Now” campaign. It sent an undercover investigative reporter to Living World, a pet shop on Duke street in Barrow where legal highs were widely known to have been on sale. The reporter picked up two substances, Sparkle E and Psyclone, and took them to the counter—there was of course the usual disclaimer that they were not for human consumption. The reporter asked the shop assistant what he was supposed to do with them and was told that he should “neck” them, or he could mix them together if he wanted. He was told that one was like ecstasy and the other like cocaine. There was only the merest veneer of legality over a common, out-and-out illegal drugs trade.
The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), rejected my amendments to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill in Committee, but promised to look further at the issue, rather than rule out action altogether. I plead with the Government to take more effective action to deal with this scourge, which is making young people so vulnerable. We all know that it is almost impossible to drive out the illegal drugs trade completely, but it is horribly complacent to say that because we cannot hope to eradicate something completely, we might as well put up with these head shops. They are making substances available far more easily and attracting many more young people, many of them school pupils, into taking these substances, and those young people simply would not do it if it was made more difficult and such shops were driven out of our high streets.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. Does he agree that people who have called for the legalisation of drugs on a much broader scale are wrong because, although they say we are criminalising young people who use drugs, the very fact that to use them is a criminal activity prevents many people from going down that route? People can buy those products without any fear of the law, knowing that what they are doing is entirely legal.
That is a great worry. I recognise that the issue is difficult for all our communities, as well as for policy makers, but look at Amsterdam, which has gone down the legalisation route for some drugs. Legalising or semi-legalising cannabis—or whatever its status is—has brought with it hard drug problems, making them far more available in that city. The Minister has said that he is considering regulating head shops. Surely the overwhelming majority of our constituents would be horrified by the idea that we might end up with mini-Amsterdams on high streets throughout the United Kingdom. I guess his review is ongoing, and we would appreciate an update on it, but I hope he will make it clear that he has categorically ruled out that idea. If his coalition partners want to intervene to give him some moral support while he does so, I am sure that that would be welcome across the House.
Have the Government had the chance to consider a suggestion by local police officers that more be done at ports to restrict the chemicals coming into the country from abroad? Rather than waiting until those substances are in the shops on our high streets, we should cut them out before they get there. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to consider my rejected amendment—how have we ended up with a legal system in which our trading standards officers and police officers, who fervently want to take action, are effectively fighting with one or two hands tied behind their backs? They have an overwhelming suspicion that every new substance is neither plant food nor bath salts, but just another repackaging of substances that are either illegal now or will be made so as soon as the law catches up.
Why not give the authorities the opportunity to confiscate the products when they find them and then let legal due process take place? If the owners of head shops really want to try to convince the authorities that these products genuinely are there to feed plants or make bathrooms smell more pleasant, let them do so. However, we are giving every new substance that comes along a three to six-month head start—perhaps the Minister will provide information on how long it takes to ban each substance—before it can be banned and the next one comes along. If every week the authorities can come and clear the shelves and say, “Come and start a new legal process if you want,” that will make it much easier to tackle this scourge on our high streets. There is an opportunity to do something about that, and if the Minister does the right thing, I am sure that the Opposition will want to back him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing such an important debate on an issue that has not had enough publicity and comment. He is absolutely right to have put his arguments on the record and he gave a good summary of the problem nationally and how it affects his constituency. We have also heard about the problems in other places around the country.
My interest in the subject stems from constituency casework. A couple came to my surgery a year or so ago to tell me the story of their 16-year-old son. They were a perfectly normal family—fairly affluent, with good education and strong bonds—and their son was an A*-student at school with a bright future. Everything seemed normal, but he got hooked on legal highs. They were pushed by drug dealers in the area as an entry drug, and his life quickly deteriorated. He got into a vicious downward spiral, and the legal highs led him on to much harder illegal drugs. His education fell by the wayside. His family went through a living hell trying to get him off those and confronting the dealers. They tried everything at their disposal, but were not succeeding, until he went to an excellent local charity in Milton Keynes called Compass, which deals with substance abuse for people under 18.
I will say a little more about Compass shortly, but before I move on I want to say that when I spoke to the staff there they told me they are finding that young people using legal highs are becoming more addicted at an earlier point than would be the case with illegal drugs. There is a real problem in our schools and communities. The family of the 16-year-old told me that the knowledge of legal highs among school-age pupils is widespread; I think it would shock most of us to discover just how prevalent they are and how easy it is to get hold of them. They told me that getting hold of legal highs is easier than ordering a pizza—it is that easy. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) have highlighted how easy it is to buy such substances on the high street.
Locally, in my constituency and across Milton Keynes, we have seen a worrying increase in the number of deaths from legal highs, from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012. In the past couple of weeks, Public Health England has published statistics illustrating that there is a particular problem in Milton Keynes. Nationally, 1% of people included in the survey—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division in the House, I was making the point that recent figures from Public Health England indicate that the problem in Milton Keynes might be greater than it is nationally. Some 1% of those surveyed nationally said legal highs were their drug of choice, but the figure in Milton Keynes was 6%, and I am sure that is replicated in other towns and cities across the country.
As we have heard, legal highs are dangerous, principally because there is a lack of evidence about their short, medium and long-term effects—people really do not know what they are taking. As we have also heard, the composition can be changed so that suppliers are one step ahead of the law at all times.
The police and other agencies do as good a job as they can to keep a lid on things. Compass, the charity I referred to, has done a huge amount of work locally to try to get to young people before their problem becomes too great and to turn their lives around. I am happy to say that the constituent whose parents came to me was sorted out in time, before his life spiralled out of control, but that was only after a living hell for him and his family.
Before the debate, I spoke to Compass about the steps it thinks need to be taken. One point it made was that voluntary organisations pick up the majority of casework. As good as their work is, it is not sufficiently comprehensive to catch all the people in this situation. Compass wants other organisations to do much more—particularly local authorities, given their new public health obligations.
Principally, however, Compass’s point was that much more needs to be done in schools to educate people about the dangers of legal highs. Drug education already goes on, but specific enough advice is not given to young people. Clearly, prevention and education are key. The hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Barrow and Furness made perfectly valid points about the need to look at the regulation of shops. Indeed, I very much support what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said about providing some sort of decriminalised or regulated environment not being the answer. However, as important as it is to look at the effect of those drugs on trade in our towns and cities, doing so deals only with the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. The primary focus must be on educating people about the dangers of legal highs and what they can lead to. Anything else must follow from that.
The Government are reviewing policy and legislation on this issue, and I simply urge them to get on with it—I mean that in the kindest way possible. It is easy to spend ages looking at all the evidence and at other countries, but while that is going on, more young people are being sucked into a sinister world. The duty that falls on our shoulders is not to rush into new legislation, but not to dither either. We must quickly grapple with a problem that, as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, is afflicting many of our communities. If we do not take action soon, it will become far worse.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on introducing this important debate? He set out very effectively the nature of the problem, the size of the market, the number of deaths and the policy challenges.
The debate has been a rather rare one for this place. Many of us have learned a great deal about an issue we were not very familiar with—I was certainly pretty much unaware of it. Much like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I had the issue drawn to my attention at a meeting with a constituent. Richard Smith came to talk to me a couple of months ago about his son, who had started using legal highs. He talked about the disruption to his life, the cost to the family in terms of relationship breakdown, and the money his son was spending. He drew my attention to the fact that, in the early days, these products were readily available over the internet, and were also available on market stalls. However, like the hon. Member for Chesterfield, he pointed out that these products have become mainstream and are now drifting into the high street.
My constituent drew my attention to a shop in Leamington Spa, a leafy town in Warwickshire that is very pleasant. It is in the main high street—the Parade—with Laura Ashley and Austin Reed nearby. It is called Planet Bong and has an entry in the business improvement district company directory. It is described as
“a funky ethical Fairtrade store specialising in alternative…Fairtrade fashion…All influenced by Fairtrade practices”.
Yet that is where legal highs are readily and easily available. It shows how the issue has moved on.
My constituent also drew my attention to the way in which chemists who manufacture the product stay one step ahead of legislators. The Minister has I think described this as a “race with chemists”, and I am sure that he will discuss how society can start to win that race. After becoming aware of the situation their son was in, my constituents looked for support in the usual places. They went to the health service and looked at what was available through education. Much as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South found, support was lacking, absent or inadequate.
My constituent believes that much of the problem is that the people who use the products do not see themselves as victims in the way that the users of more conventional illegal drugs do. They are enjoying what they see as a recreational product and are often completely unaware of the dangers, or of deaths such as those we have heard about. They do not understand where use of the products may take them, and as a consequence they do not present themselves at more conventional drug treatment centres.
Is my hon. Friend concerned to hear that a constituent of mine who wrote to me on this issue said that it says on product labels, “not fit for human consumption”? No one seems to read that. People who are not users who go into the shop in Newton Abbot are horrified at the risk to their children.
It is part of youth’s belief in its invincibility. People take those products, believing that because they are young, their bodies are resistant, and they can deal with those things without a massively detrimental effect. How wrong can they be?
Another issue is the use of the term “legal high”, and the conclusions that it leads people to. If something is legal, they think it will perhaps do them no harm. If it is legal, why should they not do it? What should prevent them? The long and the short of it is that my constituent, frustrated at the lack of support available to his son, and concerned about others who might be dragged into using those products, identified a gap. He answered the question “What can be done about it?” by doing something himself: he set up his own company offering education and harm reduction advice. He set up five programmes, the first of which is called Legal Highs Game Over. It is a national awareness and harm reduction campaign targeting social media. It has a YouTube video and Facebook page, it is on Twitter, and there are posters. It addresses exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South made about where young people now get advice and information.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about education and the role of the media. Does he agree that the media have a key role in making people aware of the dangers of such substances? My local paper, the Medway Messenger, ran a campaign on the effect and consequences of such highs, and other papers should do the same, to make people aware.
