Wednesday 15 October 2014
[Martin Caton in the Chair]
Transport in the North-East
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and I am grateful for having secured this debate.
The north-east is a wonderful place for us to live, work and do business. However, too many of our constituents are struggling, and central Government are not giving us the support that we need. On so many economic measures, we are falling behind the rest of the country. From May to July 2014, the north-east had the highest UK unemployment rate; it stood at 9.9%, compared with the average of 6.2%. The north-east has some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, and the average salary was nearly £3,000 below the UK average in 2013. We have seen the slowest percentage increase in wage growth of anywhere in the UK. Since 2010, wages in the north-east have fallen by over £1,200 a year in real terms.
This is not because the north-east has less to offer; quite the opposite. We are the only English region with a trade surplus. We have world-class universities and global links through air and sea. It is important, however, that the north-east gets its fair share of funding. The economic challenges we face are tough, and it is clear that we need additional support from Government in tackling them, yet our councils have seen disproportionate cuts to their budgets, with funding shifted to more affluent areas. Improving transport is an important way of addressing some of the problems that we face. Lord Adonis’s review cited the World Bank demonstrating that infrastructure, including transport, is a key element of an enabling environment for economic growth. We can support growth and job creation if we have an efficient public transport system. Jobseekers need to be able to get to interviews and to work, and should not have to spend hours or even their hourly wage doing so. The north-east has the capacity to make a greater contribution to our economic recovery, but we need Government to work with us. Improvement and investment in our transport systems will help to deliver that contribution.
The north-east is a wonderfully diverse place, and my constituency is made up of the urban and the semi-rural—of towns, villages and estates. Given that diversity, the transport needs of constituents differ widely. However, the north-east receives the lowest level of Government funding for transport. Every region deserves excellent transport services, but our needs in the north-east are not reflected in the funding that we receive. Government figures show that public expenditure on transport in the north-east has decreased year on year since 2010. In 2012-13, £554 million was spent on transport in the north-east, compared with over £4.5 billion in London, and 2.9% of overall UK spend is in the north-east, compared with 24% in London.
The 2011 census shows that both London and the north-east have the lowest number of car owners in the country. Both regions are clearly full of people who rely on local transport services to get around, yet both regions do not enjoy the same high level of service. One reason for that is disproportionate funding. The Scottish referendum campaign reinforced a point that many of us have argued for years. We need to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom benefit from, and contribute to, our economic recovery. Economic growth and value must not depend on London and the south-east. It is right that we continue to push for further investment outside London to grow the economy in a balanced and sustainable way.
Funding is not the only explanation for the difference in services between London and the north-east, however. In London, an accountable transport authority is able to make important decisions on fares and routes and to ensure that the transport needs of passengers and communities are met in the capital. In my constituency, we do not enjoy the benefit of a rail link or light-rail link. Many people are entirely dependent on local bus services, which is why I have been campaigning on the issue since my election. I have heard from many local people that they are concerned about high bus fares, poor timetables, and infrequent services. Older residents tell me how difficult it can be to get to hospital, and that they are cut off and isolated in the evenings as they are unable to leave their homes. That situation simply cannot continue.
Next week, the North East combined authority will decide whether to introduce a quality contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. I am calling on its members to press ahead and make the change that we need. The new system would have routes set by the transport authority, with bus operators bidding to run services in an open competition. Not only would we see real competition for the first time, but we would have a simple fare system with Oyster-style ticketing, under which average annual fare increases would be no more than the retail prices index. I am not opposed to bus operators making a profit, but I do question the excessive profits made by companies such as Stagecoach in the region. I want some of that profit to be reinvested in the region, and to go on subsidising services and ensuring that my constituents can get to work, hospital and their places of training and education.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and endorse her comments about the bus contract. Does she agree that when the contract is negotiated, as it probably will be, it is important that it is not entirely focused on urban areas, and that the regional areas of County Durham and Northumberland are not affected, so that the citizens of west Northumberland or west County Durham have the rural bus services that they need?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an important point that I have sought assurance about. My constituency borders County Durham, and many services that run through it go to and from County Durham. I appreciate that it is an important area that does need addressing, but the benefits not only for Tyne and Wear, but for the wider region will be profound. I hope that the right decision is made.
I shall expand on this point if I am called to speak in the debate, but there is nothing in what is being proposed that guarantees or helps rural bus services in County Durham or Northumberland. The fact is that whether the leaders of Tyne and Wear or others like it or not, the profitable routes coming out of Tyne and Wear subsidise the rural bus networks in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman); those will be taken away if the proposal moves forward.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but I do not share his conclusion. I am sure that he will make his case strongly to the leaders of the combined authority. I am confident that the proposal will secure the long-term future of our bus network in Tyne and Wear and in the wider region in the longer term. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and am sure that he will set them out in greater detail.
Profit cannot be the sole priority for a public bus service. Competition can be an important way to ensure low fares and improve services. However, the existing system of deregulated bus services is broken. An investigation in 2011 by the Competition Commission was highly critical of deregulated bus services. It found that there was limited competition between operators, which tended to result in higher prices and lower quality for passengers. The report also found that head-to-head competition for services was unlikely between dominant operators. There was heavy criticism because some bus companies were accused of colluding to avoid direct competition entirely, which resulted in geographic market segregation. As in the energy market, a small number of companies dominate the bus market in the region. A quality contract scheme would create a level playing field, allowing new entrants to break into the market. It would also deliver better value for taxpayers and passengers alike.
I constantly hear from local people who struggle to get to work easily, especially shift workers in places such as Doxford international business park, where many thousands are based. The recently announced Metro strategy 2030 set out ambitious plans to develop Tyne and Wear’s Metro system, with the potential to include Doxford park in the long term. Current predictions estimate 5.4 million passenger trips per annum by 2030 on the South Shields to Sunderland to Doxford line, but any extension would of course depend on government support. The plan recognises both the importance of the business hub to our local economy and the need for regular and high-quality transport links to and from work. The proposal forms part of a comprehensive plan to improve transport in our region. The Metro Strategy 2030 includes a proposal to bring part of the Leamside line back into use. The North East local enterprise partnership has commissioned a study into the business case for reopening the line, and has identified improving links within the region as one of its key priorities. Long-term investment is important, but next Tuesday one part of the solution to our transport needs is within our grasp.
I am grateful to EDF, based at Doxford, for recently conducting a staff survey on public transport. In the survey, 38% of respondents felt that services to Doxford park were either very poor or poor value for money, 40% felt that services had either very poor or poor frequency during the day, and a shocking 62% felt that frequency during the night was either very poor or poor. One respondent noted that bus prices were so high that it was cheaper to use a car, with another being forced to catch three buses to get home if their shift finished after 8 pm. I visited EE, which is also based at Doxford, and found that many of its staff face the same challenges. I heard that those whose shifts finish at 8 pm literally run out the door to catch the last bus, or face a long wait. Others must come to work far earlier than their shift start time, because unless they catch the hourly bus service, they risk the consequences of being late. Obviously, that risks impacting on staff retention. That is not good enough. Visitors and staff at Doxford Park make an important contribution to our local economy, and they should be able to expect a fair, reliable and efficient bus service.
In 2011, Government cuts meant that the 3½-mile Sunderland central route had to be scrapped. The scheme would have eased congestion and improved access to Rainton Bridge business park. The loss of the scheme was hugely disappointing, and was made all the worse by the lack of alternative transport options for the staff there. The scrapping of the route has had a significant effect on traffic in the surrounding area and on local residents who live nearby.
I have been continually disappointed by the bus companies’ attitude to improving services for their passengers. The voluntary agreement that the bus companies are supporting would result in severe cuts to publicly funded bus services and to support for non-statutory fares, therefore falling far short of what is necessary. Bus companies are refusing to listen to their customers’ concerns, choosing instead to redirect routes that customers rely on, make meaningless changes to route names and numbers and to bus branding, and embark on a systematic campaign of scaremongering. Bus companies appear more concerned with threatening legal action than dealing with cuts to services and rising fares.
Yesterday morning, I received an e-mail from Go North East seeking to acquaint me with what it sees as the facts on a quality contract scheme. Go North East claims that customer satisfaction, including with fares, is higher than in any of the metropolitan authorities, and higher than in London. However, it fails to address the declining use of buses. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people using the bus to travel to work in Tyne and Wear fell by 13%; the number of adult fare-paying passengers has also declined. Furthermore, the survey used to support the claim does not take into account the view of people who no longer use the bus because there simply is not one to catch any more.
Go North East claims that the quality contract scheme aims to take funding out of the bus system. That is simply untrue. The quality contract scheme will avoid cuts to secured bus services and to support for discretionary concessionary fares. The voluntary agreement preferred by the bus companies, by contrast, will lead to significant cuts in secured services and discretionary concessions, even if local public support remains at the same level.
Go North East claims that the voluntary agreement can start two years earlier than the quality contract scheme can. Many aspects of the voluntary agreement, however, are unacceptable or incomplete as drafted. In addition, the main potential delay to introducing the quality contract scheme would be legal challenge by the bus operators. I hope that they decide to do the right thing: to prioritise customers and recognise the democratic decision of the combined authority.
There is an inherent conflict between the desire for the voluntary agreement to be certain, legally binding and enforceable, and the need for flexibility to avoid the arrangement breaking competition law. Therefore, the voluntary agreement relies on trusting each of the operators to abide by the spirit and the letter of the agreement. Even under the voluntary system, however, bus operators may make changes to services without approval of the partnership board. That does nothing to create stability in our local bus network. Services will continue to be assessed on their commercial returns, rather than on their usefulness to local communities.
Whatever operators might say, the voluntary agreement fails to deliver the Oyster-style ticketing system that is a major advantage of the quality contract scheme. It is clear from the persistent scaremongering, threats of legal action and negative campaigning that the bus operators are primarily concerned with protecting profit, rather than improving the service for passengers.
In a time of difficult decisions about spending, it is crucial that we get the best value for money. According to the House of Commons Library, the taxpayer subsidised bus services by approximately £2.3 billion in 2011-12. Those subsidies amounted to about 45% of all bus operator revenues. As we are all paying for bus services, it is time to ensure that the money that we invest goes back into our communities. Nexus estimates that the quality contract would provide £272 million in economic benefits to the region over a decade by reducing fares, providing better services and ensuring more bus passengers.
Similarly, the northern region TUC concluded that there was a strong business case for the quality contract. It will harness any revenue surplus for the benefit of passengers and communities, rather than for bus company shareholders. The proposal would provide a sustainable funding future for buses in our region to a greater extent than all other options.
Next Tuesday, the North East combined authority will decide whether to introduce a quality contract scheme. The process has been too long and drawn out. I am glad that we would legislate to give local authorities more powers to create better bus networks and to make it easier to implement quality contracts. At the core of the debate is local decisions to deliver a service that works, supporting businesses, growth and job creation. Local people must have the bus services that they deserve. Even the bus operators acknowledge that the status quo is no longer sustainable. This is our opportunity to lead the way, but it is an opportunity that will not come again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate. I appreciate and accept that it is fundamentally about bus contracts; I understand that and take the point, but I must comment that what a passenger landing at Newcastle airport has to do to get across town is clearly wrong. They must take the Metro into town, then get across to the railway station; with no integrated transport system whatever, they need to get another ticket from the Newcastle station ticket office to go to Hexham or anywhere else, then attempt to move on from there. We all have to work four days a week in London, so we know the beauty of the Oyster card system. Clearly, longer term, such a system—
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from and I fully support the idea of an Oyster card system for the north-east, but I am sorry, the ticketing process is not as he says. I do not know how much he uses public transport in the north-east. Tyne and Wear has a very integrated ticket system, with transfers, and certainly in County Durham the bus companies work hard to ensure the interoperability of tickets and the lowest price.
Someone in Northumberland attempting to go from Hexham to the airport in effect has to change tickets three times. An integrated system with an Oyster card would unquestionably drive down prices.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South and I are both concerned about the future of rural bus services. I take her point that customer satisfaction with buses is good at present, but my constituents are deeply unhappy with the quality of bus services west of Hexham. West Northumberland and areas north of Hexham have suffered tremendously from problems with the buses. I have spent a huge amount of time looking after constituents with genuine issues to do with the bus service in the western parts of Northumberland and in the northern reaches up towards Scotland. Without question, if I were to ask the citizens of Gilsland, Otterburn or places to the west whether they felt that the bus service could be improved, they would be robust in their view that it could be improved massively.
I take the point that the bus contract is a matter for the LA7—the seven local authorities—and surely that is entirely what the combined authority is about. For it to move on in such a way is a massive step forward, because it now has the ability to drive forward comprehensive changes that simply would not have been possible for individual authorities.
I want to touch briefly on trains. On 3 September, I raised the subject of transport infrastructure in Northumberland in a 30-minute Adjournment debate in the main Chamber. Many of the points that I made were set out in detail, so I will not repeat them today. One point that must be made, however, is that many of the things that we are discussing derive not only from the Adonis report but from the excellent “One North” report, which was a proposition for an interconnected north, published in July this year. I have a copy and I urge anyone who is interested in north-east transport infrastructure to read it in detail. “One North” talks about the way forward. The report is driven by the city leaders of our key cities, including Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. It certainly expresses strong views on the desirability of interconnectivity in rail and transport services.
I endorse earlier comments about the Leamside link, which clearly needs to be progressed. The reality of High Speed 2 is that without the Leamside link the prospects for us will be limited. I have no doubt that any Government post-2015 will make progress with that link. Indeed, Sir David Higgins, with whom we have had communications, said that it is inevitable that the Leamside link will be part of the development of HS2.
I refer to the speech given by the Chancellor on 5 August 2014 in Manchester to the city leaders who were the creators of the “One North” report. He gave the report a strong backing and set out the way forward. My only criticism of the report is that its diagram of interconnectivity in the north—I intend no disrespect—focuses on north-south links, with only one lateral movement between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and the Humber ports. I urge the Chancellor to consider the importance of an improved crosslink between Newcastle and Carlisle—I will certainly be making the case for that at the autumn statement. The A69 is dualled to Hexham, but thereafter it is effectively a single carriageway, which has a huge impact on business, transport, housing and the ability to commute, as well as on the train network. The Tyne Valley line has definitely improved; passenger numbers are up and improvements are being made by both Northern Rail and Network Rail. However, the two transport networks going from east to west, or west to east—however we look at it—have to be improved if the north as a whole is to be properly connected.
I do not dispute that this debate is about transport in the north-east, but the reality behind the “One North” argument—one that will have to be behind any Government’s consideration of northern infrastructure, skills and the like—is that in the past we have been too obsessed with the north-east and the north-west. Anybody can see that if we do not look at the north as a whole our ability to effect real change is limited—certainly I can see that, as my constituency is in the middle of the two regions, going to the border of the north-west, and indeed the border with Scotland. I urge the Minister to take the message to the Chancellor that connectivity has to be across the north and not just the north-east, north-west or Yorkshire. I believe that that point has got through, but my one criticism of the “One North” report and the northern powerhouse approach is that there is no east-west link at the top. That certainly needs to be considered.
I have a meeting planned with the electrification task force that has been set up by the Secretary of State for Transport to work on the electrification of the Tyne Valley line. The east coast and west coast lines are both electrified. The train network in northern England clearly needs to be improved.
I want to put on the record my support for Northumberland county council’s approach to the Ashington Blyth and Tyne railway. That is a clearly a big project that can be moved forward. My only plea is that the council needs to think not only of larger projects such as that one, but smaller projects such as the Gilsland station rebuild. Thinking again of connectivity, Gilsland is where the Pennine way meets Hadrian’s wall. There is a distinct lack of bus services—to give a nice Radio 2-style link back to the original theme of the debate—in the very west of the county. Gilsland station is where Cumbria starts and Northumberland ends.
I look forward to meeting the electrification task force to discuss the Tyne Valley line and to the meeting I have planned with the Highways Agency next month to discuss the A69. I urge Northumberland county council and the two local enterprise partnerships—not just the North East LEP but the Cumbria LEP for the north-west—to come together so that we have a genuinely connected transport system. That is something we can all get behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), my neighbouring MP, on securing this important and timely debate. I also want to place on the record my gratitude for her campaigning work on this issue, in the region and in the House.
Buses are how the majority of people outside London get around on public transport; according to the passenger transport executive group, outside the capital 80% of public transport trips in the UK take place by bus. Bus companies in Tyne and Wear receive tens of millions of pounds each year from taxpayers, yet we have little influence over the operations of our local bus services. That is why I join my hon. Friend in calling for quality contracts, which are the simplest and best way to ensure that the public, taxpayers and passengers have a voice in how our bus services operate.
I am old enough to remember when deregulation came in, in 1986. It was utter chaos in Tyne and Wear. The journey from the village where I lived to Newcastle went from taking 50 minutes to taking an hour and 20 minutes or an hour and 40 minutes, depending on which buses turned up. Far from moving things forward, deregulation moved them back very dramatically.
Quality contracts would replace deregulated markets with a franchising system, providing the transparency that the public deserve and require to trust the bus operators that work for them. A report to the Transport North East Committee—the combined authorities transport committee—has illustrated that if we do nothing, bus passenger numbers will continue to fall, bus services will continue to be cut, and local people, isolated people and vulnerable people will continue to be hit hardest. Although my constituency is urban and, compared with many, has good transport links, even within the city of Sunderland there are pockets where transport links are not good. The “do minimum” scenario set out in that report projects a loss of 66 million bus trips over a 10-year period as a result of above-inflation fare rises and the withdrawal of secured bus services and discretionary concessionary fares. The result will be that people simply will not travel.
Quality contracts are the simplest and most effective solution. Their benefits are multifold. They will lead to greater integration, meaning we could see an Oyster card-style system for the north-east—as the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said, all of us who come to London for three or four days a week know how wonderful the Oyster card system is. Such a system would rectify issues with tickets not working across different bus operators and ensure that passengers get the best possible price by capping fares, as is the case in London.
There would be no more chopping and changing of vital services to suit bus operators, but instead a stable bus network that serves local people, with changes taking place only after proper consultation and engagement. There would be higher emissions standards for all vehicles. Quality contracts would ensure that bus services serve isolated communities, and would include the ability to specify such routes as part of the bidding process. All those benefits would come about while ensuring that local authorities get maximum value for money from the contracts.
For many people, bus services are the only way for them to get to employment, school or the doctor, or just to see family and friends. The point of local bus services is to serve their local communities. Local buses provide a lifeline to so many people who would otherwise remain isolated. That point was made by the Transport Committee in its report, “Passenger transport in isolated communities”, published in July, which points out that it is not only rural communities that can be isolated. If a bus operator in a deregulated market can decide to cancel a route that someone relies on, people can be isolated in cities—including Sunderland, as I said. Problems experienced by elderly people being unable to leave their home or young people being unable to find employment because of a lack of public transport go beyond the remit of the Minister, or indeed that of the Department for Transport, but affect a wide range of Departments.
I agree with the hon. Member for Hexham about east-west transport links. Sunderland is a large city. Getting from there to Newcastle is, in the main, relatively easy, but getting from there to Durham is a nightmare. The distance is only two or three miles more, but in reality someone in Sunderland who relies on public transport cannot take up a job in Durham because they simply cannot get to work on time. I know that from personal experience: one of my daughters got a job there when she first came back from university, and had to leave the house at 6.30 am to get to Durham for 9 am. It is impossible.
If quality contracts are good enough for London, they are good enough for Tyne and Wear. I look forward to the decision of the combined authority next week and urge it to make the right decision for the people of Tyne and Wear and the wider north-east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate.
Much of the discussion so far has focused on buses, so I will start with a couple of comments to the Minister to ensure that the Government are aware of what has been happening with buses in Stockton. In the past two years the borough council has decided to remove the remaining subsidies for bus routes. The immediate decision taken by the bus companies was that we would lose a significant number of routes—in my constituency specifically, we lost those servicing Hartburn in west Stockton and some of the villages to the south-east of Stockton, including Hilton, Maltby and Kirklevington. That, of course, caused significant concern, and we had well-attended public meetings to discuss the impact. I must admit that my experience of dealing with the issue as a Member of Parliament was mixed. I was, and am, critical of the borough council’s decision to remove the subsidies entirely and in a very short time. When it is investing more than £30 million in Stockton high street—investment that is welcome—it is somewhat ironic that, by saving a few tens of thousands of pounds, it is actually stopping people visiting the high streets it wants to attract business to.
