Wednesday 19 November 2014
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Winter Flooding (Preparation)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gavin Barwell.)
It is a pleasure to have you presiding over us, Mr Bone.
Last winter was nothing short of a nightmare for many people in our country, including in my constituency, who faced some of the worst flooding in living memory. The heaviest and most persistent rainfall in years created transport chaos, destroyed livelihoods and literally put people out of their homes. Even the most conservative estimates made the 2013-14 winter the wettest on record. More than 5,000 homes and businesses were flooded and many rivers in southern England reached their highest ever recorded levels.
I want to make it clear from the outset that although many of my constituents experienced huge inconvenience and some flooding as a result of last winter’s weather, we are not in the same ballpark as many areas of the country, nor do we pretend to be. Indeed, part of the reason why I secured this debate is to tell a good news story of how we learned the lessons of the past in Winchester and prevented flooding from taking place, and how I think that can serve us in the winter to come.
However, my main purpose today is to try to explain the wider socio-economic impact that flooding can have in a constituency such as mine and how some parts of our country can all too easily fall off the map when it comes to flood resilience works. In doing that, I intend to break Winchester’s story down into two parts: the historic city of Winchester and everywhere else. It will become clear why as I develop my argument.
Back in the year 2000, Winchester flooded—not just some of the villages that make up my constituency, but Winchester itself, as the River Itchen burst its banks. Locals remember ducks and swans happily swimming around the ancient city streets within sight of the famous statue of King Alfred, who keeps watch over the city from the Broadway. Many of my constituents use the year 2000 as their marker when judging floods thereafter.
This year, I am happy to say, Alfred kept his feet dry, and it was generally positive action from Hampshire county council, Winchester city council and the Environment Agency that ensured that he did. The River Itchen flows into my constituency through Alresford, into the Itchen valley and down into Winchester itself, passing along the appropriately named Water lane in an area known historically, although not so much these days, as “the Soak”. At its height, such was the volume of water flowing through Winchester that there was a real risk that dozens of homes and businesses in the lower part of the town would flood.
To put a figure on what I mean by volume, I should say that at one point, some 12,000 litres per second were flowing towards the city mill and, as it turned out, the incredibly sturdy and resilient Roman bridge that goes past the city mill. With the help of the Isle of Wight fire brigade, to whom we are incredibly grateful, people tried to bypass the mill to relieve some of the pressure on homes upstream, but even the heaviest pumping equipment known in the county and elsewhere, I am sure, was never going to be enough. That is where the lessons learned from the events of 2000 came into play: we tried something that other Members may be interested in copying in their areas.
Fourteen years ago, the sluices that control and protect Winchester and control the flow of the River Itchen through the city were not intelligently managed. Several downstream at William of Wykeham’s famous Winchester college, designed to let water out on to the ancient water meadows, were not fully open. The inevitable backing-up that occurred was sooner or later going to cause the Itchen to burst its banks. That was what flooded many homes and schools in that part of town.
In 2014, the lessons had been learned and the Environment Agency was fully in control of all the sluices in the city. It was a delicate balancing act. I went out with people from the Environment Agency many times and watched them work. The impact was obvious to those living alongside the Itchen and will serve as a reassuring factor as we approach the winter of 2014-15.
Further to that, there is an idea that I aired in the House back in February; I know the Minister is aware of it and I believe it could be useful to other parts of the country this year. We borrowed a bit of genius from Pakistan that really did save Winchester this year. The gentleman in question was a former army major in the Pakistani army. He settled in the UK, where he became part of the Environment Agency team in the south-east. He was aware that the sluice control in the centre of the city could only ever do so much, and, with water levels continuing to rise as the rain continued to fall, he imposed what we call a restriction many miles upstream, which deliberately flooded some farmland in the Itchen valley. That restriction literally drew heat out of the river. The Environment Agency lowered dozens of giant bags of granite and gravel into a river from a bridge on the busy A34 and M3 motorway; it was quite a sight.
As a result, River Itchen flows at the village of Easton reduced from a peak of 15 tonnes per second to about 13 tonnes per second. That might not sound like a lot, but I can assure you that it had an impact, Mr Bone. Estimates at the time reckoned that the action, together with all the other multi-agency work that went on, saved around 100 homes from certain flooding several miles downstream in the centre of Winchester. It was a first for our country, but it clearly worked. There was significant media interest at the time, and has been since, in the man and the method that saved Winchester. The gravel was even emptied out into the river when its job was done to help the fish spawn, so it was a true environmental success story.
I turn to the future. The Environment Agency is working in what it calls a partnership team—a wonderful term—with Winchester city council and Hampshire county council to implement contingency measures taken in last winter’s flood as permanent defences in the most strategic locations in the city. The areas identified include Water lane, where we are looking into the feasibility of a flood wall along the length of that road that will serve to protect the road and those properties from flooding in future, and north of Park avenue.
The Park avenue works will manage the flood flows from entering the city and give direct benefits to properties in Park avenue, to the Winchester school of art, run by the university of Southampton, and to St Bede’s primary school, by protecting flood walls. The partnership is aiming to deliver those improvements this financial year, which will be welcome news, especially for St Bede’s school. It had to be rebuilt and raised off the ground further after the floods of 2000. The team there, not to mention the parent body, which both coped brilliantly in extreme circumstances, were dismayed to find that the school was partially closed again this year, even after those works, as unprecedented water levels rendered the toilets in the school and parts of the building unusable.
Furthermore, the Environment Agency in our part of the world now stocks a flood barrier and has access to more nationally, if needed, that can be used to direct water away from high-risk areas, reducing the impact on property in my constituency. Those can be deployed quickly and the south-east team regularly train with the equipment to ensure that they are ready to respond at a moment’s notice. I have seen the training sessions in practice and the equipment really does the business.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I am following his speech with great interest. Would he acknowledge the contribution of the fire and rescue brigades? Perhaps he will come to that issue later in his speech. Certainly, a number of brigades from my region were in the south-east. Does he further recognise the value of having a statutory duty placed on fire and rescue authorities to prepare for flooding in such contingencies?
I have already mentioned the Isle of Wight fire brigade, and generally speaking, the Hampshire fire and rescue service were incredible. I have heard from many colleagues around the country about the work they did. I had the mobile number of the chief fire officer and I was constantly talking to him. At one point, I remember being out in the village of Littleton in my constituency; I called them and within two hours, they came out and helped pump out some people who were in real trouble. So yes, they were incredible.
On the statutory duty, my honest answer is that I am not sure, but I am well aware of the debate. I am more than open to it, and fire officers have talked to me about the issue in my part of the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
The tale of central Winchester last winter is a winter’s tale with a happy ending. That was in no small part down to the effectiveness of Gold control, which is based in Netley in southern Hampshire, backed up by Silver control in Winchester at the Guildhall, under the leadership of Simon Eden, the chief executive, and Rob Humby, the leader of the city council. That is the sort of command and control system that I am sure Members will recognise from their areas, designed to co-ordinate cross-agency working. It was a recommendation of the Pitt review following the floods of 2007 and it is key now to our planning for next winter if needed. It worked, and to visit it, as I did on a number of occasions back in February, and see city officers working alongside the Army, county colleagues and fire and rescue colleagues was very reassuring indeed.
The most visible example of that was one very bleak afternoon in February in Winchester, when those of us who had been heaving sandbags for longer than we would care to remember were more than a little relieved when Silver control sent some incredible guys and girls from HMS Collingwood to help us. Something tells me that they had the shoulders for it more than I do, and they were very welcome.
I said at the outset that I wanted to explain the wider socio-economic impact that flooding can have in a constituency such as mine. That is why I shall focus on what happened in a number of the villages that I represent. In places such as Kings Worthy, Headbourne Worthy, Littleton, Hursley and Sutton Scotney, flooding from groundwater, not the river, is the main flood risk management issue. The impact of groundwater flooding on individual communities such as those is severe and long-lasting in terms of the duration of flooding and recovery. My constituents living in Lovedon lane and Springvale road in Kings Worthy, as well as Chris and Sharron Bruty, who, with Ross Brimfield, run the King Charles pub—they were incredibly helpful to me and many other residents—would recognise that problem, as it was in their lives, and almost in their pub, for a month or more.
Residents just up the road in Headbourne Worthy, whose parish council chairman in a meeting with me just last week described his village as the “plughole for the valley”—he meant it in the nicest possible way—had weeks of deep water creeping closer to their homes and the ancient St Swithun’s church. The road through the village was closed, at their request, because of the bow waves—that became a hashtag last winter—caused by inconsiderate drivers flying through the floodwaters.
I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has to say, and he is absolutely right to raise the issues that arise in villages. Does he agree that this is one of the challenges? The Environment Agency does a good job with the major schemes, and that is reasonably well funded. However, when we get to the smaller schemes, we find that the local authorities are simply not funded and therefore the prevention—there are many things that you can do in fields with help from farmers—is not done, because the money simply is not there. One protection and prevention measure this year could be to put the funding in those local authorities—particularly the rural authorities, which are so dreadfully underfunded.
My hon. Friend is a visionary and a futurist. Bear with me—“bear with”, as someone recently said.
I was touching on Headbourne Worthy. The Good Life Farm Shop lost thousands of pounds of business because of the road closure. That is part of the wider socio-economic impact that I mentioned. My constituents in the village of Littleton, another place where my team and I shifted thousands of sandbags, took that to a whole new level, as one end of the village was the ungrateful recipient of thousands of tonnes of water flowing off groundwater-saturated farmland at the other. One thing that I have learned this year is that water is ruthless and will find its way, no matter what or who is in its way, to the lowest common point. I saw that happen to devastating effect.
Meanwhile, villagers at the other end of my constituency, in Hursley, saw rising groundwater levels fill cellars and infiltrate sewerage systems, with the resulting outpouring down the picture-postcard streets. The villagers do not look on that as their village’s finest hour and I would not want to see it again.
What do all these communities, including Sutton Scotney in the north of my constituency, where there are still constituents out of their homes, have in common? As I said, their flooding was the result of groundwater—levels just overspilled. The problem that they all share is that the cost-benefit ratio for flood alleviation schemes—this issue was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris)—under the national funding formula does not favour them or, I am sure, many of the villages that colleagues represent, because of the low number of properties that are actually physically flooded.
The difficulty is being able easily to quantify impacts such as the road closures that I mentioned, disruption to local businesses, such as the Good Life Farm Shop and the King Charles pub, deliveries to those businesses and to homes, welfare services, social care, education—I mentioned St Bede’s school—and normal life in general. Our experience in Winchester points to the need for the cost-benefit analysis for flood alleviation schemes to be articulated in a very different way.
We know that the national funding formula, the so-called flood defence grant in aid programme, will never touch us, but we want to build something that is complementary to it, not in place of it, which properly recognises the value of multiple small-scale local measures to deliver community flood resilience.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. Could he address a problem that constituents right across the United Kingdom face when flooding happens? I am referring to the difficulty that householders, including my constituents, encounter when they try to get insurance. They experience great difficulty in getting insurance at all or they face exorbitant rates. Surely the Government must do more on that with the insurance companies.
Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I could have gone into huge detail on insurance, but I know how many hon. Members want to speak in the debate. A huge insurer based in my constituency, Ageas, briefed me recently. There is a scheme that has come out as a result of the floods; there is a levy on policies that helps those in hard-to-insure or uninsurable properties. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look into that. Perhaps the Minister will refer to it.
I was talking about the national programme and the difficulties that communities such as mine, and those represented by many colleagues here, will have in accessing that. Fortunately, Hampshire county council, which Winchester clearly comes under, has a plan that is actively being discussed with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—even the day before yesterday, they were discussing it again, I think. Following my introducing the idea to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury officials are looking at it ahead of the autumn statement. Called the Pathfinder programme, it would look beyond property protection to measure the benefits of resilience in the wider area—for example, the benefit of maintaining strategic transport routes.
Better management of groundwater flood risk at local level, unconstrained by the current funding methodology, would mean that the communities that I represent could remain open for the duration of the flood, enabling local economies and businesses to function. By integrating existing programmes with a devolved funding pot for new measures, benefits of scale could be realised by incorporating simple flood risk measures alongside other maintenance programmes such as highway drainage or even the resurfacing of a road.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report, “Winter floods 2013-14”, rightly highlights the fact that each catchment area has different flood risk management needs. It argues that effective flood risk management should be informed by local knowledge and prioritised according to local circumstances. It calls on the Government to assess the possibility of a total expenditure for flood and coastal risk management in order to allow greater flexibility to target funding according to local priorities. I think that Government support for the Pathfinder programme in Hampshire would provide for exactly the type of flexibility envisaged in the Select Committee’s report.
Lest the Minister think that this is just another clever ruse from Hampshire, supported by its MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) is here today—to eke more money out of the Government for it to spend as it sees fit, I am pleased to be able to say that Pathfinder is underpinned by serious academic work by the university of Portsmouth, which is working to secure a sensible baseline for cost-benefit analysis of flood risk adaption and mitigation. Hampshire seeks £2 million for Pathfinder that DEFRA devolves for a three-year programme and it will stand behind that request with match funding from Hampshire council tax payers. If the Minister hears nothing else that I say this morning, I ask him, as a consequence of today’s debate, to press his officials on those proposals and to think creatively about what they can offer.
Finally, I come to the repair and renew grant, or RRG, which I have become incredibly familiar with in recent months. It had the best of intentions when it was set up, but it was, for a start, poorly named, as many of my constituents who were attempting to claim against it would find out. The original guidelines defined the RRG as being used only if
“habitable internal areas of the premises have been damaged by flooding”.
However, following sustained appeals from my constituents, through me, DEFRA Ministers, to their credit, noted the high impact on daily lives where people were unable to continue living in their home and, on 24 June, Ministers decided to extend the RRG beyond the use in relation to habitable areas. That means that under the revised scheme, money can now be paid to those people whose septic tanks were flooded—a problem that was very acute in my area and that I suspect others will recognise. As they put it to me in their letter of 25 June,
“this is due to the fact that people cannot reasonably be expected to live in a property that is not flooded but has no functioning sewerage system”.
That was a victory for common sense, and Winchester city council has run with it. As of the end of last week, the chief executive tells me, the council had received 67 applications to the reformed RRG, with 44 approved and only two rejected. The value of grants paid out to date is in the region of £45,000.
I do, however, have one final ask on the RRG, on which I beg the Minister’s assistance; I gave him notice of this. As he knows, the scheme is due to close at the end of this financial year, by which time all schemes that receive grant approval need to be implemented and the money claimed back from the council. I do not think that that will be a problem for most individual claimants, but for larger-scale, collaborative schemes, that deadline certainly is a problem.
There is one such scheme in the village of Littleton, which I have already mentioned. A residents company has a programme, already agreed by the council in Winchester and by DEFRA, that is designed to deal with the surface water that inundated their private foul drainage system last winter, leaving many of my constituents without drainage for many weeks. There were Portaloos in the village for a long time.
I am concerned that because of the detailed design work that is required to do this properly—and it must be done properly—it may not be possible for my constituents to implement the scheme and claim back the costs by the end of March next year. I appeal to the Minister to look at the case once again and to demonstrate the kind of flexibility that the Department displayed earlier this year, which showed it in such a good light. I am happy to provide the details to the Minister outside the debate.
I place on the record my thanks, on behalf of my constituents and many others in Hampshire, for the £11.5 million that our county was awarded from the Government’s flood recovery fund to assist with repairs following the floods. That has been invaluable in repairing roads in my constituency, such as Springvale road in Kings Worthy and the B3047 through Itchen Abbas, which were ripped to shreds by floodwater. Hampshire spent £5 million of that £11.5 million on repairing the county’s roads. That was in addition to the £35 million that the county spends on highways as part of its annual maintenance budget. That is a word of thanks, which I know the Minister will appreciate.
As I have tried to set out, many things went well in my constituency last winter when we were faced with unprecedented levels of rainfall, and there are real success stories to tell. Some things, such as the RRG, have since improved. We need some further help, as I outlined, in preparation for winter 2014-15. In preparation for this winter, however, other nuts are not so easy to crack. I close by stressing the importance to me and to my constituents of the Pathfinder scheme, as put forward by Hampshire county council. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say, and I look forward to the response from the Minister and the shadow Minister.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate. We all share the view that flooding, wherever it may happen, is devastating for communities, individuals, families and elderly people. As the hon. Gentleman said so eloquently, water gets everywhere, and we should never underestimate the damage that it can do.
In my constituency, places such as Morpeth, Mitford and Hepscott have suffered the horrendous consequences of flooding over several years. There is now a reservoir and a new flooding system. Some call it a Rolls-Royce system, but others say that we need more. Thanks to the hard work of everyone concerned, finances were made available under the previous Labour Government to ensure that Morpeth—a market town, and apparently one of the best towns in the country to reside in—was secured from future flooding. That does not mean that all the problems are resolved. Other MPs and I speak regularly to people who live in areas where there is potential risk. Every time there is a drop of rain, they look out from behind their curtains and worry that there will be another flood in the next hour or so. A lot more work must be done to ensure that we can deal with the problems as politicians.
I place on the record my thanks to the Environment Agency, which has been under a lot of pressure and has done a lot of good work with regard to the flooding up and down the country. It has certainly done a good job in Morpeth. There are other problems besides the flooding, such as surface water and drainage capacity. The situation must be looked at in its entirety, and the necessary finances must be readily available. Residents are concerned about insurance. Houses have been blighted in beautiful places. Traditionally, places next to rivers are beautiful, but they are subject to risk, and people are worried about what will happen in the winter months. There is also a problem with drainage capacity. Water levels rise beneath the roads and the gutters burst, which creates surface water. We are working together with the Environment Agency in the hope of overcoming that problem.
We must do everything we can, and we must look at every possible way of securing the safety and the best interests of people in flood risk areas.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about looking at every possible avenue of assistance, and I am sure that he will develop that theme. Does he agree that we need to think strategically and look logistically decades ahead, because of climate change? Forty years ago, previous Governments did not anticipate the situation that we face now. We need to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes.
That is essential. Whether people are climate change sceptics or not, there is a general belief and understanding that we are getting more rain that we have ever had before. It is essential that we have a strategic plan not just for next year or the next five years, but for 10, 20 or 30 years into the future. We need joined-together thinking with all the services that will be required to ensure that we address the problem adequately.
One major issue is the role of fire and rescue services. In my community, I witnessed horrific levels of flooding that posed a danger to life, particularly to an elderly community that was stranded because of the floods and the water levels, and the fire and rescue service did a fantastic job on that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned the work of fire and rescue services. Is it not strange that despite the fact that they get called out to such areas and face danger when they try to rescue people—such as the elderly people I have just mentioned—they have no statutory obligation to respond to flooding in England and Wales? Is it not even stranger that there is such a statutory obligation on fire and rescue services in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Is it not about time that that was the case in England and Wales? I cannot see why anyone would disagree with that. Fire and rescue services, carrying out the fantastic service that they do, should be under a statutory duty to respond to flooding.