My hon. Friend is right—we need to raise awareness; but we should not use the term “legal high” when we do so. In this place, and in all work that is done on the matter, we need to start using the term “new psychoactive substances” rather than an expression that includes the word “legal”.
I do not want to engage in a debate entirely about semantics, but would the hon. Gentleman consider that the very fact that we allow products to continue to be legal when they kill people is shaming to us all? Should not that prick our consciences, because we have failed to take the action we should to make them illegal?
That is a matter for the Minister, and it will be interesting to hear what steps the Government will take.
The second of my constituent’s projects is Street Aware, a programme of targeted drugs education in schools that draws attention to the danger of substance misuse. The third is called Times Up and it is about issues to do with substance misuse in criminal justice settings such as police custody suites, probation hostels and custodial institutions. My constituent draws attention to the use of such products in the night-time economy, with a project called Last Orders, dealing with their use in conjunction with alcohol. I think that there is a sense among young people that it is fairly normal to use them while out drinking, particularly given that the products in question are not illegal. Finally, Health Call is a health-based drug and alcohol education and awareness programme, designed for health services, so that health professionals who come across people who exhibit behavioural difficulties can identify whether the products we are concerned with have been used. I hope that the work of my constituent will improve understanding, and that the Minister will support his initiatives.
I appreciate having had the opportunity to go the Backbench Business Committee, Mr Chope, to put my request for a debate on another subject, and the opportunity to participate in this debate as well.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on bringing the matter forward for debate. He said something that we can all support, which is that the issue exists in all our constituencies. My position on drugs and substances has always been clear and the issue of legal highs gravely concerns me. Urgent action needs to be taken and legislation is needed to stop young people being sold those dangerous substances from corner shops. It is outrageous that such harmful substances are so easily accessible to the vulnerable. Deaths from legal highs, which can be sold freely as long as they are labelled “not suitable for human consumption”, have jumped from 10 in 2009 to at least 68 in 2012, according to Britain’s national programme on substance abuse deaths. If any argument is needed, surely those figures are testament enough to how urgently action needs to be taken by the Government.
In fact, just a few days ago, on 27 June, two addicts passed out in a public toilet in Somerset after injecting themselves with legal highs. As if that was not bad enough, the toilets were close to a park that is full of children and adults during busy lunch times. I believe that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) mentioned examples of such incidents happening in the day time. That has a detrimental effect on shopping, and on the activities of children and families. No arrests were made because the substances were not illegal. Where, then, are the deterrents? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what they are. Those are not the kind of scenes that we want our children to be subjected to; we do not want them to grow up thinking that such behaviour is normal and, furthermore, that it is okay to take such substances because they are not illegal. Clearly, although they are not illegal, they are still having harmful effects, and can lead to death.
I was pleased to hear that Glastonbury festival, which has been much in the news in the past week, has, along with several other festivals this year, taken steps to ban legal highs. That was done through the Association of Independent Festivals, which co-ordinates the campaign “Don’t be in the Dark About Legal Highs”. There is concern at every level about what legal highs do. If festivals are campaigning and showing their concern, the Government and the Minister’s response should reflect that.
Two or three months ago, I was on a Delegated Legislation Committee on legal highs. I supported Government policy at the time, as did the Labour party, but unfortunately it was not supported by the Lib Dems on the Committee. However, the majority of Members of Parliament supported the legislative change that was coming in.
It is fantastic to see such influential festivals getting involved in the campaign to rid our country of these potentially fatal substances, but more is required. Ian Rodin, a consultant psychiatrist and part of Glastonbury’s medical team, has pointed out:
“The problem with legal highs is people had assumed that if they were harmful they would be illegal, so people haven’t exercised the same caution as they would with an illegal drug.”
That is a clear policy direction from those involved in that and other festivals. They recognise the problem and are doing what they can to address it where they have responsibility. I understand that it is difficult for the Government to legislate against legal highs, given the nature of the substances and their ability to change quickly as new ones appear, but we must encourage and support community groups and police officers in tackling the problem.
I was delighted to see that mephedrone, once a legal high that was widely available and that caused grave concerns to parents in my constituency, has been made illegal. Unfortunately, whenever a substance is made illegal, other legal highs come in to take their place. There must be a policy like the one in the States to which the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) referred, which seems to take all that in. Maybe that is what we need to consider. We must be able to adapt to any other legal highs that suddenly come on the market.
The decision on mephedrone is certainly a step in the right direction. I hope that a similar decision will be made on AMT, a drug that appeared in the 1960s but that has been on the rise as a legal high across the United Kingdom in the past year or so. AMT can make users feel upbeat and excited. However, like all drugs, legal or illegal, it can cause hallucinations that can lead to paranoia, reduced inhibitions and, in turn, serious injury or even death. My greatest concern is that AMT is active in very small doses, meaning that it is all too easy to overdose. How can we allow that legal high to remain on the market? Again, perhaps the Minister will give us some indication of what is happening. A teenager from Southampton, Adam Hunt, died last year after taking AMT at his home, yet the drug is still available across the United Kingdom, even though it has been shown to have detrimental effects. Surely the loss of that young man’s life should be evidence enough that the drug needs to be banned.
According to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, AMT acts in the same way as LSD, and the council has called for it to be made a class A substance. Given the increasing number of young people having serious and, in some cases, fatal responses to such substances, that request must be met urgently. The ACMD agrees that along with AMT, another group of chemicals known as tryptamines, which includes 5-MeO-DALT, known as “rock star” or “green beans”, must be banned as well, as they are highly potent drugs that have become increasingly available over the past few months.
Just this morning, as I was on my way to Westminster to participate in business here today and tomorrow, I saw that my local paper, the Belfast Telegraph, carried a story, which I showed to the hon. Member for Chesterfield before this debate, with the headline, “Legal drug is linked to 19 deaths, inquest told”. The article reads:
“A drug involved in the deaths of 19 people in Northern Ireland is still unregulated, meaning it is legal to buy, sell and use…Forensic scientist Simon Cosby told Coroner James Kitson that there was very little known about 4,4”—
I will not say the next word, because I will probably get it all wrong, but it has about 20 letters—
“because it was a relatively new drug, and it is still not covered by legislation, therefore it is not illegal, and had been linked to 18 other deaths”
in the Province. Again, given that there have been so many deaths and there is so great an impact on communities not only across Northern Ireland but across the whole United Kingdom, we must do something fairly drastic to address the issue of legal highs.
We must be aware that although such substances might be considered legal, they often contain one or more chemicals that it is illegal to possess. Furthermore, the majority of legal highs have not been used in drugs for human consumption, so they have not been tested to ensure that they are in fact safe. Unfortunately, due to the lack of drug testing, the long-term health effects of the drugs are virtually unknown, as is the case with many other legal highs, but given what we know about the potential short-term dangers, the overall effect cannot be good.
What worries me even more is the fact that children can buy such drugs easily and cheaply. Before mephedrone was made illegal, children in my constituency could buy it for just £5, which was well within the buying power of almost any young child in my constituency. It was of great concern to me at the time, and it still is. Not only can teenagers buy some of those substances from local shops, they can purchase them easily online, often without anyone knowing. That gives rise to the question of whether there is a greater role for parents as well, and I am sure that the Minister will say that there is. Parents have a role in being aware of what their children are doing and keeping them safe. I appreciate, as always, that it is very difficult to watch everything that children do, particularly as they get older, but I urge parents to be aware of where their kids go and what they do after school or in the evenings, and to monitor their activities online.
As legal highs become increasingly available, more young people experiment with them, which leads to peer pressure, causing even more young people to feel obliged to fit in by doing what everyone else is doing. It is important that young people have somewhere safe to hang out with their friends, whether it is a local youth centre or a sports club. At least such places give parents peace of mind, and it means that they can monitor their children’s activities to some degree.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to ensure that AMT, the legal high that I mentioned earlier, is made illegal immediately, and that the various other legal highs currently on the market, including tryptamines, are also banned. We need to rid our society of these vile substances to prevent any other illnesses or deaths of the kind described in the newspaper article I read from destroying the lives of our young people, and ultimately those of their families as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have already paid tribute to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for securing the debate. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the need for my hon. Friend the Minister to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on tryptamines. I know that he has had the report for a few weeks now; I think it was issued in the middle of June.
My hon. Friend knows of my continuing concern about AMT as a result of the tragic death of 23-year-old Christopher Scott in my constituency last year. Since that tragedy, Christopher Scott’s parents have been campaigning assiduously for the drug to be banned, and I have been working closely with them to achieve that. More than that, they, I and everybody in this room and beyond want a change of approach and culture. We want phrases such as “legal highs” consigned to the dustbin. We should be talking about “chemical highs” and reminding people that often, such drugs are mixed with already illegal substances, so they are not legal. Above all, we must emphasise that “legal” certainly does not mean “safe”.
My involvement with this issue spans my many years as a barrister prosecuting and defending in drugs cases and dealing with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its limitations. More latterly, as the Member of Parliament for South Swindon, I worked closely with Swindon police on an issue relating to mexxy, or methoxetamine, a so-called legal high causing severe problems to users in my community back in 2011. I thank the Government for changing the law to create temporary drug banning orders, which have now been used hundreds of times to ban such chemical substances. Mexxy was one of those substances, but as a result of the early warning system and police intelligence provided to the Home Office, the Government took action to ban it within the short period of 28 days. The supply of that drug was made unlawful, and it is now a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The Government have therefore already taken action to keep step with the rapidly changing scenario of chemical highs, but as is clear from this debate, more needs to be done, which is why the review that my hon. Friend the Minister is conducting is so important. I echo and adopt all hon. Members’ concerns about the situation, and I commend to my hon. Friend the work of charities such as the Angelus Foundation, which have done much to highlight the issues involved with legal highs and campaign hard to influence policy makers. Here are a few ideas for the review that I commend to him. They are the product not just of my thinking and representations but of organisations such as the Angelus Foundation.