On Hartburn and West Stockton, we were able, with local councillors, to have a fruitful and positive discussion with bus operators. We were able to look at where routes could be changed and where profitability could be found and to retain bus services pretty much at the level they were at before. That was a good example of where a subsidy was removed and where a service, as a result of some intelligent thinking, was retained and improved for the residents who rely on it.
Sadly, that was much more difficult in the villages, and we have more or less lost a number of services to many of the villages I represent. What has happened in one half of one borough underlines some of the complexity of the challenge when it comes to providing one aspect of public transport—bus routes. We need different things in different areas; we need different solutions for different communities, and a one-size-fits-all approach invariably will not work.
I welcome talk of an Oyster card-style system. Those who do not always support what I say in politics have occasionally accused me of being a little Teessider. However, I would suggest that I am a big Teessider—I think we are a great place—and I think there could be great co-operation on this issue right across the north of England. The more broadly we can spread such a system, and the better and more convenient the services we can provide for our constituents, the better that will be. The initiative is very welcome, and I would support it. I hope, therefore, that the combined authority in the north-east is talking to the local enterprise partnership and the authorities in Teesside and the Tees valley. I hope the various bodies with interest in the issue can co-operate to deliver for all our constituents.
I would also like to touch on the issue of roads and to put on record—I have not yet had chance to do so in the House—my thanks to the Government for the investment we have secured in roads in Stockton South. Specifically, the link road between Thornaby road and the A174 is being dualled, following a significant grant from Government pinch point funding, which is contributing towards the cost. Parts of Ingleby way and Myton way, which are part of Ingleby Barwick, a large and growing private housing estate in my constituency, will be dualled to ease traffic flow. That will bring significant benefits not only in terms of access to, and egress from, the estate, but for constituents whose residential roads have been used as rat runs to skip queuing traffic in places such as The Rings in Ingleby Barwick, where there have been significant problems. Those problems will, I hope, be alleviated, thanks to investment from the local growth fund by our local enterprise partnership, which is doing a good job, and because of the decision taken by Ministers, who have recognised the needs that exist in the part of the north-east I represent.
Significant investment is also going into Eaglescliffe station in my constituency. Rail is, of course, an important link between the north-east and the rest of the country. Whenever possible, I take the train up and down the country. An open-access service run by Grand Central—now owned by Arriva—goes from the station and starts in Sunderland. The service is welcome, and it does a good job. Looking around the room, I see a number of colleagues who use the service as regularly as I do. Eaglescliffe station has never quite caught up to its new role, with its direct link to London, but investment is finally going in. We are getting a new waiting room and extended car parking facilities, and a lot of good work is being done.
If the Minister is in the north of England, I would encourage him to take the time to visit and to see what is being done. I would stress to Northern Rail that it is important that this work is done in a timely manner. As to the actual process of construction, I have never been able fully to understand how it takes six months to double the size of a relatively small car park, although I am going on a site visit to be convinced that it does take that long. In the meantime, however, the work causes my constituents significant inconvenience. That aside, I would welcome a visit from the Minister at some point so that he can see some of the investment that is going in and the great things we are doing with rail and other transport in my constituency, in Teesside and across the north-east.
We are talking broadly about north-east transport, and the final issue I want to raise is our airport. When I say “our airport”, I mean Durham Tees Valley airport, or Teesside airport, in the south of the region. Of course, the north-east has Newcastle airport and Teesside airport. In recent years, Newcastle airport has been somewhat more successful than Teesside airport, which has been trending ever so slightly unwelcomely downwards since about 2007 and is in a fragile state.
Peel, the owner, is making many of the right noises about investing there, but I have two concerns to put on record. One is the obvious point that Peel wants to sell part of the airport for housing so that it can invest in the rest of the airport. The airport should be run as an airport; the land is there to be an airport, not to be turned into a housing estate. Although I recognise the need for a financially viable and workable model, I am concerned about the proposals.
Significantly, the owners are also trying to offload pension liabilities on to the local authorities, which are shareholders in the airport. Indeed, they are pushing hard for the local authorities to accept the liabilities. The only situation in which any benefit would arise from the local authorities accepting the liabilities, as far as I have been able to ascertain from looking at the information that is available—Peel would, of course, still be paying—is if staff were to lose their jobs and the airport were to close. In that case, responsibility for making up the overall shortfall would fall to the local authorities, rather than to Peel. I stress to the local authorities that have shares in Teesside airport to be very careful indeed, in public money terms, about what they accept and to be wary of Peel’s overall intentions. While I hope those intentions are good, and I support Peel in the things it is doing to try to maintain the airport as an airport and to make it a success, we must be careful not to allow the fragility of the situation to be used to bully public authorities into making decisions they probably should not make in the long-term interest of taxpayers in my constituency and across Teesside. Instead, we must ensure Peel has the greatest possible incentive to keep the airport as an airport.
We have lots of great opportunities in the north-east. I welcome many of the investments the Government have made in my constituency, and I am grateful for them. They will improve the lives and transport options of my constituents. I welcome this debate, and I hope that, where we can find consensus, we can work across parties and across our region to deliver improvements for all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate. What has come out of it so far is that there is a degree of consensus on some of the issues, so I do not wish to sound like the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes, but I have serious concerns about the quality bus contract going before the combined authority on 22 October. I will also briefly touch on the issues of rail and air.
The quality contract proposals have been in gestation since 2011—longer than the pregnancy of an African elephant. If we look at what is proposed, we have to question whether we have a solution looking for a problem, rather than a problem looking for a solution. The quality contract legislation was rightly introduced to address market failure. I accept what hon. Members have said about bus services being withdrawn, and that is market failure in terms of the effects on our constituents. However, no one can argue that the bus market in the north-east is failing from an economic point of view.
I have grave concerns about the quality contract. The impact on my constituency, in County Durham, and on the areas represented by Members from Northumberland, will be quite pronounced. The proposal from the combined authority provides for an exclusive contract to run all bus services in Tyne and Wear, but we must understand that people’s transport movements do not recognise local authority boundaries—that is the problem with the proposal. The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) suggested a solution that looked at the entire north-east, and that would be a better solution.
The quality contract is also being sold on the basis that it is the only way we will get an Oyster-type system. No, it is not, because advances have already been made on that issue. I support those moves, as I think all elected Members from the north-east, from all political parties, would, because they will make travelling easier. However, I do not recognise the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) that the ticketing system at the moment is very complex. It is not. The Tyne and Wear ticket system is one of the most integrated anywhere in the country. Likewise there is an integrated system in County Durham, with moves by bus operators on shared ticketing and making sure that people get the lowest prices. Yes, there is a need for action to improve integration across the region, but I do not think that there is a need to go down the quality service contract route to achieve that.
My constituency borders Tyne and Wear and it is a commuter constituency these days. The days of large-scale employment in coal mines are gone. People commute northwards to Sunderland and Newcastle, and southwards to jobs in Teesside. Twenty-five per cent. of the cross-border bus traffic originates in Tyne and Wear, and that is part of the problem with quality contracts. Those are the bus companies’ most profitable routes. That profitability sustains the rest of the bus network in rural County Durham and infrastructure such as Stanley bus station, and the bus station in Chester-le-Street. If that profitability were to be taken away there would be serious problems. My fear about Tyne and Wear’s proposals is that without that profitability there would be a direct problem in County Durham—and not just with sustaining the existing bus network; the system would affect garages and local employment, because of closures. With the franchise, there will be only one winner—the bus company that wins the prize of running buses in Tyne and Wear. There are currently three operators in my constituency and two will be losers. That will have a direct effect on the funding of existing services. I am also concerned that with the knock-on effect of the through route to Teesside and other parts south of the county bus operators will find it difficult to make the necessary profit.
Many of the ideas for the bus quality contract have not been really thought through. It is not possible to detach, somehow, rural County Durham and Northumberland from Tyne and Wear, as is being proposed.
My hon. Friend makes some interesting points about profitability, but do I understand him right? Is he arguing that the bus companies should be allowed to maintain excess profits on some routes so that they, the private sector, rather than our elected representatives, can decide how to subsidise rural routes?
I am sorry; that is what actually happens in practice with bus operators. There is an argument that somehow it is nasty to make a profit; but there are profitable routes, and that is nothing to do with the bus companies. The main route from Chester-le-Street to Newcastle, for example, is a profitable route. Why? Because people use it. That is a matter of fact, and irrespective of what politicians say it will not change. People vote with their feet and use the route.
I certainly was not arguing that making profits is in some sense wrong. I was arguing—and it is market economics—that making excess profits is wrong, and it should not be for the private sector to determine which routes to subsidise with, effectively, public money. It should be for democratically elected representatives.
No, I am sorry; my hon. Friend does not understand the system. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but she does not. If there are subsidised secured routes that are paid for by the taxpayer, the taxpayer can determine where they go. That is nothing to do with the bus company. My hon. Friend spoke of excessive profits, on those routes that are profitable, but there has to be money in the system; she should be aware, as I think many people are not, that under the current proposals Tyne and Wear council tax payers—I am not one—will underwrite its bus service system, with consequences for them if passenger numbers go up or more subsidy is needed.
I am not arguing for the old free-for-all, but that is not what we have. I remember the disastrous days of bus deregulation in 1986, with buses chasing buses, but we do not have that system now. A far better way forward for us would involve some type of regulation—and if the threat could be used as a bargaining chip with the bus companies I would totally agree with that. However, it is not a panacea for every issue. Quite a few hon. Members have talked about bus services being withdrawn, but a quality contract will not prevent that. They will be withdrawn unless more money is put into the system.
The hon. Member for Stockton South raised an interesting point, which is one that I make constantly to officers in County Durham. The problem is that in some of the areas in question buses are not the solution. We need to think of more creative ways to transport people from isolated communities, such as taxi-buses or alert-buses. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said: even in urban areas there can be isolated places. We need a system to feed the people who live in those places into the main, profitable system. That would be far better than to think that the solution is a bus. Quaking Houses is a nice rural village in my constituency, but there is not the demand for a double-decker bus on a Sunday. Reactive taxi services, for example, could take people to central hubs that would feed them into the network. That is how we need to think—not just focusing on buses, but more creatively.
I just want to point out that services are withdrawn not only because they are unprofitable per se. It can be because they are not profitable enough. Bus operators refuse to publish data on the profitability of routes. When there are big changes and routes are cut or withdrawn almost entirely—as happened in communities in my area such as Shiney Row, and Houghton and Hetton, which have big urban centres; a lot of people use the route—that is not about unprofitable services. It is just that the operators do not regard them as profitable enough. That is the distinction.
I accept what my hon. Friend says, but under the current proposal those services will not be protected. The only way to do it would be to put more subsidy in. If the argument is that there is a bottomless pit of money from the taxpayers of Tyne and Wear to support them, that is fine; but in reality there is not.
To return to the cross-border issue, we might suppose it would have been thought about—and it has, but in a typically bureaucratic, council sort of way. The cross-boundary bus collaboration protocol is a fine document, from which I need to quote to show that the important people—the public and the people who provide the services—are being taken out of the equation. Paragraph 4.4 says:
“In the event that a Cross Boundary Service does have an adverse effect on the QCS Services the Combined Authority shall use reasonable endeavours to seek to agree amendments to the registration…of the relevant Cross Boundary Service”.
Therefore, there will be disputes, for which there is a great organisation called the cross-boundary officer group. It sends a shiver down my spine that it will be left to officers to deal with that. What clout will Durham have to protect services? None at all; because at paragraph 6.7 the document explains what will happen if
“the Council considers that the Draft Plan has an adverse impact on Service Users”
in Tyne and Wear:
“The Parties shall use reasonable endeavours to ensure that the Tyne and Wear Sub Committee considers such requests.
Where the Tyne and Wear Sub Committee makes such adjustments to the Draft Plan to accommodate requests made by the Council, the Draft Plan shall be deemed to be approved by the Council.”
It goes on:
“Where the Tyne and Wear Sub Committee does not consider it possible to make any such reasonably requested adjustments to minimise the…effect of the Draft Plan on the Council and its Service Users, the Combined Authority will seek to procure that the Tyne and Wear Sub Committee promptly responds to the Council in writing, providing reasons.”
If those involved fail to reach an agreement, it will go to a dispute resolution panel. That is fine, but what bureaucratic nonsense that system is. It will not help to solve cross-border disputes. We need to take a step back from the proposal, because it will be a problem for the likes of County Durham and Northumberland. I know that those plans have been in gestation for a long period of time, and that people perhaps think that because they have been sent a lot of work on it, “We’ve got to try and do something.” However, I would urge people to take a step back and think about it.
I want to raise two other issues. The first is airports, and I congratulate David Laws and the team at Newcastle airport, who have done a fantastic job. It is a gleaming example of where the private and public sectors can work together, not only to deliver great service to the travelling public in the north-east, but to be an important economic catalyst for the north-east economy, in terms of both passengers and freight.
I would like the Minister’s comments on one point, however. Under the new devolved arrangements for Scotland, will the airport passenger duty be devolved to the Scottish Government? If it is and we have two systems, undercutting will directly affect airports such as Newcastle, and their ability to compete on routes will be a problem. The Government are still out to consultation on another matter—the third runway at Heathrow—which is always seen as a London issue, but it is not. It is vital to Newcastle that that runway goes ahead.
I want briefly to touch on rail before I finish. In the north-east, there is an issue about the skills that we need to support existing and future rail infrastructure there. May I congratulate Newcastle college? I went to its new rail academy in Hebburn last week. It is a very forward-thinking project that is trying to ensure that people have the skills that they need, not only in terms of the hard-end engineering side of rail, but in terms of the softer, more customer-focused side. It will be a very good thing for a lot of young people to get access into an industry that has a future both in the north-east and in the rest of the country, and also has an international dimension that should be very important for them. With that, Mr Caton, I conclude my remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate. I want to make three distinct points, on buses, rail and road, but they are all linked by a common theme: a lack of attention, priority, co-ordination, and investment when it comes to transport in the north-east.
Let me start with buses. Thirty years of deregulated bus services has not given Hartlepool a good market, full of choice and quality for passengers. According to Department for Transport figures, 91% of the bus market in Hartlepool is run by a single operator, Stagecoach. Arriva has 4.9% and the Go-Ahead Group has 1.7% of the market. A market distorted in that way is not a market that helps potential passengers. Little wonder that passenger journeys in Hartlepool, unlike in the south-east and London, are falling, from 5.4 million journeys in my constituency per year in 2009-10 to 4.6 million journeys in 2013-14.
People may be making fewer journeys because they are using other modes of transport, but it is more likely that bus journeys are falling because choice is being restricted, timetables are being cut and the ability of people to travel by bus in Hartlepool and further afield is being hampered.
Let me give a couple of examples. The No. 1 bus service, from High Tunstall into the centre of town, out to Seaton Carew and then further to Middlesbrough has its last bus from Throston Grange terminus not at 11 o’clock or 10 o’clock in the evening, but at 10 minutes past 6. If someone works in Middlesbrough and lives in Hartlepool, they have to catch the last bus home at 6.14 pm. The No. 4 service travels across the town from South Fens to Bishop Cuthbert, but if a person is going to a friend’s or checking on a relative at night, they cannot do it, because the service stops during the week at 10 minutes to 6. Those who live in outlying villages such as Dalton Piercy and Elwick are virtually imprisoned at night, because there are no services at all.
The lack of a true bus service both within Hartlepool and connecting to surrounding towns and cities is a real barrier to economic growth and social unity. If a person in Hartlepool wants to get a job in, say, the steel plant in Redcar, some 10 or 12 miles away, they cannot, because there is no bus service. The point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that economic activity and travel-to-work patterns do not respect local authority boundaries. There is a pressing need for some sort of regulated service within the local authority of Hartlepool and the wider Teesside area, and also within the wider north-east region, to address that issue.
Secondly, I want to raise the issue of rail rolling stock. We have debated this in the House before, but no improvements are being made. People using the Northern Rail service from Hartlepool to Newcastle and Sunderland in the north, and to Middlesbrough in the south, are faced with the oldest rolling stock in the country, built in the 1980s, with standing room only, no toilet facilities and health and safety issues.
I wrote to Northern Rail on behalf of a constituent who was concerned about the overcrowding and the condition of the rolling stock. This week, I received a reply:
“Sadly, there is not much we can do to address the overcrowding issue in the short term. The fleet of trains we operate under the current franchise from the Department for Transport, which runs until February 2016 and is currently out for consultation, is aging and all units are used to their maximum.”
In other words, “Get used to it.”
There has been some confusion, and I hope that the Minister will clarify things today. Will he ensure that discussions on the new franchise will definitively include the need to replace, rather than refurbish, the decrepit Pacer trains that passengers in the north-east, unlike those in any other part of the country, have to endure?
The third and final issue that I want to raise is investment in the road network. All hon. Members here will realise that Hartlepool is the centre of the universe, but unusually for the centre of all known life and activity everywhere, it is difficult to connect to major economic centres such as Newcastle in the north and, particularly, Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire and Leeds in the south. There is a pinch point on the A19 at its interchange with the A689, which causes real traffic congestion. If connectivity is an important prerequisite for economic growth, investment to widen the A19 to three lanes between Wolviston and Norton would unlock economic development and employment opportunities in the short term, and would provide growth potential in the long term. Will the Minister give a commitment today that that project will be given the go-ahead soon?
People in my constituency have to contend with inadequate transport provision and infrastructure. In the north, we really need to address that in the round, and at the moment, that is not happening. There seems to be a lack of priority and a lack of attention, and I hope that the Minister will address that in his remarks.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this very important debate. Transport in the north-east has a massive impact on the economic prospects of the region, as well as on the quality of life of all our constituents.
The transport infrastructure in the north-east is in an abysmal state. It is the only region of the country that is not connected to the rest of the nation by a motorway. Going north to Scotland, the road is in some cases a single carriageway. Going south through Yorkshire, the last Labour Government had a scheme for widening the stretch between Leeming and Barton. This Government put it off, then brought it back. The delay means that we will not get the widening scheme till 2017.
Looking from east to west, as the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said, we have the same problem on the A66. If the Minister is not interested in what Labour Members from the north-east say, I hope that he is listening to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who is also concerned about the state of the A66. It means that an exporter in Middlesbrough who wants to sell something to a person in Liverpool has to send their lorries through a 30-mph zone, through the suburbs of Darlington. This is no way to run an economy.
Some people were rather shocked to discover that dualling the A1 to Berwick would cost £42 million, but the fact is that this Government are perfectly able to give the Mayor of London a £1 billion guarantee to extend the tube from Victoria to Battersea—a journey of a mere two miles—yet, when it comes to our region, the settlements are totally inadequate. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer switched money from public services to capital infrastructure in 2011, we got a grand total of 0.1% of the capital. That is completely inadequate, and I want to know what the Minister will do about the state of these major route arteries. The answer that I had from him to a parliamentary question was completely uninformative. I hope that today he will say a little more.
I concur entirely with the comments from colleagues about bad experiences. There are people in my constituency who are offered jobs but have to turn them down because they simply could not get to work. There are villages where there is only one bus a day. Evenwood, Cockfield, Ramshaw, Woodland, Lynesack, Copley and Softley are all phenomenally badly served because the Government cut the bus grant.
For the benefit of my summing-up, I just want to be clear. The hon. Lady said that she completely concurred. Does she completely concur with the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who introduced the debate, or with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who made criticisms? I did not understand what she was concurring with.
I am concurring with the comments about the abysmal state of the service. That is what I am agreeing with. It is terrible, dreadful and completely unacceptable, and it obviously needs more money put into it—money that this Government have taken away.