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has just said, we must look back to see what happened not only in 2013-14, but 10 or 15 years ago, and learn lessons from it. The winter of 2013-14 was the wettest on record. The fire and rescue services have said that 7,800 homes and nearly 3,000 commercial properties were flooded, and 28 fire and rescue services supplied crews, high-volume pumps, flood rescue tactical advisers and pumping appliances. A large number of incidents were attended by the fire and rescue service, and across the UK over the entire three months nearly 7,000 incidents were recorded. The vast majority of those were in England, with more than a third in London, Surrey and Kent. Firefighters in Wales dealt with 457 incidents during the three months, the Scottish fire and rescue service dealt with 356 incidents and there were 27 incidents in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He has mentioned an important aspect of our preparedness and the lessons we should learn from the flooding to help us create more resilient plans. Does he agree that the Minister should have discussions with colleagues from other Departments, such as the Department for Communities and Local Government, about putting in place plans on a regional or area-by-area basis to facilitate such an intervention, where firefighters have been involved not just in rescues but in safeguarding critical infrastructure, leafleting, issuing warnings and so on?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will ask that question when I wind up my short contribution.
In 2013-14 most fire and rescue services recorded a large number of rescues—there were almost 2,000 rescues across the UK during those three months. Most of the rescues were in Surrey, Kent, Devon and Somerset, with Surrey alone recording more than 1,000 rescues during the three months. The figure is generally believed to be an underestimate. We must learn lessons from 2014 and beyond. It is time to acknowledge the main recommendations of the 2007 Pitt review, which the hon. Member for Winchester mentioned. The review, which was commissioned by the Labour party, had six key components: knowing where and when flooding will occur; reducing the risk of flooding and its impact; rescues; maintaining power and water supplies during an emergency; better advice and help to protect families and homes; and recovery. I do not understand—I hope the Minister will explain—why there should be a statutory duty in Northern Ireland and Scotland but not in Wales and England. Hopefully we can put that right.
The fire and rescue services have done a tremendous job, and they have been there when others are running away. I am talking about not only fires but flooding—I have seen that with my own eyes. As MPs, I am sure we all have experience of flooding monitors, who are unpaid volunteers from local communities who do their best. They check the flooding and alert other people. Those unpaid volunteers do a fantastic job. The Morpeth flood action group in my constituency does a great job, and not only in that type of work. It brought the funding and the partners together, and consequently we have what I would class as a success story.
The fire and rescue services do not just turn up and pump water; they rescue people and save lives, too. They were there in boats and other appliances to clear furniture and carry people on their shoulders. They did everything. They did a fantastic job. They also monitored for carbon monoxide and other gases once the water started to subside. I have emphasised the need for the Government to acknowledge that we must act now to ensure that the fire and rescue services have a statutory duty and the correct funding for flood training. They need the right appliances and funding for everything else that comes with a statutory duty. It is essential that those services are funded because, frankly, there has been a huge slash-and-burn exercise within local government that has had a huge impact on the fire and rescue services. Responding to flooding, which is an additional responsibility, is unfunded.
This debate is due, as we need to discuss how we can ensure that we do the best for the communities that we represent through flood defence schemes and ensuring that finances are available. We must also ensure that, when floods unfortunately occur, the fire and rescue services have a statutory duty and are in place to carry out the fantastic job they do anyway.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate. As we have heard, surface water flooding has affected the constituencies of many hon. Members. Many residents across the country, including a huge number of my own residents in Castle Point, are deeply concerned about the prospect of the wet winter that has been predicted.
In August 2013 there was severe surface water flooding across my constituency, and my residents were told that it was a one-in-100-year event. Many hon. Members will have seen the flooding in my constituency on 20 July 2014, which we were told was a one-in-319-year event. One of my constituents remarked to me that his maths is not very good but that something did not add up. We clearly need to consider the fact that the national weather patterns are changing due to climate change, and that such rainfall events will be more frequent in future. We desperately need to ensure that we are prepared.
I thank the Minister for seeing me so swiftly after the flooding in July, and I thank the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, for delving into the preparation and responses of the various flooding authorities in two reports that quickly issued recommendations. I am very pleased to say that my local agencies are taking action to implement those recommendations, and it was an enormous help for my constituents to know that an independent person was looking at exactly what happened, because many agencies were involved, and getting to the bottom of why the flooding happened is crucial to ensuring that we address it in future.
As many as 500 properties are thought to have been affected in Castle Point this year, but that number is much larger than the official figure. As many hon. Members will have experienced, flooding agencies find it very hard to get an accurate number for flooded properties because many people do not wish to declare the damage that they have suffered for fear of being unable to sell their property or of the effect on their insurance premiums. I already have residents who are being quoted insurance premiums with excesses of £10,000 to £20,000 because of the flooding they experienced, which is effectively making many of my residents unable to insure their properties. That is causing enormous concern.
There were cases of flooding across my constituency on that day in July—Rayleigh road, the avenue areas of Hadleigh and around the bottom of Woodside hill in Thundersley—but the majority of flooded properties were on Canvey Island, which suffered rainfall of almost 220 million gallons in a little under four hours. Canvey Island has some of the best tidal defences in the country, and the sea walls and barriers that protect the island and the low-lying parts of Benfleet saw off the great tidal surge that affected many other areas last November. DEFRA has invested millions in sea defences on Canvey Island over the past decades, which is of course very welcome, and I will always fiercely lobby for that investment to continue, but the rainfall event in July exposed a surface water drainage system that has clearly suffered from decades of local under-investment, illegal tampering and appalling connections made by various developers over the years.
After the event in July, I was shocked to learn that the various flooding agencies with responsibility for drainage did not have a clear picture of the drainage systems and assets on Canvey Island or who is responsible for them. That might be an unintended consequence of shifting responsibilities and ownership by various agencies over the years, but the serious, practical consequence was that some drainage assets had clearly not been maintained by anyone for years. Therefore, no one knew the level of risk or strain on the underlying infrastructure. I am grateful that we are now seriously looking at the situation, and an integrated urban drainage study is being undertaken not only to plot the assets but to work out who is responsible for them and how they work, but that will take some time.
The hon. Lady is making some important points. Does she agree that it is important that local authorities have an insight into the situation when considering permitting further developments and when setting their community infrastructure levies, which they now do themselves? That would ensure that local authorities set the levies at a level that is sufficient to ensure that new developments are able to contribute, including off site, to the surface water drainage systems, which will be required to take a greater strain than would otherwise have been the case.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and it is a critical concern to my residents. When more development is proposed in areas where we clearly already have an inadequate system, improvements will have to be made that guarantee that there will be no further strain on the infrastructure before we allow that further development to take place. In county areas such as mine, the county council must take some responsibility for the problem of surface water flooding.
It is hard for people to make preparations for a crisis if they are not entirely sure what resources they have to hand or how effective they are. My residents have a real fear every time it rains, although they can see an enormous amount of work being done. Nobody should have to live with that level of fear.
We must get an accurate picture of the drainage network’s capability if we are to upgrade it, which is why I support my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, who spoke about the need to provide local sources of funding to prevent surface water problems. If there are problems, people need to be able to access local funding quickly.
The Environment Agency has spent £750,000 on measures to protect Gloucestershire. Does my hon. Friend agree that that activity and the activity of drainage boards and councils, taken together, represents sensible agency co-operation, which is critical to preventing flooding in the future?
Absolutely. Many organisations deal with our water drainage networks, but the most important and critical point is to ensure that they are working together and that somebody is taking leadership of that. One of the firm recommendations in Sir Mark Walport’s report is that somebody must take a firm lead. We must not allow crazy situations to occur, such as when a county council cleans out its drainage pots, finds another blockage and says, “I’m not doing that; it’s someone else’s responsibly.” Organisations must work in concert; otherwise the system will not work. A blocked drain is not a drain any more.
We are very clear that we have lead authorities, but, for example, when my constituency was flooded, each of the authorities looked to the others for co-ordination. We know that Lancashire county council is the lead authority, but on the day everybody looked to each other and nobody delivered. It was the firemen who rescued my constituents, and they were the only people who came out of the day with honour. Local authorities will not provide sandbags, and do not engage in fixing the problem. Everybody wants to lead, but nobody wants to do.
I recognise that situation, which is why I was interested to see that recommendation 7 of Sir Mark Walport’s report states:
“The Natural Hazards Partnership should use the Canvey Island event as a case study”
for modelling future events. We should also recommend that the lead authority must know what its role is. I, too, wish to put on the record my praise for my fire service, which was sill pumping out people’s houses and doing its damndest to support my constituents at 2 o’clock in the morning. I am grateful to it.
Two measures are absolutely necessary. First, the different agencies must work together effectively to ensure that their response to flooding and the maintenance of the drainage network is co-ordinated. There should be no buck-passing or pointing at other organisations. I am pleased to say that following the Government’s report, co-operation has vastly improved in Castle Point and agencies are working together to overcome problems. However, as the hon. Lady said, that should be common practice.
Secondly, constituents need support to proof their properties against flooding. The repair and renew grant is a sensible, successful measure introduced by the Government for victims of the floods last winter and spring. Unfortunately, my constituents did not benefit from it, because the flooding events fell outside the time scale of the grant period. If the grant were extended and the hundreds of families in my constituency who suffered flooding this July and last August could access that support, they would have peace of mind and further damage to their homes would be prevented. It would be enormously beneficial in helping them to reinsure their homes with evidence that they are less at risk.
I am extremely grateful for the chief scientific adviser’s report on the flooding event in my constituency. He further recommended:
“The Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology should review the likelihood and impact of extreme weather events looking into the future, and provide a clear approach”.
We must not keep talking about one-in-300-year or one-in-100-year events. We must look at what is likely to happen in the future and ensure that our infrastructure and defences are able to meet the potential events. We must look at the hazards that will be caused by the overall rainfall effect. Anybody who has had flooding in their area should look at the chief scientific adviser’s report to see how it applies to them. I am delighted to say that it is now a case study for how we should do these things in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this timely debate.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I have constituents who have been affected by flooding. There is a sizeable community in my constituency that, although it has not been affected by flooding for some time, is in desperate need of flood defence work to protect it from the increasingly severe weather that we are experiencing. I regret that some of the funding that was earmarked by the previous Government was cut. Consequently, the flood defence works that should be in place or be well on the way to being in place have been delayed. Hopefully, those works will be completed before there is an extreme weather event in my constituency, which would have a devastating effect on the community in the Chester Green area of Derby North.
The title of this debate is “Preparing for flooding in winter 2014-15” but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said clearly, we must prepare for flooding in the longer term, although this winter is the most pressing concern. When the Minister responds, will he tell us what the Government are doing to encourage farming practices that reduce soil erosion? Some modern farming practices have significantly contributed to the flooding that communities around the country have experienced. The Government must look at that issue and enter into discussions with the farming industry to see what can be done to diminish those practices.
The main purpose of my contribution is to talk about the important role that the fire and rescue service plays in tackling flooding episodes. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) said that the fire and rescue service in her area was the only agency to roll up its sleeves, with its customary can-do approach, and do a good job. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck and for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) that the fire and rescue service should be given a statutory duty to enable it to take a lead during flooding events, and to ensure it has the wherewithal to respond to floods—flood response is an increasing part of its activity. We refer to the fire and rescue service as the fire service, but increasingly its role is to deal with flooding events.
I was formerly the shadow fire Minister, and prior to entering this House I served on the Derbyshire fire and rescue authority, so I have seen at first hand the work that fire and rescue services do to tackle flooding episodes. They erect temporary flood defences—an innovative approach to diminishing the impact of flooding—where there are not permanent flood defences. They evacuate vulnerable residents—my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said they did that in his constituency—and, importantly, they protect critical infrastructure. Much work has been done to protect critical infrastructure during some of the terrible flooding events that we have seen around the country.
I remember that when flooding episodes were widespread across the country two or three years ago, North Yorkshire fire and rescue service had to use all available hands to prevent a hospital from being inundated. It used high-volume pumps and so on. The scale of the emergency meant that it had to leave motorists stranded in rising floodwater so that it could protect the hospital from being flooded out. Usually, when there are major incidents, the adjoining fire and rescue service will send firefighters in to assist. I think the problem on that particular occasion was that the adjoining fire and rescue service was dealing with its own flooding episode. There is a message there, which I hope the Minister will take back to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, namely that reducing the number of firefighters is potentially counter-productive in many ways, not least of which is in dealing with flooding events such as the one I have just described. I believe that last winter, 70% of fire and rescue services were called upon to help with the winter relief efforts.
Like other hon. Members, I have already said that climate change is leading to more extreme weather events. Therefore, the role of the fire and rescue service will increasingly be to deal with the consequences of those events. I think that the hon. Member for Winchester touched on the cost of failing to deal with them; I hope he will forgive me if he did not, but I thought I heard him speak about the potential cost of failing to protect crucial infrastructure. It is absolutely colossal when we consider some of the power plants that have been under threat of being inundated, and hospitals, which I have already mentioned. This situation will only get worse, so we need to recognise the central and crucial role that the fire and rescue services play.
I know that the previous Labour Government invested significantly following earlier floods—I think it was after the floods in 2007—and put in place one-off expenditure to enable fire and rescue authorities to purchase additional equipment. However, that was about seven years ago and there has not been a similar injection of funding since. Maybe it has not been necessary, because that earlier injection gave the fire and rescue authorities the wherewithal to purchase that equipment. However, the equipment is now getting older.
One-off injections are not good enough. We need the statutory duty I have mentioned to enable fire and rescue services to plan for this increasingly important part of their activity. Because there is not such a statutory duty, and in the context of diminishing budgets, that understandably means that when the chiefs of fire and rescue services are planning their budget obligations, dealing with flooding will inevitably take a lower priority, because they are obliged to deal with their statutory obligations. That is why it is essential that, when it comes to planning at local level, a statutory duty is applied.
There is also a lack of consistency. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck has made this point already, but how can it be right that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, firefighters have a statutory duty to deal with flooding, and yet firefighters in England do not?
Other hon. Members have already mentioned the Pitt review. Recommendation 30 of the review was explicit on this point. It said:
“The Government should review and update the guidance Insurance for all: A good practice guide for providers of social housing and disseminate it effectively to support”—
I beg your pardon, Mr Bone: I am reading out the wrong recommendation. I thought I had highlighted the one I wanted to read out. I will just have to gloss over that for a moment. I was going to read that out with a great flourish. However, I can assure you, Mr Bone, that somewhere in the review there is that recommendation. I may intervene on the Minister later, if he will allow me, when I have scrutinised my notes properly; this is the problem when we prepare our notes in a hurry. There was a recommendation in the Pitt review that explicitly said that a statutory duty was needed.
For all the reasons that I have outlined, it would help in planning, in ensuring that there is necessary investment, in developing the integrated risk management plans, in training, in providing personal protective equipment and all the other necessary factors if we ensure that we have a coherent approach to tackling flooding in this country. And when the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he can explicitly respond to the point about statutory duty, because a lot of Members feel it is important, and to my point about farming and the importance of reducing farming practices that are contributing to increased flooding in our country.
I am grateful, Mr Bone, for the opportunity to speak. As always, it is a pleasure to speak when you are chairing proceedings. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this debate.
My Cleethorpes constituency is situated on the south bank of the Humber estuary, and on 5 December last year it suffered a major flood, and what could have been a major tragedy, when a tidal surge hit the area. Because the Minister replied to my previous Adjournment debate on that flood and has been very helpful since the tidal surge, he knows many of the problems that my constituency has faced.
In the vicinity of Barrow Haven, every home was flooded, and the areas around the villages of New Holland and Goxhill also suffered badly. Today, however, I will focus on the port of Immingham, which was put out of action last year. Clearly, the Government recognised its strategic importance and the then Environment Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), visited it just 48 hours after the surge.
It is difficult not to over-emphasise the importance of Immingham. Measured by tonnage, it is the UK’s largest port, handling about 50 million tonnes annually, rising to more than 60 million tonnes when it is coupled with neighbouring Grimsby. Thirty million tonnes of coal and petroleum products, and biomass for the newly converted Drax power station, play an important part; the coal and biomass is estimated to account for around a third of the UK’s generating capacity. Drax itself has the largest generating capacity of any power station in Europe. There are two oil refineries situated adjacent to the port and together they represent 28% of the UK’s refining capacity. The country’s strategic supplies of road salt are also stored on the dock estate. The tidal surge, and the disruption to the port and to wider industrial activity, resulted in a direct loss to Associated British Ports of £15 million. When that loss is coupled with that for businesses situated in or dependent on the port, the total loss was in excess of £100 million.
It is clearly essential that the Humber ports and villages are better protected against future risks. Many homes remain uninhabitable and with further developments anticipated, the Government have a duty to act. The Environment Agency and North Lincolnshire council acted swiftly, and by the end of March defences were restored to their pre-surge levels. However, more work is clearly needed. Humberside MPs, acting collectively on a cross-party basis and with the help of all the various agencies involved, have put detailed plans to the Government, from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister downwards. We met my right hon. Friend a few months ago, and we have also met his flood envoy, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who visited the port of Immingham on Maundy Thursday. The Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), has also received a delegation, and I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), have met the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Humber flood risk management strategy represents a plan prepared by the various agencies involved, and it has now been submitted to the Environment Secretary. The planned work is estimated to cost £1.28 billion. That is to protect the whole estuary; it is an enormous amount, but an essential investment. When one considers that this is a major civil engineering project spread over 17 years, it becomes affordable, particularly when the strategic importance of the port is considered, as well as the fact that homes in Barrow Haven and other nearby villages have been flooded not only last year but in 2007 and on previous occasions. The plan details the main objectives, which are to improve the resilience of Humber ports and to ensure that the nation’s trading needs, which the ports contribute to, are secured. The residential areas are sparsely populated, but the council and other agencies have allowed further development, so it is incumbent on those authorities to protect people’s homes.
Last year’s tidal surge occurred with just small changes to wind speed and direction. Important decisions were made by the dockmasters at Immingham and Grimsby. If those decisions had been different, thousands of homes in north Cleethorpes and the East Marsh area of Grimsby would have been under water, as well as many homes in villages on the north bank of the Humber and in areas around Hull.
Last month, a joint parliamentary Committee gave the go-ahead for a further development by Able UK on the south bank of the Humber, a major development that will help with the Government’s project to establish the Humber as the renewables estuary for the UK. Some 4,000 jobs are promised. The Government have been supportive. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was in my constituency in August, handing over another £15 million cheque towards infrastructure. The Government have clearly indicated their support for the area, but they have investments that they, too, need to protect.
It is essential that the Government and the various agencies look seriously at the proposals. I appreciate that the Minister is unlikely today to pre-empt the autumn statement or next year’s Budget by announcing the resources, but clearly in both the long and the short term, for this winter and the winters immediately ahead, action is certainly needed.