I have mentioned the US Federal Analogue Act, which I commend to my hon. Friend. The Act bans chemicals that are “substantially similar” to any controlled drug listed in the schedules if they are for human consumption. At a stroke, it deals with the problems of definitional limitation inherent in including anything in classes A, B or C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We clearly need a massive public awareness campaign that is national and reaches out into our schools and colleges.
We need to reverse the legal presumption on synthetic psychoactive substances. Instead of playing whack-a-mole, we now need to make illegal the supply of such substances. That could be done by making it a civil offence to sell them, with clear exemptions for alcohol, tobacco, medicines and some specified consumer products. Any establishment selling banned substances could be issued with an order, and any breach would be a criminal offence with penalties attached. That is one idea.
Another idea is to make the misrepresentation and mislabelling of substances an offence. The sale of products that are clearly for human consumption but are labelled the opposite should be treated as a criminal offence. Let us use civil orders to target head shops both online and offline—I must make the point that 80% of chemical high sales take place online. We must acknowledge that the internet is a real problem and a real challenge when it comes to this issue.
We could allow injunctions to be issued to head shops and websites that seek to sell chemical highs, and then we could treat breaches as a criminal offence. The attraction of using a civil approach, of course, would be that the balance of probability test would apply, as opposed to the higher criminal standard. To draw an analogy with consumer law and trading standards law, we could then apply a series of presumptions, meaning that defences would be limited. That is already done under legislation such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Consumer Protection Acts of the 1990s. I myself have cited those Acts in prosecutions, and they are entirely human rights compatible if anybody is worried about burdens and standards of proof. We could boost the penalties for regulatory offences, because we are dealing with products that kill people—plain and simple.
We also need to look at some of the existing legislation that is underused. There is section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, which allows local government to take any proceedings
“for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of their area”.
I know that there are pressures on trading standards authorities. They have limited resources; local government is under the cosh, as we all know. However, that approach should be part of my hon. Friend the Minister’s review. We should also have a look at part III of the Enterprise Act 2002 (Part 8 Domestic Infringements) Order 2003, which provides that a breach of one or two of the general rules of law contained in it will be a domestic infringement. Those laws are:
“An act done or omission made in breach of contract for the supply of goods or services to a consumer”
“An act done or omission made in breach of a duty of care owed to a consumer under the law of tort or delict of negligence”.
In other words, there is a general power that could deal with the sale of dangerous substances such as the ones we are discussing. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to review those existing pieces of legislation, to see whether they could be used as a basis for stronger concerted action.
The National Crime Agency should assist in tackling websites that sell legal highs. There is some important work going on with extreme pornography; the NCA could take a similar approach in relation to legal highs. Leadership from local authorities is, as I have already alluded to, also absolutely essential.
We have done enough hand-wringing on this issue; we now need action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely committed to seeing the sort of changes that we all want, and I look to him for leadership and the sense of purpose that I know he shares with me.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this debate on a very important issue. In his opening remarks, he set out the situation that we find ourselves in today and the specific problems that he has identified in his own constituency. I listened to his account of what is going on in and around the Reefer store, and it sounds absolutely dreadful. Also, his account of the effects of the substance called Clockwork Orange was particularly concerning. I had a quick look in my own local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, which recently ran a story about Clockwork Orange. The headline was:
“How £10 clockwork orange ‘legal high’ turned caring mum into deranged Longhill attacker.”
Clearly, that kind of substance is available all around the country and are causing problems for all sorts of communities.
I was also very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is not in his place at the moment, was able to contribute to the debate, because I know that he is particularly interested in the issue. He hit the nail on the head about the importance of cross-Government working. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke with great passion about the action that is needed now. He made two interesting suggestions: one was about the seizures that could take place at the ports, and the other was about putting the onus on sellers to show that what they are purporting to be bath salts really are bath salts and are not to be consumed.
Many Members across the country have seen a proliferation in the number of head shops opening in the high streets in their constituencies, and we know that those shops are selling dangerous drugs. Obviously, the correct term is “new psychoactive substances”. However, I take the point that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made that that term is a bit of a mouthful. His idea of calling them “chemical highs” has some merit, because the problem with them being called “legal highs” is that it causes young people, in particular, to view them as being absolutely fine and safe to take.
We know that there is widespread concern among parents and communities about legal highs. Many Members have spoken today about particular cases in their own constituencies. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) spoke about what was happening in her area, and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about their areas. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the important issue of legal highs being used at festivals, which at this time of year is quite an important issue to try to address.
All this activity has been going on for some time, but the Government have been very slow in coming to the table to sort it out. There is now genuinely a call for action from all parties in the House, and the Government need to do something. It was not until December last year that the Minister accepted that the situation was no longer under control, and he instigated the review that has been mentioned. The Opposition have been raising the matter with the former Minister with responsibility for drugs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), and the current Minister for the past three years. During that time, the UK has become Europe’s largest market for legal highs. We now have more than 500 internet sellers and at least 100 high street shops selling hundreds of substances. We have also heard that more than 650,000 young people in the UK are thought to have taken these substances, on some occasions with tragic consequences.
We know that the problem has been growing exponentially since 2009. In that year, 24 new psychoactive substances were identified in the UK and were linked with 10 deaths, but by 2012 73 drugs had emerged, which were linked to 68 deaths. We know that last year 81 new drugs emerged. I am glad that the Government have now recognised that they can no longer ignore the problem, and although the review is three years too late, I still welcome it. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when it will be published, so that we can see what the Government’s plans are.
There are four issues about legal highs that I want to raise with the Minister. I want to highlight them and seek assurances from him that they will be addressed in the review and its findings.
The first issue is about information. It is difficult to address a problem when we do not understand or know the full scale of it, but at present we do not have a clear recording system to identify the spread of legal highs. There is no record of those presenting at A and E with complications resulting from legal highs. We do not know how often legal highs are implicated in mental health referrals or in adolescent mental health figures. There is even confusion about the drugs that have been identified as being available in the UK, with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is informed by the NHS’s National Poisons Information Service, consistently publishing a much more comprehensive list of substances than the list that the Home Office has on its forensic early warning system. There is a discrepancy in the numbers. Why does the Home Office not use the National Poisons Information Service as its source of information, since its list is more comprehensive? We need a co-ordinated Government strategy. It appears that at the moment one half of Government does not know what information the other half is publishing online. That would be the first step in establishing the baseline of the problem.
Secondly, the Opposition supported the Government in introducing temporary banning orders for new psychoactive substances, but in three years that power has been used just five times, while hundreds of drugs have emerged on the market. The ACMD has been clear that it is not able to assess more than three or four drugs a year. The Minister will say that he has used generic bans to outlaw whole classes—families—of drugs, but I am not convinced that that has worked, as hon. Members have highlighted. We need a new approach to tackling these substances.
Thirdly, it is not just about banning the substances; we now need to tackle an entire industry that has grown up to distribute them. We have heard how head shops behave, particularly the bad example in Chesterfield. Many are deliberately targeting young people, and drugs may be marketed as bath salts or plant food, but that is a thin veneer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness indicated, people will soon recognise that mislabelling when they seek a description of the drug and information about it from those selling it.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will comment on online purchasing of legal drugs, which I mentioned. Although they are available in shops, as we all know, they are also available online and people can buy them without anyone—their parents or their family— knowing. I regard that as a matter of greater concern.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Online sale of these substances is worrying. Just this morning I read a description of a drug on pills4party.com:
“DEX powder–new generation of legal high”
“pure dose of euphoric energy and keeps you charged for all night long. DEX powder is perfect alternative to cocaine that gives you more than the Snowman Experience without any hassles.”
I am sure, Mr Chope, that you are fully aware of what the snowman experience is, although many of us find that rather baffling. That shows how these substances are being marketed for consumption by young people. Nobody can be under any illusion that they are not being marketed as recreational drugs. I have heard of internet sellers sending out free samples of new drugs that have emerged on the market. It seems to me that they are treating our children as guinea pigs.
Until a little while ago, Amazon was selling legal highs on its site, but due to work by the Angelus Foundation I think that it has removed them. Many local authorities have attempted to use trading standards legislation to close head shops down where there is a problem, but such attempts are rarely successful. Indeed, last year a prosecution was thrown out by the judge, who, although sympathetic to the need to close such shops down, said that the legislation simply was not fit for purpose.
One idea, which was used in Leeds, involved solvent legislation, but of course that applies only to selling solvents to someone who is under 18. By extending the solvents legislation, as has been done successfully in Ireland, we could give local authorities the powers they need to close head shops down. I should be grateful if the Minister said what he thought of that idea, which was proposed in an amendment tabled by the Opposition to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Government saw fit not to support that amendment.
I was struck by the menu of ways to tackle the problem that the hon. Member for South Swindon proposed. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of those ideas.
My final point, which I have raised in many debates, is that there should be a proper drugs prevention strategy. The lack of one is the Government’s biggest failure. Legal highs have emerged as a new phenomenon, and the Government have done little to tackle the myths that have allowed those substances to take hold in the past few years. Even after a number of deaths, and the horror stories that we have read about and heard about today, some people still think that “legal” means “safe”. That misconception needs to be tackled head-on.
The Minister will claim to have invested in relaunching the Frank website and even to have launched a public awareness campaign last year, but it was too little, too late. In four years, just £67,000 has been spent on a one-off, limited campaign that generated just 75,000 web page views. That is feeble, when we consider that more than 650,000 young people have tried these substances.
Mr Chope, can I just check that the time for this debate has been extended to 4.15 pm?