There is a similar problem with potholes. Durham county council did a survey and found that the cost of mending the potholes on the unadopted roads in our county would come to £600 million. Obviously that cannot be done overnight, but this Government have cut Durham’s Government grant by 40%, so we are now going backwards, not forwards. The Minister may think, “Oh well, what do potholes matter?” Potholes do matter, because they mean that people get mud in their houses. Women have to clean their carpets totally unnecessarily. There are big holes in the streets. They flood. [Interruption.] They flood, and water gets into the house. The whole thing is like something from an 18th-century painting. It is completely unacceptable.
Finally, I want to say something about airports —my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has tempted me to do so. I am not in favour of a third runway at Heathrow. I think that we need to bolster the regional airports instead. That seems to me to be a much better idea. It would be better for us and better for London. Will the Minister do something about restoring the London link, either to London Heathrow or to London Gatwick, from Durham Tees Valley airport? Will he address that with the Civil Aviation Authority?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on initiating the debate and on the great work that she does to champion bus services.
I shall make just three points. First, on bus services, I have been a customer of Newcastle bus services since I was a baby, and it is a matter of regret to me that now every time I see a bus in Newcastle—there are still, thank God, a number of them—I am reminded of Baroness Thatcher’s ideological intransigence in deregulating bus services and imagining that the network economics of buses could serve the public interest. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) asserts that there is no market failure. In that, he is right, inasmuch as this market could never have worked in the first place. Having worked for 20 years on building networks and studying their economics, I know that there is no way in which the unregulated free market can deliver the bus services that the people of the north-east need. As we have heard, it cannot bring together the combination of collaboration and competition to deliver bus services. The idea is wrong that certain routes need to be over-profitable so that the private sector can decide to subsidise other—[Interruption.] It should be for the public sector to decide which routes need to be subsidised. I will not give way, as I do not have time.
I would like the Minister to answer the question, specifically with regard to his support for quality contracts in principle, and assure us that the quality contract scheme board that will meet will look favourably on the principle of quality contracts while considering the proposal before it. I would also like to know whether he will discourage bus companies from launching appeals against the democratic will of the people.
While talking about buses, I find myself talking also about trains. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) will know, the class 142 Pacer units are literally old bus bodies on cheap chassis. My hon. Friend set out the points that I wished to make, but will the Minister also comment on the fact that nine trains in the rolling stock will be lost from the north-east to the home counties, as was reported recently? May I invite him to travel up, with other hon. Members perhaps, on the east coast line to the north-east to see the transport situation for himself? Perhaps on the way we could discuss keeping the east coast in public hands.
In the last few seconds of my speech, I want to mention cycling. We have a debate coming up on that, but I want to highlight the good work being done in Newcastle. The north-east has some of the lowest cycling levels in the UK, with just 8% of people currently cycling once a week. I pay tribute to the work that Newcastle city council, led by many members of the council who are cyclists themselves, has done so far, and to its commitment to support cycling in the city.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this Westminster Hall debate, which is important for our region, as I am sure you can tell, Mr Caton, from the number of hon. Members who have turned up and want to take part.
All economies gravitate towards their centre, and ours is no exception. London and the south-east are a great powerhouse for the United Kingdom economy, but in our region we want to be part of that too. We are a net exporter, but crucial to our success as a region is connectivity with the rest of the world and, in particular, connectivity with the rest of our country. It is the function of Government to understand these economic laws and, where it is in the public interest, to push back against them. My criticism of the present Government is that they are just not taking regional policy seriously enough, and in no area of public activity is that more true than in transport.
We need only look at the funding figures. We receive a fraction of the transport funding that London receives. Per capita, funding in the north-east is £5; the same figure for London is £2,500. I put it to you, Mr Caton: is that fair? It clearly is not. If we are to have an integrated economy, bearing down on congestion in the south-east and dealing with the need for more economic development in the north-east, transport links are crucial and the funding formula should be more equitable.
In respect of national infrastructure spending, the north-east received 0.3% of the total, and we are 4% of the nation’s population, so we are not even getting a per capita share, but our needs are greater, so logically we should be a priority, not pushed to the back and out of the way. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will address that point head-on. This is not just an argument about transport in the region, although that is vital; it is an argument about connectivity with the rest of the nation, of which we are a vibrant part. We should not be cut off from it because the transport links are not good enough.
I recently had the chance to visit one of the Government’s Work programme providers in the north-east. I asked what its biggest difficulties were in getting people into work, which is its function. Of course, it said that it was the lack of jobs. That is true, as all north-east Members of Parliament know; those who serve the Government nationally sometimes lose sight of that. However, the second biggest problem was getting people to work. When that was first said to me, I thought that it was the old business about youngsters not being able to get up in the morning, missing their buses and turning up late and all those other reprehensible things.
My hon. Friend helpfully says, “And some older people.” But no, it was not that. It was because the public transport links early in the morning, when people have to start work, are not good enough. Bus connectivity does not deliver in the way in which the pioneers of the Tyne and Wear integrated passenger transport network, of which we are all still proud, envisaged. Much has been said about whether the current bus services, and the relationship between the private operators and the public authorities, serve the region well. The present system clearly does not. Competition was a farce. I remember when it came in, and since its introduction the private sector has ganged up and monopolised certain routes and parts of the region. That is not private enterprise. A better solution needs to be found.
It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate, and I emphasise that she has fought consistently and doggedly for better bus services for her community. I am pleased to see the strong representation from MPs across the north-east, who have spoken about their support for better-run services that work in the interests of local people. As a north-west MP, I agree that co-operation between the north-east and the north-west is a key part of the process. I do not have time to go through all the points that colleagues have made, but there is clearly a strong consensus among the Opposition about the need to move forward in this area. As my hon. Friend has said, we must look at new mechanisms and new structures.
I understand the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is a doughty defender of his constituents’ interests, and I am sure that those points should be taken forward. It is worth remembering what Nexus has said about the problems with the partnership offer:
“Whilst partnership boards would undoubtedly improve the dialogue between local councils and bus operators, the final decision on routes, timetables and ticket prices would remain firmly in the hands of the bus operators. This creates significant doubt over whether the improvements and savings would be achieved in practice.”
I want to recognise the hard work that Nexus has done over the past four years in pursuit of a quality contract scheme. In many cases, it has innovated where no passenger transport executive has gone before, with, frankly, little support from Government. The final decision must, of course, rest with the locally elected councillors in the combined authority, but the work that Nexus has delivered to them in recommending the quality contract deserves to be received thoughtfully and carefully.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way because of the time. We need to develop franchising schemes that can help to protect our bus services and their key role in society. Buses are too often the neglected foundation of our communities. As the Institute for Public Policy Research pointed out recently, three times as many passengers use buses as use rail. The Passenger Transport Executive Group has established that in metropolitan areas the bus networks generate £2.5 billion in economic benefits, which is five times as much as the £500 million of public funding that they receive. Buses provide economic and social opportunities, linking passengers up with apprenticeships, skills and jobs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and others have said—not just any jobs, but aspirational, career-building ones. In the north-east, in particular, those benefits are valuable to the more vulnerable in society, who have few other means of getting around: young people, people on low incomes or those who do not want to or cannot afford to get snagged up in environmentally unfriendly congestion.
Too often, government works in silos, and too often, this Government have done so. Ministers must be alive to the possibility that better-run bus services can help to deliver Government objectives. Bus services can be a key factor in reducing energy demands and carbon emissions. The PTEG has shown that the best-used bus services in urban centres can reduce carbon emissions from road transport by three quarters. To meet the Government’s goals, people must have the bus services that they deserve right across the country, not only in London; my hon. Friends have already pointed out the absurd inequality of the funding structures.
Quality contract-type powers have worked before. As someone who grew up in Greater Manchester during the Thatcherite deregulation in the 1980s, I know how the metropolitan county council’s strategic oversight acted as a valuable devolved economic unifier in those areas. The selling off of those companies was accompanied by severe under-investment, which required the incoming Labour Government in 1997 to save what was left of the decimated bus service by boosting support from less than £1 million in 1997 to £2.3 billion in 2012, the latest figure. The previous Labour Government introduced quality contract legislation as a way for properly equipped communities to wrest back some control over services, and we progressively made the process easier.
Although Nexus has embarked on a step change to try to improve its bus services, it has not been given much assistance by the Government. More fundamentally, the Government have completely failed to grasp the value of the bus. It is no exaggeration to say that passenger numbers have fallen in most parts of the country outside London, which is not surprising because the Government have consistently slashed funding. Levels of support will be £500 million lower by the end of the Parliament than they would have been if 2010 funding levels had been maintained. The bus service operators’ grant has been reduced by 20%. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, £56 million of the funding for vital supported bus services has been cut. Freedom of information requests have revealed that council spending on local buses has fallen as a result of local government cuts, with Conservative councils likely to cut the biggest proportion of their bus budget. That has been a disaster for local communities, especially in Tyne and Wear where there are semi-rural areas, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has said, lack the light rail connections enjoyed by some other regions. I hope that the Minister, who is aware of the difficulties that affect rural communities, understands that problem and recognises that in a place such as Northumberland, which has had to cut its supported services by 19%, things cannot move forward.
An incoming Labour Government in 2015 would support large cities and combined authorities if they wished to establish London-style bus services and structures. We would want to emulate positive approaches to pursuing franchise mechanisms, such as the case we are discussing. The benefits of franchising systems are numerous and vital in today’s circumstances. We need strategically planned bus services that help all our communities, and bus fares that are sensitive to the crisis in the cost of living under the current Government. People have a right to expect cheaper fares through multi-operator tickets, which will give them the lowest fares going, whatever mode of transport they take.
Franchising can offer more frequent and punctual services and build into contracts incentives on punctuality. Such incentives are sorely needed, because Ministers have instructed the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to stop going out and checking punctuality, which is now left to companies to self-police. The whole passenger transport experience needs to improve, and a franchised approach can take us down that route. Franchising can enable the provision of real-time information on bus stops, stations and the internet, and allow local authorities such as Tyne and Wear to target particular groups of people—perhaps young people—for special concessions.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) vividly pointed out, the deregulated system often promotes crude cartels or de facto monopolies; it can allow inefficient bunching on most-used routes, while little is done to expand usage on new ones; and it often results in the ineffective use of subsidy. It is not the way ahead. Franchising can bring together local authorities, passengers, operators and trade unions to plan and deliver the network. It can create a virtuous circle of co-operation that encourages the devolution of decision making across an over-centralised England. The Government have failed in this area because they have not grasped the elements of the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has outlined, the North East combined authority wants to move boldly on behalf of its residents, and it has chosen to look at recommendations by Nexus for a quality contract.
The Government have not come up with any other alternatives, and they seem to have little vision in this area. Buses were barely mentioned—I think they were given three words—in the Transport Secretary’s speech to the Conservative party conference last month. We recognise the role of buses in the heart of local communities. We pledge that under the next Labour Government, those communities will receive our support to find an easier process if they, too, seek to reclaim control of their buses. Through a combination of their cuts to local government, the lack of an overall strategy and their cuts to the bus funding structure, the Government have reverted to an isolated, siloed vision of what buses can do, rather than the environmentally friendly, socially useful, economic driver that buses should be. From what we have heard today, and from what I know, nowhere in the country needs that thoughtful, integrated, community-driven approach more than the north-east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate. Like the shadow Minister, I will resist taking interventions, not because I do not like to take them, but because I want to cover as much ground as possible. If there are any matters that I cannot address, I will write to hon. Members. Specific issues have been raised on particular schemes in particular constituencies, and people deserve a serious response.
I acknowledge three or four of the core points that have emerged across the speeches in this debate. First, transport serves economic interests, but it has a bigger function, too. Transport serves well-being and is critical to communications because it allows people to get to opportunities. If we restrict transport, we restrict opportunity, which is a point that has emerged on both sides of the Chamber during our short debate today. I will not use the text that has been prepared for me by civil servants, because as hon. Members know, I like to speak my mind and respond to debates properly.
This Chamber knows how I behave as a Minister, and my officials too are used to how I work.
The second point that has emerged from this debate is that, when serving well-being in the way that I have described, one needs to take a lateral, holistic approach. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, when people travel it is not easy to define boundaries. Different people travel to different places for different purposes at different times and by different means. For that reason, we have to consider transport in the round. We have to consider how bus travel interfaces with rail travel, and how investment in roads will affect other modes of transport. That is a challenge for any Government, because the shadow Minister is right that Governments tend to work in silos, and Departments do, too. I am the antithesis of a silo, as he knows, because I have a broad vision but a laser-like focus.
My laser-like focus is on the north-east, which I know well, although not as well as most people in this Chamber because I do not represent a north-east constituency. I regularly travel to the north-east using the A1. People who know me well will know that I am often in Northumberland, so I know the difficulties of getting to the north-east by road. One thinks of the A1 north of Newcastle, which has been mentioned in this debate and in previous debates. One thinks of the congestion around the west side of Newcastle. I was delighted to turn the first sod on the improvements we are making between Coalhouse and the junction to its north, which will not only allow local traffic to use the road but allow better throughput for those travelling further north. That scheme had been long called for.
I recognise that the connection between the north-east and the rest of the country is vital for economic purposes, as well as for well-being. I also recognise that that requires us to think carefully about the specific challenges in that part of the country. Members of Parliament for the north-east have made it clear that they see the particularity of their needs as being central to the concerns that I need to consider.
I am surprised that the shadow Minister has been untypically ungenerous about this, because that is not his normal style, but the Government can rightly claim to have taken a more strategic approach to road investment. As he knows, we have committed funding for a five-year period, rather than the stop-start funding that characterised the previous Administration. I am not generally one of those people who demonise earlier Governments, but one of the features of the previous Government was that they did not have as consistent a commitment to road investment as the current Government.
As the shadow Minister knows, and frankly the facts speak for themselves, we are making further investments. Some £24 billion will be invested in this Parliament and the next, comprising 54 new national road projects. Eighty per cent. of our roads will be resurfaced. There will be 750 extra lanes of smart motorways. As he knows, more than £17 billion will be invested in the next spending round, including £10.7 billion for major projects and £6 billion for maintenance and resurfacing.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South made a spirited case for improving bus journeys. I do not want to get too involved in this familiar dispute, but the hon. Lady powerfully defended rural interests, echoing the sentiments of my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (James Wharton) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who are great champions of the interests of rural communities and fully understand that good transport enables such communities to access neighbouring places. There is clearly a major dispute in the Labour party, and it is not for me to comment on that, but as the hon. Lady knows, it is a matter for local determination. The Transport Act 2000 makes it clear that local authorities can make a decision in tune with local interests. It is not for me to get involved in such decisions. I assure her that I appreciate and understand the importance of bus travel, and I recognise that buses are vital for some of the people she described, who would otherwise be entirely isolated, and she has a long pedigree of saying so. Before coming to this debate, I checked her many contributions on this subject. Indeed, she spoke in this Chamber earlier this year about bus travel and its importance to her constituents. Although I will not get involved in that dispute, or indeed in that decision, the Government and I recognise the significance of bus travel. We will happily take further some of the suggestions that have been made in this debate about how we can further enhance what we do to support access to travel.
A number of hon. Members have talked about rail. I have mentioned that I regularly travel to the north-east, and I use the east coast main line. I get on the train in a rather more southerly place than many of the hon. Members in this Chamber, but I know the line well. People are concerned about the franchise, and I gather from what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and others have said that people are also concerned about the rolling stock. I will look at the rolling stock and whether it is part of the franchise, and I will respond to him on that specific point following today’s debate. He is right that detaching considerations about rolling stock from the broader considerations about the franchise would be an error.
We have also heard about Network Rail’s £530 million northern hub programme, the electrification of routes to the north-west, the north TransPennine line and other enhancements. All of that is evidence that the Government take the north of England, and travel to the north of England, very seriously. I entirely understand that it is a mistake to see such things in isolation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, the hon. Member for North Durham and others have talked about taking a bigger view of transport. Of course every journey, by its nature, is local, but to see it in only those terms, without considering the whole of the north and the relationship between the north and the south, would be an error. We are also investing in stations. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) knows, funding from Network Rail and the regional growth fund is supporting a scheme that has not only transformed Newcastle station, which is a magnificent station that I know well—
Imprisoned Foreign Nationals
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Caton. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me the honour of securing today’s debate. I welcome to the debate my right hon. Friend the Minister, who serves in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I know that he takes a great interest in these important matters.
My contention on behalf of my constituents in Kettering is that far too many foreign national offenders are being held in British prisons. Do not get me wrong: it is excellent that so many criminals are being caught and sentenced, but such people need to serve their sentences in secure detention in prisons in their own country, because the cost to the British taxpayer is north of £300 million a year. At a time of severe constraints on public expenditure, that is far too large a bill to ask British taxpayers to pay.
My understanding is that England and Wales have a prison population of something like 85,000 prisoners; no doubt the Minister will be able to update the House with the very latest figures when he responds. I understand that 10,834 of those 85,000 are foreign national offenders; again, I am sure that the Minister will want to provide the House with the exact figures. I am a bear of little brain, but I estimate that that means that foreign national offenders make up something like 13% of our prison population.
Both the number of foreign national offenders and the total number of prisoners in British prisons have increased markedly since the early days of the previous Government, thanks in large part to the tougher criminal justice policies pursued by the previous Conservative Government, the previous Labour Government, and the current coalition Government. That is a good thing; criminals are being brought to justice and are serving longer in prison, and my constituents support that. However, having almost 11,000 foreign national offenders gives us huge problems. Our prison system is basically full, yet 13% of prisoners are foreign nationals. Public expenditure is tight, yet we are spending more than £300 million a year on these people. I understand that a number of Her Majesty’s prisons are devoted entirely to housing foreign national offenders. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that HMP Canterbury and HMP Bullwood Hall are devoted entirely to housing foreign national offenders.
Our jails are host to foreign criminals from 160 countries around the world; indeed, 80% of the world’s nations are represented in British prisons. Something like a third of them have been convicted of violent and sexual offences, a fifth have been convicted of drugs offences, and others have been convicted of burglary, robbery, fraud and other serious crimes. Although 160 countries are represented in our prisons, something like 57% of the total foreign national prisoner population comes from just 12 nations.
I shall read out the list of shame: top of the polls is Poland, with 938 foreign national offenders in our jails; second is Ireland, with 779; third is Jamaica, with 737; in equal fourth place are Romania and Pakistan, each with 547; sixth is Lithuania, with 502; seventh is Nigeria, with 469; eighth is Somalia, with 430; ninth is India, with 426; 10th is Bangladesh, with 276; 11th is Albania, with 275; and 12th is Vietnam, with 247. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if any of those numbers are wrong or should be updated, but those 12 countries have the biggest national populations in our prisons, making up 57% of the total—that is 6,174 prisoners.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate and addressing an issue that affects a lot of us. Does he agree that one way to resolve the problem is to use the budgets of both the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Justice to improve prisons in countries such as Jamaica—I have visited Kingston prison, where some UK nationals and almost 1,000 Jamaicans were being held—thereby allowing prisoners to be returned to a human-rights-compliant jail in their homeland?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention; he knows a lot about the subject, and I congratulate him on taking the initiative to visit the prison in Kingston. There cannot be many Members of the House who have visited Kingston prison, so I applaud my hon. Friend for his endeavour. He makes an extremely sensible suggestion, but I must say that I do not think that my constituents in Kettering are particularly fussed about the human rights of foreign nationals who commit crimes in this country. However, I understand that, as things stand, we operate under human rights legislation introduced by the previous Government and are not allowed in law to deport criminals to non-human-rights-compliant prisons.
It would make sense to use the huge and increasing international aid budget to build suitable prisons in countries that provide us with a large number of prisoners. That is a good idea. Indeed, earlier this year I asked the then Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), how much we give in aid each year to Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, India and Bangladesh. The answer was that for 2012—one year—we gave them £973 million. Those six countries provide us with 2,900 foreign national offenders, which is more than a quarter of the total number of foreign national offenders. It costs this country more than £100 million a year to incarcerate these people in our jails. It would be a good idea to spend some of that £973 million on building prisons in those six countries.