I will try to keep to five minutes, Mr Bone, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on this timely, important debate.
I shall talk about a constituency issue in the parishes of Pilling, Thurnham and Winmarleigh, two of which are quite low-lying. The Minister is well aware of Thurnham, where we have had huge arguments with the Environment Agency, which continue, about its failure to commit to protect the sea defences beyond 30 years. The Minister will be relieved that I do not want to talk about that today.
Last winter, many of the fields of Winmarleigh, which is 2 or 3 miles inland, were covered by water, because the dykes and ditches had not been maintained regularly enough by the Environment Agency. For the last four years, I have had meeting after meeting with parishes, farmers and the Environment Agency. I was also trying, occasionally and now more regularly, to get Natural England at the same meetings, so we can get decisions. We even got to a situation a few months ago where Natural England and the Environment Agency agreed that some local farmers could remove weed from those ditches, although they could not dredge those themselves. The argument was about dredging, but of course when it got to the point we could not get official permission to do that. There was also the problem for farmers of who pays for what and the problem of liability insurance, so we are back to the same issue. Many dykes are higher than the neighbouring land, because once upon a time Pilling and Thurnham were undersea and they need the protection of sea defences.
The other week, at a meeting of Pilling parish council, the measurements on the two rivers concerned—the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker—were discussed. Measurements on the Broad Fleet had reached 1.6 metres, with 1.7 metres being flood-imminent or flood-liable. We have had the highest markings. The farmers’ argument is that that is happening because the ditches had not been dredged. However, more importantly, the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker, which all the dykes drain into, go out to sea and apparently that makes that situation the responsibility of the Marine Management Organisation. Those channels, which go into the Irish sea as part of Morecambe bay, have not been dredged for years. Anyone who knows the tidal range there will know that it is massive. Silt has built up and the tides have not cleared it, so even if we get some agreement with the Environment Agency regularly to clean out the land-based dykes, we will be trying to shove the water uphill through the channels beyond the sea wall, because nobody will take on the responsibility of going out there. I contacted the Marine Management Organisation and was asked why, as a Member of Parliament, I was contacting it, because apparently I should have contacted the Environment Agency.
I have got to the point of writing this week to the Secretary of State, saying, “If I get floods in Pilling and Thurnham this winter, then I know where the responsibility is.” The question is exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) put it: who has the responsibility, out of all these organisations, to come down to Pilling and Thurnham, look at those channels and say, “We need to dredge them; otherwise, hundreds of farms, and hundreds of residents—and caravan parks—will be under water”? That is the problem.
Pilling parish council has appointed an emergency committee, together with representatives from Winmarleigh and Thurnham, to meet weekly to try to deal with the land-based dykes, but the problem is out in the tidal range. I am trying to arrange a meeting, finally, with a strategy team at the Environment Agency and the Marine Management Organisation—hopefully that will happen—but at the end of the day I am still lost and hope that the Minister will answer my question. Who takes the responsibility, above all those organisations, to clear out the channels of the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker which go out into the Irish sea?
It is perhaps appropriate, Mr Bone, that I bring this debate back to Hampshire, which is where it started, with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), whom I congratulate on leading it.
In Romsey and the Test valley villages last winter, there were many types of flooding. I did not even know about the whole range, which includes ground water, surface water and foul drainage flooding. Finally, the banks of the Fishlake stream and the River Test burst and there was a dramatic influx of water into people’s houses and businesses.
As many hon. Members have mentioned, all the agencies worked incredibly hard. I emphasise that in Romsey it really was a multi-agency approach, including the EA, the county council, the borough council, the town council and the surrounding parishes. The fire service did an absolutely cracking job at all times in Romsey. Eventually, the military responded in the face of a rising tide of water.
Southern Water struggled to tanker away the foul effluent in many cases where the drainage had been infiltrated with surface water, but it kept going. I have to mention the householders, who—
I really do not have time. I am sorry, but I am left with a very few minutes to talk about flooding in Hampshire, which is where we started.
Householders were bringing out endless coffee and cakes for the tanker drivers, because they recognised that they were the people keeping the sewage out of their homes.
What of the aftermath? I thank the Minister for coming to Romsey last month to speak to residents and the EA, and to learn about the cat flap, which was a temporary structure that has now been removed, and about what could be done to protect the town and the surrounding villages and prevent the Test from causing future mayhem. The Minister’s Lib Dem colleagues, albeit at local council level, criticised his visit, describing it as a political stunt. I do not believe for a minute that it was. I put on record my thanks to him for coming and for his genuine interest.
Of course, the big question on everybody’s minds in Romsey is, what more needs to be done? I can tell the Minister that the Test is significantly higher today than when he visited last month and residents are extremely anxious as they look at the weather forecast and the rain. The EA has worked hard to repair the banks of the Fishlake stream and much work has been done in the villages to ensure that the water can flow more freely. In Stockbridge there is even a fully worked-up scheme that the local chamber of commerce assures me will cost only £50,000 to implement, but its question is, where is that money coming from? Southern Water has done some amazing work improving drainage networks. In one village alone, King’s Somborne, it spent £700,000, and it has worked on the pumping station in Longparish and improved the drains in Chilbolton.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned, the county council—I pay tribute to it, particularly for its work with the pathfinder project—has done sterling work in both the Test and Itchen catchment areas and worked hard with the Environment Agency, refining ideas and strategies ahead of the autumn statement.
I could praise the work of the insurance companies, which responded well at the time, but of course now residents have the problem of high renewals and high excesses: £25,000 in some cases. The promised Flood Re scheme seems to be a long time coming. The Minister heard residents mention that when he visited Romsey. They do not care whether the delay is with the insurance company or the Department; they just want it sorted.
The Minister will have understood from his visit that the Fishlake stream and the River Test pass through Greatbridge and behind the Budds Lane industrial estate. This was where the greatest impact was felt by householders and businesses. The cat flap was only a temporary structure. Residents want to understand who is responsible for a permanent measure, who will fund it and, importantly, when it might happen. I share their desire for answers.
The Causeway is the only access to the Southern Water pumping station. If that fails and is inaccessible, the sewage in Romsey backs up very quickly and it emerges in people’s houses in Riverside gardens, in Middlebridge street, and in sheltered accommodation at Bridge court. We heard about the cost-benefit ratio. There may not be a massive population here, but these are people’s homes and their livelihoods—their very existence—and I cannot begin to describe how unpleasant it is for people to be knee-deep in sewage in their own kitchen. There has to be recognition that that pumping station and its access is of strategic importance to the town.
I would like to hear from the Minister an assurance that the Test valley, although not as glamorous as Windsor and not as badly hit as Somerset, has not been forgotten and that he understands the problem and, following his visit, will do his best to convince the Chancellor that it deserves the sort of funding needed to prevent the dreadful experience of last winter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing a popular debate. I am sure the many Members who have spoken could have given significant extra detail over and above the detail they have given on their constituencies. There are few more important issues for Government than protecting people from extreme weather events. We all remember the catastrophic scenes of last winter. It is therefore important that we have an opportunity to debate preparations for flooding this coming winter. It seems clear from all the speeches we have heard today—from the hon. Gentleman, from my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and from the hon. Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and from the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who waited extremely patiently for her opportunity—that prevention is better than cure.
After the significant floods in 2007, the previous Labour Government responded quickly and effectively. Once the significant relief effort was over, we commissioned the Pitt review, which was the most thorough assessment yet of Government’s ability to prepare for and respond to flooding. We put in place proper and effective long-term plans following that review, which included significantly increased spending. There was cross-party support for that, including for the increased spending levels. Unfortunately, that support did not survive the general election and the entry into government of the coalition parties. The response to last winter’s floods has been nowhere near as strong.
The reality is that this Government have been poor on flood protection. They slashed the budget when they first came into office and crossed their fingers and hoped it would not rain, but we know that the impact of climate change is increasing the risk of flooding in the UK. The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s advisers on this, say that the chance of a £10 billion-cost event in the next 20 years is 10%. That event would be 10 times worse in cost than last year’s floods and more than three times worse than the catastrophic floods of 2007. The Government’s failure to take climate change seriously is putting more homes at risk of flooding. We have heard clearly from Government Members that they take climate change seriously. Perhaps they would like to ensure that their Government do so, too. This debate is obviously part of that effort.
The Labour party has clear plans to get the country back on track in managing flood risk. We will reprioritise long-term preventive spending, which is essential, as all the Members who have spoken today have made clear. We will establish an independent national infrastructure commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, including flood defences. That will enable us to try to reach a consensus that lasts beyond general elections on what is necessary with this kind of infrastructure spending. That is the approach we need. It is what the Committee on Climate Change and the National Audit Office say we need, but we have not seen a lot of it from this Government.
The National Audit Office made it clear in its report on strategic flood risk management that funding for flood protection has decreased in real terms by 10% since 2010, although the Government have made efforts to spin those spending figures. That is a real issue with the Government’s approach to flood protection, which is why we are hearing so many reports about problems with flood maintenance works, which I will talk a little about. Members have talked about maintenance in their constituencies, but the National Audit Office report last month put it plainly. Half of the nation’s flood defences have been maintained only to a minimal level. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on last winter’s floods, which was published in June, also made it clear. It said:
“Defra needs to recognise the importance of regular and sustained maintenance work in the prevention and management of flood risk”.
What has the Government’s response been so far? Have they taken the advice on board and set out plans to address failing flood defence maintenance and the falling level of spending? No. They have spent more time trying to hide the problem than actually dealing with it. When the National Audit Office criticised the Government’s record on spending and maintenance, the Minister responded by briefing against the methodology used in the report. As NAO value for money reports are agreed as factual with the Department concerned before they are published, how he could do that?
It is not just the National Audit Office saying that proper maintenance is not taking place. Last weekend, The Sunday Times reported that an unpublished maintenance review by the Environment Agency shows that thousands of areas along Britain’s rivers are in danger of flooding as a result of poor maintenance. Will the Minister commit today to publishing that maintenance review at the earliest opportunity? Those at risk of flooding due to poor maintenance, whether they are farmers or householders, should not have to read about it in newspapers. The failure on maintenance highlighted by the NAO and in The Sunday Times is just further proof of the Government’s failing record on flood protection, and it is not just the Opposition who say that.
The Government’s independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, say that Government plans will leave an additional 80,000 properties at serious risk of flooding in the next Parliament alone if they are not improved. When I pointed that out over the summer, the Conservative press office—not the Minister’s party—briefed against the Committee on Climate Change’s figures rather than setting out what the Department was planning to do to get to grips with the problem. All the signs are that the Government spend far more time trying to spin their way out of trouble instead of putting in place proper plans to reduce flood risk, which are what is needed.
On flooding, it seems that the Government cross their fingers and hope for the best, which is not good enough. All the signs suggest that Britain is not adequately prepared for flooding this winter. Lead local flood authorities, which have a significant role in managing flood risk, not least in emergency planning and recovery—Members across the Chamber have remarked on good emergency planning, but also on some failures—are having their funding from DEFRA cut from £15 million in 2014-15 to £10 million in 2015-16. That is a cut of a third. Will the Minister please explain what sort of impact he expects a cut of that size to have? Will he also explain why 86% of lead local flood authorities have failed to publish their flood risk strategies, despite being required to do so by Ministers since 2011? A clear theme during the debate has been that co-ordination across many agencies, with everyone knowing who is doing what, is an important part of flood response. Once it has started raining, it is too late to set the strategy. People have to know what they are doing in advance, so what is the Minister doing about the fact that 86% of lead local flood authorities have failed to publish their flood risk strategies?
Not only are the Government failing to carry out the necessary maintenance work to an adequate level, but they are failing to communicate that to the public. The NAO has warned that communities are not being made aware of maintenance works in their area being deprioritised. Will the Minister set out what steps are being taken to keep communities informed of that? Some householders may be able to take steps themselves that might assist. At least if they knew that their protection was being deprioritised, they would know that they have a problem. If preparation for last winter’s floods was poor at best, the immediate emergency response was good. However, the response to ensure recovery after the deluge can only be described as slow and chaotic. For weeks after the flooding started, Ministers refused to accept the need for additional funding, the serious situation facing many farmers and householders and that the Government had a duty to act, regardless of whether official requests from councils had been made. As a consequence, the response was chaotic and not at all good. I hope that the Minister can assure Members here today and the rest of the country that the response in future will be better.
I have already said that if I was Secretary of State, I would start by reprioritising flood risk. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), removed that from his Department’s priorities. We would introduce a new national adaptation plan to ensure that all sectors of the economy are prepared for climate change. It is unacceptable for Britain to have a plan for adapting to climate change drawn up by a Secretary of State who openly said that climate change would benefit Britain. We must end this Government’s short-term approach to flood investment and prioritise preventive spending by establishing a national infrastructure commission to identify our long-term infrastructure needs and get cross-party support to meet them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate, which is of great relevance and interest to Members of all parties and the communities that they represent.
I start by reflecting on what we have seen and the impacts on constituencies described by hon. Members. Last winter saw record levels of rainfall and the stormiest period for at least 20 years. Record river flows, sea levels, wave heights and ground water levels in many locations across the country led to the flooding of more than 8,300 homes and caused damage or disruption to businesses, infrastructure, transport and utilities.
I have seen first hand the damage caused by last winter’s flooding and the devastating impact on people’s day-to-day lives. My sympathies continue to go out to those affected, in particular those who are still unable to go home because buildings can take a long time to dry out. The Government have led a major recovery effort to help people to get back on their feet, including committing more than £560 million of recovery support funding. Many organisations were involved in responding to the exceptional weather, including the Government and their agencies, in particular the Environment Agency, the emergency services and the military, as well as many voluntary organisations and transport and utility companies.
While efforts were generally effective, we acknowledged at the time that some aspects of the response and recovery required improvement. The shadow Secretary of State described a chaotic situation, but we have heard from many hon. Members that the response in their local communities was good. However, we must learn from the cases where it was less good, as we did for previous events and will continue to do. The shadow Secretary of State described the experience in 2007 under the previous Labour Government and the constant need to learn lessons and move on.
I need to make some progress as I have a lot to respond to, but I hope to cover the hon. Gentleman’s points.
The Government are spending more than £3.2 billion over the course of this Parliament on flood and erosion risk management, which is half a billion more than was spent in the previous Parliament. Comparing this Parliament with the previous five years, I should say that investment in flood risk management has increased in real terms by 5%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has secured a protected, long-term six-year capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure. We will be making record levels of investment in capital improvement projects and more than £2.3 billion will be invested in capital alone over that six-year period, with £370 million in 2015-16 and then the same in real terms each year, rising to more than £400 million in 2020-21.
That investment will deliver long-term value for money and reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households between April 2015 and March 2021, which is on top of the 165,000 homes protected during the current spending period. The national programme of flood and coastal erosion risk management improvement works is now being developed in alignment with regional flood and coastal committees, which are working on their local programmes. By the end of the decade, we will have provided a better level of protection to at least 465,000 households.
I turn to the local impacts. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester set out the situation in Hampshire, which experienced record amounts of rainfall last winter, leading to high flows on the River Itchen and on the River Test, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). Properties were affected in several communities along those rivers.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the issue is about not only those who were directly affected, but those who were not, who may be stressed and concerned about the future. I absolutely understand the wider impacts. The multi-agency emergency response in Romsey and Winchester, supported by military and other professional partners, helped to reduce the impacts of the flooding. I am grateful for the tributes paid to those who worked incredibly hard to achieve better results for their communities.
The Environment Agency estimates that more than 260 properties across Hampshire suffered internal flooding. DEFRA is currently considering an application from Hampshire county council for a three-year programme for ground water flood alleviation schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, officials met with county officials earlier this week to discuss the proposal and we remain in touch with the council over how we might take it forward.
Turning to the general preparedness for the coming winter, 844 flood defence assets were damaged in England alone last winter, including those managed by the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards. In response to last winter’s exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repair work at many sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and continued throughout the summer. The Environment Agency continues to work with local authorities to ensure that any outstanding repair work is identified and that funding options are clarified.
As I said, I want to cover the points made in the debate, so I need to press on.
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of all involved, all areas will have at least the same standard of protection as before last winter, and permanent defences have been restored to more than 200,000 properties. For a small number of sites where repairs are continuing, contingency measures, such as mobile pumps and temporary flood defences, have been put in place to ensure that communities are protected. I understand that just 4% need temporary defences, which in some cases is down to longer-term projects that are coming forward, so it makes sense to do temporary work. Permanent defences are therefore back in place for 96% of communities.
Last winter’s floods highlighted the valuable contribution of our armed forces and the difference that they can make in response to domestic emergencies. New arrangements have been put in place to strengthen military involvement in local emergency planning and preparedness and to make it easier for responders to access support from the armed forces in an emergency if necessary. Last winter also saw disruption to our transport, energy and water supply networks, so extensive work has taken place to ensure that we are better placed to deal with similar events in future, with action being led by both Government and relevant service providers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) spoke of the issues on Canvey Island and is all too aware of how necessary it is that water companies are involved, along with local authorities and the Environment Agency, in coming up with new solutions to increase capacity and to ensure that the area is better prepared should there be a repeat of the severe event of July. I welcome the fact that water companies are engaging with her, which is important, and thank her for her kind words about the Department’s support and the chief scientist’s contribution.
A review that we have undertaken shows that lessons need to be learned from recent weather events affecting transport and from future projected changes in extreme weather events. Those lessons will be for a number of agencies.
Following the implementation of the Pitt review’s recommendations, we have been clear about where responsibilities lie. I want to address the contribution of fire and rescue services, which was raised passionately by several Opposition Members.
I am grateful for the opportunity to correct my earlier mistake. I meant to read out recommendation 39, which states:
“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”
The Pitt review certainly recommended that we consider that, but the advice of the chief fire officer is that such a change would not be right at this point. The hon. Gentleman makes that point consistently in Parliament and with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have heard today about the huge contribution made by the fire and rescue services. There was no shortage of resource and they were a big part of the recovery process, which is a good sign that current arrangements are proving successful. DCLG can continue to keep the matter under review, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will raise it with Ministers from that Department.
I want to cover some of the other points made in the debate.
The Government are also reviewing the packages of support that have been put in place, with DCLG reviewing some recovery packages, but we are focused this morning on preventing flooding. In the short time remaining, I want to address the specific issues, frustrations and hopes for swift progress raised by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) sought assurances about the ditch clearance work that his communities believe would make a real difference. I am happy to get more information on that and to get back to him. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), along with a cross-party selection of Members from across the Humber area, consistently stresses the importance of future plans for that part of the country. As he uncannily predicted, that will be a matter for future major financial investment programme announcements, such as the autumn statement.
I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members. The Government are committed to investing record amounts in flood defences and to working with local communities to ensure that we spend that money more efficiently than ever to protect more and more homes.