I am grateful, Mr Chope. I did not want to eat into the time available to the Minister.
I pay tribute to the Angelus Foundation, which has done its best to get educational materials into schools and communities. It feels frustrated that the Government have not taken up the mantle on education in schools, in particular, which I think most hon. Members would think is important. Will the Minister talk to Public Health England, which also has a job to do in getting a message out?
A two-pronged approach is needed on prevention and education in schools, giving children the life skills they need. I know that it has been a long-standing commitment of the Liberal Democrats to have compulsory personal, social and health education in schools and, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in the coalition, I hope the Minister might be able to persuade the Education Secretary that that is a good idea.
Those are the four points that I want the Minister to address. I look forward to the review being published shortly, so that we can finally have a policy that gets to grips with this dreadful problem, which is growing and developing in all our constituencies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this important debate. I recognise that hon. Members in all parts of the House feel genuine concerns about these matters and, in particular, we have all had constituents contacting us with their concerns about what has happened to their families, so the hon. Gentleman is right to bring the debate before the House.
I agree with hon. Members who have expressed concern about the term “legal highs”. That is not an abstract matter; it is quite important, because, as hon. Members have said, using the word “legal” implies safety, and that is a misconception. Therefore, I am keen to get away from the term “legal highs”, and I try not to use it myself, except to disparage it. I am particularly attracted to “chemical highs”, which I have been peddling recently, but there are other options, such as “untested highs” or “danger highs”. We need to find an alternative phrase that conveys accurately the fact that these substances are not tested and not approved, and are probably not safe. I want to get some consensus on that, although the newspapers are attracted to the phrase “legal highs” and it is difficult to move them.
This is a global problem and no country has solved it—it is important to say that. The review process, which is under way, considered experiences in other countries to find out what works and what does not work, and why it was right to do those things. It is not fair to characterise the Government as not having done much on this matter. We have been pretty active on it, but I stress that there is no obvious silver bullet that cures all the problems that hon. Members have correctly identified.
We recognised the emergence of new psychoactive substances and the trade as serious threats from the beginning and have taken multiple and decisive actions to address them. We consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to inform the action plan published in 2012 to tackle the trade from all angles. We have improved the UK’s drugs early warning system to enable real-time information sharing on emerging drugs between health and law enforcement, the advisory committee and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. We also created the Home Office forensic early warning system to detect and monitor the emergence of those substances in the UK, inform our response in legislation and provide support to the advisory committee and UK law enforcement. We have introduced temporary drug control legislation so that, together with the advisory council, we have been able to take swift action to protect the public from emerging new substances that we know have the potential to cause serious harm.
As one colleague said today, we are in a race against the chemist. The reality is, as in the rest of the world, we are chasing behind what appears on our streets, almost on a weekly basis, from chemical laboratories that are outside our jurisdiction and outside our control. We have tried to be swift in identifying substances as having appeared. More than 350 new psychoactive substances and their derivatives are now banned in the UK, mainly through our use of generic definitions banning entire families of drugs and related compounds under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Bizarrely, we have even banned substances that do not exist, because we have anticipated where the chemist will go next.
As a result, the majority—about 80%—of new psychoactive substances seen in the EU for the first time are already controlled drugs in the UK. Working with UK law enforcement, including trading standards, to support the use of existing powers to disrupt supply in our communities and online, we have seen some successes. For example, a week of concerted action last November resulted in 44 arrests and, I think, 73 seizures, including large amounts of those substances.
We have issued guidance to local authorities on the use of existing powers. I will not pretend that those powers are comprehensive and that everything that is available is all that we need, but there are powers that have been used successfully by local authorities. The General Product Safety Regulations 2005, which should not be underestimated, have been successfully deployed in Northern Ireland. There is also trading standards legislation in relation to misdescriptions. If somebody markets something as bath salts or plant food, that is a misdescription and trading standards can take action on that basis. That might be more difficult if something is called “research chemicals”, but if it is wilfully misdescribed action can be taken.
I will come to the steps that are being taken, but I want to stress at this point, since the hon. Gentleman has raised it, that a process is in place. We have appointed an expert panel based on the best brains in the country from various disciplines: law enforcement, those who have knowledge of drugs, those from the health regimes, those who understand the psychiatry of those who might use drugs and so on. The panel has been charged by me with finding the best way forward to minimise harms from those substances. That is its objective. It is therefore not for me to second-guess what the panel will come up with. The clear objective is to minimise harm, and I look to the panel for recommendations. I will come to the process in a moment. It would be wrong for me to rule anything in or out until the panel has had an opportunity to reflect and take professional advice as it is doing so. No doubt the hon. Gentleman’s points will be considered by the panel, along with everything else.
Time is pressing. I have been in post since October or thereabouts. The review panel was appointed in December and has almost concluded its work. I expect to have its final report on my desk in a couple of weeks’ time. The Government will reflect on the conclusions and we will publish our intentions shortly thereafter. That is our intention. I want to get a move on. There is no intention to delay matters. However, there is also no wish to end up with bad legislation that is rushed and might have unforeseen consequences. I stress that no country in the world has cracked the issue successfully. We have to look across the world at different practices to see what might apply best to our own situation.
I want to make progress, because a lot of points have been raised, then I will try to take one or two interventions.
I want to correct a point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. He said that the UK is the biggest market in the EU for these substances. I believe the shadow Minister said that as well. The advice I have received from officials is that the recently published preliminary results of the 2014 Eurobarometer study show that the UK was not the biggest market. There are three countries ahead of us: Ireland, interestingly; Spain; and France. It does not give me great satisfaction to say that we are fourth, but, for the record, that is what the latest survey shows.
As I said, the expert panel is looking at a range of matters, including descriptions and how substances are promoted and sold. If they are wilfully misdescribed—if the label states “bath salts” and the substance is not bath salts—action can be taken. If the label states, “Not fit for human consumption”, that is no doubt accurate and therefore more difficult. I assure my hon. Friend that that is not the only way into the issue.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred in complimentary terms to the action of festival organisers. I want to say for the record that I wrote to festival organisers to ask them to take that action, so if he was implying that the Government was not taking action that would not be accurate. The festival organisers responded positively to the efforts that we made in writing to them. Indeed, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), wrote last year—successfully—and they took action as a consequence of his letter. We are taking action where we can on those important fronts.
Border Force has enhanced its capability to detect those substances—the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made a point about ports—coming into the country with the introduction of new portable FirstDefender devices.
I absolutely take the point made by Members about prevention and education. I have given a strong steer to the expert panel that it should consider very carefully what can be done on education and prevention. I look forward to the panel’s recommendations on that particular front. Even so, in the meantime, our prevention message, especially to young people, that the products cannot be assumed to be safe has been consistent and clear. Our FRANK website messaging continues to be updated with information on the risks, consequences and harms of those substances, using the best and latest available information and advice.
We have researched user trends to inform further work on reducing demand, including online. In summer 2013, the Home Office ran targeted communications activity over the festival period to help to prevent the use of those substances and to raise awareness of their risks and harms. That was aimed at particularly 15 to 18-year-olds. With the media involved, we think that more than half of that age group got the message that we sent out last year.
There were 74,000-plus unique visitors to the campaign page on our website, and we saw an 84% increase in website traffic as a consequence. A survey of visitors to the website showed that our social marketing campaign has been effective in shifting attitudes and that a new campaign could achieve similar results, so we are planning to run similar activity again this summer.
We have worked with the Department for Education and UK law enforcement on guidance issued to schools so that drug education includes those substances, along with other harmful drug use, but I want to see what more we can do on that front.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. To go back to the review, when he says nothing is ruled in or out and that he is looking abroad, does that mean he has not ruled out the option of licensing head shops, which I asked him about in my speech?
I want to make it plain that I am not taking the decision to rule things in or out. I have given the panel a challenge to come up with what it believes to be the best way to minimise harms. It would be an odd remit if we started telling the panel in advance what it should conclude. It has looked at the various options; none is without problems. I think the hon. Gentleman refers to the New Zealand position, where having a regulated market has caused problems. There are problems in the US with the analogue system, which is potentially becoming a lawyers’ paradise, and there are problems in Ireland, where the trade has largely gone underground.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I have one more general point to make, then I want to pick up on some of the points made by Members. For the record, it is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government has not been active in this area; we have been very active, including at the international level, with the adoption of new UN resolutions on the early identification of emerging substances, and with concerted action across our agencies. More recently, we have led the call for the international control of mephedrone. In fact, we are recognised as a world leader in dealing with that particular threat, and we have used our presidency of the G7 to deliver international action, and to promote successful engagement with source countries such as China and India on the challenges that we continue to face.
I support the Minister on that point. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government have been doing little in this area. However, the young person who died at Glastonbury this weekend, and the one who died at the Boomtown festival in my constituency last summer, had taken ketamine, which the Government have banned. Banning things is important, but it does not necessarily protect young people.
Sadly, that is true, and it is a well made point. I was horrified by the description from the hon. Member for Chesterfield of what was happening in his town. He listed some of the problems; one of the options that his council might look at is using the Government’s antisocial behaviour legislation, which has potential to deal with the consequences outside the shop. That is not the full answer, but it provides potential for the police and the council to come together to use existing powers.
I am happy to make that suggestion to the council. I am joined here by one of our councillors who has taken a leading role in this debate. I was going to respond to the Minister’s point about the council having a role under general product safety, and his suggestion that the enfeebled trading standards might use misdescriptions legislation. I hope that when he has finished his review—I appreciate that we have to be a bit more patient on that—we will be able to give local authorities a little more for their armoury, so that they can tackle this important issue.