What my hon. Friend is describing is not a novel idea. The Government have supported similar ideas in other countries: I believe that Haiti is one such case, and the Jamaican example is the one that is closest to happening. I hate to say it, but the project has stalled because there have been difficulties with the MOJ and DFID budgets and with driving the matter forward through civil servants and Ministers, and there have also been problems with getting agreement with the Jamaican Government. Nevertheless, where there is a will to deport these gentlemen, there is definitely a way.
That is absolutely right. In that regard, I have great hopes for my right hon. Friend the Minister, because I am sure that if something can be achieved, he will achieve it. I would go so far as to say that we should make our international aid to these countries conditional on their acceptance of a prison-building programme—we should not give them international aid if they do not co-operate with us on this issue.
Again, I would be happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but I understand that we have been pursuing a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Jamaica for ages, but it is still subject to ratification by the Jamaican Government. We have only a voluntary prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan. We have, at last, a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria, and I hope that the Minister will tell the House how many hundreds of Nigerians await deportation to that country. We do not have a prisoner transfer agreement of any sort with Somalia or Bangladesh, and we have only a voluntary prisoner transfer agreement with India. These six countries provide us with 25% of our foreign national offender population; we give them the best part of £1 billion a year in international aid; yet they are not co-operating with us in any sensible, meaningful way on taking back their nationals who have committed criminal offences in this country.
There is good news on EU criminals in our jails—it is not good news for them, but good news for us as British taxpayers—because there is now an EU-wide compulsory prisoner transfer agreement, whereby EU nationals convicted and imprisoned in our country can be sent back against their will to their country of origin. That applies so long as prisoners come from another EU state. However, my understanding is that only 14 of the EU states have ratified that legislation. Again, I would welcome an update from the Minister on that.
Poland, which is top of the list with almost 1,000 of its nationals in our prisons, has a specific derogation from accepting prisoner transfers under that EU agreement until the end of December 2016. That is an absolute outrage. Why should we pay to accommodate criminals who have come to this country from Poland? Poland should be securing those people in secure detention back in Poland, at the expense of Polish taxpayers. It is okay for there to be no restrictions at all on eastern Europeans coming to the United Kingdom; apparently that is fine—more than 1 million people from eastern Europe live, work or claim benefits in this country—but we are not allowed to send back to eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, nationals from those countries, including Polish nationals, who have been convicted, found guilty and imprisoned for serious criminal offences, and who are incarcerated in jail in this country. My constituents in Kettering, and I suspect most of the population at large, are outraged that this situation has been allowed to develop.
I am sure we can all agree that this is a serious issue that needs to be tackled; indeed, some distinguished figures have said as much. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice told me in November 2012:
“The prisons Minister…and I have met our Jamaican counterparts during the last few weeks. We are focusing our efforts to negotiate compulsory transfer agreements on the countries where the problem is greatest.” —[Official Report, 13 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 165.]
That is great, but we still await these compulsory transfer agreements.
The Prime Minister said to me on the Floor of the House in July 2013:
“We have held specific National Security Council discussions about prisoner transfers and about foreign national offenders, because I think that we need to do much better in getting people out of our jails and back to the countries where they belong. We are making some progress, but it is hard work. This European Union agreement is a potential benefit for us and we have to do everything we can, both at the European Council and bilaterally with other countries, to get them to sign and implement. That is a programme that the Government are very much working on.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2013; Vol. 565, c. 773.]
That was in July 2013, but not much progress has been made since then, because the figures I have show that in March 2013 there were 10,735 foreign national offenders in our jails, whereas I think the latest number is 10,834.
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said to me in June:
“This is a matter of great concern to Ministers. We are also seeking to speed up the formal deportation process through the Home Office. We need to reduce the numbers significantly, but it is proving to be a more stubborn and difficult task than any of us would wish.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 852.]
That is right, but we need to co-ordinate our efforts as a Government to tackle this problem. That is why I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is in his post, because he has a desk not only in the Home Office but in the Ministry of Justice, and so is uniquely placed to knock heads together in the two Departments to ensure that action is taken.
I am not a lawyer, and I am rather proud of that fact. I do not understand all the legal niceties about the differences between deportation, transfer, removal and repatriation. Apparently, all these terms have highly technical and specific meanings, but basically my constituents in Kettering and I want to see these foreign national offenders removed from here to there, and incarcerated at the expense of their own taxpayers.
More than that, once those people have left our shores, we want them to be banned from ever returning. That is why I introduced a Bill in the last Session of Parliament, called the Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the United Kingdom) Bill, which would exclude those people from the UK once they had been found guilty of a criminal offence on our shores and basically been forced to leave. I do not see why they should ever be allowed back into our country once they have been found guilty of, and imprisoned for, a serious offence.
This is an issue of serious concern. If we get it right, we would not only free up almost 11,000 spaces in our overcrowded prisons but save the British taxpayer north of £300 million every year. Some of the most senior politicians in the land have said that they recognise that this issue is a problem, and that they want to solve it. I say to them, through my right hon. Friend the Minister, that they have had long enough to do that, so please will he put a rocket under this issue to ensure that it is tackled once and for all?
I apologise from the outset for several reasons, Mr Caton, not least because, if my voice gives out, I might splutter and cause germs to be spread around the room. However, I thought it was important that I attended this debate, even though I am clearly not the Minister responsible for this issue. I apologise on behalf of the prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is in prison today; he is visiting a prison and will be released later today. Indeed, I am not a Minister from one of the many other Departments that are involved in this difficult, multi-Government task.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. I have known him for many years and he will know that probably 90% of what he has said is not only factually correct but is something that I agree with in principle; in fact, I agree with him on nearly everything he said, and so do the Prime Minister and the Government. The frustration that he can hear in my voice was in his voice; I share his frustration.
In the meeting I had with officials this morning to ensure that I stuck to the line and read the speech, which I will not do, I was very surprised—as an MP and just an ordinary member of this country, and not as one of the great and the good—about some things that are being done. I am not a lawyer either, and if I was I think I would still find it mind-bogglingly difficult to work out why, in many cases, things do not happen.
I will just clarify one point. As usual, my hon. Friend was very accurate with his figures. He was absolutely spot on with the figure of 10,834; that is the latest figure that I have. That proves that parliamentary questions and everything else are working. He has asked many, many questions on this issue on behalf of his constituents and I expect more questions to come through—quite rightly so.
Do we keep foreign nationals in specific prisons? Yes, we do. That is because it makes it much easier to work out, one, how we deport them at the end of their sentence and, two, how we work on compulsory as well as voluntary transfers to foreign prisons while they are serving their sentence.
In his speech, my hon. Friend covered myriad different areas and I will try to cover as many as I can; if I cannot cover them all, as usual I will write to him after the debate. He asked about Canterbury prison and Bullwood Hall. I know Bulwood Hall very well; it is not far from where I used to live in Essex. It used to be an establishment for juvenile ladies many years ago, and when I was a fireman we went there on a regular basis, whenever the inmates decided to set fire to parts of the building. The two facilities specifically for foreign nationals are Maidstone and Huntercoombe. It is important that we clarify that. I have asked whether we have specific wings in other prisons for foreign nationals, so that we know where they are and have the right information to enable us to liaise well on how they are dealt with.
My hon. Friend said the situation with Jamaica is not what we would like it to be—absolutely spot on. I think we would all expect Jamaica to be in a position by now to take Jamaican nationals who have broken the law in this country. My note says that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is working to restart discussions. I am not going to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes and say that the discussions are in full flow. However, there are issues to discuss. I assure my hon. Friend for Kettering, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), that, across Government, we are doing whatever we can. I will, as Policing and Criminal Justice Minister, put whatever rocket I can under the separate Departments. It is a challenge in itself having to deal with two completely different Departments, although it works well, because it allows me to ask why a lot more often.
The 10,834 figure is right, and it is also correct that it is down from 11,153, but it is not fair to say that all those people would just disappear, should we put in place some of the plans that we agree should be put in place, not least because my police officers—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, a special constable in the British Transport Police—arrest an awful lot of foreign nationals, who are then convicted because they have broken our law and are put in our prisons. Some are going out as others are going in. For instance, in 2013-14, 5,097 were deported and in 2012-13, 4,539 were deported. It is an in-out situation. I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that.
It is not just about what we would like to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham said that we cannot deport people to a prison, because that is not acceptable under human rights legislation. I am sure that both my colleagues know my views on that. I agree completely with the Prime Minister that we need to have a bill of rights for ourselves and we should ensure that our judges abide by that, not by legislation that is now used in the European Court of Human Rights for a purpose it was never created for.
The Department for International Development is paying for improvements in countries that we have been alluding to, particularly Nigeria, although it is not paying for brand new prisons, because that would not be right in most cases—although it might be right to do so in some countries. I was in Washington earlier this month at the global summit on child online protection from paedophiles, an important thing that we do that we cannot do in isolation. Sadly, I missed the Conservative party conference, which I have not done for many years. However, I did bump into the Nigerian Justice Minister, who recently agreed not only with our officials, but with our Ministers, about taking back nationals. Nationals will start going back to Nigeria later this year.
We are leading the world in what we are doing in this regard. Most countries are not doing this and are not even trying to do it, because it is particularly difficult. We need—our rationale should be—to ensure that Departments, including the Home Office, the Foreign Office, DFID and the Ministry of Justice, work together to make sure that we get as many to go as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering was right to say that his constituents would not understand this subject unless they were legally trained or took a particular interest in it, because of all the different narratives out there: voluntary, non-voluntary, compulsory, end of sentence or end of the statutory part of the sentence. For instance, with regard to longer sentencing, in most cases we do not even start to consider releasing people until we are getting close to 18 months before it would be possible in any circumstances for them to be released. That is probably understandable, because of the sheer amount of work that needs to take place. If that were done too early, we may find ourselves in a situation a bit like the one we have seen in Jamaica, where we thought we were in a position to do something, but were not.
In a nutshell, we would like as many foreign nationals as possible in our prisons to serve their sentence in their country of origin. That would be slightly difficult if they had dual passports; I will not discuss that in this debate, as it is a separate issue for debate. We want as many people as possible to go at the end of their sentence. It is also important that our friends in Europe fulfil their commitments. I do not know why Poland got a derogation to the end of 2016: it seems to have negotiated pretty well on lots of different things on joining this wonderful club. There are 18 countries that have implemented the provisions, but many of the countries that my hon. Friend mentioned in his list of shame have not. Interestingly, Jamaica was at No. 1, but is now No. 3. There is a lot of work to do on implementing this—we have done very well in Jamaica with the compulsory side of things—in other parts of world, as my hon. Friend said. To date, we have transferred 31 people to countries inside the EU agreement—this is purely the EU; not the EU and connected countries—which is a tiny number, but it is a start. That is something that we need to work on.
I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree that we should not let people who have committed a crime abroad into this country. Most other countries in the western world have the same attitude; Australia and America are classic examples. We are working on that. Information transfer is particularly difficult, especially with some of the newer member states. For instance, I understand that information from other EU countries is not transmitted directly to us, but to the EU, and then disseminated to member states. Clearly, that is not working well. We need to work harder at that.
The truth of the matter—I return to what our Prime Minister has said—is that we need to have better control of who is going in and out of this country. That is an issue, particularly in respect of EU treaties, although it is a negotiated position that I agree with. There are probably members of the coalition who do not agree with that position, but I do. One thing that we can do for all our constituencies is ensure that we know who is going in and out of our country and decide who does so. Once they are in this country and they commit a crime, the full force of the law needs to come down on them, and that is probably where my side of things is involved, through the police and the criminal justice system.
I agree that we need to work much harder, because this matter was ignored for too many years. It used to be a case of saying, “They committed a crime in the UK, so they end up spending their time in the UK.” Of course, they have human rights and family rights, and all the other different things. It was fantastic to read about a case recently where the judge—for the first time, I think—said, “No, that’s not what that legislation was implemented for. This person’s human rights are not going to be affected by this and I do not agree with the way that it has been implemented before.” I think that if more judges were doing that, we would all be a lot happier.
More work needs to be done. I am sure that we will get increased pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I will certainly do my bit, even though I fully admit that it is probably the police and criminal justice system, which is in my portfolio, that is filling up the prisons. However, once justice has been seen to be done, as many of these people as possible need to be in their country of origin. If prisons in those countries are not quite up to the standard of prisons in this country, but they meet the human rights requirements, so be it, and there they should go.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I apologise that I am not the Minister with full responsibility. I have answered as many questions as I can, as candidly as I always try to do. I will write to my hon. Friend responding to questions that I have not answered. I hope that I feel a little bit better in the morning than I do at present.
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to host a vital debate on antibiotic resistance. As ever, Mr Chope, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Many people will be aware that the 20th century discovery of antimicrobial drugs, a class of medicine that includes antivirals, antimalarials and antibiotics, such as penicillin, is among the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time. However, we have failed to heed the warnings of such people as Alexander Fleming, who, when collecting his part of the Nobel peace prize in 1945, warned:
“there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant”.
There has never been any doubt about the link between the misuse of antibiotics and resistance to them, but despite this antibiotics have been misused and, as a consequence, we now face the prospect of losing modern medicine as we know it. If people take a moment to think about the consequences, they will find them frankly horrifying.
In 2013, the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, told Parliament of an horrific scenario, where people going for simple operations in 20 years’ time could die of routine infections because
“we have run out of antibiotics”.
To some, this scenario may still seem too far in the future to warrant any immediate action, but for me the clock started ticking on this issue a long time ago. Yet we are no further forward.
In 20 years’ time, my children will be in their late 20s. Parents and families around the country will all want their children, and the next generation after that, to have the medical guarantees that we have the luxury of being afforded today, so inaction is simply not an option.
Antibiotic resistance is already changing clinical practices in this country, For example, in recent years complication rates for prostate biopsy, which carries a risk of septicaemia, have increased from less than 1% in 1996 to nearly 4% in 2005. Due to this, doctors are now carrying out the biopsy in a different way, changing clinical practice.
The rise of antibiotic resistance is widely seen by organisations such as the European Food Safety Authority and the World Health Organisation as a consequence of the use and overuse of antibiotics in both veterinary and human medicine. However, in this debate I will focus on the continuing overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, where considerable improvements could still be made in many countries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate about one of the great threats to modern civilization: the prospective failure of antibiotics. Since he is not going to focus on agriculture, might I ask whether he agrees that, because some 50% of antibiotics are used in agriculture in this country, and 80% in the United States, if we are to take an international lead, as the Prime Minister would wish us to, we have to clean up our own act at home, in the way that the Dutch have in agriculture?
I agree. Although I was only going to touch on that matter briefly, that does not mean that I do not recognise the impact on resistance from use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine. My right hon. Friend is right to mention the problems relating to resistance in the US, especially because the way that veterinary antibiotics are used there is quite frightening. In the UK and Europe, we use antibiotics differently. The Dutch are the example in that regard, and we have to learn from that. If we continue to misuse antibiotics, whether in human medicine or in the veterinary industry, resistance is bound to happen and that is bound to cause a problem, so we have to tackle it on both sides, although I want to focus on the human medicine side.
My hon. Friend mentioned malaria and the treatments against it that have been discovered. He may know that, through misuse of the latest generation of artemisinin-based antimalarials, resistance to those is already coming up through Thailand and Burma and will possibly, eventually, get to sub-Saharan Africa, with devastating consequences, as was the case with previous antimalarials.
My hon. Friend is right. I was going to touch on that. Multi-resistance is widespread around the world. He mentions antimalarials, but resistance is also apparent in relation to tuberculosis and there is emerging resistance to the antibiotics of last resort—the so called super antibiotics—the carbapenems, which are not licensed for use in farm animals on the veterinary side. That resistance is causing real concern.
Returning to the livestock sector for a minute, there is a tendency among some sections of the intensive livestock industry, and even some Governments, to dismiss almost entirely the contribution to resistance by veterinary use of antibiotics. This is a dangerous path to take, because although antibiotic use in farm animals may not be the main driver of resistance in humans, it is a still an important contributor, and we must recognise that.
Before my hon. Friend moves away from the agricultural sector, let me say that, in a long previous life as a livestock farmer, one of my earliest experiences was of the most amazingly casual approach to the use of antibiotics. If we are going to change the mindset in the agricultural industry, we have to bring on board the unions that advise farmers and get the people running agriculture onside in recognising the danger of this, because an awful lot of individual operators just do not accept the dangers and risks.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I said earlier that we must tackle misuse in the livestock sector, as well as misuse in human medicine; we must tackle misuse across the world. Regarding food security and imported food, antibiotics are misused throughout the world in the livestock sector.
It is worth putting on the record that in the UK we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world, but we do not misuse antibiotics to any extent in the food chain, as is seen in the US. Such misuse has to be stopped and action has to be taken on that.
For far too long antibiotics have been used as if they were a bottomless pit of cure-all miracle treatments. Some 30 years ago, the battle against infectious diseases appeared to have been won, at least in the developed world. The old drugs could handle whatever bugs came along, which meant there was no market for new ones. That is why, since the year 2000, just five new classes of antibiotics have been discovered, and most of these are ineffective against the increasingly significant problem posed by gram-negative bacteria, which are also difficult to detect. The fact is that misuse, over-prescription and poor diagnostics have driven an environment that favours the proliferation of resistant strains of bacteria, rendering once vital medicines obsolete.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I hope that, through this debate and beyond, we can get the message out there that the misuse of antibiotics is potentially the greatest threat to mankind that we have seen, and in doing so, I hope that the pressures on GPs will start to subside. He is absolutely right. GPs in my constituency tell me that as soon as some people get a common cold or a sore throat they are breaking down the door, asking for antibiotics. Sometimes it is difficult for GPs to resist those calls. If we are going to secure our long-term future in the medical industry, those calls have to be resisted and that is where it has to start.
If we look at deaths related to MRSA, which is a bacterial infection resistant to a number of popular antibiotics, mortality rates rose steadily in the UK from 1993 onwards to peak at more than 2,000 in 2007. Bacteria and parasites are already developing resistance to front-line antimicrobials, which are over-prescribed and under-regulated, leading to 25,000 people dying each year in Europe from infections that doctors were unable to treat with the drugs available to them. Those statistics, however, are just from the developed world; the misuse of antibiotics is a much more serious problem in lesser developed countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said. Hotspots of antimalarial-resistant parasites are springing up in south-east Asia, as are cases of extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis in South Africa and other parts of the African continent. Those are among the many examples that illustrate the urgent nature of this health problem.
In an increasingly interconnected world, an infection that emerges in Delhi today will have an impact in London tomorrow. More needs to be done on a scientific level to develop new antibiotics and to improve diagnostics, but science alone will not solve the problem. Pharmas, which is the collective term for pharmaceutical companies —I put on record that I was a farmer, not a pharma—need to be incentivised to develop new antimicrobials. As with other resources, antibiotic effectiveness can be used up. The eventual loss of current antibiotics is sadly inevitable, but, depending on the actions taken now, it can happen at a much slower pace.
While there are many examples of misuse in lesser developed countries, I want to look specifically at the case of India, as the challenges associated with controlling antibiotic resistance there are many and multifaceted. India has a problem with the overuse and underuse of antibiotics. The underuse is mainly due to the lack of prescriptions. For example, prescriptions were not presented for one fifth of the antibiotics purchased recently in Delhi. However, in 2005-06, a large proportion of infant and childhood deaths from pneumonia would not have occurred if the children had been properly treated with antibiotics. On the overuse, patients with coughs and colds are often prescribed antibiotics, which wastes their effectiveness. As I said, many continue to purchase antibiotics without a prescription.
India has emerged as the world’s largest consumer of antibiotics, with a 62% increase over the past decade. They consume an average of 11 antibiotic tablets a person a year—that is five days of antibiotics for every person in the country. Additionally, the use of last resort drugs such as carbapenems has gone up significantly. That is due to the enzyme known as NDM-1, which makes bacteria resistant to a broad range of antibiotics, including the antibiotics of the carbapenem family. Bacteria that produce carbapenemases are often referred to in the media as superbugs, because the infections they cause are difficult to treat. In India, 50% of all superbugs are resistant to all known antibiotics. The only exception to that is colistin, but that is because the antibiotic, which was introduced in 1959, is considered toxic.