Planning Policy (Housing Targets)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this morning, Mr Bone. I hope that the sitting, which has been a little Hampshire-centric so far, does not make you think that all southern MPs are focused only on planning and flooding, although those issues are critical to our local communities and, arguably, the biggest challenges to face our towns and villages.
The Minister will not be surprised that I requested this debate specifically about housing land supply and local authorities’ difficulties in seeking to uphold robust and well-considered planning policies in the face of repeated and determined speculative applications by developers, who are consistently using the requirement for a five-year housing land supply to their own advantage, rather than to the advantage of local residents and would-be home owners.
We all know that figures can be massaged and distorted. In Test Valley, the abolition of spatial strategies was widely welcomed, but the reality of local planning and localism has not been as we all might have hoped. It makes no difference whether sites are on the edge of Romsey or in the strategic and local gaps between smaller settlements and the major city of Southampton. To the layman, developers appear to be using the national planning policy framework to their own advantage and riding roughshod over local opinion and the local decisions made by democratically elected councillors.
What my hon. Friend has said echoes what is happening in my constituency. Only last week, I went to a meeting about the neighbourhood plan for Chapel-en-le-Frith—a fantastic piece of work that is seemingly not being considered. The issue is all to do with the land supply. Residents are getting incensed, thinking, “Are we in a situation of planning by appeal?” Does my hon. Friend think that a valid point?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the experience that we are facing in Test Valley.
The onus of the NPPF is very much on delivery—I do not need to remind the Minister to refer specifically to paragraphs 47 and 48. Local councils in general and, as the Minister knows from his own correspondence, Test Valley council in particular, are calling for greater clarity and for a focus on planning issues, where the authority has the ability to have a role.
Does my hon. Friend agree that no matter where we are in the country, we are seeing more and more of our green belt disappear? It is vital that we should first consider every brownfield site possible before any green belt is even looked at.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the green belt. Unfortunately, in Hampshire we have next to none.
Recent information from the National Trust indicated that if the five-year land supply can be disputed by developers, more than 70% of locally made decisions are overturned at appeal. The Minister will not comment on individual cases, and I do not ask him to, but in order to highlight how the requirement for a five-year housing land supply has been abused, I shall use the example of Parkers Farm on the edge of Rownhams, which is the subject of a speculative planning application that right now is at the appeal stage.
Test Valley’s revised local plan has recently been submitted and is expected to be determined some time reasonably early next year. Throughout the borough, local communities are looking at neighbourhood plans, some more actively than others, and there is real enthusiasm locally to ensure that residents’ views are heard and taken into account.
If there is one thing that my constituents get, it is local planning, and as someone who served for 12 years on the southern area planning committee of Test Valley borough council, it is something I get. I have long held the belief that nothing is more vexed in the world of politics than local planning. Where guidance is clear and statistics cannot be manipulated and distorted, however, there is at least clarity. People can reasonably understand policies and not be confronted with ever-shifting sands.
With Parkers Farm, which is only one site that I have identified—the Minister might be aware that there are several others across southern Test Valley—the case of the appellant rests on there not being an adequate five-year land supply. The Minister may recall the correspondence from the leader of the local council on the matter, following a motion in Test Valley borough council, but the five-year supply depends entirely on how it is calculated and on the rate of delivery of granted permissions. In the majority of cases, that rate of delivery is entirely in the hands of the developers.
I totally support my hon. Friend on that point. In effect, we appear to have an extraordinary flaw and an unintended consequence of the planning system. Developers like the comfort of a long-term plan and lots of land in it, but they are not as keen to deliver that land as quickly as we might like for many reasons, among which is not wishing to bring the local land price down, as well as ensuring that they can get more land into their land-banking systems.
My hon. Friend is right to a certain extent, but in Test Valley we have both scenarios: neither brownfield sites nor greenfield sites with permission are being developed.
I have raised the issue more than once in the Chamber and with more than one planning Minister. In Test Valley, we have repeatedly witnessed the scenario in which each developer seeks permission by demonstrating, usually on appeal, that sites with extant planning permission are for some reason or other undeliverable. We have even had the bizarre situation in which landowners have argued that their own sites, previously granted permission, are now not coming forward at the expected rate, so a further permission is required for an additional site. That is all in order for the borough to maintain its five-year supply.
The revised local plan, therefore, proposes a higher annual housing delivery figure than that contained in the now revoked south-east plan. Test Valley is doing its bit to aid housing supply. The construction rate is at a 15-year high, and since 2012 the borough has had the highest completion rate in Hampshire, including in the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton.
The council has a long-standing working relationship with many developers and seeks to bring forward appropriate sites. It has worked hard and made incredibly difficult decisions, but is repeatedly frustrated. It is doing its best to grant appropriate permissions and to encourage developers to bring forward housing, but the ability of certain landowners and developers to fail to meet their promised delivery rates once they have obtained planning permission is causing huge difficulties. That manipulates the land supply forecast and calculations to the developers’ advantage and, as a result, yet more greenfield sites fall under the continuous pressure from speculative planning applications.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. The problem is clearly one that we recognise in many parts of the country. What counts as deliverable in planning circles is very much what the developers tell us is deliverable. They will assure us that they can get their vehicles straight on to that nice green-belt site, or in the course of a couple of days, but that the brownfield sites are not deliverable. Once the site is given to them in the plan, it becomes quite another matter, and sites might sit there vacant, but causing planning blight for residents.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify that cause of planning blight. Residents see a greenfield site with planning permission, but with nothing happening, which causes huge frustration. Decisions not to bring forward sites that are not under the local authority’s control—for commercial reasons, for example—should not have the effect of penalising the land supply figure.
At this point, I remind the Minister that Hampshire has no green belt, save for a small corner in the far south-west designed to prevent the spread of the Bournemouth conurbation, which I must remark lies in a totally different county. Hampshire does not benefit from green belt and, as a result, the coalescence of settlements and the loss of the distinctive gaps between them is a serious problem.
The Minister’s response to me, of Monday’s date, helpfully points out paragraph 82 of the NPPF and identifies exactly why my local authority cannot designate new green belt. The NPPF states that the general extent of the green belt is already established—we do not have any and we are unlikely to get any—and that new green belt should be established only in exceptional circumstances. Let me tell him that unfortunately the circumstances in Test Valley are not exceptional, and it would be incredibly difficult for us to designate a new area of green belt, because we are not planning a large new settlement or major urban extension. Even if we could designate a green belt, the current criteria do not allow us to. I urge him to revisit those criteria.
I return to the point in hand. Over the past four years, all the speculative developments in southern Test Valley have been justified on the grounds of a lack of a deliverable five-year supply and the supposed ability of yet another site to make up the shortfall. Yet, as the deputy leader of the council said earlier this year, if we were to tot up all the permissions granted across southern Test Valley, there would be over seven years’ worth of supply. Developers are building deliberately slowly, for either strategic or commercial reasons.
The housing land supply figures are too easily influenced by developers simply either changing their forecasts on permitted sites or not bringing sites forward at all, or else not as quickly as was forecast. The case of the Romsey brewery is well documented. That development has been brought forward at a painfully slow rate since the final brew was started on my 11th birthday.
Yes—a very long time ago, as my hon. Friend says. For 30 years, the landowner and developer have dragged their feet, and have set a pattern that others seem very happy to follow. Of course, we all understand that there may be solid planning reasons for sites not coming forward as quickly as was hoped—both I and the Minister understand that—but those reasons should not include the whims of developers. Test Valley borough council is seeking an amendment to national guidance that would enable local planning authorities to factor in forecasted delivery rates in the housing land supply calculated when permission was originally granted. The review of delivery rates should be permitted only if there are sound planning reasons to do so.
I note the Minister’s response—dated yesterday—to the leader of the council, which focused on the steps local authorities can take to bring forward development. Yes, of course he is right that time scales for the start of development can be shortened, but that does not help where development has started but then progresses very slowly indeed. The fund for self-builders is, of course, welcome, but it simply will not deliver the scale of development needed to address the disputed land supply figures.
I turn now to some specific Test Valley examples. I have mentioned Parkers Farm in Rownhams, a greenfield site, which has not been included in the revised local plan but is now the subject of an appeal for 320 houses and a 60 bed extra-care facility. That site would have been considered as part of the borough local plan process but clearly was not deemed as sustainable as other potential sites. It is adjacent to another site that it is thought will imminently be subject to a planning application.
Were the two applications to be granted, they would effectively close the gap between the village of Rownhams and the Southampton city boundary. For generations Test Valley councillors have sought to maintain gaps between settlements and enable villages to retain their own identity and sense of community, but that looks to be under very real threat.
On the edge of Romsey, a site at Halterworth—again, a greenfield site and part of an important local gap between Romsey and the village of North Baddesley—is subject to a proposal by Foreman Homes for in excess of 100 dwellings and a leisure centre. Again, that site would have been considered by the borough local plan process and, again, for good planning reasons it has been excluded.
The Hampshire love-in continues. Those examples are very pertinent. There is a site in my constituency being developed called Pitt Vale, next to Pitt Manor. It is between Winchester and Hursley, and is right on the border of my hon. Friend’s constituency—she is my parliamentary neighbour. That site was considered as part of the local plan and was dismissed. It is now part of what I consider to be a speculative planning application but that I have no doubt will one day end up with the Planning Inspectorate. My constituents are angry because they have done their bit, worked with localism and created a local plan, but now they find themselves in that situation. Does she not agree that that is undermining one of the best things this Government have done—namely, the Localism Act 2011?
My hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour makes a valid point. That is exactly the sentiment of my constituents as well.
I wrote to the Minister about Wrens Corner in Romsey Extra—he has responded recently. That is yet another example of a speculative proposal on the edge of the borough local plan and certainly not included within it. All the schemes I have mentioned rely on a supposed lack of a deliverable five-year housing land supply, despite the fact that, as I said earlier, on the cold figures Test Valley borough council has granted seven years’ worth of permissions in the south of the borough.
I will conclude, as I know the Minister will want to respond. Test Valley borough councillors have sought to be constructive and engage with him and his officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government. They have provided examples and evidence of how the five-year land supply, as it is currently determined, is being manipulated by developers. The system enables developers to bank permissions, start development, although painfully slowly, and then move on to a new site, claiming that previous developments are now not deliverable—or at least not at the same rate they had once claimed. It is rather like a cake from which a slice is cut and one bite taken out, before the consumer moves on to cut another slice: the whole cake is ruined, but nobody’s appetite is satisfied.
That is not good planning. It is not plan led, but led by speculation and greed, helping only the developers, and certainly not those seeking to buy their own homes in this desirable part of the country. I urge the Minister, who I know is in receipt of advice from his officials and my councillors, to look at the five-year supply problem and find innovative and effective ways of encouraging—or, if necessary, compelling—those who have permissions to bring their sites forward, as well as ways to deter that sort of manipulation of the system, so that ultimately communities can be constructed, rather than blighted for decades by slow or non-existent building.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this timely debate. I know that she is committed to making sure that housing in her constituency is developed in the right locations, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the Government’s national planning policy in achieving that, as well as the issues other hon. Friends have raised today. I know that Members across the House, as well as my hon. Friends here today, have made similar points about making sure development happens; we know we need to build more houses, but we all want to see them in the appropriate places, and designed and built in an appropriate way.
My hon. Friend has outlined the importance of getting local plans in place, and I will respond on that point in more detail in a moment. Most of the areas where there are issues do not have a local plan in place. Once a plan is in place, it gives the level of protection that people want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, nothing will ever stop a developer trying something, but with a local plan in place residents have protection and therefore the expectation—rightly—that the planning process and any appeal will back up the approved and adopted local plan.
Several of my hon. Friends have mentioned the green belt and brownfield land. I know that the green belt is not directly relevant to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, which does not have much green belt, but it is worth noting that the green belt has remained constant in England over the past few years. If we disregard land reclassified as national parks, the green belt is larger now than in 1997. We are focusing on developing brownfield land as a priority. That is why we launched a new fund specifically aimed at brownfield development during the summer.
I am pleased to hear that Test Valley council is giving strong leadership and recognises the importance of providing the housing necessary to suit the needs of local people. That the rate of construction in the local authority area is at its highest for 15 years is testament to that and to the work done there by councillors and by my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend noted that as a Minister in DCLG I have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system and therefore cannot comment on specific proposals, or on the emerging local plan in Test Valley, which, as she said, is currently at examination stage. However, she has raised some important issues relating to the Government’s approach and reforms and I will touch on those.
The Government are committed to increasing housing supply and helping more people achieve the aspiration of having a home of their own. I am pleased to hear of my hon. Friend’s support for our changes to get rid of the top-down regional strategies that, as many of us know, built up nothing but resentment, while in the meantime, of course, nothing was getting built. I welcome the enthusiasm of local communities in her area for exploring neighbourhood plans. When we came into power, we wanted local communities to play a much stronger role in shaping the areas in which they live and supporting new development proposals that would deliver the houses we need. That is why we introduced the neighbourhood planning system in the Localism Act, which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. That important and popular legislation means that local people in communities get a real say in planning in their area. For the first time, communities can come together to produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.
I agree with what the Minister says about neighbourhood plans, but it seems that the plan written in Chapel-en-le-Frith is being completely ignored by the planning authority—the borough council—which has led to great dissatisfaction in the village. People got together to put the plan together, but they now feel it is being ignored, so they are wondering what the point is.
Without going into the specifics of my hon. Friend’s case, if a neighbourhood plan has been drawn up—particularly if it has gone through a referendum and been approved—it is right that the local authority should give it weight. Neighbourhood plans have statutory weight. If residents in my hon. Friend’s area look at casework from just the last month or two, they will see that the Government and planning inspectors have backed neighbourhood plans and turned down planning applications that go against them. If a local authority is not taking account of neighbourhood plans, residents should be very firm with it about what it is doing. Authorities are ultimately elected by their communities and they should be listening to them.
Neighbourhood plans can include policies on where development should go, what it should look like, what should be protected and what facilities should be provided. I therefore encourage all constituents, whether in rural or urban parts of any of our constituencies, who want to support house building while protecting the historic, environmental and aesthetic value of our communities, to get involved with neighbourhood planning.
I very much welcome neighbourhood plans, and some great plans are being worked on in my constituency, but will the Minister acknowledge that in some instances there is frustration at how long the process can take? Even when good, experienced people are drafting the plan, it can take many years to come to fruition.
People in a few areas have raised that point with me over the summer. For neighbourhood plans to work, we want them to be robust but as straightforward as possible, rather than a bureaucratic nightmare. I am determined to do something to see whether we can speed up that process, and if my hon. Friend can bear with us over the next few more weeks, we will be taking decisions about this very issue.
I am aware that there are concerns—my hon. Friend has outlined some—about the way the framework is used in areas such as hers. In all our reforms, including the introduction of the NPPF, the Government have put plans and communities at the heart of the planning system, which is very much designed to move from the historical system of development and control to a plan-led system and, ultimately, with neighbourhood plans, to a proactive plan system. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through public consultation, sets the framework in which all decisions should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or at appeal.
The framework is clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, but not development at any cost or in any place. Localism means choosing how best to meet development needs, not whether to meet them at all. We do not ask local authorities to plan to set housing targets or to build more homes than they need, but by putting in place a locally led system, we ask them to take tough decisions about where development should and should not go.
What we have is urban areas where building is suitable but does not come forward, while in pleasant places outside those areas it does come forward. How do we get cases, some of which have been there for years, treated so that they come forward in a reasonable way and are not ignored?
It is for local authorities, not for any of us in Westminster, to take through their local plans. The policy itself says that local planning authorities should
“use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”.
That is important. Sometimes, councillors forget that it is for the local authority to use its evidence to see what its housing needs will be. Then, at the second stage, having assessed what those housing needs are, it should produce a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about what it can deliver, and what is appropriate and where in its area. There are, in effect, two separate stages. The authority could and should also take into account environmental constraints, as is clearly outlined in the NPPF. Once the local authority has done that, it ends up with its housing requirement figure, against which the supply of housing sites should be calculated.
Local authorities should identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites. Once a local plan is in place, has been approved and is therefore robust, that gives local communities the protection so many people want. I therefore encourage all areas to move on and get their local plans adopted and taken through the system. That approach is preferable to the endless discussions and debates that are often replicated in determining individual applications and appeals. Should Test Valley borough council’s plan be found sound and be adopted next year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North anticipates, the council will be in a much stronger position to defend its decisions on general planning applications in line with that plan.
Where local authorities cannot demonstrate a five-year supply, relevant housing policies will not be considered up to date, and the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. That means granting planning permission unless the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, or unless specific policies in the framework indicate that development should be restricted. Even in the absence of an up-to-date plan, our policy seeks to strike a balance between enabling the sustainable development we need and conserving and enhancing our natural and historic environment. Clearly, the weight attached to every decision will depend on the decision taker and the facts of a given case, but planning decisions over the last few months show that development that goes against environmental constraints will be overturned, even where there is not necessarily a local plan, if that is the appropriate decision.
I note the National Trust’s claims about developers’ rate of success where there is no five-year housing land supply in place. I should point out that, overall, the views of local authorities are upheld in the majority of cases. About two thirds of appeals are refused, and the figure has been around that level for a number of years.
My hon. Friend mentioned her concerns about slower delivery rates by local developers on sites with planning permission, which can put extra pressure on local authorities to release more sites. Test Valley borough council has been concerned about such activities, which is why my officials met the council and other authorities while preparing the planning guidelines. Many factors influence when a development is started, not least the availability of finance, market conditions and legal constraints. In the main, however, I would hope that a developer that commits to building out at a particular rate will do so, and we are right to expect that the local planning authority will keep the delivery of new development under review as part of its wider working on monitoring housing delivery.
At various stages of the planning process, local authorities may be able to take steps to tackle concerns about that. For example, our guidance is clear that they can consider the likely deliverability of sites as part of the plan-making process. When assessing the availability of a site, consideration should be given to the delivery record of the developers or landowners putting forward the site and to whether the site’s planning background shows a history of unimplemented planning permissions. We also made the point in our guidance that local authorities that review their five-year supply every year are likely to make the assessment very robust and to be protected from having out-of-date housing policies when defending an appeal further down the line. We have also made it clear that older people’s housing, student housing and vacant housing can, in the right circumstances, be counted towards meeting the housing requirement. Furthermore, where a local authority has concerns about the deliverability of a site and about the negative impact of delay, it can, where appropriate, impose shorter time scales for the start of development. It can also serve completion notices to require that development commenced is completed within a set period, and it can, ultimately, revoke planning permission in some circumstances.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s request for a change to national planning policy on the designation of the green belt. As she knows, the Government attach the highest importance to protecting our green belt, and we underlined that further in guidance this summer. However, designating and changing green-belt boundaries must be a local decision. We are clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans. I appreciate the challenge for an area such as Hampshire, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to make representations to us, but we want to avoid urban sprawl. Despite my hon. Friend’s concerns about protecting our beautiful villages and the countryside in her constituency, designating land as green belt is not necessarily the way forward in this instance, although I am happy for her to make further representations herself or through her local authority in the future.