I hope that that is the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) was absolutely right to refer to the uncertainty about long-term consequences. The need to ensure that they are properly evaluated means that we should not rush into what might be the wrong answer, but should nevertheless try to ensure that we get the right answer as soon as possible. He was absolutely right to say that much more needs to be done on prevention—he said education was key, and I entirely agree. I also agree that there is a strong argument for having compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) listed some helpful initiatives taken in his constituency. I pay tribute to those who took that action, which was public-spirited and helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made some helpful suggestions, which I will pass on to the review panel. It has almost concluded its work, but those suggestions remain useful. I share the shadow Minister’s endorsement of and thanks to the Angelus Foundation for its superb work in the area; I am pleased to have been able to meet with people from the foundation on a number of occasions to discuss their work.
The shadow Minister referred to a number of issues, including information. I assure her that the expert panel that I have appointed has had a working group on the sharing of information and has also been identifying the need to ensure that it is shared with the health environment. We are therefore looking at information available from accident and emergency, to which she referred, and wider health service treatment. I expect recommendations in that area as part of the expert panel’s work. The hon. Lady also mentioned the National Poisons Information Service, which I assure her that the Home Office uses. The service is particularly important when we are gathering evidence for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; it informs ACMD’s advice and, subsequently, our decision on drug control. The service is used by and valuable to the Home Office.
On the figures for deaths, Members are right to draw attention to the increase to 68. For the record, that is 4% of drug-related deaths. Sixty-eight too many have died, but we must not take our eye off the ball: a lot more deaths from drugs have to be dealt with as well, whether they involve heroin, crack cocaine or other substances. I hope that that has been a helpful response to the debate. If there are any outstanding questions, I am happy to answer them individually.
Personal Independence Payments (Liverpool Wavertree)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the time taken to process personal independence payments in Liverpool, Wavertree. Concern in my constituency is significant. The cases that have been brought to my attention are appalling in their number and their nature. I am in the Chamber today to represent constituents who have come to me, some in real despair, and to ensure that their stories are heard. I am also grateful to the organisations that have contacted me to share their national experience on the issue: Macmillan Cancer Support, Citizens Advice and Mencap, to name but a few.
As the House heard yesterday, delays to personal independence payments are a problem not only for the people of Liverpool, Wavertree, but for people the length and breadth of the country, who are facing unacceptable waits before receiving money that they are entitled to and that they desperately need. PIP is a non-means-tested, non-taxable benefit available to people suffering from ill health or with a disability. It is intended to help the recipients cover the additional costs arising from their condition, whether in or out of work. Additional costs can include a taxi to the hospital, higher utility bills and equipment that is essential for independence.
PIP is replacing disability living allowance for people of working age. In February last year I opposed the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013, which legislated for the introduction of PIP, and I opposed what is now the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on Third Reading, but I am not in the Chamber to debate the ins and outs of PIP itself. I am here to highlight the ways in which the appalling handling of its introduction has brought distress, hardship and unnecessary pain to too many of my most vulnerable constituents. The debate is about individuals waiting months and months for a decision; terminally ill people being passed from pillar to post; and the sick and vulnerable being forced to use food banks, because the money that they are entitled to has not appeared. The debate is about common human decency, treating people with dignity and respect, and how the Government have failed to protect such fundamental principles.
In the limited time available, I would like to share with hon. Members some of my constituents’ appalling stories. We know that the phased introduction of PIP began back in April 2013, but six months later, in October 2013, the Department had made only 16% of the decisions it had expected to make by that time. The decision on my constituent, Mohammad Shafieian, should have been made, but was not. He originally made his claim in September 2013 and had to survive without the help he needed for eight months.
My constituent Thomas O’Donnell suffers from serious epilepsy, depression, arthritis and memory loss. He originally made his claim for PIP in August 2013. The months went on without him having an assessment, and he fell into financial difficulty. He was struggling to pay his rent and he could not afford his bills. By the time he came to me in March this year, Thomas was suicidal. Eight months on, he was still waiting for a decision. His epilepsy was causing him to have daily violent fits and he was surviving on just £30 a week. He did not have cooking or washing facilities in his home and he did not have any food. After months of my helping Mr O’Donnell navigate an impossible system and raising his case on the Floor of the House, he was eventually awarded the money he was entitled to, but eight months of waiting and the hardship and strain had taken a toll. His doctor confirmed that he was suffering from malnutrition. I am appalled that my constituent was suffering from malnutrition here in the United Kingdom in 2014.
Another constituent, Trudie Ann Birchall, made her claim for PIP on 20 November 2013, just after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The Department for Work and Pensions was aware of her diagnosis, but it took Atos five months, until 7 April, to get around to assessing her. She was told after her assessment that her claim would be decided by 5 June, but that came and went, and she had to wait almost another fortnight to be informed of her entitlement.
The Minister’s Department has said that people with terminal illness should have their applications fast-tracked and a decision made within 28 days. What concerns me is that Ms Birchall’s case is not exceptional. Since the introduction of PIP, thousands of cancer patients have been left in the dark, with at least 4,500 of them waiting six months or more to find out even whether they will be awarded the benefit.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who said in yesterday’s debate something along the lines that the debate is not about the philosophy of welfare reforms, but about the way it is delivered? We have all seen in our advice surgeries examples similar to those my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) is outlining. Does she agree that it is simply wrong for our constituents to pay the price of this Government’s incompetence?
I thank my hon. Friend for his emotional contribution, which highlights the challenge facing too many of our constituents who come to our constituency surgeries to highlight the process they have had to go through and the weeks and often months of waiting. That is not acceptable.
I was talking about the impact specifically on cancer patients. It is appalling that we should treat them in this way, which is why I am delighted to have secured this debate to ask the Minister to explain what he and his Department will do about it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Earlier this year on the Floor of the House, I raised the cases of two young women whose cases were brought to me by CLIC Sargent. They both have cancer and had been waiting seven months. One secured her PIP after my intervention. The other secured it because the Minister intervened when I raised the matter at DWP questions. The reality is that most people do not know that they can go to their MP, or that their MP can raise it with the Minister. Do we not need to sort out the system?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I am sharing with the Chamber a handful of cases on behalf of constituents who have given me permission to raise those cases. Other constituents have not given that permission because they are worried about the consequences and the impact it might have on their wait. He touches on an issue that was highlighted in a report by IFF Research, which was commissioned by Macmillan in late 2013. It investigated the impact of PIP on the financial status, standard of living and well-being of people living with cancer. It found that the majority of claimants had yet to reach an outcome and that they waited an average of just under four and a half months. A quarter of respondents in that study had been waiting at least six months.
Those delays are having a real and shattering impact on cancer patients. They mean that more than half of respondents had increased financial worries and 51% thought that the process had caused emotional strain. Two fifths were unable adequately to heat their homes and one in three thought that the delays had resulted in mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. We are talking about some of the most seriously ill people in our communities, and I do not believe that people battling cancer should have to battle their own Government to obtain the financial support they need.
What about those who are too ill to fight for what is rightfully theirs? My constituent Tracey Lewis suffers from mental health problems and severe anxiety. She registered her claim for PIP in August 2013. She sent off her information in September and Atos confirmed receipt of it on 27 September 2013. She then heard nothing for six months—not a word. Tracey was too ill to battle against the system on her own, and only after an official complaint was made by the citizens advice bureau and I intervened was an appointment set up for her on 2 April 2014. Months down the line, Tracey is still waiting for a decision, and she is not alone.
My constituent Gillian Henderson submitted her claim in January 2014. Seven months later, she has still not had an Atos medical and still does not have a decision. Gillian suffers from severe sleep apnoea. Her disability is incurable and without the aid of her machine, which she must be hooked up to every night, she would stop breathing an average of 78 times an hour. Gillian was told by DWP a couple of months back that she would definitely be contacted for an assessment in June. It is now July, and she has still not heard anything.
Those are just some of the horrifying cases I have encountered from constituents who have given me permission to use their names and to raise their cases, but I am worried about those who have not given me that permission because they are too afraid. That is replicated in constituencies throughout the country, and it is unacceptable. Only a quarter of disabled people who have applied for PIP have had a decision. Statistics published early this month found that in the first 12 months of operation, DWP made decisions on 84,900 people who were seeking PIP. That is just under 7,000 decisions a month. DWP expects to assess 3.6 million people for PIP by 2018, but to reach that target at the current rate of 7,000 a month would take more than 42 years.
The situation does not seem to be getting better, and may be getting worse. We are now seeing delays of more than seven months for a decision, which is up from more than five months in December. People are facing major delays with both Atos and Capita to secure face-to-face meetings, and it is taking much too long for Atos and Capita to report back after assessments—sometimes three to five months.
The Department itself admitted in its annual report, which was published last week:
“The volume of assessments undertaken by providers on both contracts has fallen consistently below demand, with a detrimental impact on customer service and implications for forecast expenditure on sickness and disability benefits.”
The Public Accounts Committee inquiry, which reported earlier this month, also found:
“The unacceptable level of service provided has created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for claimants, and put additional financial and other pressures on disability organisations, and on other public services, that support claimants.”
The response from the Government to the distress that they have caused has been less than satisfactory. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in April highlighting my serious concerns about what appears to me to be a growing trend in long delays for PIP in Liverpool, Wavertree. The response I received did not commit to the action that I would have expected—in fact, it was pitiful, and it was the reason why I sought today’s debate.
I have some questions that I hope the Minister will respond to. What action is he taking to speed up all stages of the PIP process to ensure that benefit decisions are made on a timely basis? How does he plan to tackle the backlog of PIP applications that has arisen? What is he doing to ensure that his Department’s contractors provide an acceptable level of service to claimants? How does he intend to make the system easier for claimants going forward?