In India, it is commonplace for someone with a sore throat to go to the chemist and choose the antibiotic they want to use. From there, many people will go to a clinic and are given their chosen antibiotics intravenously to treat the sore throat. Usually, the full dose is not administered. That is a horrendous example of the misuse of antibiotics and simply cannot be allowed to continue. Over-the-counter regulation needs to be tightened in lesser developed countries and people need to be better educated on the problems associated with misuse.
On funding and bringing new drugs to the marketplace, when pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their research and development money, they naturally assess the market for a drug candidate. They have an incentive to target diseases that affect developed countries, because they can afford to pay. The pharmas also have an incentive to make drugs that many people take, and take regularly for a long time, such as statins and antidepressants, which leads to enormous under-investment in certain kinds of diseases and certain categories of drugs. Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries are not a research priority, because it is unlikely that those markets will ever provide a decent return. That problem can still be seen with antimicrobials. Again, the trouble is the business model. If a drug company invented a powerful new antibiotic, Governments would not want it to be widely prescribed, because the goal would be to delay resistance. Public health officials would, appropriately, try to limit sales of the drug as much as possible. That makes for good public health policy, but a bad investment prospect.
As we all know, pharmaceutical companies form a major part of how the problem can be addressed, but we have to keep regulation in mind. By that, I mean the ability to identify infected patients quickly and cost-effectively and, indeed, to identify whether antimicrobials are needed at all. Failure on that is a root cause of the blanket drug usage we are seeing around the world. Surveys in the UK have shown that many doctors, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) said, still prescribe antibiotics far more often than necessary, and they are often under intense pressure to do so. A significant number of patients fail to complete a full course of antibiotics, and I hold my hands up and say that I have done that, as I am sure have many other Members. As resistance becomes more commonplace, it increases the chances that the initial antibiotic prescribed will be ineffective. As a result, resistance to antibiotics, such as carbapenems, has grown from five patients in 2006 to 600 in 2013.
While improved diagnostics would increase the effectiveness of the antimicrobials already available, the need to develop more sophisticated drugs that can keep pace with resistance is critical. The development of new drugs, however, will only come when pharmaceutical companies invest once again in antibiotics. That will occur only when those companies know they can recoup their investment costs. Of the 18 to 20 pharmaceutical companies that were the main suppliers of new antibiotics 20 years ago, just four persist in the field. Ultimately, given the choice between making an antibiotic that a person might take for two weeks once in a lifetime or developing an antidepressant that a person would take every day for the rest of their life, pharmas will naturally opt for the latter. It is thought that we need some 200 new antibiotics to cope with the growing problem. However, pharmas are clearly wary of funding this type of investment if the scope for use afterwards is limited.
I originally believed that the best way to tackle the problem would be for the Government to agree a decent unit price for antibiotics. However, it is likely that pharmas would not trust the Government—of whatever colour or combination—to deliver on that promise, so the best option could be to let the market handle the unit price, meaning that Government would stop restraining the price of antibiotics and allow them to increase to entice pharmas to invest. The more I have researched the topic, however, the more convinced I have become that that idea would not succeed. Introducing a targeted antimicrobial and selling it for the price of a cancer drug is likely to be impossible, because this is a market where people are used to getting antibiotics for next to nothing. Why would they suddenly start paying such high prices? As a result, the best solution may be incentives. The key would be to reward companies for creating substantial public health benefits, and the simplest way to do that would be to offer cash prizes for new drugs. For example, the Government would make a payment to the company, and the company would in exchange give up the right to sell the product. That would ensure the pharmaceutical company would be paid, and it would avoid all the expenses of trying to push a new product, as touched on in a report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology.
Additionally, Governments could use the approach that worked with vaccines and new pre-purchase antimicrobial drugs for a set number of years. Such pre-purchasing agreements would mean that the health care system becomes responsible for the proper usage and surveillance of antimicrobials. Currently, no Government grants are aimed at antibiotic discovery, but I welcome the independent review into antimicrobial resistance that the Prime Minister announced in July. I also welcome the brilliant news that the public recently voted to focus the new Longitude prize on antibiotics. The money will go to whoever can develop a rapid bacterial infection diagnosis test within five years. Announcements such as that ensure that antimicrobial resistance is kept in the news and on people’s minds.
Another way to ensure progress is to set up a global organisation that focuses solely on antimicrobial resistance. The World Health Organisation is now devoting considerable time to the problem, but it only produced its first global report in April this year. We are entering a perfect storm with no global organisation or global pharmas tackling the issue head on. Ultimately, a global network needs to be created to fund global antibiotic discovery. In addition, we need to ensure that people are aware of the problem and how it can be solved. Only with the public’s interest can we rally enough support to ensure antimicrobial resistance stays at the top of the political agenda, which will ensure that action is finally taken.
Overall, the purpose of today’s debate is to raise the profile of the devastating threat of antimicrobial resistance and hopefully to strike a chord across the House. Solving the problem will not be easy and will take considerable time. However, if we do not act now, things will only get worse. Many people in positions of authority in the medical profession consider antimicrobial resistance to be one of the biggest threats to mankind and I agree with that assessment. Therefore, I would like to outline a three-step plan to the Minister, which is essential to tackle the problem head on.
First, I have always believed that an in-depth report is needed into antimicrobial resistance. As such, I am extremely pleased by the Prime Minister’s announcement in July that a report will be carried out by the renowned economist Jim O’Neill. The report will look at the increase in drug-related strains of bacteria; market failure, which is crucial; and the overuse of antibiotics globally. Secondly, a global network needs to be created to fund global antibiotic discovery. Finally, the Government must step up and support small companies that invest in antibiotic discovery. As the Prime Minister said in July, the UK should be proud to lead the way in tackling antibiotic resistance, but we must ensure that the rest of world keeps pace. All Governments have a responsibility to tackle the problem and only with full co-operation across the world can we make a real impact.
We live in a globalised world, and 70% of the bacteria in it have developed resistance to antibiotics. We have been through a golden age of discovery and have sadly become complacent. We cannot become the generation that squanders that golden legacy. As the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, said:
“We are sleepwalking back into a time where something as simple as a grazed knee will start to claim lives.”
The golden age of medicine could well be behind us. It is time to step up to the plate as politicians and take decisions which might not bear fruit in the short term and might not secure votes in forthcoming elections, but can help to secure the golden age of medical discovery that we in this room have had the fortune to benefit from. We must ensure that it is not squandered for future generations.
It is again a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate on an important and alarming subject: infections becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
Without doubt, antibiotics revolutionised health care around the world, and penicillin has saved tens of millions of lives since its discovery. However, the life-saving role of antibiotics is threatened by the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. At the G8 Science Ministers’ meeting in 2013, antibiotic resistance was highlighted as one of the top threats facing humanity today, and the World Health Organisation has highlighted the difficulty in tackling the global spread of resistance. Its report suggested that no single factor or isolated intervention would prove successful in reducing the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. We are only too aware that antibiotic resistance is rising. Worryingly, multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis is on the increase around the world. Only a couple of drugs still work against it, and even they may soon stop working. In 2011, over 25,000 people in the EU died of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. That growing resistance raises the spectre of a return to the pre-antibiotic world, when many diseases were cured—or not—just by the body’s own defence mechanisms and the passage of time.
Antibiotics were designed to kill or block the growth of bacteria, so why have they stopped working? There would seem to be several reasons, one of which, as we have heard, is certainly overexposure. Overexposure to antibiotics promotes resistance in bacteria by favouring mutations with antibiotic resistance, which can be passed from one species of bacterium to another. The reason why bacteria develop resistance so quickly is that they multiply incredibly quickly. Some bacteria can double in population every 20 minutes, meaning that mutations can emerge quickly and nullify drugs.
We are now warned that a crisis situation is developing around the world. We have not had a new class of antibiotics for decades, so growing resistance is disturbing, but it is not only antibiotics that are losing the battle against resistance. Resistance also applies to antivirals. Why? As I have said, the more a particular antibiotic is used, the greater the chance that bacteria will develop a resistance to it. As we have heard from the hon. Member for York Outer, Sir Alexander Fleming foresaw that danger way back in 1945, when he said:
“It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them…The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops.”
That now happens in some countries. He continued:
“Then there is a danger that…man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”
We are adding to the problem by overuse, inappropriate use, not finishing the course of the antibiotic, and a lack of basic hygiene. All contribute to the ineffectiveness of antibiotics. Experts are concerned that we are reaching a point at which some previously manageable infections will become untreatable with antibiotics. The superbug MRSA is now resistant to so many drugs that it is already hard to treat, though outbreaks have been heavily reduced by people taking simple hygienic precautions. Recently, there have been reports of cases of difficult-to-treat sexually transmitted diseases; antibiotics normally used to manage the infection are again proving ineffective. Similarly, as I have said, we are seeing cases of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis throughout the world. WHO says that 150,000 deaths a year are caused by multi-drug-resistant TB.
Given the recent outbreak of Ebola, we are only too aware that increased international travel means that people infected in one country can spread the infection to another country very quickly. Experts say that the danger posed by growing resistance to antibiotics should be ranked alongside terrorism on a list of threats to the nation. They described resistance to antibiotics as a “ticking time bomb”. The implication is that routine operations could become deadly in only 20 years if we lose the ability to fight infection, returning us to the medicine of the 1930s or before:
“If we don’t take action, then we may all be back in an almost 19th Century environment where infections kill us as a result of routine operations. We won’t be able to do a lot of our cancer treatments or organ transplants.”
If pharmaceutical companies do not develop new antibiotics within a matter of decades, we risk losing the war against microbes. Standard surgical procedures would become riskier, as would treatments that suppress the immune system, such as chemotherapy or organ transplant.
We can take steps right now. As I said, basic hygiene has reduced MRSA infection rates by up to 80%. The use of condoms can of course prevent STDs as well as HIV. We can reduce antibiotic use, and advise doctors to be frugal in their prescribing to help avoid resistance developing. We can educate people about hygiene and unnecessary antibiotic use. Pharmaceutical companies can produce new antibiotics and develop degradable antibiotics that do not persist in the environment. We are looking at developing new vaccines as well. Vaccines for MRSA should be ready within a decade. Finally, we need joined-up thinking and new approaches.
The rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a global problem that requires international action to reverse. Developing new antibiotics and vaccines, however, is very expensive. To take a drug from discovery to market is estimated to cost about £700 million. Cost will always be a major factor in the development of new antibiotics, which is why Governments must somehow find a way to incentivise research and development in the area, because if companies do not develop new antibiotics, the future is unthinkable, with previously preventable infections claiming the lives of many.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), who set out clearly the problems of antibiotic resistance. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on his choice of subject and on how he developed the argument and presented the case, ending with a three-point action plan, which I hope that the Minister will be able to smile on when she responds to the debate.
Over the recess, I read Dame Sally Davies’s book, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, which was published last year. It is concise and understandable by a layman, but deeply alarming, particularly as it comes from the country’s chief medical officer. She warned that antibiotic resistance should be treated as seriously as terrorism when we rank threats against this country. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend set out the problems as the risks of antibiotic resistance become greater because of over-prescription and overuse. At the moment we are all preoccupied with Ebola, which is a virus and not a bacterium, but many lower-profile cases of new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are being introduced into NHS hospitals as a result of the admission of patients who have recently arrived from overseas.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, if we do not raise our game against the superbugs, the chief medical officer warns that a cut finger could lead to a festering death. Each year across Europe, some 25,000 people die from drug-resistant-bacterial infections. As he said, the new antibiotic-resistant threat is from the less well known, so-called gram-negative bacteria, which have names such as Klebsiella, Pseudomonas and Acinetobacter. In many parts of the world, those bacteria are either untreatable or only treatable by a toxic antibiotic called colistin, which was discovered in the 1940s. Its use carries huge risks, as my hon. Friend said, because of its toxicity. The new strains of gram-negative bacteria create severe clinical problems for patients in intensive care units or other critical care units, such as oncology or transplant. The highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria affect very sick patients, who are found in intensive care and other high-risk units. Some of those bacteria lead to death rates of 50%.
Again as my hon. Friend said, no new gram-negative antibiotics are at an advanced stage in the drug discovery pipeline, so the historical approach of relying on the pharmaceutical industry to come up with a solution will not come to our rescue this time. He explained why we have a classic case of market failure. The business case against developing antibiotics is powerful. It can take 10 years and cost more than £1 billion to bring a new drug to market and, because those bacteria evolve fast and rapidly become resistant to new antibiotics, the research needs to be ongoing. Even if a successful drug is developed, a course of antibiotics might only last a week, so the revenue potential of any new drug is relatively low. My hon. Friend contrasted that with investment in statins, for example, which a patient may take for the rest of his or her life without developing resistance, so in a sense the question of where to put the money is a no-brainer. As a result, AstraZeneca is scaling back research into antibiotics and Roche has issued warnings about the terms of trade.
There is some good news. The severity and acuity of the problem is beginning to be recognised. WHO published a document highlighting the problem in April, and President Obama signed the Generating Antibiotics Incentives Now legislation. As both the previous speakers said, we await Jim O’Neill’s report next spring on why the industry has failed to deliver any new antibiotics. It is not clear, however, how the market failure can be addressed without Government intervention of some sort —my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer outlined a number of possible solutions. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that she has an open mind about changing the terms of trade with the pharmaceutical industry, if that proves to be the only way forward.
I am interested in the subject because I have in my constituency a firm called Bioquell, which manufactures equipment and provides specialist services that eradicate micro-organisms—bacteria, viruses and fungi. Its new Pod product comprises single-patient rooms that can be rapidly deployed in hospitals. Crudely put, they can turn a “Nightingale” ward into US-style single rooms. The single-patient room Pod product is generating interest from hospitals around the world worried about Ebola.
As became clear in one of our exchanges on Monday following the statement by the Secretary of State for Health, hospital structures throughout the world vary. Most intensive care units in France and the USA comprise single-patient rooms, whereas most ICUs in the UK comprise open, multi-bed units, which are often linked to high infection rates. We therefore need to have tools available to combat the threat from antibiotic-resistant organisms, which differ from country to country.
At the moment, Bioquell is involved in the decontamination of health care facilities around the world that have housed Ebola patients. Those include three hospitals in the United States, as well as hospitals in the UK, France and Holland. Recently, 20 of the company’s single-patient room Pods have been deployed in the middle east to help a hospital combat the spread of viruses. A small technology company from Andover—this ties in with my hon. Friend’s third point—is therefore leading specialist decontamination work in Europe and the US, helping to combat Ebola through the provision of safe single rooms.
I ask the Minister for an assurance that the contribution companies such as Bioquell can make will not be overlooked. The NHS is sometimes slow to adopt new technology, but when it faces substantial capacity and cost pressures due to an ageing population, the adoption of new technology must form a key part of the solution to those ever-growing pressures.
We rightly celebrate our knowledge-based economy. My hon. Friend the Minister’s Department has done much to export life sciences, to encourage med-tech industries and to generate export earnings. In return, however, the Government must support British innovation in the NHS. It is unrealistic to expect companies to be successful at exporting if they do not have a robust domestic market.
I end with the point my hon. Friend made about public interest. I hope the debate he has initiated will begin to drive the issue up the agenda, and bring home to the public and, I suspect, many of our colleagues the real threat antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose to the NHS. I do not think our colleagues appreciate that, with these new strains of bacteria, the NHS faces a major challenge, with high associated death rates, and no effective antibiotics exist. Unchecked, these bacteria will limit the ability of the NHS to provide many of the life-saving procedures we all take for granted, and the costs to the NHS will increase substantially. That means there must be a positive response to Jim O’Neill and active engagement with companies at the cutting edge of research in this field so that we can begin the fight back against these antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is always nice to speak on health issues in this hall. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place—we seem to be here regularly discussing health issues—and I look forward to her response.
First, I thank the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for bringing this issue forward for discussion and for his introduction. The issue is of the utmost importance, and, despite the warnings about it, some people still want to bury their head in the sand like the ostrich—“If you put your head in the sand, the car won’t run you down.” Antibiotic resistance is a serious issue but, for some reason, some people—perhaps many people —are under the illusion that if we do not talk about it, it will not happen. However, it is happening right now, and we should all be extremely worried about it. That is why the debate is important. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) both mentioned the example of the grazed knee—in the past, it was not an issue, but it could be in the future, and people could end up dying from it.
Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a germ to prevent an antibiotic from working against it, and it is a global problem. It is also part of the reason why, in recent years, we have been warned over and over again to take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. That is a serious issue, which we must address. Although we cannot become resistant to antibiotics themselves, because they are designed to target germs not cells, antibiotic resistance is a major health problem, and we already face the reality of having fewer choices of effective drugs with which to treat basic illnesses.
Some 70% of the world’s bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics. Unfortunately, we are now in the position of considering drugs of last resort. Before we are at the stage when only one antibiotic is left that can do the business, we need to think ahead. Other Members have talked about the pharmaceutical industry and the development of new drugs, and that is important. The more a drug is used to treat germs, the more resistance they develop. For example, just a few years after penicillin was developed, resistance to it was found in Staphylococcus aureus, in the skin. After years of heavy use, several species of bacteria are now resistant to penicillin. However, the biggest problem facing us is the development of multi-resistant germs, which are resistant to a large range of antibiotics. As they begin to develop, effective treatments become difficult. In that respect, I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic. Every year, I am eligible for a flu jab to help me combat colds and flu. Some years it does, but some years it does not—I am not quite sure why—but, again, that shows there is resistance to the jab used to deal with flu and the cold bugs out there.
We have been advised to follow some simple instructions to try to prevent germs from becoming immune to our medicines. The advice includes getting antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, and it falls to our GPs to know when that is. Other advice includes washing our hands regularly, finishing a course of antibiotics as advised and ensuring that antibiotics are taken only by the person they have been prescribed for. Finally—I hope the Minister can give us some indication of what is being done on this—GPs should not prescribe antibiotics for colds and flu, because they are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Sometimes GPs need to have a better focus on what is best. Do people always need an antibiotic, or do they need something different?
Does my hon. Friend agree that we require an educational process—from the Government, to GPs, to pharmaceutical companies and to the wider public—to ensure that we do not face an Ebola-type position, where we are trying to play catch-up and the end result is many deaths?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As always, he succinctly puts the issue into perspective. We are all aware of Ebola, although we are not talking about it today. The question is how we resist such bacteria.
When it comes to viruses and bacteria, most of the pieces of advice I mentioned are simple enough for us to follow. However, the two most important, which involve access to drugs, relate to doctors, and my hon. Friend referred to that. Undoubtedly, we need to encourage greater awareness through media campaigns and posters in doctors’ surgeries, and by educating our children and young people. This is all about knowledge and awareness.
The findings from the World Health Organisation are quite disturbing. In May 2014, it warned that we should expect “many more deaths” because dishing out too many antibiotics
“will make even scratches deadly”.
That is the point many people are making. Over the years, antibiotics have been used properly to extend our lives, but now we are at grave risk of turning the clock back on medicine, with the World Health Organisation claiming that antibiotic resistance has the potential to be worse than the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which was responsible for 25 million deaths worldwide.
The importance of necessary prescriptions cannot be underestimated. In England last year, 41.7 million prescriptions were written out, up from 37.2 million in 2006. The World Health Organisation looked at data from 114 countries on seven major types of bacteria, and the results showed that we have reason to be most concerned about the bacteria that cause pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin infections, diarrhoea and gonorrhoea—the hon. Member for Inverclyde referred to sexually transmitted diseases.
As people become infected by resistant superbugs, they are likely to need to remain in hospital for longer than would normally be required. That may also result in their being moved to intensive care. Both those things cost the NHS money, which is simply not an option in this economic climate.