Public Libraries (England)
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
I am delighted, Mr Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I am pleased to be here to debate public libraries in England; we do not do that often enough. Sadly, England is becoming a place where access to creativity, culture and the arts is rapidly diminishing. Our libraries, which sit at the very heart of our communities and offer that cultural experience, seem almost to have been forgotten by this Government.
It is difficult to give a definitive figure for the number of library closures because, tellingly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council do not directly collect figures. However, according to Public Libraries News, since 2010 nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobiles, are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or placed outside council control.
The hon. Lady may be aware that we now do an annual report to Parliament under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Last year, we calculated that fewer than 100 static libraries had closed.
The Minister will be aware that, since 2010, 500 libraries are reported to have been passed to volunteers, to be outside council control or to have closed. Nevertheless, there are 3,000 libraries in England doing hugely positive work. They sit at the heart of our communities, promoting culture and creativity despite these difficult times.
According to one survey, public access to libraries is being curtailed. One third of libraries have reduced their opening hours and a further third have introduced charges for services that were previously free. By reducing hours and increasing charges for services such as the internet, people on limited incomes who cannot afford a home computer, and rely on libraries for school work or to search and apply for jobs, are excluded.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
To recap, we are talking about the nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobile libraries, that are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or been placed outside council control since 2010. We are talking about the reduction in hours and the increasing charges, especially for internet use. We are talking about the fact that library outreach services are among the hardest hit by the cuts. Limiting those services has meant that the less mobile people in our community—particularly the elderly—have found their mobile services severely limited.
The reason why libraries are as valued as they are and why I am passionate about them and their role is that they act as a gateway for personal development, promote community cohesion, act as economic enablers, promote democratic participation, inspire the imagination and fuel aspiration.
When I was growing up, my mum’s driving ambition for me was that I would not join her working on the shop floor, packing icing sugar, at Tate & Lyle. She, like many other mothers and fathers, had the insight to know that education and literacy were crucial to that aim and my future. She took me to the library every day she could, hoping that it would have a positive influence on me.
As a result, my world opened up and a reading habit was instilled in me, which has given me enormous pleasure and enabled me to continue and enhance my education. Libraries give working families such as mine access to resources, influences and learning that many middle-class families may take for granted. Libraries remain radical and empowering places. As the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once said:
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
Sadly, under the Government’s watch, that spring is drying up.
Public libraries are not only close to my heart, but highly valued by the British public. Despite the downturn in library provision, the latest figures show that 306 million visits are made each year to UK libraries, and that 70% of five to 15-year-olds have used a library in the past year. When the Carnegie UK Trust surveyed attitudes towards public libraries, the results were overwhelming. More than two thirds of people said that libraries were essential or very important to a community. I am pleased to say that the Carnegie report identifies an increase in the number of library users between 2002 and 2006, after a period of falling use between 1992 and 2002. The Carnegie UK Trust rightly attributes that increase in numbers to the installation of the people’s network, which provided internet access in UK libraries.
Some hon. Members present may believe that libraries should or will be consigned to history, and that the rise of the e-book and digital services will render libraries obsolete. Those Members should remember that one in five families in this country do not have internet access at home. Although we have seen a drastic rise in the number of internet users in coffee shops, half our libraries still do not have wi-fi. To respond to the changing needs of the 21st century, the library offer must adapt and change. That, just like the people’s network, will take real commitment and leadership from the Government—or a Government, perhaps I should say.
Our local authorities were once the mainstay of cultural funding throughout the UK. Today, they are underfunded and reduced. They are struggling. Even the local authorities with the best practice are being forced into taking previously unthinkable action. Gateshead, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and many others that have been successful over many decades are struggling to maintain a decent cultural offer. Indeed, one Tory council, Barnet—which, when I was chair of the Local Government Association culture services executive, had beacon status for its libraries—is now consulting on service reductions. It posits a choice between closing six out of 14 libraries and cutting the space in 10 out of 14 libraries to what it describes as the size of a living room.
The council proposes to rent out the rest of that community-owned space as commercial offices. I understand that Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, Sarah Sackman, is doing all she can to stop those vicious closure proposals. I wish her and all the other library campaigners across the country well.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important topic that matters so much to so many of our communities. She mentioned a consultation run by one Conservative-controlled council in north London. Would she like to comment on Croydon council, which, under the Conservatives, consulted local people on how they wanted their libraries to be run—so far, so good—but subsequently privatised the libraries, even though that had not been one of the options for consideration during the consultation?
I think it is awful that a council would go out to consultation on an option and then disregard the views that people express. I cannot conceive of that. I understand that councils are struggling enormously under the cuts that the Government are making, so essential services such as libraries are at risk. At one time, Croydon council’s libraries were considered to be among the best that we had to offer in the capital.
The hon. Lady highlights the actions of a Labour candidate in a Tory-controlled authority. Will she enlighten the House on what Labour MPs and candidates have done in Labour councils that have closed libraries, such as Barking and Dagenham, Bolton, Bradford, Hackney, Lambeth, Leeds, Liverpool—the list goes on? More than five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour councils as by Conservative ones.
What astounds me about the Minister’s contribution is that he does not seem to think that he has any responsibility in this debate. He wants to offload the responsibility on to councils, but he has offered very little leadership to enable those councils to take decisions collectively to make the best of their resources. I do not understand how the Minister has the brass neck.
My hon. Friend will have heard, as I did, the Minister cite Lambeth as a Labour-controlled council that has closed libraries. In fact, Lambeth has opened a new library in Clapham and has closed no libraries at all. Does she agree that the Minister should withdraw his comment and apologise?
No; I am done now.
We must make the best use of the money currently assigned to libraries so that they can make the best use of limited and diminishing resources. That takes leadership, but such leadership has been sadly lacking. When the coalition abolished the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it transferred responsibilities and resources to Arts Council England in what I believe to be an ill-conceived and ill-thought-through botch. The MLAC resources were reduced from £62 million to £46.5 million, and the libraries element was reduced from £13 million to £3 million. Understandably, the Arts Council remains arts-centric despite its broadened remit, so libraries are left with slashed resources and without leadership at a time when they need it most. William Sieghart recently stated:
“The way the service is set up, it is run totally dysfunctionally. The DCMS has responsibility, but no budget, the Arts Council has been given a role reluctantly, and the DCLG looks at the local authorities who actually make decisions.”
“I’m frightened and worried for the library network. In the arctic blast of austerity, some authorities will struggle to know what to do with their library service. They will just hand over the keys and say goodbye, and that will be a disaster.”
Mr Sieghart hits the nail on the head. I should say to hon. Members who do not know that he has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to publish an independent report on the public library service in England.
The Arts Council believes that it can steer, help, support and guide a national network of libraries with a dedicated half-time post. I am an optimist, but that is optimism taken to the extreme. I presume that the Arts Council is doing its best with an enormous portfolio and significant cuts to its budget—indeed, there have been significant cuts to the arts sector as a whole—but it was never a good idea on the part of the Government to push libraries on to the Arts Council. I can only assume that Ministers looked for the easiest berth in which to park a problem about which they lack the nous or imagination to think creatively. That is to the detriment of the Arts Council and the library sector.
Only a few weeks ago, the Government moved formally to abolish the Advisory Council on Libraries, which had been left to rot for a number of years and was already effectively redundant. Although it had only an advisory role, it brought together leaders from a range of library sectors as well as other relevant parties such as publishers and authors. It helped to place public libraries within the context of broader library and information provision, which set challenges of improving performance and quality. If the Minister had had a mind to, he could have benefited from decent independent advice, which could have helped to provide the leadership that is sadly lacking. I think it a great pity that he did not. I would hope that the next Labour Government will consider re-establishing the advisory council.
I remember when the sector had great hopes for the Minister. Libraries would be safe in his hands. He would often write e-mails on a Sunday night to library professionals, telling them this and offering support on that. He was their champion. He attacked my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), accusing him of
“ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state”
over library closures in the Wirral.
I quote the Minister:
“Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. [Interruption.] While it is Local Authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door. [Interruption.] If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as Secretary of State, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”
I note that no such interventions have been made under this Government. What does the Minister now think of his own words?
The Minister clearly understood the sector when he was in opposition. He promised much, but in government, he has, sadly, delivered little.
We now have a dysfunctional national governance framework for libraries in England; Government Members who said one thing in opposition but do another in power; and a public libraries sector that is wilting due to the Government’s lack of leadership.
Surely there is now significant justification for creating a library development agency, decoupling the libraries portfolio from the Arts Council and using the remaining budget to create a lean, dedicated, passionate strategic national body that provides the leadership and advocacy the sector so urgently deserves. Any such agency should not curtail innovation or stifle the sector with bureaucracy, but enable local library authorities to seize the opportunities that exist, and support change and innovation.
The London Libraries Development Agency was an example of that being done successfully. It was founded in 2000 with one key aim: to develop and implement a co-ordinated strategic vision for library and information services across London. It was born from a recognition that the 400 public libraries, 30 mobile libraries, 1,500 service points, 17 million books and 2 million other items were one of London’s unsung success stories. That amazing asset resulted in 50.5 million visits each year, 42 million loans and 10 million inquiries, at a cost of just £23 per head.
It was equally clear that, although each of the 33 boroughs gave a distinct emphasis to their services, they all had much in common and were potentially much stronger together than apart. Council staff, of many different political persuasions, recognised that the sum should be greater than the parts and that, when they worked together, they could add real value to the libraries in their borough. That led to the creation of the first library development agency for the capital.
There is now a clear need for a bigger, more co-ordinated, more passionate voice for libraries at a national level, to provide strategic leadership and advocacy across Government for public libraries. We need a clearer sense of who will drive a workable vision of the sector’s future. I envisage an agency dedicated solely to libraries—one that will be lean, but not emaciated, and action-focused, with a mission to make a real difference to front-line services and the millions who use them. That needs to be absolutely rooted in delivery—always.
Established within the DCMS, the responsibilities of such an agency could include actively sharing best practice in and beyond the sector to maximise impact and make the best use of resources at every opportunity; driving efficiencies and saving as much money as possible to be spent on front-line services; pushing a national offer of actions for the years ahead so that everyone is clear about what the focus and direction should be; commissioning public, not-for-profit and private sector bodies to deliver on specific outcomes that secure a core national offer and drive innovation; advocating the case for public libraries across Government, reaching out beyond the DCMS and delivering on a co-ordinated, prioritised set of key actions; advising the Minister of State responsible for public libraries to successfully discharge his or her legal responsibilities; and reporting to the Secretary of State annually on the state of the public library network, highlighting best practice, identifying opportunities and noting areas of concern.
I urge the Minister, who is not a bad man, to take action now. He should make it his legacy. He should give us a commitment to produce a further report—actually, no, please do not give us a commitment on that, because I do not want to see any more round tables and circular arguments that go nowhere. We do not want empty pledges, and nor do the library sector and library users. We want the Minister to act with clarity, vision and determination.
When the Minister responds, I hope he will address the issues I have raised and those that my hon. Friends will raise. I hope he will recognise the need for greater leadership and clarity on an issue that, I am sure he will agree, is of great national importance.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and, much more importantly, on making a really excellent speech, a first-class speech, a committed speech, an informed speech, a knowledgeable speech—possibly a speech that was written in a library. She knows a lot about libraries; she was involved with them when she was in local government in London, and it showed. She would make a fantastic Minister for Libraries—if it was not for the fact that I will be in that role if the Labour party wins the next election.
My hon. Friend pointed to the value of public libraries, and she was absolutely right to do so. Libraries are trusted by the public. They are not just places for learning, but community meeting places, where young people go to find information about jobs, children without computers can do their homework and grannies meet for knitting circles. Last week, BBC 6 even announced it would be broadcasting programmes from a series of Manchester libraries to celebrate libraries’ role in inspiring musicians.
However, as my hon. Friend set out, libraries are under extreme financial pressure. Over this Parliament, there will be a 40% cut in central Government funding to local authorities. That means that local authorities are making difficult decisions, often resulting in library closures, cuts to opening hours and staff, and the transfer of libraries to the control of voluntary groups.
I am happy to do that, although I was going to come to that at the end of my speech. Resources are clearly one of the most important problems. The worst thing about what the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have done is take out the needs element from the local authority funding formula. That means that in Surrey, Berkshire and Dorset the local authorities have received 1% increases in their resources, whereas in Durham, Liverpool and Hackney, the places where council services and libraries are most needed, the cuts are the biggest. A Labour Government would rejig the formula within the overall envelope, to take the pressure off the hardest pressed local authorities.
Is my hon. Friend familiar with the way Croydon and Wandsworth councils, which were at the time both run by the Conservatives, attempted to secure value from their libraries by putting them all out for tender jointly? Wandsworth chose the best value bid in the tender operation. Croydon chose the worst value bid, and happened to go with a firm of builders with which it had a £450 million property development joint venture. Will my hon. Friend comment on that example of Conservative values?
My hon. Friend has set out something that is of extreme concern to the people of Croydon. I wonder whether what the council did was legal. To issue consultation, ignore it and then take into account completely different factors does not seem to me to hold water.
In Lincolnshire a Tory local authority decided that it wanted to close three quarters of the libraries. It is very different from Croydon—a large rural area needing a totally different library service. A consultation was held, which was so inadequate that local library campaigners took the council to the High Court and won. It had not been properly carried out and the council must now do it all again. Would not it have been better to carry it out properly in the first place? That is what we think. It is similar to the Croydon case and shows that local authorities must take their responsibilities seriously, which is not happening at the moment. The Minister does not provide the leadership that he should.
My recollection is that Brent also lost a judicial review for carrying out an inadequate consultation. Does the hon. Lady not undermine her argument by being so partisan and focusing only on Conservative councils? Surely she should also hold Labour authorities to account.
The point I was making about cuts to local authority grant, which were overseen by the Secretary of State, is that the Tory-led coalition made the funding decisions that were imposed on Labour and Tory councils around the country. There were unfortunate results in local authorities led by Labour, the Tories and presumably the Liberals as well. The problem was driven by the unfortunate way in which the Secretary of State carried out, or failed to carry out, his responsibilities.
The Minister is a cultivated man who reads books and may even have visited a library on occasion. The problem is that he has failed to persuade his colleagues in other Departments of the significance of the cultural life of the nation. For the country to have a good cultural life, all the Departments must work together. We need the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to be on board. We need them all to understand; we even need the Ministry of Justice to understand that it is a good idea if prisoners can read books.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend is saying and welcome her passion for the sector. The Government are also missing a trick on the economic development role that libraries can play in their communities. It is not only the obvious Departments that should be involved. All Departments would benefit from understanding libraries’ community role.
Once again, a colleague has anticipated what I was going to say. My hon. Friend is right.
There seems to be quite a lot of confusion regarding numbers. The Minister says that he produces an annual report. We have figures from the trade unions and from the Carnegie UK Trust. I do not want to debate statistics, but it is clear that library provision is down, and that is not helpful to many communities.
Will my hon. Friend consider visiting the Upper Norwood joint library, which will be opening five days a week instead of just three because the newly elected Labour administration in Croydon has reinstated £50,000 of the funding that was cut by the previous Conservative administration?
I am very pleased to hear what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency and congratulate the Labour local authority responsible.
Despite the unhappy austerity that libraries face, there is a growing consensus about the role of libraries in modern Britain. The professional bodies have done a lot of work on that. The Society of Chief Librarians feels that every library should offer four things. The first, obviously, is books and reading; the second is information; the third is action to facilitate digital inclusion; and the fourth is health and well-being. I have sparred with the Minister on several occasions about the need for more Government action on digital inclusion, and the Government’s failures on broadband, and there is no need to go over it all again today. Suffice it to say that 5 million households are not online, and 11 million people lack basic online skills. Digital exclusion is a problem for many groups of people—not just old people, but also young people and, particularly, people on low incomes. Under the previous Government we had the People’s Network. A massive investment was rolled out through the library service. The present Government do next to nothing on digital inclusion. I have urged the Minister more than once to switch £75 million from his failing SuperConnected Cities programme into digital inclusion. I further urge that the best location for that would be in the public library service, which would give a boost to the libraries and to digital inclusion.
The geographical aspect of access also matters. It was fantastic that campaigners in Lincolnshire won some of their points in the High Court. It goes to show how, when a determined group of local people put their mind to it, they can achieve things for their community. It is not acceptable that people in a rural area should have to travel for more than an hour to reach a public library. I do not know why the Minister did not intervene, but I know why one of the professional bodies has passed a vote of no confidence in him, given that he has not intervened in any of the places in question.
Lincolnshire would have been a good start.
We also need to consider where mobile provision would be most effective. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham set out very well how such provision has been reduced, which is very significant. The mobile provision in my constituency is extremely valued by some people.
Governance is another issue that needs attention. When I have talked to councillors involved in library provision, and to the professional bodies, they have praised standards in Wales. We should perhaps go back and borrow from the Welsh model for our system. The Government seem to be taking a completely laissez-faire approach. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires local authorities to have a comprehensive and efficient service, but the Government have not fleshed that out in any way or form. At one point the last Labour Government had 24 indicators, and I agree that we do not need to be quite so bureaucratic, but we do need to think about the key measures for a good library service so that we do not have a postcode lottery.
My hon. Friend raised the important matter of professional leadership, and she made a good point. The Government got rid of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and I do not know whether the Minister has completed the abolition of the Advisory Council on Libraries or whether he is just in the process of doing so.
I have no doubt that the Arts Council is doing its best, but its best is clearly not good enough. Arts Council staff are not professionals in this area. A part-time professional is working on it, but one part-time professional for a national network of public libraries is not nearly sufficient. The different stakeholder groups are not being brought together at the moment. The Society of Chief Librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the trade unions and the British Library all have a role to play in helping to share good practice, develop the library service and advise the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham made a very good suggestion, and it is one that I will seriously consider.
To achieve those things we might need to update the 1964 Act, which is so brief that it lacks the teeth necessary for a proper library service. The most important thing is that libraries remain a statutory duty of the local authorities. Although it is great to have volunteers helping in libraries, particularly in certain communities or where libraries are extremely uneconomic, it is obvious that we cannot hand over a whole library service to a voluntary group. The problem is, first, that there is a big skills gap and, secondly, that there will be initial enthusiasm for such ventures—there is often initial enthusiasm for such things—but we need a professional library service that is well managed in the medium term.
It is important to have professional librarians in every library authority. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for a charity called the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries. We ran children’s groups in libraries, which was great. Mums and toddlers would turn up and, as well as having story time and the chance to share books, there would be an opportunity to borrow toys and engage in different kinds of play, which helped mothers and babies to learn together. All that is fine, and some of that work is well done, and perhaps better done, by volunteers who are in tune with the people coming into the library. However, stock control and purchasing policy are professional jobs: we need to have professional librarians on whom volunteers can depend—that is key. We need to make it clear that there is a good role for volunteers and a good role for staff, but we need to distinguish those roles and have clearer guidelines and a code of conduct so that we do not jumble them up.