On behalf of Thomas, Mohammad, Trudie, Gillian and Tracey, and those who did not want their names shared with the House today, I have to say that the appalling delays that my constituents have faced, and the devastating impact that it has had on them, their families and their carers, echo a grim picture of what is going on right across the county. The chaotic handling of the PIP leaves serious questions about ministerial competence at the Department for Work and Pensions. I say that because anyone in the Chamber could need PIP in the future. I am ashamed to live in a country that is treating our most sick and vulnerable in this way. The state should be supporting people in their time of need, not making them feel worse, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he is going to put it right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope, even if we have been somewhat delayed by proceedings in the House; I fully understand why that was. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. She is joined in the Chamber by her colleagues from Liverpool, a city I have a great empathy with. I was there only a week or two ago with the mayor. He was very pleased to see me, simply because, I think, I created the cruise terminal in Liverpool, even if I did not save the coastguard station, but we cannot have everything and I did try very hard.
I have been in this job some eight or nine months and my officials will confirm, probably by not nodding, that I am brutally honest about the problems we have with PIP. I have said time and again that the time it is taking the contractors to do the work we are asking them to do, and the time it is taking my Department to do things, is fundamentally unacceptable. I have put a series of measures in place, which I will discuss during the short time I have. If I cannot answer the specific points that the hon. Lady made, or if I forget—I am naughty in that way sometimes—I will certainly write to her with a more fulfilling set of answers.
I say at the outset that if any Member of the House has constituents who are waiting for PIP for an unacceptable length of time, then, like many colleagues in this House, they should write to me. The hon. Lady has done so, as has the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is by her side. I cannot promise that that will resolve the situation instantaneously. I am not even certain at times that my intervention will give them the result that they want, but at least I will be aware of the situation, and we can look carefully into the detail of what has gone on. The point I want to make is that people should not be afraid. Nothing that they say to their MP, and nothing in the correspondence that comes to me, would have any effect on the speed or the decision, and that is absolutely crucial. If I put nothing else on the record today, that is very important.
I will touch on a couple of points that the hon. Lady raised, and then on the proposals. In the debate in the House yesterday, we announced how we intend to speed up PIP, and we have set specific targets for that. Thank goodness we live in a country where cancer is not, frankly, the death knell that it perhaps was when I was a young man. The fear of cancer is still there, but for so many people, cancer is curable, and they can go on to live fulfilling lives. When I am looking at decisions to be made on terminal illness, I rely enormously on the consultants and the fantastic work that Macmillan does.
I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions very soon after I came to this job, and it was put to me that it was taking 28 days to make a decision on PIPs for terminally ill people. I said to the Committee that that was unacceptable, and that I would like to get it under 10 days on average. I have done so. It is not the Department’s view that it should take 28 days. That is what it was taking, wrongly; it is inside 10 days now. I think we can drive that down more, particularly with the help of Macmillan and the work I have been doing with it. I do not agree with everything that Macmillan says, but on this particular issue, we work very closely together. We are working now on more technology and particularly on secure PDFs, which in the 21st century, you would think we would use much more widely in government than we do. However, secure PDFs will be used and we will get rid of some of the paper.
Someone having cancer does not, thank goodness, mean that they are terminally ill, though I fully understand the real concerns of someone who has had that diagnosis; but if the consultant or Macmillan tells us that information, under exactly the criteria that were there under the previous Administration, we click into a completely different different system so that we can get the payments out as fast as we can. The length of time that has been taken for a PIP is unacceptable. I am working very closely with providers and my officials at each end of the process to make sure that it is sped up, and to make sure that the contractors—both Atos and Capita—fulfil our requirements as regards quality and have enough capacity in their systems to ensure that they do that. That is something that we are working on. As I have said before, this means that I will be paying the contractors more to deliver the services that we are asking from them quicker. That has an effect on my departmental expenditure limit—I fully accept that—but the most important thing is that we get the payments to the people who deserve them and need them so much, and that people who do not need them do not get them.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, so that I would have enough time, because this is a very short debate. I have to finish soon and there are some really important points I want to make. If I get towards the latter part of my comments and I have made the points I want to make, I will naturally give way to the hon. Gentleman.
We said in the Chamber yesterday that we expect that by the autumn, no one will be waiting for an assessment for more than 26 weeks and by the end of the year, we expect that to be no longer than 16 weeks. The previous Administration did not have a disability living allowance target, but we have set out that by the end of the year we expect that the waiting time for assessments will not be longer than that. That means that we are investing. We are putting people alongside the contractors from my Department, so we are shortening the journey time. Perhaps they are concerned about certain methods, or whether we can do as many paper-based assessments.
One of the biggest issues that has occurred with the PIP is that under DLA, only about 7% of people applying would ever have had a face-to-face assessment. I think we all accept that that was too low. If there is anybody in this Chamber who does not accept that, I do not understand why. What was wrong is that we went to 97% face-to-face assessments—excluding, obviously, terminal cases—and I think that was unacceptable, and we will drive that down. Within the contract agreements, we would like it to have been 75% to 25%. That was what was set by Ministers in the previous Government. I would actually like to see it much lower—I think 60% to 40% is probably about where we should be. Interestingly enough, the face-to-face assessments that were done under DLA were done by Atos; it was doing the job before, and it is doing part of the job for us now.
I did make a decision, in parts of the country, to turn off natural reassessments for DLA. Let me give the reason why. Capita is doing natural reassessments, but in the other parts of the system that are dealt with by Atos, I was very conscious of people who had no money coming in from this sort of benefit—in other words, they did not have DLA previously and were not getting PIP—and I felt that we should ensure that new claimants were dealt with quicker. I will not turn on natural reassessment of DLA payments that are being converted into PIP—unless a person’s condition deteriorates—until we have got the backlog under control and we are getting the figures that we are talking about now. That is very important. I do not want people with DLA to think that that will suddenly happen tomorrow, and we will be talking to them. We will not. Their payments will stay—I repeat—unless their condition deteriorates.
It is enormously important that we work as fast as we can to ensure that the assessments are done correctly and that lots of people are not worrying about appeals. That is why the decision makers look at the decisions again—natural reconsideration, as it is called. Of course, individuals have the right to appeal, but although these are the early stages, it appears that we are making decisions correctly—not in every case; some still go to appeal, but certainly nowhere near as many are going to appeal as we expected, and there are more people getting more from the PIP decision than they did under DLA.
I can give an example of that. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, alluded to some of her constituents’ conditions, particularly in relation to mental health. It was ever so difficult, if not impossible, to get the highest rate of DLA with a mental health condition; people will do so under PIP. There are people getting that now, and that is right and proper. I will move on to another issue, but I did promise to give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) if I thought there was time. There is time, so I will give way.
The right hon. Gentleman prides himself on being from an ordinary working-class background, unlike many of his colleagues. Does he not understand, then, that the fundamental issue is the hardship being caused to constituents, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger)? It is no good just outlining what has happened to date. The Government need to do something to tackle the issue and to alleviate the problems that people are having. These are some of the most vulnerable people that any of us will ever come across in our lives.
I am not talking about what has happened. I have said that what happened in the past was unacceptable. I repeat that we expect that by the autumn no one will be waiting for assessments longer than 26 weeks, and that by the end of the year no one will be waiting longer than 16 weeks. That is not the past; that is going forward. A whole series of measures, including contract negotiations, are being dealt with to ensure that we can do that. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough; I would not stand up and say that unless I believed that it could actually happen. I am absolutely determined, perhaps because of my background, although this is not a means-tested benefit. Everyone who is entitled to it gets it, no matter what, but I also fully accept that if someone’s income is low, this is such a desperately needed amount of money.
There is other help that can be given. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, touched on the cost of taxis to the hospital and things like that. There are financial schemes whereby we can help with that, but what really should happen is that we should get the benefits sorted as fast as possible, and the measures that we are taking now—not what we did in the past—will allow us to do what we expect to do by the autumn, and to go beyond the 26 weeks and get down to 16.
With regard to terminal cases, we know anecdotally of some cases that are taking three to four days. On average, it is about 10 days. That means that there are still some, sadly, that take more than that. We will drive that down with technology. We can drive it down by ensuring that part 2 of the form comes back in much quicker than it did. The benefit starts from when the person makes the phone call, or someone makes the phone call on their behalf. That is unlike the old DLA, which started only when the forms arrived. However, we are still struggling to get claimants to get the forms back in as soon as possible.
There is the question of whether we can work more closely—I hope that we can—with the relevant charities and groups that are often advising claimants. There is the question of whether we can work more closely with colleagues across the House to ensure that we get the forms and the information back. That does not mean that we need tons and tons of information. Very often, we get a large amount of information in weight and size terms, when what we really need is a consultant’s letter, a GP’s letter and an explanation of the condition. The assessment is not in any way, shape or form a diagnosis; that has to be done by experts elsewhere. This is a capacity decision as to what their needs would be. I think that we can do a lot more work on that.
One area that we are looking at, for instance, is whether we can share information across different benefits. I know that the previous Administration looked at that. It is quite a complicated area, but we would think it would be common sense. If someone has the higher rate of PIP, we could see where that would link across to what their employment and support allowance would be and perhaps vice versa. It may not give us all the information, but often it would give us more information than we had before.
No Minister, of any colour or persuasion, can say that mistakes will not happen. However, I am determined that we have as few mistakes as possible. Of course, anyone, when we get the decision wrong, has the right to go to appeal, to go to the tribunals. I sat in on some of those tribunals, and one of the things I found was that we just did not have the information, sometimes, that was being presented to the tribunal. If we can deal with that, we can explain things to people much better, and not only because of our reconsideration of the claim.