Medicine is amazing, and we are blessed to have the NHS, which is so efficient and helpful. What has been achieved over the last 100 years is astounding. However, our generation has come to rely on tablets. We are all busy, and with work and families it is not always practical to take time off, but the convenience of taking a tablet to reduce our recovery time is beginning to have adverse effects. Unfortunately, while bacteria were getting smarter, we were loading ourselves up with antibiotics. If one did not work we got another one, and if that did not work we got yet another. Now bacteria are outsmarting us, and there are few new antibiotics in the pipeline.
Although we bear responsibility for our own health, and must ensure that when prescribed an antibiotic we take it properly, much of the responsibility lies with general practitioners. They must prescribe such drugs only when absolutely necessary, and they must prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics suitably, making sure that the selection, dosage and duration are correct. That is a clear role for the GP to play. It is vital to review and renew our campaign to research and assess microbiological data, with the aim of preventing any more bacteria from becoming resistant to antibiotics. Perhaps in that way we will find a way to reverse their immunity, and ensure that the drugs that we are using are not those of last resort.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on taking the lead in the debate, and in the House previously. I congratulate, too, hon. Members from all parties, on setting out the issues clearly.
I want to concentrate on the second action point set out by my hon. Friend—a global network. I shall take malaria as an example—I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases—and will speak about what happened when resistance to malaria drugs spread around the world in the 1980s and 1990s. The drug that was most effective until then for the standard treatment of malaria was chloroquine. Quinine was of course a last resort, but chloroquine was used by most people. Resistance cropped up, initially in south-east Asia, spreading throughout sub-Saharan Africa, until there was little that most people who caught malaria could do, besides hoping it would be effective. In many cases it was not.
A new class of drugs was discovered, based on artemisinin, and a network called Medicines for Malaria Venture was set up. The previous Government were instrumental in setting up and supporting it, and the present Government have continued substantial support for it. As a result, even in 2008 there was a reasonable antimalarial drug pipeline. A couple of days ago in this place I had the pleasure of launching our group’s 2014 report, which had some helpful financial support from the Medicines for Malaria Venture. The pipeline has grown substantially in the six years since 2008. It has been remarkable to see not only that drugs have been coming through the pipeline, but that four of the six most commonly effective antimalarials at present have resulted from the venture. That is an example of what can be done by a multinational network, with Britain taking the lead. I urge the Minister to consider such an approach for antibiotics.
The chief medical officer, among others, has rightly referred to antibiotic resistance as a threat equivalent to the threat from terrorism. We see our work in international development as a means to combat many of the sources of terrorism. Unemployment around the world is a breeding ground for people who want to peddle violent and hateful dogmas. Where people have no jobs, ISIL uses that as an excuse to commit terrible acts. Terrorism is a threat, and so is antibiotic resistance. The problem is a global one, and relates to the global public good. Dealing with it would help the poorest in the world more than anyone else, and we could easily justify using overseas development assistance funding from the Department for International Development, alongside commercial and public health service funding, to fund a network such as the one I described. I urge the Minister to take as broad as possible an approach when she considers what sources of funding could be used to confront the threat. It cannot be exaggerated.
I am thrilled that despite my breaking two rules in a short time when I walked into the Chamber you are still allowing me to speak in the debate, Mr Chope. It is a pleasure to follow all the speeches, which have covered virtually all the angles. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for securing the debate, and for the speech he made.
There is a depressing but nevertheless welcome consensus that we are losing our antibiotics to resistance, and effectively losing modern medicine as we know it. Notwithstanding the threat of Ebola it is hard to imagine a bigger health threat. The World Health Organisation has described antibiotic resistance as a bigger crisis than the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. If we lose antibiotics we risk the return of a time when basic operations will be deadly. I used to wonder what it would take to wake up the British establishment to that appalling threat. For years virtually nothing seemed to be done to combat the extraordinary phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. I thought, naively, perhaps, that once the health establishment blew the whistle, everyone else would fall into line and, fortunately, the health establishment has been blowing the whistle very loudly. We have heard various quotations today of the apocalyptic language of the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies. I think she has even used the term “apocalypse”. She has said that if we do not take action, deaths will go up and up, and modern medicine will be lost.
That is of course already beginning to happen. It is not a futuristic scenario. In 2006 there were just five cases in which patients failed to respond even to last-resort antibiotics in this country. Last year the number was 600. I know that there has been some action and I do not mean to disparage that. In March last year the Cabinet Office confirmed that it would examine the question of resistance as a national security issue. In September of that year it released an outline UK five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy. The Government have since set up a high-level steering group, chaired by Dr Felicity Harvey, the director general, public health, to implement the strategy once it is released, which I think will be later this year. All that is good news, and it is possible that the strategy will match the urgency of the situation. However, I am afraid that there are worrying signs that it will not.
Yes, there will be renewed efforts to develop new drugs, which is crucial. I was thrilled to hear the Prime Minister’s response to a question on the subject, during Prime Minister’s questions, when he briefly outlined the Government’s commitment to supporting the development of new drugs. That is obviously a prerequisite to solving the problem. There is nothing in the pipeline at all, and, as existing drugs become ineffective, we clearly must hope for new developments and do all that we can to facilitate them. There will also be renewed efforts to limit the inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine. That subject has been covered and I shall not dwell on it today. However, so far, successive Governments, including the present one, have resolutely avoided confronting a part of the problem that is not only huge but avoidable.
It is worth repeating that from day one, when Alexander Fleming accepted his part of the Nobel prize, he issued a dire warning. We have heard the quotation and I will not repeat it. The simple reality is that we have completely ignored that warning, more or less from the day he issued it. Instead of treasuring that miracle cure, we have squandered it—not just in hospitals but on intensive farms, and not just to treat sick animals but to keep animals alive in conditions where they otherwise would struggle simply to survive. That is not just a niche concern; 50% or thereabouts of the antibiotics that we use in this country are used on farms and it is even more in the United States and some other countries. Overall use per animal on UK farms is 18% higher today than it was a decade ago. That is disproportionately true of those antibiotics that are critical to human health.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point: since tetracycline and penicillin-based antibiotics have been banned as growth promoters for farm animals, the use of tetracyclines has up gone tenfold and the use of penicillins has gone up fivefold. This is not a party political point: there is something that the Government can do immediately about that situation, which is to monitor and study it with a view to reducing the excessive use of antibiotics on farms.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and will come on to that briefly—I am going to try to keep my remarks short. That is exactly the point. Many people felt that the ban on the use of growth promoters back in—actually, I forget the year, but I think it was 15 years ago, although I may have got that wrong and am happy to be corrected—
It was eight years ago, then. Many people felt that ban heralded the beginning of the phase out of the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics on farms, but, as the hon. Gentleman just pointed out, use has continued to increase across the board and disproportionately with regard to those antibiotics that are critically important. Given that the antibiotics used in veterinary and human medicine are closely related it is impossible to believe that that increase has not contributed to antibiotic resistance and the transfer of resistant bacteria from animals to humans.
The problem is that the industry has dug its heels in and contested the link. We have been told that there is no proof, but we know that resistant bacteria can be passed to humans on food, through the environment, directly via raw meat and so on. Some strains of resistant bacteria can mix with human strains and pass on resistant genes. For example, E. coli in animals is different from E. coli in humans, but we know that resistance can be and is transferred between animals and humans.
The industry also says that levels of resistance on intensive farms are no different from those on extensive farms, but two reports from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have shown that resistance is 10 times lower on organic farms. The industry says there is no problem because antibiotics have to be prescribed by vets and everything is handled responsibly, but more often than not it is the feed mills that place orders for antibiotics rather than the farmers themselves. Finally, we are told that the use of antibiotics is necessary for the provision of cheap food. Perhaps that is the case, but that food will feel a hell of lot less cheap if the cost that society has to pay is the loss of modern medicine.
A briefing has been sent out to a number of MPs by the industry body RUMA—the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance—saying:
“Fluoroquinolones are rarely used in poultry in the UK.”
RUMA has stated that as fact in response to the points that I and others have raised today. But on 8 September, a few days before that briefing was released, I met representatives of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, who told me that the British Poultry Council has so far refused to provide any kind of data on antibiotic use at all. How the industry body RUMA can make such a bold and plain statement is beyond me—I suspect it is simply nonsense.
The experts take a different view from that of the industry. Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer before Dame Sally Davies, went so far as to say that
“every inappropriate or unnecessary use on animals or agriculture is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient.”
The European Food Safety Authority said last year that it is a
“high priority to decrease the total antimicrobial use in animal production in the EU.”
The Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), told me after a debate on the same subject last year:
“Routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in both humans and animals is not acceptable practice”
and that she would be writing to DEFRA
“to ensure that existing veterinary guidance makes that very clear.”
I do not doubt the commitment of the chief medical officer—I am a wild fan of hers, as I know many hon. Members here are. I have not read her book yet, but I will do; I have read much of her writing. I have also met Dr Felicity Harvey and seen the seriousness with which she takes the issue. But so far, at least, DEFRA seems to be dragging its feet. There has been no sense of urgency in any of the meetings I have had, and any response I have had from DEFRA has been far more likely to mirror the industry line than anything the experts have said. The body language of DEFRA as a Department is almost completely defensive.
Thanks to the Netherlands and other countries we no longer have any excuse to stall. The Netherlands has seen a 50% reduction in livestock antibiotic use and expects a 70% reduction by 2015. It has phased out almost completely the use in agriculture of critically important antibiotics. There has been similar action in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. As I understand it, even the US, the land of agribusiness—it is where it was invented—has banned the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry.
The UK has no such targets or aspirations, and it is time that changed. We need to stop hearing excuses about lack of data that the industry has not provided and require those data to be collected. That is a prerequisite, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said earlier. If the five-year strategy is to be taken seriously when it is eventually produced, it must provide a pathway to ending the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics on farms. That is now a black and white issue. In addition, the strategy must provide a pathway to an eventual ban—ideally, sooner rather than later—on the use on farms of antibiotics that are critically important to humans. Those two measures are the least we can expect from the five-year plan if we are to have any hope at all of combating a threat that the World Health Organisation has compared to the threat of AIDS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I also extend my thanks to the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for securing this critical debate. He has done a great deal of work on raising the profile of antimicrobial resistance since he entered this place in 2010. Like him, and every other Member who has spoken today, I understand the issues at stake if we do not do everything within our power to tackle this threat. As well as being a shadow Health Minister, I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on antibiotics, which is co-chaired by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who has just made a superb contribution to the debate. The hon. Member for York Outer did an excellent job in setting out the scale of the challenge that we face today.
The APPG on antibiotics was formed in June 2013 specifically to raise the profile of antibiotic resistance. Through working with key stakeholders and experts on the issue, we hope to build a cross-party consensus on tackling the threat of AMR. Before moving on, I want to praise the work of Professor Laura Piddock and the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. That organisation works tirelessly to highlight the threat of antibiotic resistance; without it, the APPG might not even exist.
In the foreword to the document “UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013 to 2018”, Dame Sally Davies gave a concise explanation of the scale of the challenge that we currently face:
“There are few public health issues of greater importance than antimicrobial resistance…in terms of impact on society. This problem is not restricted to the UK. It concerns the entire world and requires action at local, national and global level. AMR cannot be eradicated but a multi-disciplinary approach involving a wide range of partners will limit the risk of AMR and minimise its impact for health, now and in the future.
The harsh reality is that infections are increasingly developing that cannot be treated. The rapid spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria means that we could be close to reaching a point where we may not be able to prevent or treat everyday infections or diseases.”
Her sentiments and judgment have been echoed by scientist after scientist and medical professional after medical professional. Dame Sally Davies must be commended on her commitment and work on this issue—I am pleased so many hon. Members have recognised that today—and her leadership should be applauded. The Government must take heed of what she says and take the actions she recommends.
A report published on 10 October by Public Health England, “English surveillance programme for antimicrobial utilisation and resistance”, highlights that the problem is already real now and, as Members have observed today, is getting worse. Antibiotic prescriptions are rising—they increased by 6% in the past three years alone. At the same time, resistant bacterial infections are also on the rise. Resistant E. coli infections have risen by 12% since 2010. Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England told the BBC recently:
“We know that less than 1% of bacteria are extremely multi-drug resistant at the moment…But in countries like India they are approaching 10% to 20% of individuals they are not able to treat effectively with the antibiotics.”
The threat is real and we all agree that something must be done; inaction cannot be tolerated.
The Science and Technology Committee published its report, “Ensuring access to working antimicrobials”, on 7 July. At Health questions on 15 July, responding to the hon. Member for York Outer, the Minister said that the Government would publish their response to that report in September. We are now into October, so I hope she will explain when that response will be ready.
Government action is overdue. With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister would update Members on the progress made towards the three strategic aims and the seven key areas for future action as prescribed in the chief medical officer’s report on the five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy. The three aims were to improve the knowledge and understanding of AMR, to conserve and steward the effectiveness of existing treatments and to stimulate the development of new antibiotics, diagnostics and novel therapies. Will she explain how the findings by Public Health England on increasing antibiotic usage and increasing proliferation of resistant bacteria square with the first of those strategic aims? According to the five-year plan, the aims were informed by the 2011 European Union AMR strategic report, so we should recognise that we are already behind the curve.
The Government seem no closer on the third aim, the development of new antibiotics, although I recognise that that is a difficult problem to solve. The Science and Technology Committee report states that
“the Government needs to work with researchers, investors, small and medium sized enterprises, large pharmaceutical companies and other Governments to urgently identify appropriate economic models that might encourage the development of new antimicrobials.”
Since the Prime Minister’s announcement of the commission to review the situation we have heard nothing further from the Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances that the review, which will clearly take some years, will not be simply a substitute for any action that could be taken immediately and that, in giving those assurances, she will explain what action the Government are taking in the meantime and what discussions they—or officials, critically—have had with the stakeholder groups highlighted by the Committee’s report.
It is clear that this is an international issue that requires work across Governments. We warmly welcome the G8’s commitment to tackling it, but it is clear that more needs to be done. It cannot be solved simply by eight countries acting by themselves; wider engagement is needed. Will the Minister therefore update Members present on discussions with counterparts throughout the world and the actions that are being taken internationally?
Finally, I want to question the Minister on the pressures on primary care. One often-cited solution to over-prescription of antibiotics is to administer them only if a patient’s condition worsens. While that is a sensible approach that, where clinically appropriate, reserves antibiotics for the most serious cases, in reality the pressure on GPs means that that is not always a credible or deliverable solution.
At present 13 million people wait more than one week to see their GP. During that time, symptoms could worsen and antibiotics could be the only treatment available to people when they are seen. If they had been seen earlier, however, alternative clinical options might have been available to them. Relieving the pressure on primary care must form part of the toolkit that should be employed to tackle AMR, yet it seems that, at the moment, the Government have no response.
The tackling of antibiotic resistance is incredibly important. The CMO has said that the threat posed by AMR is on a par with international terrorism and the Government’s wishes and rhetoric must be backed up with action. That is the settled will of the Chamber and I am sure that it is also that of all 648 sitting Members of Parliament. Where the Government do the right thing, they will have the full support of the Opposition without question. This is too important to be subjected to the banalities of party politics, so let us get on with it.
I thank all Members who have contributed to what has been an extremely good debate. I thank my hon. Friend the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who led the debate and gave a thoughtful speech. I will try to respond to as many points as possible.
I will not spend much time on the scale of the threat, as many Members eloquently have outlined that. It was brought home to me clearly when, together with my noble Friend Lord De Mauley, on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the chief medical officer, I represented the Government at a World Health Organisation conference in The Hague earlier this year. The conference started with a young woman talking to us. Essentially, she was dying: she had been through pretty much every stage of antibiotics available and all had failed. That brought home powerfully what we are talking about now and what Professor Dame Sally Davies has been writing about for some years. The case has been made by other Members and I will not dwell on it. This is an extremely serious global public health threat.
The Government have a “one-health” approach, working together across human and animal health with DEFRA. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) made some detailed points that I will probably ask DEFRA colleagues to respond to in more detail. We will be able to respond to some of them, and some will be encapsulated in the strategy, which will be published alongside an implementation plan. Virtually all the points made in today’s debate will be covered, as well as many additional points, in that publication; I will talk to Dr Felicity Harvey and the CMO to ensure that.
In the time available, I will try to outline what the Government have done to date and give Members reassurance that we are not complacent and that we recognise the scale of the threat. In response to questions raised by some Members, we are not waiting for a grand global strategy to try to take action ourselves; we already have many things in hand, because, as Members have said, time is running out.
In September 2013, we published the UK’s first five-year AMR strategy, taking the one-health approach that I have outlined to address the human, animal, food and environmental aspects of AMR, and set up the high-level steering group, to which some Members have referred, to oversee the delivery of that strategy and, importantly, to deliver metrics to assess progress and develop the implementation plan so that our progress can be judged. In June 2014, the steering group published the measures. Broadly speaking, they look at areas such as trends and resistance; antibiotic usage; the quality of antibiotic stewardship; public attitudes, knowledge and awareness; and changes in public and professional behaviour. All of those were touched on in the debate. I confirm to the shadow Minister that the Government published their response to the Health Committee’s report on 12 September.
The first annual progress report will be published later this year, alongside an associated implementation plan, which will pick up many of the points made in more detail. However, let me highlight some of the actions to date. I am delighted that the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, received so many plaudits from Members in the Chamber. I, too, have read her book, which is short but very alarming, and it brings home in graphic detail the scale of the problem we face—it certainly helped to focus my mind. She has led a global campaign of which the UK is right at the forefront.
The adoption in May 2014 of the World Health Assembly resolution on AMR, which was co-sponsored by the UK, was a major step forward. It provided a mandate for the World Health Organisation to develop a global action plan to tackle AMR by 2015. We are actively contributing to support the delivery of that global action plan.
The international nature of the problem was highlighted by many Members. India was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and other Members, and I confirm that the recently produced Chennai declaration has begun to tighten up on over-the-counter use, so we are beginning to see significant action. India also supported a World Health Assembly resolution on this matter. However, sitting the table and hearing the different contributions at the conference at The Hague certainly brought home to me the fact that there are differing attitudes across the world. It will be a big task to get some countries to where they need to be and we certainly need to lead by example, which is a point that has been well made.
One of the things that we can do in supporting the work at a global level is building capacity and capability. As with so many problems of our developed world, we cannot afford to wait for everyone to go through the same cycle of development, discovery and identification of problems; we need to try to share our understanding. Public Health England is piloting a laboratory-twinning initiative, where high-income Commonwealth nations are working with low and middle-income countries to build up AMR education, training and surveillance capability, rather than waiting for them to develop their own.
The drugs pipeline is a huge issue, which was explained well and in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. That is an area in which we need rapid and concerted international action to stimulate the development of new antibiotics. The O’Neill review, which was commissioned by the Prime Minister in July, was mentioned. It is an independent review looking at the economic issues that cause this problem, and will make recommendations on what collective action can be taken by Governments globally. I confirm to my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and others that that review will investigate solutions such as pricing and the introduction of incentives. The review is independent, so that team can think what they want—that is what they are tasked with—and we want them to come back with solutions to a problem that we know requires innovation. The interim report is due next summer, with the final report the year after that.
The faster adoption of new ideas was touched on, in particular those brought forward by small suppliers—Bioquell was mentioned. That is integral to the brief of the new Minister with responsibility for life sciences, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who was recently given a joint appointment to the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look at how we can accelerate the rate of innovation, because, as we know, we must not lose time on this.
Members were concerned to know whether, in the meantime, pending the O’Neill review, work was under way, and I can confirm that it is. Quite a lot of work is going on with the pharmaceutical industry. The industry is working with Chatham House and the Big Innovation Centre to explore issues about the pipeline and to look at possible options to stimulate antibiotic development. We expect the outputs of those initiatives to be published later this year, and they will feed into the independent O’Neill review. Other work is under way, some of which involves making public assistance available to smaller companies where they need it, but I can confirm that the pharmaceutical and biotech industries are fully engaged, as we need them to be, in exploring the issue and working together on the all-important research agenda.