I have spoken about resources and what we would do. It is also clear that back-office functions can sometimes be shared between library services in different local authorities. I understand that people who have looked into this in detail think there is still scope for more savings from such sharing. Despite the fact that libraries face tough times, we must assert that libraries are not about the past—they are about the future. We want a successful, modern economy, and the modern economy is knowledge-based. Where better to build that modern economy than the library?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Bayley. I apologise profusely for the number of interventions that I made during the excellent speech by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—it is brilliant that she has secured this debate. I also apologise for intervening on the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), but it is probably clear that I feel, to a certain extent, that much of the Opposition’s position on public libraries, and indeed on my role as a Minister, is somewhat distorted, if I may put it that way. I would not accuse either hon. Lady of doing that themselves, but four and a half years of pent up frustration may be apparent because this is the first real debate on libraries in this Parliament. Given the importance that the Opposition spokesman attaches to libraries, it is surprising that there has been no official Opposition debate on this subject. There was a debate on arts and culture two or three years ago, and I look forward to her using her influence to call an Opposition debate in the main Chamber so that we can properly debate libraries.
Although both speeches were excellent, another element that added to my frustration is that the only library authorities to be criticised were Conservative-controlled. If someone made it back in Philae from the comet that is spinning hundreds of millions of miles away from us and landed in this debate, they would think that everything was perfect both under Labour authorities and under the previous Labour Government. It may surprise people to learn that libraries did close under the last Government, and that many Labour local authorities have closed libraries over the past four years.
The main reason for my receiving criticism is because it is alleged that I have not used my power under the 1964 Act, an Act that is 50 years old, to intervene and order an inquiry into some of the closures that have been announced over the past four and a half years. It is important to put that in context. The power has been used only once in the 50 years that the Act has been active—it was used in 2009 by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), to intervene on Wirral metropolitan borough council’s proposed closure of half its libraries.
I was then the Opposition spokesman, and I came off the fence to give my views on the Wirral. In fact, there were two causes célèbres at the time: there were the Wirral library closures and the proposed closure of the Old Town library in Swindon, of which my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) will be aware. I visited both local authorities and listened to the case of both local councils. It transpired that although Old Town library was closed, it was moved to the museum next door and is now more popular than it was in its previous location. I made it plain that I thought there should be an inquiry on the Wirral, and eventually there was. It is interesting that the Opposition spokesman has not called for a single inquiry into any local authority closures except, most recently, in Lincolnshire, which happens to be Conservative-controlled.
The Minister is slightly over-egging the pudding. There is a difference between what he has done and what I have done. When I went to Lincolnshire to meet the Lincoln library campaign, I did not sit on the fence; I jumped on a wall to make a speech. Apart from that, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about libraries before the summer recess, so I am not coming late to this; I did this months ago. I am sorry if the Minister did not know about that.
The hon. Lady points out that she did that in the summer of 2014. The first local authority to propose significant closures was Brent, a Labour-controlled authority that proposed to close half its libraries. Were I a man of a partisan nature, it might be expected that, as a Conservative Minister in a new Government, that would have been a political gift. I could have called a public inquiry into that Labour-controlled authority to embarrass the Opposition. However, from the get-go I made two decisions. First, I decided that my officials would investigate every council proposing to close libraries. Secondly, I decided that I would accept my officials’ advice about whether the proposed closures breached the “comprehensive and efficient” test. In one sense, my job as a politician was made more difficult, but my job as a Minister was made easier.
One of the concerns that library campaigners have raised with me is that the Minister no longer has a library adviser in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—somebody who has come up through the ranks and understands the library service inside out and can advise him properly. That role no longer exists. I genuinely do not know the answer to this question, but I wonder whether the Minister can help us.
One of the problems that library campaigners have pointed out to me is that there is no longer a library adviser at the DCMS. The Minister has got rid of, or is in the process of getting rid of, the Advisory Council on Libraries, so he no longer has knowledge or professional advice that he can rely on when he takes action as Minister of State.
First, as far as I am aware, the Advisory Council on Libraries was never used by the previous Government to investigate library closures. Secondly, the previous Government did not, as a matter of course, investigate library closures. I changed the policy when I became a Minister to ensure that we investigate every council that is closing libraries, and we took detailed evidence from those councils.
Before the hon. Lady’s two interventions, I said that my job as a politician was made more difficult but my job as a Minister was made easier because after the Wirral inquiry, Sue Charteris, who undertook the inquiry, set out a detailed analysis of what a library authority should do if it is contemplating changing its library service. My problem with the Wirral closures is that there was simply a review of infrastructure and buildings, not a review of the library service. Since the Wirral inquiry, every local authority that we have investigated has conducted a detailed analysis of its library service before proposing closures.
It is true that Brent lost in the High Court, but the courts have never overruled a council’s decision on the basis that it was breaching the “comprehensive and efficient” test. They have mainly called out councils on their consultation processes—most notably on the basis of the Equality Act 2010, which is a relatively new piece of legislation.
It is important that I sum up the first part of my defence, as it were. We investigate every local authority that is closing libraries, and I take the advice of my officials. The power to review closures has been used once in 50 years, and so far I have not found a breach of the “comprehensive and efficient” test.
We intend to publish the Sieghart report and our response to it in the next few weeks. As the hon. Lady will know, getting a slot in the Government grid is sometimes difficult, but we have worked closely with William Sieghart, and I will talk about that at the conclusion of my remarks.
My difficulty with the Opposition is that numerous libraries have been closed by Labour councils. There has been no official Opposition debate on library closures and there is, as far as I am aware, no official Opposition library policy. Apart from Lincolnshire—one can draw one’s own conclusions about why the hon. Lady called for an inquiry into Lincolnshire’s proposed closures—the Opposition have not called for me to investigate any other library closures. Indeed, when it was rumoured that I might intervene in the Sheffield closures, the local Labour MP said that any intervention by me would be “breathtaking cheek”. That goes back to a fundamental point that we can debate endlessly.
In 2009, the hon. Lady produced a brilliant report on libraries under the auspices of the all-party group on libraries, literacy and information management. It is worth remembering that there were debates on the viability and future of the library service under the previous Government. The report recommended that local authorities should continue to carry responsibility and accountability for the provision of public library services in their area.
Libraries are a local authority service, and when a Labour MP told me that I would be acting with “breathtaking cheek” if I were to intervene, he put his finger on the dilemma. Quite a few local authorities have called for the statutory provision and the power for the Minister to intervene to be removed. When the previous Government consulted on library policy, they included that as a possibility. Libraries are a service that has always been paid for and run by local authorities.
And I do not want to change that one iota. Libraries must be seated at the heart of their communities, so they must be the responsibility of the local authority. The Minister is failing to understand the thrust of the 2009 report, which called for national leadership to enable councils to work together to get the best out of our library service and to make it fit for the century we live in. Providing wi-fi in our libraries is a minimum. Understanding what libraries can mean to the cultural and economic development of our communities is a must. The Minister does himself a disservice by refusing to address the central thrust of our argument, which is that the Government have failed to take leadership on the crisis in our libraries and our communities.
I reject that accusation, because when the hon. Lady says that the Government have failed to take leadership she is effectively saying that I have failed to take leadership.
At the end of last year, we published our first report under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which the Select Committee asked us to do. It asked us to do it at the end of 2014, but I was anxious to have a public document around which people can debate the future of public libraries. We published our first report at the end of last year, which recorded that fewer than 100 static libraries have closed.
It is important to remember that when I was the Opposition spokesman, I was keen not to say that the public library service was in crisis. Yes, I called out the Wirral, but at no point would I have said that the public library was in crisis. Time and again, we see only the bad news reported about libraries, as though the library service is being laid waste.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said in a passing remark that I have probably visited a few libraries. Yes, I have. On a couple of days I visited the fantastic Liverpool central library, in which there has been a £40 million investment. It is truly a cathedral of learning, and it has had more than 1 million visitors in the less than 18 months that it has been open. The hon. Member for West Ham referred to Birmingham, which has the biggest library in Europe. It has had 3 million visitors since it was opened by the Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Manchester central library has been refurbished, as has Wakefield’s library. The hon. Lady will know about East Ham, which has had a £40 million investment in its library. There are Havering and Streatham libraries, and the tri-borough model of Westminster, Hammersmith and Kensington, which saved £1 million and kept their libraries open. Bexley and Bromley merged their library services to save money. There is the Suffolk model—the independent industrial and provident society model—which has kept libraries open for longer. All around the country, one sees innovation in libraries and hard-working people in the library service making a real difference to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. We should celebrate those people.
What can one do from the centre? I cannot and do not want to run 151 library authorities, not only because it is physically impossible for me to do so, but because I believe local authorities should run their library services. I can encourage them and work with them.
When we abolished the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, one of the first things I did was to put libraries with the Arts Council. If one looks at the framing of the 1964 Act, in terms of the White Papers that led up to it, a lot of the tone was about the merging, as it were, of cultural and library services—about putting culture at the heart of our libraries. With the Arts Council working with local authorities on arts provision, it is a totally natural move for it to work with libraries.
I just want to help the Minister, because he seems to be in a complete mess about what the role of central Government is in this sector. Could we just draw a little analogy with another public service that is delivered by local government—adult social care? However, that fact does not mean that the Department of Health does not have policy, does not provide the legal framework and that we do not have the Care Quality Commission to carry out inspections. Obviously, libraries are not as large as adult social care—what needs to be done is not as big—but it is just a little model, a little inkling, for the Minister about how he might approach libraries.
But it is important to say that most adult social care is funded by central Government, so of course the Government will have a much more hands-on role in that area.
As I said earlier, libraries are funded, paid for and run by local authorities, and they always have been since the first public libraries emerged in the middle of the 19th century. The debate then was about putting money on the rates to pay for local libraries; it was not about central Government funding or running local libraries.
The Arts Council has taken a role with libraries, and with it we have set up a £6 million fund for libraries; 75 projects have already been funded. The Arts Council has worked with the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government on enterprising libraries, which put libraries at the heart of the business community, whose members are a good audience for libraries. Six major city-centre libraries and 10 hubs are planned, to provide advice for small businesses and intellectual property advice. We have paid for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics to be made public and freely accessible, to help library campaigners and people involved in the provision of library services to compare and contrast their library service with that of neighbouring councils; in this context, “neighbouring” does not mean geographically neighbouring, but councils with similar topography and demography.
We have worked to extend the public lending right to audio-books and e-books. We have also worked with William Sieghart to put together four pilots on e-book lending, bringing together publishers and libraries. They are obviously natural bedfellows, but on this issue there is some concern from publishers that e-lending could potentially cannibalise their business model. Consequently, we have worked to bring both sides together, so that they can work together for a solution that all sides can be happy with.
We work closely with the Society of Chief Librarians, which promotes its own campaigns to make libraries as relevant as possible; there is, obviously, a reading campaign, but also an information campaign, a digital campaign and a health campaign. The SCL has also launched a highly successful Books On Prescription scheme with the Reading Agency, which 91% of library authorities are signed up to. And the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge continues to draw in hundreds of thousands of children, and every year participation in the scheme increases.
To me, that is not the depiction of a library service in crisis. Of course, there are incidents where the modernisation, adaptation or change of a library service causes extreme concern, but everybody acknowledges that closing a library does not necessarily mean that the library service is no longer comprehensive and efficient. When we talk about a closure, sometimes we are talking about a merger of two libraries. Also, we rarely talk about the number of libraries that are opening across the country.
Earlier, the hon. Member for West Ham asked me about the Sieghart report. I would not have asked William Sieghart to produce a report unless I thought there was some opportunity to build on what I see as a highly successful public library service in England. The reason I asked him to produce this report—he has been ably assisted by a distinguished panel of publishers and other people working in worlds related to libraries—is to see how we can push forward, and the reason I asked him in particular is that he is an extremely practical man. He was the man who brought together the publishers and the libraries to support e-lending. He is now proposing a series of practical recommendations to move forward, one of which is a task and finish group that will work with local authorities to make practical recommendations to help library services to survive in what is not only a difficult financial climate but a difficult period of transition as the world itself changes, with the move to digital. It is important to emphasise that that group will meet, with local authorities at its heart, to make practical recommendations to take matters forward.
This has been a good and full debate. I completely understand the concerns of library campaigners across the country who would be concerned if they saw their local library closing its doors. However, a lot of heat and not enough light is generated in this debate. The number of library closures has been severely exaggerated. The number of closures that you, Mr Bayley, and I would regard as a library closure—that is, a building with its doors shut, empty and the lights off—is, by the Government’s estimation, fewer than a hundred. Libraries have opened up and down the country. I have already referred to the reams of central libraries that have been refurbished. In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, literally millions of people are visiting libraries and there are new library members.
The Minister is, of course, right to point to the success of the new library buildings in Liverpool and Birmingham is. However, is he not a little bit worried about the library service being a postcode lottery, because he is not seeking to have a secure policy framework across the country?
I do not know what that means. For example, Liverpool reopened its central library; a million people have visited it; and until recently, Liverpool was proposing to close 10 of its 18 branch libraries. That proposal has now been withdrawn. Is it being suggested that I should have personally intervened three or four years ago to tell Liverpool, “No, you don’t run the library service like this. You don’t put money into refurbishing your central library. You’re going to keep all your branch libraries open”? Liverpool is seeking to deliver a comprehensive and efficient library service, and one of the ways it seeks to do that is to refurbish its central library to make it a hugely attractive hub for thousands of people living in that great city. That was a decision for the local authority, just as it was a decision for Birmingham to invest in a new central library, which is now the pride of the city and already one of the most well-known libraries in Europe.
Such decisions must be taken by local authorities but, as I said earlier, the number of static libraries that have been closed is often exaggerated; the actual number, while it may be regrettable, is far lower than people say. The action taken by this Government has been active: bringing on board the Arts Council, to provide leadership for libraries; providing a £6 million fund to support cultural work in libraries; extending e-lending to the PLR; working to introduce pilots with publishers, so as to promote e-lending; and now commissioning the Sieghart report, to continue to take libraries forward during the next decade or so.
As I have said, while I may understand the frustration and sometimes even the anger of some library campaigners, I feel that I can hold my head up high, in terms of being a proactive campaigner for the library sector.
Order. I thank all Members who have participated in the libraries debate; it was a good debate. I now ought to explain the procedure for what happens next.
During the libraries debate, we had two Divisions, which meant we were suspended for 26 minutes. Therefore, we could continue the next debate, which I will be happy to start as soon as Members have taken their seats and got themselves ready to debate, if there was a will from Members for us to do so, until 4.56 pm. If there is such a will, the debate will be rather longer than a half-hour debate. I see a number of Members here in Westminster Hall, so some people might value the additional time, but of course you do not have to use it. And since the next debate was granted as a half-hour debate, the rule is that the Member who secured the debate, Stephen Twigg, will introduce it and then the Minister will reply. So if any other Members seek to catch my eye, they might be in luck, but it would be courteous to let me know beforehand.
Central African Republic
Mr Bayley, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am pleased to bring the current situation in the Central African Republic to the attention of Westminster Hall, and I do that particularly in my role as chair of the all-party group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. I will set out later why I am making that express connection. I pay tribute to colleagues in both Houses for questions they have asked the Government about this important issue in recent months, particularly Lord McConnell and Baroness Berridge, who recently visited the Central African Republic and saw first hand some of the problems that it faces.
I am speaking about this matter because it is surely better for us to prevent mass atrocities from happening in the first place, rather than have to deal with a crisis when such atrocities occur. Aside from the humanitarian considerations that we face in seeking to prevent an escalation of violence, considerable security and economic benefits come from early action to prevent mass atrocities.
I am sure the Minister and other hon. Members will be aware that the Central African Republic has not had an easy recent history in its transition following independence from France in 1960. It has endured a number of coups and periods of shocking brutality and today, despite its considerable natural resources, it is considered one of the least developed countries in the world.
The recent period of instability began in 2012, when a rebel militia called the Seleka—meaning, roughly, “alliance” or “coalition”—began to advance across the country. This predominantly Muslim militia held deep grievances against the then Government, under President Francois Bozize, who it felt left the north-east neglected. In March 2014, the Seleka seized the capital city, Bangui, and ousted Bozize’s Government. It then began a campaign of looting and killing against the non-Muslim population.
The militia’s commander, Michel Djotodia, appointed himself as interim President but lost control over his forces, and over the months that followed the Seleka committed horrific human rights abuses against civilians, often targeting people in churches and even burning entire villages to the ground.
This issue is very close to my heart, because of the people and the persecution that has taken place. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Central African Republic is predominantly a Christian country, and this year it entered at No. 16 on the world watch list of countries where persecution is high. He rightly said that the Seleka group of terrorists who are dissatisfied with the regime have particularly targeted those of Christian faith. They have desecrated churches and have raped, murdered, kidnapped, tortured and killed 13 pastors. Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do—and as I suspect the Minister feels—that something has to be done to try to stop that persecution in a predominantly Christian country, specifically of those of a Christian faith?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who I know from previous debates takes a particular interest in the important matter of protecting Christians and other religious majorities or minorities around the world. He is right, and I hope to address some of the specific issues he raised. We cannot be content to allow the present situation to continue. We in this country have a responsibility to act both bilaterally and in concert with other countries, including our European Union partners, an issue to which I will return.
I am probably the only Member of Parliament—I appreciate that Members of the House of Lords have been there—who has visited the CAR. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one big problem is that it is surrounded by three broken states—Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan—and becomes a black hole for all the failures of those surrounding states, with all the bad people from there going in and causing even greater problems? That is a major problem that we need to deal with.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have not visited the CAR and I did not know until he told me just before the debate that he had done so. It is always helpful for the House to hear such first-hand accounts from Members. If the time allows us—it may do, with the extension—perhaps we could hear a little more from him about that experience after I have spoken. He is right: CAR has its own issues, which I am addressing, but it is surrounded by countries where there are challenges, including the ones he described. Also, Nigeria is not far away and issues such as Boko Haram and the insecurity and instability there may be relevant to the CAR’s security situation in future.
Returning to what has happened this year, Djotodia eventually declared the Seleka disbanded, but of course many of those who had been members of it continued with their destructive actions regardless of that decision. In response to the attacks and violations committed by Seleka, we saw the formation of another group, known as Anti-balaka, meaning “anti-machete”. This group is comprised predominantly of Christians, but there are also animists, and although it was initially formed as a counter to Seleka, increasingly it stopped distinguishing between the Seleka and the wider Muslim population. Sadly, estimates suggest that more than 5,000 people have died since December in that sectarian violence, affecting initially the Christian community but later, with the response from Anti-balaka, the Muslim community as well.