With PIP, we now make phone calls directly to the claimant to explain why the decision has been made and why it is within the rules. We have found that very helpful. I have sat in on and listened to those conversations. I was in Liverpool, where those calls are made; one of the PIP centres is in Liverpool. Any of the hon. Members here today are welcome to go in and talk to the staff and listen to the calls that are being made. I think that that would be very useful to colleagues, particularly as the centre is on their doorstep. I am not saying that every claimant they would listen to would be from the same part of the world as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, or the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, but it would be useful to go there. We have made that offer to the Front-Bench team in relation to not only this benefit but others, and I hope that it will be taken up.
I am ever so aware of the concern and the unacceptable lengths of time that the claims are taking. I am doing everything I possibly can to shorten that process, and to get more people having paper-based assessments. That will speed up the process. When people have a face-to-face assessment, that should be done in an environment that is helpful to them, so that we can get the decision made quicker. We have committed ourselves: we expect the length of time to be 26 weeks by the autumn and 16 weeks by Christmas. That is a position that I think we would all be very happy to be in.
Transport Infrastructure (Essex)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate.
This Government have a strong track record on infrastructure investment to support economic growth. Despite the difficult economic circumstances inherited from Labour, record amounts of funding are being spent on crucial infrastructure projects. Our railways are receiving the biggest investment since they were built in Victorian times. Superfast broadband is receiving investment so that it can be rolled out in rural areas. The Davies commission is examining options for our long-term aviation strategy. Importantly, and specific to this debate, our road network is being upgraded. I particularly welcome the recent investment from the Government in roads to address potholes. That includes the £4.4 million of new money for Essex announced last month.
That shows that this Government, with their commitment to economic growth, understand that infrastructure is not just something that public money is routinely spent on, but that it is important that available funds are spent strategically to maximise the benefits of every penny spent. That is the purpose of today’s debate, because for me, it is about making the case for strategic economic investment in infrastructure in Essex. In my view, modest infrastructure investment will yield enormous economic returns.
By way of background, Essex is a dynamic and innovative county of entrepreneurs, as the House has heard me say on several occasions. We have some 52,000 businesses, the overwhelming majority of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, which add some £30 billion in value to the UK economy. Those firms are relentless in supporting economic growth. Last year alone, they helped to create new jobs that took more than 10,000 people off benefits and returned them to work. We have world-famous brands ranging from Wilkin and Sons, Crittall Windows and Hayman, all of which export internationally. Supported by the outstanding Essex chamber of commerce, firms in Essex have added more than £300 million in export orders alone. All our businesses are desperate to export more and to do more business, but to do that, they need the right infrastructure improvements to be made. Those improvements will enable our businesses to support more jobs, growth and prosperity not only in the county, but across the country.
Those companies can lead the charge when it comes to the export-led recovery that we all speak about. I am sure, Mr Chope, you heard the Prime Minister say in the Commons Chamber a fortnight ago that
“where Essex leads, the rest of the country follows.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1113.]
For us, despite the fact that we are experiencing tremendous population growth, those demands will always be there. Our population is among the fastest growing of any area in the east of England. We must be much more strategic about our infrastructure plans, how we work with our local authorities, upgrade our housing estimates and, importantly, plan to ensure that economic investment in our roads is strategic and in the right place.
The excellent Essex chamber of commerce, through the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum, at which my hon. Friend the Minister has spoken, has been at the forefront of driving forward the campaign and economic arguments in favour of investment in our roads and infrastructure in Essex. The forum’s research and surveys of members have highlighted the economic costs of our outdated highways and, significantly, the cost of delays and congestion. Comments from businesses noted that some firms are losing £2,500 to £5,000 a week as a result of aggregated delays of one to two hours a week. Other firms have reported losing £50,000 a year because each employee loses an average of two hours a week as a result of congestion. One firm has summed up how much poor infrastructure is holding it back:
“Road congestion is the fundamental barrier to future growth for my business—in particular key junctions and the last mile to my premises.”
Put simply, congestion costs money, jobs and growth, so improving road infrastructure is important to our economic future because key road links provide access to important economic hubs. In Essex, those hubs are Stansted airport, Southend airport, the brilliant new DP World London Gateway port and logistics park, and other ports including Tilbury, Felixstowe and Harwich.
The infamous A120 is a vital economic corridor, and the 12-mile single carriageway stretch that runs through the north of my constituency between Marks Tey and Braintree is in need of investment. Not only has the road been identified as one of the 10 most dangerous in the country, but it is congested daily because of the single-carriageway sections. Such congestion, or gridlock, has caused several accidents, and there is a history of road fatalities. The road connects ports such as Harwich with Stansted airport and is used daily by more than 50% of the companies across Essex, particularly by freight trucks, but it is virtually at a standstill.
The previous Labour Government abandoned a proposed scheme to upgrade the A120, but I believe that we must work towards securing a new investment package to carry out the crucial upgrade works and dualling that are desperately needed. The Highways Agency route-based strategy, the South East local enterprise partnership “Growth Deal and Strategic Economic Plan” and Essex county council all support the dualling of the A120 as one of the county’s most pressing infrastructure priorities. That is because we all recognise that upgrading the A120 could add more than £1 billion to the UK economy. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to working with the relevant public authorities, the local authorities and the Highways Agency to place the A120 in the national infrastructure plan and to develop a suitable scheme along with an investment package that will deliver the most appropriate and relevant upgrade to the A120. Ours is a country that manages to deliver major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, on which work is still taking place, the Olympic games and many other schemes. It is time we undertook not only to dual the A120, but to look more strategically in our counties—including, of course, Essex—at our roads to ensure that the necessary improvements fast become a reality.
Other roads that need investment include the A12, which runs through the heart of my constituency and links my part of Essex to the M25 and London. The road is used by 80% of the county’s businesses, and the problems on it are insurmountable. They include poor road surfacing, the impact of diversions caused by shut-downs—those diversions come straight through Witham town and cause congestion and misery in my villages—and access to and from the A12 using single-carriageway roads. In my constituency, there are serious problems with traffic and congestion in Kelvedon, which is the main access from Tiptree to the A12 and the B1023. That has not been fully addressed by the route-based strategy, and I would like the Highways Agency to look again at options for the area.
In recent weeks, we have had accidents in Hatfield Peverel, and their impact on traffic and congestion on the A12 led the county council to suggest that new road markings and signage be installed. I hope that the Minister and the Highways Agency give those proposals some consideration, along with the many other proposals that have been suggested. I have written to the Minister, and he has been helpful in responding, on the question of improving road safety and reducing congestion.
Another road in the county, which is not in my constituency but is an important strategic link for businesses, is the A127. As the Southend arterial road, it connects the M25 to Basildon into Southend airport, which is experiencing tremendous growth in passenger numbers as a result of the private investment made by Southend airport. The road is being used, quite rightly, by the county’s businesses, and it is particularly useful to great exporters such as CNH UK. Essex county council and chamber of commerce have shown great initiative, and the Minister will be pleased to know that they have set up a taskforce to look at the A127. I am sure that recommendations will follow, which the Minister will be interested in considering.
The bête noire for businesses in Essex is the Dartford crossing. The Minister is well aware of my sentiments about the Dartford crossing and the daily congestion from which it suffers. I sat there on Friday night for two hours while three lanes were closed and nothing moved. That is a typical experience of the sort that many users endure daily. Delays at the crossing are causing economic chaos, which has a knock-on impact on our economy because of the business time that is lost. Congestion and the average performance reliability of the crossing are the worst of any major trunk road in the county. Regular users of the crossing experience seemingly endless delays—not of 20 or 30 minutes, but of more than an hour—and we all want action to be taken to reduce those delays. We are optimists, and we look positively towards the introduction of free flow, which we can only hope will transform the experience and get things moving. I would welcome an update from the Minister on free flow.
I would also welcome an update on the decision making timeline for the new Thames crossing, which is another important network road for my constituents and a big piece of work. Last December, option B was eliminated, and businesses are eager to know when the Government will decide whether to choose option A, which is to develop a new crossing on the existing site, or option C, which is to link the M2 near Rochester with the A13.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay tribute to the work she is putting into Witham and the whole county. She has mentioned the congestion at the Dartford crossing. Does she understand my objections to option A, which is to have a crossing next to the existing Dartford crossing into Thurrock, because it would not provide an alternative for the motorist? We are expecting a garden city to be built in my constituency, with some 15,000 new homes; a proposal for a new Paramount theme park; and the expansion of the Bluewater shopping centre. Does she agree that an alternative for the motorist is essential, rather than simply extra capacity next to the existing crossing, which is all option A would offer?
My hon. Friend makes some relevant points. We need a strategic network and we must ensure that the strategic work and planning are done in the right way so as to address the problems. We must also future-proof those routes so that they can meet future capacity needs and ease the constraints in relation to congestion. The Minister will recognise what we are saying, because improvements to the Essex-Kent road links are so vital. Of course, such improvements would act as a turbo charger for the economy in the east and south-east as a whole, but the roads are also vital links that are currently gridlocked. The lack of future-proofing of our infrastructure has caused a lot of the problems.
In addition to the roads issues that affect the county, which I could go on about, I would like to touch on some rail issues. The Minister knows that last autumn the Chancellor of the Exchequer established a rail taskforce for the great eastern main line. The taskforce, of which I am a member representing Essex, is examining the strategic improvements to infrastructure and services required to unlock the economic benefits for the east of England—estimated to be close to £4 billion—by delivering faster and more reliable rail services. Progress is being made. The new direct award franchise to 2016 will lead to the deep clean and refurbishment of rolling stock—things for which passengers have been crying out for years.
The new post-2016 long-term franchise offers a great opportunity to get a better deal for commuters. I get correspondence from railway commuters every day, and they are desperate for the upgrade and for improvements to their commuting experience. I would welcome a brief update from the Minister about the progress on that. Rail users in my constituency are deeply unhappy. We have one opportunity to get things right, so we really must do so.