Much of the focus for that research is diagnostics. We have commissioned work to improve our ability to diagnose infections quickly and increase the take-up and routine use of point-of-care diagnostics. That means being able to diagnose much more quickly—at the point of care—without the delay in having to send things away for study, and so on. The more quickly we can diagnose, the more quickly we can use appropriate medication. The Select Committee certainly pressed us on that when we gave evidence and we are aware that it wants us to take action on that issue. That is very closely linked to the work on improving prescribing, which is a key strand of efforts to reduce the overuse of broad spectrum antibiotics. Easy, cheap and accurate diagnoses will enable us to tailor patient treatment much more speedily and improve clinical outcomes, which is obviously a win-win.
Hon. Members have mentioned the award of the £10 million Longitude prize, which happened on the evening between the first and second days of the Hague conference, so it could not have been more appropriate and it was great news that came through while we were all there. It was fantastic on two counts: first, that money will go towards developing a new diagnostic for AMR, on which we expect further details to be announced shortly; and secondly, it felt like a great leap forward for public recognition and public engagement on the issue. That announcement was integral to a popular science programme on television—it was not just done by the scientific community; there was full public engagement, so I am really delighted about that and we have to build on it.
On research, hon. Members will be interested to know that the Medical Research Council is leading an AMR Funders’ Forum to improve the co-ordination of research relevant to all those different aspects of antibiotic resistance. In addition, there are two new National Institute for Health Research, or NIHR, health protection research units—I apologise for all the acronyms—with a focus on AMR and health care-associated infection. They were established in April at Imperial college London and at Oxford university, and they are in the process of agreeing their initial two-year work programmes, so more research is going on in those establishments.
In addition to important work to galvanise international action and stimulate drug development, we are trying to put in place the infrastructure and tools needed to improve infection prevention and control, and diagnosis and prescribing, in order to prevent the development and spread of AMR. That requires thinking about the problem in an entirely different way, because this problem is unique. The scale has been outlined by other people, but because of some unique aspects, we need to do things in a different way, and we are very aware of that.
Infection prevention is, of course, better than treatment, so we are refocusing attention on what more we can do to improve our ability to prevent infections and reduce reliance on antibiotics. To reduce the risk of importing very resistant infections from countries where the prevalence is higher—some of those countries have been mentioned—measures such as screening on admission to hospitals are now recommended and will be taken up.
Improving infection prevention includes work with NICE—the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—and others to develop clinical guidance, best practice information and resources. We are also strengthening the code of practice on the prevention and control of infections to clarify for providers the measures they need to take to ensure effective infection prevention and, importantly, antimicrobial stewardship. That is being complemented by NHS England looking at the best ways to use levers on commissioning in the NHS and how it can establish local patient safety fellows to champion and help to embed best practice. On the animal side, DEFRA has provided guidance to assist with farm health planning. Work is under way to explore how we can make better use of vaccines and alternative treatments to reduce reliance on antibiotics and minimise the opportunity for resistant strains to develop.
I turn to the recent survey, the English Surveillance Programme for Antimicrobial Utilisation and Resistance —to which the shadow Minister nobly referred; it is quite a mouthful—or ESPAUR. That report from Public Health England was grim reading. It certainly made it clear that we have a long way to go in this regard, and it provided data that showed the enormous variability in the levels of prescribing across the health care system in England. It showed us some areas with extremely high prescribing rates, which often had the highest resistance rates. Although that report was tough reading, it was commissioned precisely because we did not really have a baseline report. We now have that, and it is a really important set of baseline information, from which we can go forward and help to improve practice.
Data are rigorously collected in relation to the resistance and use of antibiotics in human medicine, but they are hardly collected at all in relation to farm use. My understanding is that the whole system is entirely voluntary, and as a consequence, there are virtually no data at all. Is that an area where, at the very least, the Minister’s Department could pull rank on DEFRA and require the collection of data, so that we can have a meaningful discussion, because at the moment DEFRA does not seem inclined to pursue the matter with any great vigour?
I have already noted my hon. Friend’s concern about that, and I will bring it to the attention of my colleagues in DEFRA and ask them to give a detailed response. Although I had noted it as an area of concern, as I say, we work very closely together on this issue, which is why the UK, I think uniquely, sent two Ministers—one from agriculture and one from human health—to conference in The Hague.
To go back to GPs, we need to get to the bottom of why we have such variation around the country and why there is so much inappropriate use. That work is going on. There are some initiatives to support the optimisation of prescribing—essentially trying to give doctors more tools to enhance their professional skills. One of those is called TARGET—Treat Antibiotics Responsibly, Guidance, Education, Tools—and is being promoted by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Work is under way to develop this area and include it in health care training curricula. We have also developed new antibiotic prescribing measures for both primary and secondary care to try and help drive down that variability.
I think we can do more as MPs—all of us, in all our routine conversations with health and wellbeing boards, GPs and clinical commissioning groups, and with our local trust chief executives. This should be a standard question on our agenda for those meetings. That would really help, because I know, as a Government Minister, and I think we all know as MPs, that when we are aware that someone is going to ask us a tough question, we go away and start thinking about whether we have a good answer, so there is a lot more that we can all do to drive it at that routine level. There is only so much that the Government nationally can do to influence local GPs.
I want to reassure Members, however, that European antibiotic awareness day is on 18 November, and it would be a great moment for all of us to talk to our local health care professionals. I would be delighted if hon. Members here today, who are so interested in the subject, would work with me in putting together something in writing to all colleagues, with great questions to ask their local health care system. I would be delighted to do that and I can facilitate it. It would include posters for GPs’ surgeries as well as encouraging the public and professionals to become antibiotic guardians and to make pledges to undertake individual action in our effort to preserve antibiotics. Some members of the public are beginning to understand the scale of the challenge, but we are certainly not there yet, and I think Parliament has a role in trying to make that clear.
As a result of the work to date in the first year of the Government’s strategy, we have significantly better data and information, which we can use to inform the development of effective interventions. We have begun to define the scale of the problem much more, and I have outlined the action that we are trying to take in an international context to make sure that the spread of AMR is taken seriously across the world.
As I have mentioned, I will report all the points made in today’s debate both to the chief medical officer and to our cross-party high-level steering group to ensure that we have picked them up in the imminent publication. If there are any points that are not picked up, I will come back to hon. Members on them individually, but I want to reassure the House on the matter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for calling this debate and, indeed, the House for such a well-attended and thoughtful discussion. Everything we can do in this House to highlight the scale of the problem and the urgency of tackling it is very welcome, and I thank all hon. Members for their contribution today.
Leeds Bradford International Airport
Thank you, Sir Christopher. It is a great honour to be able to raise this very important issue. I am particularly grateful to have secured a debate on connectivity to Leeds Bradford international airport, given its significance for many of my constituents, particularly those living in the Horsforth, Rawdon, Guiseley and Yeadon areas, but also those in areas much further beyond. When I was preparing for the debate, I reflected on the fact that when I was first elected to Leeds city council back in 2003, it coincided with the publication of the then Government’s White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”, which said that the growth in air travel—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I would like to correct the record, Mr Chope, because I think I called you Sir Christopher at the start of the debate. Of course, I strongly believe that you should be Sir Christopher.
The 2003 White Paper on the future of air transport stated that growth in air travel would continue, and that airports such as Leeds Bradford would need improvements to surface access to accommodate that growth. Since then, I have taken a keen interest in the matter, and I note that surface access improvements featured in the recent report by Howard Davies on air travel in this country.
More than a decade after the first report, when it comes to getting to and from Leeds Bradford airport, all we have seen are some improvements to signalling and traffic lights at the most congested local junctions, and some increase in bus services. That is hardly adequate if we are serious about finding ways to cope with increased numbers of passengers.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate, which we have been looking forward to. My constituency welcomes the commitment to expand the potential of the airport and we are fully behind it, but he is absolutely right that we need the connecting transport that will allow us to get to that hub. It costs only about £55 or £60 to fly to Heathrow—what a bargain! Compare that with the cost of travelling on the east coast main line.
I will come on to the point that extra flights of that sort will mean that more and more people use the airport.
Access to Leeds Bradford airport is notoriously poor. The airport is primarily accessed via single-carriageway roads, some of which are densely residential and some of which are merely country lanes. Given that since the publication of the report, the number of passengers has increased by more than a third, from some 2 million a year in 2003 to more than 3.3 million this year, the current standard of surface access is totally inadequate, not only for the passengers but for my constituents who live nearby.
Let me say how pleased I am that, at long last, the Department for Transport has commissioned a study on connectivity to Leeds Bradford international airport. The vast majority of passengers arrive by car. Whether they arrive by private car, Hackney carriage or private hire vehicle, some 85% to 95% of people travel to the airport on local roads, such as the horrendously congested A65 and A658. Local residents are frustrated by the amount of traffic on those roads. Despite the installation of traffic calming measures, many still use totally unsuitable roads, such as Scotland lane in Horsforth and Bayton lane in Rawdon, which causes all sorts of rat-running through those communities and many others.
One of the main reasons why I wanted to secure the debate was to make my position absolutely clear. The answer has to be a new rail link to serve Leeds Bradford international airport. As I mentioned, passenger numbers have grown significantly at the airport, and all commentators expect that growth to continue. The types of passengers using the airport are likely to add to the problem, with more business passengers than ever before.
The hon. Gentleman is in danger of giving my speech for me. He is absolutely right that new services would mean that more people used the airport. I will give the projections shortly.
Leeds Bradford airport is already one of the UK’s fastest growing airports, and it already supports more than 2,600 local jobs. All those people have to travel, of course, so they would need to use the rail link. The airport contributes more than £118 million to the city region economy. The Department for Transport has forecast that there is potential for the 3.3 million passengers to increase to 7.3 million by 2030, and to more than 9 million by 2050. Just this afternoon, the executive board of Leeds city council is discussing the potential for growth at the airport, and how it might be managed.
It is therefore imperative that instead of talking about the need to improve surface access, we start to do something about it and plan ahead. In my constituency, many of the old mills and factories have been replaced by new residential estates. Thousands of new houses are being built with barely any improvements to infrastructure. What is the result? We have caused real problems for my constituents. In a sense, we put the cart before the horse. We built the houses and caused a lack of school places and GP surgeries, and our road networks have become increasingly congested. I do not want us to make the same mistake with the airport.
As we have heard, passenger numbers are already increasing. The airport is working to increase the number of services, and its representatives are going to shows across the world to encourage new airlines to use its facilities. In the past two years, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, British Airways has introduced domestic flights to and from London. Aer Lingus is about to introduce flights to Dublin and on to the United States. The airport is encouraging more business travel, with flights to more European cities, such as Frankfurt, Brussels and Madrid. That, coupled with the huge success of the Tour de France, is seeing Yorkshire take its rightful place as a wonderful tourist destination.
The airport is in my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine, and the links will be built in our constituencies, but it is great to see colleagues from across the region here, because this affects the whole region. I fully support the rail link. My hon. Friend has mentioned our delivery of the Tour de France. We do not want talk on these issues; we want action. Does he agree that, with the Leeds city region having an economy worth more than £50 billion, we should be able to take such decisions for ourselves, including on whether we have light rail in Leeds, rather than having to go cap in hand to Whitehall? We need to make such decisions in Yorkshire, so that we can get on and have this rail link and the kind of modern, 21st-century transport system that we deserve.
I could not agree more. We definitely need the system that we want. We know our local areas and the benefits that a rail link would bring. I hope this is the start of a joint mission to give a loud Yorkshire clout to securing the investment that we need. My hon. Friend is right about the increase in tourists and business passengers. We can see how quickly the passenger numbers could rise to those predicted by the Department for Transport. The airport could become one of the largest airports down the east side of England, and it could be bigger than the airports in Liverpool, Newcastle, Doncaster and the east midlands.
I am aware that the current study considers a range of options, one of which is a new link road from the ring road at Horsforth through the fields that are the natural border between Horsforth and Rawdon, past the airport and joining the A658. The West Yorkshire transport fund is carrying out further studies into that solution, but it will not solve the problem. In fact, it could make the situation a lot worse for my constituents, because passengers arriving at the airport by car will still have to use the roads through Apperley Bridge, Rawdon and Horsforth to get to the link road. The increased traffic that the new road would bring will make a bad situation much worse. Additionally, I fear that the road could become a new rat run for drivers wanting a short cut from the M62 to the A1 heading north. If we are serious about coming up with a long-term solution that will provide better connectivity to the airport while improving the experience for passengers and, more importantly, reducing the impact on my constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members, the only option is to create a new rail link.
My hon. Friend mentions Apperley Bridge, and everyone here is familiar with the dreadful Greengates junction. This is all a false economy, because we now have to invest a huge amount of money to address the jams occurring in those areas. If we invested in a rail link, we might be able to save money that would otherwise have to be spent on clearing up problems caused by those traffic jams.
My hon. Friend is another constituency neighbour, and he is absolutely right about the traffic jams that go right through Greengates, which people try to avoid as much as they can. Adding a new link road up to the airport would do nothing to alleviate the traffic on that road. In fact, as I said, a new link road would make the traffic much worse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the biggest problem when assessing accessibility to the airport is that solutions have always been sought in and around the airport’s immediate vicinity, rather than across the whole region? Many people from my constituency also access the airport, so we must look for solutions on a much wider scale.
Absolutely. I hope that the rail link to the airport is the start of a wider connection improvement across Yorkshire. The new rail link is the only option for me, because it offers an opportunity for greater modal shift, which will mean that we are better placed to cope with any future expansion. We need only look at other airports across the country that have direct rail links to see how successful they have been; I am thinking of places such as Manchester airport. A number of rail options are available to us. Some of them are gold-plated, but I would advocate going with a stage 1 approach that links the airport to the existing Leeds, Horsforth and Harrogate line. That would mean that a journey time of as little as nine minutes would be possible from the centre of Leeds, which is a pipe dream for anyone trying to achieve the same journey by road.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The rail line he is talking about runs through my constituency, too, which shows how important Leeds Bradford airport is for connecting our region. If we are truly to connect the whole region, it must be through the rail infrastructure, rather than by tinkering with the road infrastructure. That means long-term investment, not short-term investment that means only short-term gains.
I could not agree more. If we were to have such a spur, we could connect Harrogate, York and places much further afield, so that people had a decent transport system that offered a real alternative to those who might be thinking about using the car.
We have to be mindful of costs, and here again there are often great variations. We have all had transport projects in our constituencies and been staggered by the costs that some consultants seem to add. I had a meeting with the airport last week; the Horsforth spur that I suggested would cost some £50 million, and the Harrogate spur would cost an extra £25 million to £30 million. With all the other costs that would be added, the total is some £98 million. I know others have suggested that it would be much more expensive, and I realise that it is a considerable amount of money, but if we are serious about connecting the north, we need to invest and take a long-term approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) suggested.
I praise the Government for their investment in the northern hub and the massive electrification programme, but it would be perverse in the extreme not to link one of the region’s largest airports to that new and improved network. When officials and Ministers are looking at the options, they will of course have to consider the cost-benefit ratios, but I hope that they will bear in mind the cost-benefit ratios for the Jubilee line, which were poor at the time but improved significantly once the line was in operation.
I would also argue that the playing field is not level. Traditional DFT assessments of benefits relate to the value of time saved to business and leisure users over a 60-year period, meaning that a highways scheme, such as a new bypass, has a clear and large time-saving value for each road user. In turn, that becomes a large financial benefit in the appraisal. Until recently, there was an assumption that public transport travel was made up of non-working time, so that if there was a shift from using cars to using a new train service, the true value of time saved for business users was not accounted for, and neither was the regeneration or the economic impact of a new rail service. Although that has changed with more recent DFT appraisal methods, the uncertainty over the value attached to working time in the case of rail, and over the economic benefits, means that the value of time benefits for road users will more than likely be more pronounced in any appraisal.
It is imperative that we do not see a rail link in isolation. I have already mentioned the northern hub and the electrification programme, but we must not forget that we also have one of the largest infrastructure projects this country has seen in centuries coming into Leeds within the next 20 years. I am, of course, talking about HS2. What a missed opportunity it would be if people were to get off a brand new, shiny, high-speed rail link in Leeds station—one of the busiest in the country—and discover that they could not get to the airport by train. Even a three-year-old child would not come up with such a hare-brained scheme.
In conclusion, there is much that I welcome: at long last, the Department seems to be taking the issue of surface access to Leeds Bradford airport seriously, for which I am thankful. Nevertheless, this is our opportunity to be ambitious and to get it right, because this is not just about getting passengers to the airport, or the airport wanting to fulfil its expansion plans; it is also about looking after the people I represent, who live in the area. If we were simply to go with the easy option of a new road, I feel sure that within the next 20 years, or possibly even sooner, whoever is representing my seat—I hope it is me—will be calling for another debate asking for a rail link.
The time to do this is now. When the airport talks to airlines about its facilities, the question that is always asked is, “How do people get there?” For too long, it has been by car. A rail link would offer new capacity to deal with a long-standing problem and improve the attractiveness of Yorkshire and beyond, through inward investment. It would help us to cope with new tourists who want to visit the wonderful county of Yorkshire, and would also help us to spread the benefits of HS2 and the northern hub. I plead with the Minister; he could become the greatest living Yorkshireman if he is bold, takes the decision we need, and gives us the rail link that we want.
I must say that the greatest living Yorkshireman has to be Geoffrey Boycott, and I could not even hope to compete with him. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate about connections to Leeds Bradford International airport, my local airport, which I have used many hundreds of times to fly to various places around Europe.
I was pleased to visit Leeds Bradford International airport, or Yeadon aerodrome, as many people still refer to it, in my official capacity on 1 May this year, when I saw some of the surface access problems. I made it clear to my officials that I wanted to visit the airport using public transport, so I embarked on the Yorkshire Tiger bus, which took me from outside Leeds station up to the airport. Although the service was very good, it was not particularly quick. Perhaps we have a general problem with railway stations and rail companies not encouraging people to take buses, but it was not immediately clear which bus stop to use or how to get to it. It occurred to me that it might have been nice to have a little aeroplane symbol next to the correct bus number on the electronic display at the bus stop.
I am delighted that the Minister visited Leeds Bradford airport in my constituency, and I accepted his apology for his officials’ forgetting to tell me. I would have been delighted to join him and hope that I can do so the next time he visits. I am delighted that the Minister has already offered some support to the idea of a rail link to Leeds Bradford airport, but such a link must be connected to the modernisation and electrification of, and the improvement of rolling stock on, the important Leeds-Harrogate-York line. That is such an important line but currently cannot be used because of those issues.
The gradients involved in potential rail access to the airport are sufficiently steep that I suspect one would need an electrically powered train to have the correct number of driving wheels, and I have been advised that doing that is not just a straightforward engineering challenge. I am well aware of the surface access issues at Leeds Bradford airport—indeed, my constituents on the coast at Scarborough and Whitby often tell me that it is more convenient to use Manchester airport because there is a direct trans-Pennine express service from Scarborough and through York and Leeds. They can get on the train in Scarborough and get off the train in the terminal at Manchester airport.
The debate is timely because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey indicated, the feasibility study that we commissioned into connectivity to Leeds Bradford International airport is nearly complete, and Ministers will shortly be considering its recommendations. Members’ contributions to today’s debate will be a vital input to our consideration. My hon. Friend has been campaigning hard on the need for a rail link and has wasted no time in taking his case to both the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor. Today’s debate is another part of the process.
Before I come to the study itself, I want to say a few words about the role of regional airports. The Government have always made it clear that regional airports make a vital contribution to the growth of regional and local economies and are a way to provide convenience and travel choice for air passengers. That was recognised in the Government’s aviation policy framework, which was published in March last year. The UK’s airports help to encourage investment and exports by providing valuable local jobs and fuelling opportunities for economic rebalancing in their wider region or area.