The current transitional Government are not fully established and they struggle to stop the violence. Just last week reports emerged that Seleka rebels had blocked key roads in Bangui and exchanged fire with peacekeepers.
It is welcome that a number of international missions are in the country, with the purpose of increasing stability, including from the European Union and France, and now the United Nations mission. In September, the UN mission took over from the early peacekeeping response of the African Union. We should pay tribute to the important and difficult work being undertaken by these forces. However, it is clear that they remain undermanned and are not always able to take the steps necessary to stop violence in the country. They often come under fire themselves, including in an attack on the current President’s home, showing that rebel forces are often confident that they can act with complete impunity.
Peacekeepers and the state—in so far as the state exists —are therefore unable to stop fully the violence, and that violence can of course lead to reprisals, which lead to further violence; and so a vicious circle is maintained. It is therefore essential that member states ensure that the UN mission comes to full strength a soon as possible.
Greater humanitarian intervention is also needed to help alleviate other pressures that the country faces. Crops have been looted or destroyed, creating food shortages, and more than 900,000 people have been displaced during the conflict. The International Rescue Committee has stated that women and girls in the CAR listed sexual violence as their No. 1 fear.
More work also needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is vital if we are to see a peace that lasts. I take heart from just one example that I should like to share with the House: that set by Father Bernard Kinvi, a Catholic priest whom Human Rights Watch has recognised. Father Kinvi had been helping both Christians and Muslims who were hurt during the fighting. In one incident, the Anti-balaka rebels had been targeting Muslims in the area in which he lived. As he was helping the injured, they approached him and singled out for execution a 14-year-old boy who was clinging to his robes. The priest stood his ground and told the Anti-balaka rebels, “If you have to kill him, then you will have to kill me first.” He put his life on the line to uphold universal values of human dignity, and that example is a powerful message on the importance of religious tolerance and understanding. I am sure we would all want to put on record our praise for his courage and determination.
We have a window of opportunity to act to stop the CAR returning to a state of full civil war. The United Kingdom, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have significant experience in helping countries to rebuild after conflict. We should consider doing more to bring that knowledge to bear in this situation. The CAR is due to hold elections in February, although they may be postponed until later in 2015. We should do our best to help ensure that they are free and fair and that moderate forces are able to compete effectively. We know from history in all parts of the world that elections, particularly in fragile countries, can create difficult periods where extremist politicians and parties can polarise and manipulate the population, feeding off fear and stirring hatred. Should further violence be triggered and escalate to the level we saw this time last year, the population could well lose faith that a Government can provide the change the country needs. With that in mind, will the Minister explore whether there is scope for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or the British Government to carry out work in the CAR in the run-up to the elections to try to ensure that they are as free and fair as possible?
The UK can help to provide some practical solutions to end the conflicts in the CAR. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and there are a number of respects in which Rwanda can be used as a positive case study in attempting to replicate some of the successes we have seen with the rebuilding of the capacity to govern in Rwanda over the past two decades. Replicating that could not only help the civilian population, but strengthen the CAR’s regional relationships. Rwanda has been supported by the British Government. We have helped it in a number of ways, including through aid, but specifically relevant to today’s debate is that we have strengthened Rwanda’s capacity for good governance. If we encourage Rwanda and the Central African Republic to work together, we could help to strengthen the CAR Government through programmes where Rwanda helps to train the civil servants and Ministers of the CAR in modern governance practices.
More needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is surely vital in building a peace that lasts. In April, I was in Kigali in Rwanda for the Kwibuka 20 commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide. I had the chance to hear the mufti of Rwanda—he is a leader of the Muslim community in Rwanda—speak powerfully about how faith groups in Rwanda, both Christian and Muslim, viewed the signs of violence in the CAR with great concern. In April the faith groups were in the process of creating a forum to bring together Christian and Muslim leaders from the two countries to exchange experiences. Twenty years after the Rwanda genocide, they hoped that lessons could be learned for the Central African Republic.
That process of dialogue has developed considerably since. The faith leaders from the CAR visited Rwanda in August and were impressed by the success of the peace education and reconciliation programmes they observed. They wish to establish similar programmes in the CAR to promote social cohesion. To that end, they have forged a partnership with the Aegis Trust, which provides the secretariat to the all-party group that I chair. The Aegis Trust is a British-based non-governmental organisation whose reconciliation work in Rwanda is funded by a number of organisations, including DFID.
On the persecution of Christians and those of Muslim faith—I am aware of both factions being deliberately targeted—Seleka is mostly formed of Muslims from outside of the Central African Republic, so there is an outside influence. The hon. Gentleman has referred to this, but along with all the effort that can be made within the Central African Republic, direct action needs to be taken on neighbouring countries, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). While it is good to see what is happening, effective action has to be taken outside of the Central African Republic to prevent the influence of terrorists—perhaps Boko Haram—who are directly targeting whatever good work has been done in the country.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The question of peace education and the promotion of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between religious groups must go hand in hand with a strengthening of the security situation in the country, to face up not only to the internal threats that we have talked about, but to the external threats from forces that might be based in neighbouring countries, to which he and the hon. Member for Braintree have referred. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for making that important and powerful point.
The programme that is being developed could be a unique one in which those who have experienced mass atrocities and, in the case of Rwanda, those who experienced genocide 20 years ago, can talk about how best to overcome some of the dangerous forms of hatred that feed human rights violations, mass atrocities and, in the most extreme cases, genocide. I am sure the Minister will agree that the programme is a positive step forward for both countries that warrants appropriate support from outside, including from the United Kingdom, not least because the Aegis Trust is a UK-based NGO.
Before I finish I will share a quote from the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said in February:
“Our commitment to protect civilians is only as meaningful as the political, military and financial muscle deployed to defend them...Our responsibility is clear: We must stand with the people of the Central African Republic.”
That is an incredibly powerful message on behalf of all the nations of the UN, but we in this Parliament can say that we want the British people, the British Parliament and the British Government to stand with the people of the Central African Republic.
Will the Minister outline some of the steps that the Government are taking through his Department and through DFID? In particular, what are the Government doing to protect civilians in the CAR? Will he outline any plans to increase the strength of peacekeeping forces and the support given to them? Secondly, what are the Government doing on aid for the humanitarian needs of the population of the Central African Republic? Thirdly, what is being done to improve the safety of women and girls facing violence in that country?
In the arena of promoting sustainable peace, what are the Government prepared to do to support peace education programmes to overcome hatred and to support the transitional Government in the CAR in establishing the rule of law and good governance? What are the Government doing to provide opportunities to improve the economy and infrastructure of the CAR? Will they consider increasing the British diplomatic presence in the CAR? The United States has recently reopened its embassy. Can we look into the potential for increasing the British diplomatic presence? That would show our commitment to the transitional Government and to the elections due in 2015. Will the Minister comment on the support that the UK Government will give to the European Union trust fund for the Central African Republic?
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask some important questions here today on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. To return to the theme that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, prevention is so much better than cure. If we can stem the tide of hatred in the CAR and prevent the country from returning to the civil war that it faced a year ago, that would be a positive example of our learning from places such as Rwanda, which witnessed some of the worst mass atrocities. I look forward to hearing the Minister speak about the Government’s approach.
I was not going to speak in the debate, but I have been inspired by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). I think that I am one of the only Members of Parliament who has had an opportunity to visit the Central African Republic. I was inspired to visit CAR following a trip to Rwanda, thinking, “Here is a broken state that we can perhaps have a constructive role in.” For anyone who is interested, a good primer would be to read the excellent “Malaria Dreams: An African Adventure” by Stuart Stevens. It was written several years ago, but sometimes things never change. I highly recommend that people read it.
CAR is a broken state that is surrounded by three other broken states: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. It is a remarkable country, because it is rich in natural resources that have never really been taken advantage of. I visited with Merlin, a health care NGO that was recently taken over by Save the Children, and I want to make a couple of suggestions to the Minister.
I visited eight regions with hospitals that are effectively white elephants. There is nothing there. The problem is a lack of medicine. I costed fixing up the hospitals and providing medicine for five years, and it would cost something like £7 million to £10 million, which is not huge given the size of the Department for International Development’s budget. If anyone from DFID is listening to the debate, one way that we could help the country is through better health care.
The second way, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, is by looking at Rwanda as an example of government and how Governments can change. If we can work with the CAR Government to help them try to have some form of proper governance and a proper transition, we can perhaps grab them out of the French orbit, as we did with Rwanda, and it can perhaps one day be the third African country with no link to Britain to join the Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing this debate on the situation in the Central African Republic. The hon. Gentleman and I are old friends. We first discussed politics—we did not spar—in the ’80s when he was president of the National Union of Students and I was president of Loughborough students’ union. It was clear then that we were both probably destined to pursue a career, or at least an interest, in politics. Even then, however, it was perhaps clear that we would pursue paths of different political hues. It is a real pleasure to continue that friendship and an honour to respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, passion and interest in this area.
I also apologise that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), the Minister with responsibility for Africa, is unable to respond. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby may be aware, the Minister has been quite gravely ill and we wish him well. I will do my best to respond to the points made and to place the Government’s position in context. If am unable to cover the hon. Gentleman’s points, I will write to him in more detail.
The UK Government remain extremely concerned by the situation in the Central African Republic, where the security environment remains volatile. There have been some modest security gains in Bangui, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby outlined, but the situation has deteriorated outside the capital. October saw a spike of violence, including attacks against the personnel and property of humanitarian organisations. Violence against the civilian population sadly remains high.
The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people—over half the total population—are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. There are some 410,000 internally displaced people and there are 425,000 CAR refugees in neighbouring countries. A third of the country is suffering from food insecurity as the production of food crops has dropped by between 50% and 75%. The situation is likely to deteriorate further as the food supply reduces due to missed planting seasons. The country’s state, justice and economic structures have all but collapsed and will need to be rebuilt from scratch, requiring significant international support. Our immediate focus is on working with the international community to improve security, protect civilians from violence and provide humanitarian support.
In line with the conclusions of the international contact group on CAR, which the Foreign Office attended on 11 November 2014, we welcome the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, and the efforts of the EU force, EUFOR, the African Union, MISCA, and French troops. It is important that the international community continues to show support for such efforts. We welcome the three-month extension of the EUFOR mandate to maintain security in Bangui while MINUSCA reaches full operational capacity. We condemn in the strongest terms, as the hon. Gentleman did, the attack against a MINUSCA convoy on 9 October, which killed one peacekeeper and injured several others, and we are concerned by the recent resurgence of violence and continuing attacks against civilians in Bangui. The UK also condemns all instances of sexual violence that have occurred during the conflict. The African Union’s recent deployment of sexual violence experts to CAR, co-financed by the UK, will support sexual violence victims.
The UK has played a strong role as part of international efforts to address the situation. These efforts have included aid to refugees, logistical support to the French and EUFOR missions and agreeing substantial EU funding for MISCA. A British diplomat, Diane Corner, is also currently serving as the deputy special representative in the capital for the UN mission. The UK has committed £23 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic since the crisis began in 2013 and £7 million in support to refugees in Cameroon and Chad, funding the Red Cross, NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to protection, food, water, shelter, health and livelihood. We remain the third largest bilateral provider of humanitarian aid to the CAR.
The UK welcomes the signing of the Brazzaville agreement for the cessation of hostilities on 23 July as an important step towards a lasting peace in CAR. However, military efforts alone cannot bring about long-term stability in CAR. The UK recognises that it will be critical for the agreement to be applied and for an open and inclusive dialogue to be held, including the holding of free and fair elections, which will require sustained international support. The UK therefore welcomes the international engagement seen in the high-level meeting on CAR in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September in New York and in the international contact group meeting held on 11 November in Bangui.
Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s question on humanitarian aid, the UK, via the Department for International Development, has committed £30 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic and its nationals who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries since the start of 2013, funding a range of NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to aid. That consists of £23 million in humanitarian funding in CAR and £7 million for refugees in Cameroon and Chad. DFID does not intend to engage in development programmes. This year, the UK has provided £18 million, including £3 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide health services and water distribution for hundreds of thousands of people as well as protection services for the vulnerable, particularly women and children, which the hon. Gentleman was keen to point out. The aid also includes transportation for aid workers and relief supplies to remote parts of the country through a £1 million contribution to the UN humanitarian air service.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made some specific points. On Father Bernard Kinvi, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID officials have just had an extremely useful meeting with him and were able to hear about his experiences at first hand—my thanks for that. On the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, all international support for democracy and elections needs to be co-ordinated carefully so as to avoid overlap and waste, and we expect that the UN will play the key co-ordinating role in the country, but we remain alert to the possibility of the foundation playing a role if we do not see any advances under the UN.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the involvement of Rwanda, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). He and I, as well as others, have travelled to Rwanda a number of times and I am more familiar with that country than with the Central African Republic. It is a curious thing to learn that my hon. Friend is the only MP to make it in and out of the CAR safely. The House is wiser for his experiences, as the hon. Gentleman said. We have long encouraged and supported Rwandan involvement in supporting peace in Africa, but the hon. Gentleman is in no doubt that the Rwandans—or is it the right hon. Gentleman? [Interruption.] He says, “Soon.” The hon. Gentleman was aware that the Rwandans are participating in the UN force in the CAR. It is important that that takes place.
UN and Government officials are helping to develop thinking on dealing with the violence and conflict in the light of Rwanda’s own experience, with which the House is familiar, and of the UK experience in places such as Sierra Leone. We have increased our engagement considerably, including frequent visits from the Foreign Office and DFID officials and the secondment of a senior British diplomat to the UN mission in Bangui. We have put in place a new regional political officer in Yaoundé, who will have responsibility for the Central African Republic. At the moment the selected officer is undertaking the required language training.
I am conscious that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in his introduction referred specifically to the persecution of Christians, which I also mentioned in my two earlier interventions. I was hoping that the Minister might be able to come back to us and give us some indication of what we can do through the Foreign Office to ensure that the persecution of Christians can be curtailed or stopped, with some direct action taken. Under influences from some neighbouring countries, people are specifically targeting Christians for their beliefs.
I will have to ask the Minister for Africa to write to the hon. Gentleman on that important issue with more details—unless I am swiftly handed a piece of paper before the end of my speech. That is unlikely to happen, so I will certainly be back in touch.
There are no easy answers in the Central African Republic, and certainly no quick fixes. We need to encourage all parties to follow up on the Brazzaville agreement of July to establish an open and inclusive dialogue. Without peace, justice and reconciliation, there can be no future for the CAR. We need to be committed in the long term to assist in rebuilding the country, its Government, its institutions and its infrastructure, as well as maintaining humanitarian support for as long as the high levels of need persist. We will do so by working with international donors and through bilateral and multinational humanitarian assistance programmes.
It is tempting to recoil from and reject the horror, to back away and almost to give up and lose hope, but we cannot. We have a responsibility to remain engaged and to support the people of the CAR. This week I read the inspiring story of Father Kinvi, a Catholic priest in the north-west of the country who put himself at great risk when he sheltered at his mission thousands of Muslims threatened by sectarian violence. There is no doubt in my mind that his brave actions saved many lives. Human Rights Watch has rightly acknowledged his efforts and I express our gratitude for and recognition of the many people who have worked to prevent an even higher toll of death and destruction in the country. Father Kinvi and the people of the Central African Republic deserve our support. We have the capacity to assist them in the short term, by providing security and humanitarian aid, but we must also support the country in its long-term reconciliation and development.
We now come to the debate on support and rehabilitation for veterans. While Members move around and take their places, it might be helpful for me to say a brief word about the procedural situation. Earlier we had two Divisions in the House, so the timetable for the afternoon debates is running 26 minutes late. We will start the debate in a moment, when the next Minister has had the opportunity to take her seat, but it could run until 5.26 pm—it does not have to run that long, but it could run that long. The debate is on the Order Paper as a half-hour Adjournment debate, which would normally give the Member who obtained the debate, Jack Lopresti, time to speak and the Minister time to reply, but if I receive indications that other Members wish to speak and they can assure me that they will get the say-so from the Minister and Mr Lopresti, I am happy to accept additional speeches.
Veterans (Support and Rehabilitation)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley.
I hope to outline the ongoing need to support people who have served our great country in the armed forces, once their service is complete. The issue is close to my heart and I must declare an interest, because I am a veteran. I had the honour and privilege to serve with 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 9. I am also vice-president of my local Stoke Gifford Royal British Legion branch. I know at first hand how important the support network and welfare are, and in particular what is offered by the Royal British Legion.
First off, not all former service personnel need help once they leave the armed forces, as noted in the excellent veterans’ transition review by Lord Ashcroft earlier this year. It is important to point that out. As is too often the case, negative media stories mean that there is a perception among the public that veterans are likely to be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their time in the armed forces. In fact, the majority of ex-service personnel go on to good careers where the skills that they have acquired during their service in the military are highly valued. The negative perception, as Lord Ashcroft’s review states,
“in itself constitutes an unnecessary extra hurdle for service leavers, restricting their opportunities by lowering expectations of what they can do.”
I was proud to have served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, through which the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law for the first time in 2011. I find it incredible that, as a nation, we had never previously ensured through statute that the armed forces community did not face any disadvantage in getting access to public services due to their service and that special consideration was, of course, appropriate in some cases. I am pleased that South Gloucestershire council, which serves my constituents, signed the covenant on Armed Forces day in June 2013. I wrote to Bristol city council in January this year to encourage it to sign the community covenant, and it has finally done so, as have, I understand, 100% of local authorities in the country.
The armed forces covenant has created change for the better. Alabaré, with its homes for veterans, two of which are in my constituency, tells me that across all its work with veterans in the south-west
“a noticeable shift is taking place regarding the recognition and support of homeless Veterans by Local Authorities; and housing procedures are reflecting this. This, we believe is a direct consequence of the Armed Forces Covenant.”
Alabaré is, however, concerned enough to ask whether it will be the case that
“once the ‘gleam’ and positive media put upon Local Authorities for signing up to the covenant has died down…the Local Authorities remain true to their word”.
Will the Minister assure us that cross-departmental work will continue to enforce the covenant and that local authorities that are found lacking will be held to account? I await with interest the next report, due imminently, on how well the armed forces covenant is being implemented, and in particular how it supports our veterans.
I welcome the Government’s response to Lord Ashcroft’s veterans’ transition review and am pleased that the Government understand that support to ex-service personnel is needed to aid their move into civilian life. I am pleased that the Government have already started to implement many of Lord Ashcroft’s recommendations. We definitely need to be developing and maintaining contact with personnel on their transition to civilian life, which should be for longer than the six months currently proposed.
It is good that the Ashcroft recommendations on how to support service leavers into new careers now include those who do not finish their contract or who serve for less than six years. I understand that early service leavers who have served up to four years are the most likely to have experienced unemployment and other problems. We need to recognise that they, too, have volunteered to serve their country.