I want to make two final points. The first is on aviation. We have two incredible airports in Essex, both with ambitious plans to deliver new services to access new destinations. We obviously welcome the private investment going into those airports, which are creating new jobs and new growth. I encourage the Minister to look at ways to support those hubs, because they are economic gateways for trade, exports and investment. Of course, the road links to the airports must also be fit for purpose. My plea is for the Minister to look not just at Heathrow and Gatwick, but at Essex.
My final point is about how we can work at a local level to deliver investment and take a strategic approach to infrastructure. I am not sure whether this idea has been brought to the Minister’s attention and he does not have to respond here—he could perhaps take it away and consider it—but I would like him to look at county-based infrastructure delivery units that could help to map out developments. That way, all infrastructure developments—not just road and rail, but broadband and access to public services—would be planned in relation to where development was taking place or housing was earmarked. Ebbsfleet is a classic example of where extensive planning and work for new homes is going to take place.
We must ensure that our local authorities have an overview and think about the wider infrastructure needs—not just of communities, but of the county—and that they look at things from an economic point of view. I wonder whether those civil servants and Ministers who work on the development of the national infrastructure plan should have some kind of oversight too. Perhaps county infrastructure requirements could be looked at in conjunction with the local enterprise partnerships so that we could effectively future-proof infrastructure for coming generations. That way, every penny spent would give us greater bang for our buck, as well as greater leverage.
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate on transport infrastructure in Essex. I was in Essex only this morning visiting the Ford Motor Company’s engineering research plant, where 3,500 engineers work at the very cutting edge of technology in Essex.
Today’s debate is the second on the subject since 2012, and I praise my hon. Friend for her tenacity in continuing to highlight the importance of good transport infrastructure in building strong and sustainable local communities and a successful local economy. I am also well aware of the excellent work that she does in her role as chair of the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum. Indeed, I remember her addressing a meeting of the forum with the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I heard some interesting points, many of which related to issues she has raised today.
The county of Essex has a resident population of just over 1.7 million and includes the unitary authorities of Southend and Thurrock. The county is rather fortunate to have a number of key transport connections. The nationally important M11, M25, A12 and A120 run through the county, as do major regional local roads, including the A13, A127, A130 and A414. Three main rail lines radiate from London, supplemented by a number of branch lines, serving more than 55 railway stations and, of course, the London underground extends to Upminster in the south of the county. The county also contains a number of international gateways, including Stansted and Southend airports—I have visited the former—and, of course, Harwich international sea port, which provides nationally important connections to Holland and Denmark. In addition, the port of Tilbury and the new London Gateway port development fall within the area. The port of Felixstowe is also nearby in neighbouring Suffolk.
Essex has a successful economy with an entrepreneurial work force, which makes the county an attractive place to live and do business. As my hon. Friend has highlighted this afternoon, the Essex transport network is critical to the performance of the local economy. Reliable connectivity enables Essex residents to have good access to jobs and allows local businesses access to the marketplace. The Government recognise that, which is why transport forms part of our long-term economic plan to ensure that our country’s infrastructure is improved and reliable.
On the Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements to the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his spending review statement last year. The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and the maintenance of national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £6 billion for the maintenance of strategic roads, including the resurfacing of 80% of the network.
In May 2012, the widening of 16 miles of the M25 between junctions 27 and 30 was completed. Junction 30 is a busy intersection of the M25 motorway with the A13 trunk road, and congestion is experienced during key parts of the day. The improvement of junction 30 of the M25 is key to the development of the wider Thames Gateway area, to facilitate future growth in housing and employment. The Prime Minister therefore announced in November 2012 that work would commence on improvements to the M25 at junction 30 in March 2015. The scheme will be able to accommodate whichever option is selected as the location of the lower Thames crossing.
To ease congestion and improve journey times at the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing, the Highways Agency is introducing Dart Charge, as we heard. Dart Charge makes greater use of technology and introduces new ways to pay the charge to use the crossing. From October 2014, the introduction of Dart Charge will remove the need for drivers to stop and pay at a barrier, helping to speed up journeys for everyone. Instead, several new ways to pay the charge will be available to customers using the crossing, including online, by phone, at certain retail outlets and by post. The introduction of Dart Charge requires significant changes to the existing road layout and infrastructure, including the removal of the plaza and payment booths to provide four open traffic lanes in each direction. The main construction works will start following the introduction of Dart Charge and are due to be completed in spring 2015. The works have been carefully planned to minimise disruption, and I plan to visit to see how the work is delivered.
The Dartford-Thurrock river crossing is a vital transport link, and the Government are committed to improving the crossing experience for the millions of people who use it every year. However, we all recognise that congestion on the crossing not only causes frustration for those who use it but has an impact on the economy. That is why the Government have made it clear that a new lower Thames crossing continues to be one of our top 40 priority projects. The Secretary of State for Transport stated last December that further advice is being obtained to assist in weighing up the relative merits of alternative location options, which are referred to as options A and C. Any decision must not be taken lightly, as we need to consider all the issues. That said, we hope to make a further announcement on the consideration of options A and C, and on the impact that Dart Charge may have on the existing crossing, in the very near future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham continues to make the case for the Government to commit funding for improvements to the Highways Agency network in Essex, and she and I met on 2 April to discuss the case for improvements to the A120.
Before the Minister moves away from the lower Thames crossing, I welcome the planned introduction of a free-flow system, which is the most efficient and effective way to address the congestion that we have seen on the Dartford crossing since the bridge was built in 1991. I impress upon him the folly of building another Thames crossing next to the existing crossing, which is the so-called option A. If there were any difficulties on the M25, either in Essex or in Kent, they would simply lead to the same amount of congestion and possibly more congestion. Building a crossing further down the Thames estuary surely has to be the best alternative for motorists.
My hon. Friend makes a point that my officials and I will continue to consider before a decision is made.
The Government’s national infrastructure plan sets out the details of the specific projects that the Department has committed to deliver. As part of that plan more than £28 billion is for road enhancements and maintenance. The specific schemes identified in the plan are able to be completed, or to begin construction, in the next Parliament. Proposals for improvements to the A120 east of Braintree, however, are not yet sufficiently developed to be included in the Highways Agency’s pipeline of future projects.
On future investment planning processes, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham will be aware that the Highways Agency is currently carrying out its route strategy process. Route strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. I will be visiting the A47 in East Anglia on Friday.
A set of strategies are being developed for the entire national road network, with the A120 being considered in the east of England route strategy. The route strategies will be delivered in two stages. The first stage identified performance issues on routes, future challenges and growth opportunities, taking full account of local priorities and aspirations. Using that evidence base, the agency established and outlined operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network. The first stage is now complete and finalised evidence reports were published on 23 April.
The second stage will use that evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operational issues, maintenance and, if appropriate, road improvement schemes to inform future investment plans. I encourage my hon. Friend and relevant local stakeholders to engage with the Highways Agency’s route strategy process. The Highways Agency has also committed to starting work on a number of pinch point schemes to help reduce incident-related congestion on the A12 later this year.
Investment in transport infrastructure is important not only to strategic roads but to local transport. The Department has provided £63.5 million towards the A13-A130 Sadlers Farm junction improvements, which is a local major scheme promoted by Essex county council. The scheme is helping to reduce congestion and to facilitate the delivery of planned housing and job growth envisaged for the area. The main junction works, and works to the A13, were opened to traffic in time for the Olympics in July 2012, with the remaining works being completed in January 2013.
As part of that ongoing investment, the Government also announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015 to 2016 that will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships and will incorporate all funding for local major transport schemes, including road schemes and schemes to enhance sustainable local transport. The fund has more than £6 billion of transport funding up to 2021. To secure part of that funding, the South East local enterprise partnership, which includes Essex, Thurrock and Southend as well as Kent, Medway and East Sussex, set out its growth priorities for the area in its strategic economic plan.
The plan includes the transport infrastructure that the LEP sees as necessary to deliver that growth, such as capacity improvements to the A127 and improvements to transport in towns such as Colchester and Chelmsford. The plan was submitted to the Government at the end of March and will be used to determine the funding that the LEP will receive. The plan and its transport interventions are currently being assessed by the Government.
No funding decisions have yet been made, but we expect to announce the outcomes before the summer recess. Government funding is not just about big schemes on strategic networks. In fact, smaller-scale investment can often make a big difference to our local communities. That is why this year we have granted Essex county council, Thurrock council and Southend-on-Sea borough council more than £37.9 million through highways maintenance and integrated transport block grant funding to allow them to maintain their local roads and invest in local transport improvements. Since March this year, we have also provided Essex county council with a further £3.1 million to help repair roads damaged by the wet winter, and two weeks ago, we announced that the councils will receive more than £4.8 million from the pothole fund announced in this year’s Budget, which is enough to repair more than 92,000 potholes.
I have a few brief comments on rail. From 2019, passengers from as far afield as Shenfield will benefit from the £15 billion Crossrail project, which will include brand new high-capacity trains, but Essex rail passengers can also expect shorter-term improvements. As part of its recently announced direct award, Abellio Greater Anglia has committed to a range of improvements to its network. Of significant interest to my hon. Friend and the people of Essex will be the commitment to undertake an internal refresh of the mark 3 rolling stock, which includes improvements to the internal look and feel of the coaches and the installation of at-seat power points, and so on. Abellio Greater Anglia hopes to make an announcement in the near future on the timing of those improvements.
I am also delighted to highlight the Department’s recent announcement of the awarding of the new Essex Thameside franchise to National Express. Key customer benefits of the new franchise include an additional fleet of 17 brand-new trains, which will provide an additional 4,800 seats—more than 25,000 additional seats every week for morning peak-time passengers—by the end of the contract.
I will draw to a close, as we are approaching the end of our time. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed and have set out plans to improve transport infrastructure in Essex as part of our long-term economic plan.
Question put and agreed to.