The aviation policy framework also recognised regional airports’ very important role in providing domestic and international connections. The local availability of direct air services from such airports can reduce the need for air passengers and freight to travel long distances to reach larger UK airports. New or more frequent international connections attract business activity, boosting the regions’ economies and providing new opportunities and better access to new markets for existing businesses. The Civil Aviation Authority’s statistics for last year show that the UK’s regional airports handled 90 million passengers—around 39% of the UK’s total—and services from regional airports operated to more than 100 domestic and international destinations. We should therefore start referring to these airports as local international airports rather than regional airports.
Airports act as focal points for local business development and employment by diversifying into other aviation-related areas such as hosting on-site aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul companies, and aviation training facilities, as well as into non-aviation businesses. Leeds Bradford International airport is home to Multiflight, a flight training and aircraft engineering organisation that provides helicopter and fixed-wing charter flights, aircraft sales and management. It is also home to the Aviation Academy, which is affiliated to the universities of Leeds and Bradford and trains and prepares students to work in the aviation industry.
I am aware that many UK airports were affected by the economic downturn and that some have struggled to maintain their commercial viability. In that regard, I was saddened to learn of the closure of Manston airport in May and, just recently, Blackpool airport. I know that those closures have caused concern for people and businesses in, respectively, the east Kent and Fylde areas. However, airports operate in a competitive market and, although regrettable, the operators’ decisions to close them have been made on commercial grounds. I must say that the story is much better for Leeds Bradford airport: since the advent of Jet2, it has many times more passengers than it had in the old days when I used to fly to Brussels with Sabena.
Just like our economy, however, many of our airports are seeing real growth again. For example, Leeds Bradford and Belfast City airports saw passenger growth of more than 10% between 2012 and 2013, and we want that growth to continue. We warmly welcome the ambition of the UK’s regional airports. They are responding to local and regional demands by investing in their infrastructure, to enable services to more destinations, and to offer better facilities and more choice to their passengers.
As hon. Members will be aware, LBIA recently completed an £11 million passenger terminal development to increase airside space by 65%. That development is being replicated around the country with major investment at other airports, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow. Given the important role that regional airports play across the UK, by providing domestic and international connections and making vital contributions towards local growth, I want to see their development continue, and I want to see LBIA reach its full potential.
The Government recognise that good surface access to airports is a key part of their success. That is why the “Investing in Britain’s Future” document, published by the Treasury in June 2013, included a commitment from the Government to undertake a feasibility study into improving connectivity to LBIA, to consider problems and identify potential solutions, some of which we have heard about today. That study has recently been completed and my ministerial colleagues and I will consider its findings and recommendations during the next few weeks, before deciding how to proceed. So, as I indicated earlier, this debate is very timely, and I welcome the opportunity to hear from my hon. Friend and other Members.
The Government wanted to understand the issues that affected the airport, which is why we commissioned a study to identify and appraise potential improvements that would substantially improve the connectivity of LBIA to its catchment area, taking into account the aspiration of the airport to grow, and including both road and public transport options. There have been a number of studies over the years to look at various aspects of surface access to the airport. Given the significance of regional airports to the economy, we thought it was important to take a fresh look at this issue, taking the previous studies and reports into account, but also undertaking some new analysis in the context of today’s air travel market.
Therefore, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff was appointed to conduct a study in April and is due to submit its final report shortly. It has looked at the evidence and reviewed the existing body of work on the issue, identified and shortlisted options, appraised the shortlisted options and set out its conclusions. I am pleased to say that the study has also drawn on the knowledge and expertise of local stakeholders, through the stakeholder reference group, which included representatives from the airport, local councils, Network Rail, bus operators, environmental organisations and the LBIA air transport forum. My colleague, Baroness Kramer, has provided updates to local MPs and ran a briefing session for them this morning.
I recognise that hon. Members may have concerns about the impact of potential solutions to this issue on their constituencies. All modes of transport have been considered in the study, including consideration of the case for new and improved highways, as well as bus and rail options. It may be that some of these potential impacts may be positive if congestion is reduced and connectivity improved, but I am well aware that some of the proposals for both road and rail schemes could require the construction of new infrastructure in what is now open space. That is naturally a cause for local concern and I can assure hon. Members that environmental considerations form part of the assessment process.
Whatever action the Government decide to take on the study’s recommendation, individual scheme proposals such as a new road or rail link would need to be subject to further evaluation, and would require statutory consents before they could proceed. This process would provide the opportunity for further consultation and public comment if people have concerns that they wish to bring forward.
Grimsby Seafood Manufacturers
I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss an anomaly that arises from the common fisheries policy. The anomaly is a measure designed to check state aid for fishing, but it is now depriving Young’s Seafood—a firm that we are very proud of in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, and my colleague, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), is here—of the ability to get state aid for investment and expansion.
Young’s is a seafood manufacturer on a considerable scale; I think it is the biggest seafood manufacturer in the country. However, this anomaly also applies to other seafood manufacturers, and seafood manufacturing is a major section of the food manufacturing industry. None of these companies can get regional selective assistance, or other public support, for the investment they need to expand and grow.
I emphasise that although my reputation is for being a Eurosceptic—a man whose opinion of the European Union can be summed up in four words, three of which are “the European Union”, and who is a continuous critic of it—I do not raise this issue just as a critic of the EU. I raise it because this situation is daft, impinges on a major manufacturing firm in Grimsby, and needs to be ended.
What is at issue here is the EU guidance on state aid regarding the entire fisheries sector. That sector is defined as being concerned with
“the exploitation of aquatic resources and aquaculture together, with the means of production, processing and marketing of the resultant products”.
That definition is being interpreted as applying to Young’s, which employs 3,000 people in Grimsby and Scotland. It is the largest single private employer in Grimsby, employing 1,700 people in processing jobs there, and—I have to say—creating a superb product range. It seems to me, and to Young’s, that to extend these European guidelines to the company is a distortion of their purpose, because Young’s itself catches no fish. It farms no fish; it does not have a fishing fleet; and it does no primary processing of fish, which is the filleting and gutting of fish—the only processing, I think, that the guidelines are meant to cover.
Young’s imports its fish from all over the world. In fact, it uses 30 species of fish from five continents. Very little of that fish is caught under the CFP, of which these guidelines are part. Young’s makes from those fish more than 300 dishes. It makes dishes; it turns fish into meals by processing it, adding ingredients and selling it as a meal. So, in every sense Young’s is not a fishing company but a food processing company—a fish and seafood processing company—and therefore it deserves to be excluded from these guidelines.
Young’s is a food manufacturer and it is an important part of Britain’s manufacturing industry. Young’s and other food manufacturers hit by this anomaly are anxious to expand, grow, invest and create jobs, but they cannot because they cannot get public support in the way that other industries that they are competing with for investment can. I hope that I can persuade the Minister to see that, and to do something about it, because if he does not, he will put Young’s and other seafood manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage not only to other food manufacturers but to the rest of the industry. He will also put us—the people of Grimsby, which is Europe’s food town—at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting jobs and investment, which will harm the development of Grimsby, because we all know the importance of cluster growth, as emphasised by Michael Porter, whereby clustering industries can trade experience, skills, staff and research. We have such a cluster in Grimsby, but it will be damaged if it cannot get Government support in this way.
I have been working hard to drive that lesson home. On 6 June, I wrote to both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In those letters, I asked for an early reply, but I did not get one. BIS passed the letter to DEFRA, and DEFRA did not answer. An Under-Secretary of State at DEFRA wrote to Young’s on 17 September—although I had written in June—explaining what the Commission thought, but we already knew what the Commission thought. What the Commission thinks is wrong. We want independent thought relating to the point that these are food manufacturers, not fisheries firms. The reply seemed over-complacent about the situation.
I took the issue up with our local enterprise partnership, which is very good and active. Lord Haskins, the chair, wrote supportively and pointed out in passing that some restrictions also apply to flower-growing in our area, although I do not see why, and to making potato chips. Let us face it: the fish and chip industry, which is vital to this country and provides a good deal of the sustenance for our people—and certainly for me—is being hit both ways; it is being hit because we cannot invest in the seafood producers, and because of restrictions on what can be allocated to producing chips. However, I am not taking up the chips side of the argument today; I am taking up only the seafood manufacturing side. Lord Haskins added helpfully that he and the LEP supported Young’s, which he said were
“wealth creators and providers of large local employment”,
which is true.
Our Euro MP, Linda McAvan, was also helpful. She understood the problem and the consequences and mentioned that guidelines for the fisheries sector are being revised at this very moment. If those guidelines are being revised, it is up to us to get our voice in, to get that revision changed so that this restriction no longer applies to seafood manufacturers. I want the Department to get in there and get this regulation changed.
That is my plea. I plead to the Government and Ministers to stop wringing their hands and stop telling us what they cannot do. Government is good at telling people what they cannot do. I want the Minister to find out what is happening to seafood manufacturers in other European countries, because I am sure, from a little bit of evidence that I have—it is incumbent on the Department to check this—that they are being aided by the state in a way that our state will not aid our seafood manufacturers. I will bet that those states are doing that, because the degree of cheating on European regulations is quite astonishing; others are less timid and hidebound than we are.
I plead with the Minister not to brass-plate European lunacies. Let us get round them, put Britain first, and put Young’s at the forefront of putting Britain first. Let us get food manufacturing excluded from this fisheries regulation, so that structural aid and regional support aid for investment and jobs can come to this sector, which is anxious. The purchase and consumption of seafood dishes is increasing steadily; they are good for us, and we want to encourage that and to encourage the manufacturers. The firms want to expand, and it is only this barrier that is preventing them from expanding.
I am fed up with excuses, and so is the industry. We need action on this anomaly. It ill behoves a Government who are constantly telling us that they will get a better deal from Europe to do so little to get a better deal in this instance. I have every hope that the Minister will accept that.
I share my hon. Friend’s views, and congratulate him on getting this debate. The other word that he uses in connection with the European Union is surely “out”; I would agree with that, as would most of our constituents in north-east Lincolnshire. Does he agree that this is yet another example of a case where the seafood and fishing industries have been at a disadvantage as a result of European intervention, and that they have missed out on many of the grants and benefits that other industries have had? To take up the point he was just making, does he agree that this issue should be a vital part of any renegotiation?
I agree with my hon. Friend and colleague. I will also agree on the use of “out”, but there is a long trail a-winding there. The immediate issue is to get help now for a firm that needs and wants investment. My last words to the Minister—other hon. Members will have something to add—are these: stand up and support Young’s and Grimbsy, and get rid of this anomaly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing this debate. I want to balance his Yorkshire passion with the Lancashire side of things, and I take this opportunity, as this is his last year in Parliament, to thank him on behalf of the fishermen of Fleetwood for all the work he did in the past. He still has a great name in Fleetwood for standing up for fishermen across the country, alongside the late Mark Hamer, from Fleetwood. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Again, he hits the nail on the head. Fleetwood is very similar to Grimsby now, because although the fishing industry is almost gone—there are just three boats that fish—a large fish-processing industry is left behind, with more than 30 separate companies based in old-fashioned accommodation on the dockside, employing more than 600 people in Fleetwood. The majority of fish comes in by truck, as in Grimbsy. Much of it is shellfish and much of it—some 80% to 90%—is exported. That huge industry is able to take on new contracts, but unable to meet the specifications of supermarkets because of the old accommodation and all the health and safety regulations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s view about the EU would be that expressed on any street in Fleetwood, which has seen the EU’s depredations on its once-great industry. However, we are where we are.
I should like to add to the hon. Gentleman’s appeal to the Minister. We still have huge skills and talents connected to the fish industry, and those are in fish processing. However, companies in Fleetwood are telling me that they are having to turn down orders because they do not have room, or accommodation with the capacity to meet health and safety conditions. With support of the Wyre district council, they want to come together in new buildings and create almost a northern Billingsgate. That would enable them to expand and increase their export markets—they reckon they could take on another 150 to 600 employees to meet that market—and create a centre for tourism, because the site would be open, like the new Billingsgate in London. Everything is there. The land is there; much of it is derelict. The old land would then be released for new developments along the dockside.
One would have thought that the whole thing was a straightforward regeneration bid, but we are stuck on where to go to find the wherewithal. As the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot go to Europe about the fishing industry, because for some reason this is seen as a separate business, although it is tied utterly to the historical skills of families in Fleetwood, who have been connected, from the earliest days, not just with fishing, but with processing fish. Those skills are still there.
We have gone to the LEP, and we are now looking at trying to get a regional growth bid, to help fuel this and get it working. I am taking the selfish opportunity, following on from the points made by the hon. Gentleman, to say to the Minister that the case in Fleetwood is exactly the same. Would it not be such a plus to revive these deprived fishing areas, which thought the whole thing was dying, and which still believe that there is no support anywhere, whether from Europe or central Government? I suggest that we could revive the industry in Fleetwood, with real jobs, new export markets and tourist attractions. Through that, we could reverse the damage done, including by the European Union, to what used to be a staple of England—its fishing fleets.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing the debate and bringing this subject to the attention of the House. As other Members have said, he has long been a champion of fisheries issues and the many fisheries businesses located in his constituency. Indeed, I remember when he changed his name a little over a decade ago to Austin Haddock, to highlight the plight of our fisheries industry. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting the Grimsby fish market and, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), Grimsby Seafood Village. I also visited the new Morrison’s fish processing facility, and at a dinner I had the opportunity to meet representatives of Young’s to discuss some of their plans and aspirations. I understand how important the sector is to the local economy around Grimsby, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we have corresponded on this matter, and I have also received representations directly from Young’s Seafood. He expressed some regret that we took some time to reply to that letter, but I assure him that there was a good reason for that. When I was shown the initial draft, it said that we could not do anything, and I wanted to explore the issue further. I put a hold on the letter and said I wanted a meeting to explore the issue with officials, to discuss it more fully with our lawyers and to challenge the legal opinion that we had. During that discussion, however, I was persuaded that their interpretation was correct. I will come on to explain the reasons for that, but first, I underline my support for the fish processing industry. When I visited Grimsby earlier this year, I saw at first hand what a forward-looking and dynamic sector it is. As well as employing thousands of people, it plays a vital role in providing the whole country with affordable, healthy food.
The hon. Gentleman and I have something in common: we are both on the Eurosceptic side of the political spectrum, despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum on many other things. He has been consistent; I remember him saying before that his view of the European Union can be summed up in four words, and three of them are “the European Union”, and I can see that that has not changed at all. When I was the director of the “No” campaign against the euro, he played a leading part from the Labour Benches. I am afraid that the regulations I will describe will probably not do anything to diminish his scepticism on the European Union.
There are two issues under consideration: first, what constitutes a seafood business, and, secondly, whether such a business should be eligible for financial support from public funds. On the first question, which relates to the state aid rules, there are two relevant regulations. The first is the fisheries block exemption regulation, EC regulation 736/2008, which concerns aid to small and medium-sized enterprises active in the production, processing and marketing of fisheries products. The second is the fisheries de minimis regulation, EC regulation 717/2014. Both are clear, in alignment with the financial measures under the common fisheries policy, that they apply to the entire fisheries sector. The rules cover not only fishing or fish farming, or even the primary stages of processing, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but all stages of production, including the processing and marketing of the finished product. The regulations effectively mean that support can only be offered in accordance with the conditions set out in the European fisheries fund, which is soon to become the European maritime and fisheries fund. There is a de minimis exemption for small projects, up to a total of just €30,000 over three years. I appreciate that such a small amount is of little comfort to Young’s, which has such an ambitious project.
I have some sympathy with the argument that a company, as the hon. Gentleman said, may primarily be a food manufacturer that produces meals of all kinds, rather than just a fisheries business, but I cannot agree that we are gold-plating the EU state aid requirements. They have a little room for interpretation, but it is just that: a very small amount of room. In this instance, it cannot reasonably be argued that a business whose entire product range appears to be fish-based is anything other than a fisheries business, as defined under the regulations.
We have applied the rules consistently, and have rejected similar large proposals from large applicants on exactly the same grounds. To be consistent, we have to apply the same approach now. If we were to take a high-risk approach on Young’s and allow it to receive this aid, the risk would lie with Young’s. The European Commission could decide that the aid was unlawful and require it to be repaid. If Young’s had already invested the funds in infrastructure and jobs, it would then be in the unenviable position of having to repay the aid in full, plus interest. That could pose a greater risk to the business than simply being clear in the first place that it is not eligible. In addition, should the Commission find the UK to be systematically making unlawful payments, that would put the entire programme at risk.
The hon. Gentleman asked an important question: what do other countries do? As a Eurosceptic, I always ask whether we are gold-plating regulations and what other countries do. The risk I described is not theoretical. There was a similar case in 2012 concerning a manufacturer of frozen fish products in Spain. The European Commission opened a formal investigation to determine whether the type of aid proposed was compatible with the internal market. It concluded that it was not, which resulted in the entire project being cancelled and the funds disallowed. If we look at what happened with that case and the approach we have taken with other large processors, we have to be consistent and recognise the risks of doing what the hon. Gentleman urges us to do.
It is not all bad news for Grimsby, however. There are a lot of good projects that have been supported through the European fisheries fund. Some 31 projects carried out by seafood businesses in the Grimsby area have already received some £3.2 million of European fisheries funding under the current programme. Individual grants have ranged from £4,000 to £1.2 million. Those projects have already delivered a wide range of local benefits, including port improvements, new processing units and ice plant facilities in the fish market, which have allowed local businesses to grow and prosper. When I visited the Grimsby Seafood Village, I saw a lot of those businesses benefiting from new premises and new investment to allow them to take their businesses forward.
While very large companies would be excluded from such support under most scheme rules due to their size, there are also significant general EU restrictions on large companies receiving state aid. That is simply because the European Commission has concerns that large subsidies in the fish processing sector would seriously distort the market. That is why the de minimis ceiling for state aid has been set at €30,000 over a three-year period. Additionally, the European Commission is explicit in stating that aid can be used only to support activity that a company would not otherwise undertake. That is what they call the incentive effect, and it is contained in article 7 of the fisheries block exemption regulation, which stipulates:
“Aid shall be considered to have an incentive effect if it enables the beneficiary to carry out activities or projects which it would not have carried out as such in the absence of the aid.”
I am not sure that we can make that case with Young’s.
I thank the Minister for giving way. First, he is telling us why it cannot be done, but fish is only a part of the fish meals prepared by Young’s. There are other ingredients, whether carrots or chips or whatever. This is food manufacturing, so why can it not get support for the other sides of the process, which would help it to expand? The problem is that the alternative available sources of fishing finance mentioned by the Minister are only small-scale stuff compared with the big investment need of Young’s. Secondly, what are the British Government doing in Europe to change the situation?
I will come on to that second point, but on the hon. Gentleman’s first point about Young’s selling products that are not predominantly fish, when I had that meeting with officials I said, “Go and look at Young’s website and look at their entire product range. Let’s see what they are actually selling.” We could not find a product that was not fish or predominantly fish or one that would not fall within the definition of fish product under the regulations.
I want to finish the point that I was making about investment. Taking a broader perspective across the Humber, most businesses have benefited from some large-scale investment. Some £260 million in public and private funding is being invested under the local enterprise partnership growth programme. There is also the electrification of the east coast main line right out to the coast, so we are doing many things to help Grimsby.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second point about what the Government are doing, the Government recognise not only that large companies are often part of the driving force behind growth in the regions, but also that they can in many cases have the greatest impact on the environment. As such, we are in discussion with the European Commission about ensuring that when it comes to investment in environmental protection or upgrading a plant’s facilities to help the environment, we may indeed be able to change the block exemption rules. We will work with the Commission on that for the benefit of those sectors of UK industry that stand to benefit, including the companies discussed today. We have already raised the matter with the Commission and if we get the proposal through, it could be of benefit to companies operating in the aquaculture and fish processing sectors and would at least help to support their investments in some of their environmental improvement, which we would encourage.
In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby for his efforts in securing the debate. I reassure him that I did not just sign a letter and send it back. When I saw the draft, I was clear with officials that I wanted a meeting to get to grips with the issue. Having discussed the matter with our lawyers in some depth, I am afraid that my conclusion was that their interpretation and the Marine Management Organisation’s approach had been right, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to set out what we have done and the attempts that I made on his behalf to explore this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.