I hope the Minister will confirm that the career transition partnership will be permanently extended to all service leavers. It is encouraging to see the figures for the first quarter of 2013-14, which showed an 82% employment rate for service personnel who used the CTP resettlement services within six months after leaving the armed forces. However, the statistics for ex-service personnel also show that 10% are unemployed and 9% are economically inactive, meaning that up to 20% have not started new careers after six months. I would also like to know what follow-up there is to find out how ex-service personnel are doing after one year, two years and then further on. There is a risk that CTP providers could be getting veterans into jobs that are not suitable for their skills and future prospects in the long term.
The Government’s implementation of personal development pathways for all service personnel will definitely help future veterans take responsibility for their own development and should give them guidance on how their skills are transferable to the civilian world. Initiatives such as the Troops to Teachers programme and provision of free further or higher education for services leavers with six years of service and for members of the enhanced learning scheme are definitely a step in the right direction.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should congratulate organisations such as SSAFA that do an amazing job to help veterans? I draw his attention to Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur in my constituency, who does an amazing job supporting veterans in Braintree.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We owe a huge debt of gratitude for the ongoing good work done by organisations and charities such as SSAFA. What they manage to achieve is remarkable.
Looking after our veterans is not only our duty; it is practical. For this country to continue to have the world’s best armed forces, we need to recruit the best and those recruits need to know that their service will be recognised and can be part of a successful long-term career, both while they are serving in the military and when they leave. It is encouraging to hear from Alabaré homes that the south-west veterans multi-agency mental health service, provided through the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, has been well received. It shows promise in making a difference in the support and rehabilitation of veterans.
I know the Government have been working with the NHS and service charities such as Combat Stress and Help for Heroes on helping those with mental health issues. Help for Heroes received £2.7 million from the LIBOR fund in 2013 to work in partnership with Combat Stress to develop the “Hidden Wounds” psychological support programme, which supports veterans suffering from early symptoms of mental injuries such as stress and depression, as well as supporting their families. The problem is often that symptoms do not show until many years after the person affected has left the service. I hope that the MOD’s “Don’t bottle it up” campaign will help to mitigate that in the future.
Alabaré homes has also told me, however, that accommodation for those receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, who may need 24-hour support throughout their treatment, is almost unheard of. I understand that care as a whole for those suffering from PTSD is improving and it is encouraging to hear that 16 departments of community health around the country will provide support and treatment to personnel from all three services. Facilitating GPs’ ability to obtain service leavers’ military medical history should help further, as should the GP e-learning programme.
Research on homeless ex-service people carried out by the homelessness charity Broadway showed that 3% of people sleeping rough in London in 2012-13 were former military personnel. That is not as high as a percentage as is sometimes cited, but obviously we would all prefer the figure to be zero. Besides, sleeping rough is not the true measure of homelessness, which also includes those who do not have a permanent home and are sleeping on a friend’s floor or sofa.
Lack of affordable housing remains an ongoing issue, and one that is particularly prevalent in the Bristol area due to a shortage in the private rental sector of suitable affordable accommodation for people who charities such as Alabaré work with. Again, I am pleased to report that the veterans nominations scheme has been used by Alabaré residents as a way of securing accommodation. That seems to be working better in the Bristol and south Gloucestershire area.
Big congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; I consider him a real friend in this House. I thank him for his service to this country during his time in Afghanistan.
One issue I have found when working with veterans is that some of the statistics are very hard to collate. In the north-east, we have worked with people who have gone to prison. The figures for those people vary from around 4% to almost 12%—we are talking about huge differences. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something that we can work on together to try to make sure that the statistical information that we get on veterans is much more accurate?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my honourable friend—for his kind comments about my very modest and short military service. I will touch on veterans in the legal system and in prison later in my remarks, but as far as the figures go, he is absolutely right that it is very important that we try to put figures together that stack up across the country, that people can take seriously and that are credible.
I know that the MOD has committed over £1.3 million in support of homeless and vulnerable veterans. In October, the Minister said in response to a written parliamentary question on homeless veterans that she hoped to announce
“further funding in support of homeless hostels, drawing on the £40 million Veterans Accommodation Fund.”
Will that be happening? If so, what is the time scale?
I welcome the difference and the positive change in how local authorities treat veterans: their being allowed to apply for housing in the area where they have served instead of where they originally came from; the disregarding of any lump sum received as compensation for an injury or disability sustained in active service; and the cessation to occupy certificate given six months before leaving forces accommodation. That will all help veterans find permanent accommodation, as will the recently introduced forces Help to Buy scheme, along with Money Force.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) mentioned veterans in the criminal justice system, a subject I wish to touch on now—I know that we are awaiting a review of the issue by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips). I understand that an estimated 3.5% of the prison population are ex-service personnel—those are the figures from 2010, and, as I have said, it is important to get those figures right. I look forward to hearing what the Government will do to make sure that the needs of ex-service personnel are met while they are in the criminal justice system or in prison, and that once they have served their sentence they are referred to specialist rehabilitation services to help reintegrate them into society.
One of the biggest issues that a lot of veterans struggle with is where to find help when it is needed at a particular time. The review of the Veterans-UK website is a positive step, although I am nervous about the site being hosted on the gov.uk website, which can be difficult to navigate and is often confusing. A directory of accredited third sector providers and accredited armed forces charities, run by a central body and with a 24/7 contact centre—as recommended by the Ashcroft review—would be invaluable, as would the proposed advice app for veterans. I know the Government are taking steps towards that and I would be interested to learn from the Minister what progress they are making.
To summarise my feelings on this matter, the issue of caring and looking after veterans is not a new one. It goes back to the inception of the nation state, from the ancient Romans giving land to their veterans to provide them with a livelihood, to Elizabeth I, who recognised the responsibility the country had to wounded veterans by passing an Act of Parliament in 1593 that levied a weekly tax on parishes for the relief of soldiers and sailors, to the modern-day enshrining of the military covenant in law. We have a duty of care, not just as individuals, politicians and law-makers, but as a nation, to ensure that the people who have served our country and have been prepared to pay the ultimate price in defence of our way of life and our freedoms are not in any way disadvantaged by their service. We must ensure that all veterans are treated with the respect, appreciation and honour they absolutely deserve.
I reiterate my earlier comments about the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti).
It is true that organisations such as SSAFA and the Royal British Legion do great work, and that the military covenant has been a big help through its recognition of the debt we all owe to our veterans; the role of local authorities has also been critical for development work on the ground. I want to talk about some of the work being done by smaller groups, in particular a group I am involved with in the north-east called Forward Assist. That was set up by a former marine, and a colleague of mine before I came to this place. All he had ever wanted to do with his life was to join the Royal Marines. After 18 months of training, he ripped his shoulder and despite two years of medical treatment was unable to carry on in his service. He left what had been his dream job, and fell into a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Thankfully, he was rescued by a counsellor who got him back on the straight and narrow and he was able to go back to university and learn a new trade. Now, in his later life and after working for a long time in child care and in the probation service, he has decided to set up a charity to take care of veterans. He was seeing young men coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and going through what he had gone through 30 years before, and he felt that something had to be done.
Some of these guys had been kicked out of the service for various reasons. They had gone into low-level crime or got involved with drink and drugs. They had terribly low self-esteem and were guilt-ridden because they felt they had let their families, themselves and the nation down. Many of their problems are mental health related, which is natural when someone has been in the services. They will not admit that they have mental health problems because it is a big issue for anyone, but for those coming out of the services it is a huge issue.
The role that Forward Assist plays in dealing with these people across Tyneside is about telling them, “You are not a failure. We want to help you get back into the normal way of living and get used to living in a world that is completely different from what you have experienced.” A lot of these people have been in the services for 20 years and the world today is very different from what it was in the 1990s and 1980s. Through a variety of interests, Forward Assist is working with people in the north-east. For example, in the north-east the National Trust have been very supportive, as have local councils, and big and small businesses have been tremendous. They have got involved in a huge raft of work, which has enabled these people to feel now that they can contribute to society again.
I want to mention three small things that are very important to these gentlemen. Veterans have been enrolled on cookery courses and some have obtained qualifications to enable them to cook for the public. They go round community centres and cook for elderly people and community groups, so they feel that they are giving something back. Similarly, some get angling qualifications. A community centre in the town I live in took 16 people with learning difficulties to a local fishing lake and is teaching them the skills of fishing. It is absolutely brilliant stuff. When fishing, those people can release and speak openly about what they are going through and it is very therapeutic for them to work with the people who are taking care of them. People have also taken sports qualifications. Some are working with Sunderland and Everton football clubs to develop community sports on the ground. That is happening only because of the work that people have done and the huge support they have given to veterans.
One reason why I wanted to speak is that a gentleman called Tony Wright, who won a Winston Churchill travelling scholarship three years ago, spent his time in the United States looking at how they look after their veterans, and as a result we set up a twinning link between Arkansas, Texas and Tyneside. There was already a sister city relationship between Little Rock in Arkansas and Tyneside, and out of that we have developed other work. I had the privilege of going there in December two years ago and I have been there during the recess in the last few years. Some of the things we learned from them are really important.
In no way would I ever denigrate the national health service. What happens in this country is that if someone has a problem, we point them to the national health service. Everyone has problems, but veterans have greater problems. One thing the American Veterans Health Administration has learned is that the issues involve more than health problems. It has learned through the terrible experience of men who came back from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, which was horrendous. They were treated like pariahs in America and were seen as failures, with people spitting on them and calling them all sorts of names such as “traitor”. People who had been in the forces were treated like dirt; people who were opposed to the war were treating them like dirt. It was not the fault of those guys that things went the way they did; it was the fault of our counterparts in various US Administrations over the years.
Thankfully, the light came on in the States, and as a result of that and some huge commitments by their Government, they now have the Veterans Health Administration, which works much better, possibly than anywhere else in the world. It is well resourced and provides a wrap-around service. When someone leaves the services they are provided with a mobile phone and are regularly contacted during the first year to see how they are doing. That might seem a simple thing, but it is vital for some of these people. Their education, housing, work and health needs are looked after.
We had the privilege of sitting in with a psychiatrist who was linked by CCTV to a gentleman who was 200 miles north in Arkansas. Because of benefit cuts, he could not afford to drive to meet the psychiatrist, but the Veterans Health Association had paid for the link. The gentleman knew we were there and to me it was one of the best things I have seen in my life. The guy was 65 years old and it was 40 years since he had left the services. He had worked in a mortuary in Vietnam. He had survived the trauma of that with a lot of black humour—people doing inappropriate things with body parts.
The veteran told the psychiatrist that 40 years later he was lying in bed trying to sleep, but could not. After 25 years of drug addiction he had managed to kick the habit because a judge had said, “If you come back here again, you are going to jail for life.” He had been clean for seven years and had got his dream job working in a golf club, but he said, “I am terribly fatigued because I go to bed at night and I can’t sleep, so I am going to work in the morning and I can’t concentrate, and I am terrified I am going to lose my job.” The psychiatrist said, “Look, we are going to bring you down to the hospital, monitor your sleeping patterns and monitor your medication, and make sure you can do what you want to do.” The veteran, who was a simple, old-fashioned working bloke, was delighted. That is the sort of thing we could learn from the people over there.
Another lesson from America involved the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke—my hon. Friend—referred to people who have been in prison. One thing they are doing in the States that is really innovative, is to stop them going to prison in the first place. People who have been involved in low-level crime must, first and foremost, admit their guilt. A system was set up that was developed from drugs courts. Someone goes in front of a judge in a veterans treatment court, where every one of the staff and the officials has been in the services. Their motto is that no one will fail.
The experience of the court in Buffalo, which was the first veterans treatment court, was that of 300 people who went through the system there, not one went back to crime. It worked for the benefit of the individual and society. It was economic and there was low crime. I am not saying it is foolproof because nothing is foolproof, but we should look at that seriously in this House. My party is committed to that, on the back of the experience that we brought back from over there. There will be serious discussions. I know, from discussions that we have had in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, that as part of the review that was mentioned earlier, the Government are looking at that example as a way of developing support for veterans.
When we raised the matter in our local area, I went on the radio and was assailed by someone who said, “Hang on. If someone has committed a crime we should bang them up. Why should we treat them differently from a window cleaner, a bricklayer or whatever? Why should veterans be a special case?” Well, we are a special case because of what we do.
We ask these people to go round the world and be prepared to kill for us and be prepared to die for us. We ask them to do abnormal things. If someone starts shooting at us, we do not run towards them, we run away from them, but those in the services are not allowed to run away from them. We ask them to kill people and if they do not kill people they end up in jail, whereas if anyone else kills someone they end up in jail. So veterans are a special case and we owe them the best possible support we can give them. I hope that in future discussions —I hope they will be cross-party because we should all be able to agree on this—we can learn the lessons not just of what people have experienced over the last few years, and work closely with the Americans.
During our discussions with the Veterans Health Administration in America, someone said that they are seeing a tsunami of health-related issues coming at them as a result of what people have gone through, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. People were exposed to the pressures over there for 24 hours a day, which we have not seen in the past—those who served in Northern Ireland and so on. During the second world war and so on, the pressures were not there every waking moment of their lives, but for the men and women I am talking about they have been and we must give them the best support we can.
I will leave plenty of time for the Minister because it is important to have his response. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on giving us the opportunity to speak about this matter. It is good to be able to participate in the debate. I commend him on his service in Afghanistan. It is good to have MPs of that calibre and experience in this House so that they can relate their experience to the rest of us.
Recently, I had the chance to be in the armed forces parliamentary scheme; I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier for 14-and-a-half years. The scheme gave me a chance as a Member of Parliament to meet today’s soldiers and to hear what they were about. Opportunities that we had in Afghanistan, at the training camps in Canada, Kenya and across all the places in the United Kingdom, on the mainland and elsewhere, enabled us to hear just what they were thinking.
We heard from soldiers getting sent back to the United Kingdom about the battlefields of Afghanistan—we heard strong memories of those—and about stopping over in Cyprus. That let them step down from the pressure that they were under while patrolling in Afghanistan and relax, and it got them ready for an ordinary life back in the United Kingdom. The armed forces parliamentary scheme gave us a better chance, as Members of Parliament, to see those things.
We also had a chance to speak not only to the officers, but to the soldiers. Sometimes we got two different opinions, but it is always good to hear what the men and women think, and we got that straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Whatever issues they brought to our attention we then brought to the attention of the Minister.
In Northern Ireland, we have a tradition of service in uniform, and our level of recruitment is the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom, as Members know. Service in the Army could mean the full-time Army—the Regulars —or the Territorial Army, and our levels of recruitment in the TA and in the Reserve forces are the envy of many parts of the United Kingdom. We meet soldiers and their families every day in my office, and I want to make this point: sometimes we focus on those who served in Afghanistan and maybe we forget—not intentionally—and need to be reminded of those who served in Iraq.
A gentleman came into my office the other week, and Iraq had clearly had an impact on him. He was one of those who was vaccinated, which, as Members are probably aware, had a detrimental effect on some people. That was not the case with everyone, but it certainly affected him. When he returned, his life became very different from how it was before he went to Iraq. He lost his family, his friends and his health, and he now exists on benefits, but he is still a bright guy, which is good. At the same time, when I spoke to him, I realised that inside was a guy who was taking on the troubles of the world.
This is short notice, so if the Minister cannot answer today I will be happy to receive a response later, but what are we doing for the veterans of Iraq and those who had vaccinations detrimental to their health? It is so important that that matter is addressed. I know the Democratic Unionist party held a debate in the Chamber and the Minister responded, but none the less, today is an opportunity to hit upon that as well.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) referred to some of the good work being done in his area. I am amazed by the people who make the effort—the volunteers and organisations that give so much. Where would we be in this country if we did not have the thousands upon thousands of volunteers, in whatever sphere of life that may be?
In terms of the armed forces, in my constituency we have the Ards & North Down Phoenix Group, which has some 600 people on its books. It draws from those in the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and it does tremendous work—not just for them, but for the families. That is critical to integrating people back into society and to dealing with the issues that they have every day. Members have spoken about SSAFA, and those of us of a certain vintage know that organisation. SSAFA has been doing tremendous work for many years.
I want to take the opportunity to mention some of the people involved in this work in my town of Newtownards, in the middle of my constituency. Georgina Carlisle and Yvonne Ritchie are just two of the ladies who meet those who are coming back directly and who help those excellent volunteers. There is no money involved; they do that work because they want to, and we are greatly obliged to them.
There is the Royal British Legion as well. Today, there was a small reception here. I went to it because one of my friends in the Conservative party said, “It’s on today if you want to take a run down”, so I did. It was specifically for the MPs in southern England, by the way, but none the less, it was good to speak to people there and to hear what they wanted us to do. There is a wee issue there that can be addressed through the Department for Social Development and through the Minister responsible. It is a devolved matter and I would certainly be glad to take that up with them directly to make sure that we can address that issue. I believe it is important to do so.
In my area, there is a group called Beyond the Battlefield, an established charity in my constituency that does tremendous work for veterans. Rob McCartney and Annemarie Hastings are two people involved in that. Both of them do lots of interaction with veterans who return—mostly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and with serious problems. They usually fight appeals for veterans when it comes to getting pensions, disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and they make sure that these people are looked after and not forgotten about when they come home.
When all the pressure is on veterans, the group helps them with financial, emotional and relationship advice. It is a tremendous effort. I know the Minister is coming to Northern Ireland, and I have invited her to my constituency. In advance of that, I offer to show her what the group does so that she can meet some of the people. I think she will be impressed by the group’s work. So many charities offer services, but Beyond the Battlefield is very close to my heart, because it provides help for veterans.
The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland will ensure a better and more constant level of support for veterans right across the Province. Over the last five years, I have had the privilege of participating in SSAFA’s coffee morning in Newtownards, and the good people of Newtownards have contributed some £15,000 to its coffers.
In terms of housing, benefits, employment and relationships, the military covenant is as important in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. When we debated it in the House a few weeks ago, the Minister said that things were 95% in place in Northern Ireland. Obviously, we want to make sure that we nudge along the other 5%, but I am greatly encouraged by her efforts and by her response and that of the Department. None of us is unimpressed by our veterans—by those who serve today and those who have served in the past.
I come to my last point. Sometimes I look back and think of the repatriation of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan. One thing that brought it home to me and to the nation as a whole was Wootton Bassett, because that was a reminder of their sacrifice, and today, through this debate—through the support and rehabilitation of veterans—we can be reminded of the good work that they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and it has also been a great pleasure to listen to this debate. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate. However, I think we made a bit of a mistake, because really we could have done with a 90-minute Backbench Business debate. If any of my hon. Friends—everyone is now an hon. Friend in this debate—wanted to put that forward, we could exhaust 90 minutes quite easily.
I am grateful for the contributions that have been made and I hope to address all the points raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know, my usual rule is that if I do not respond to a particular matter, issue or topic, my officials will address it in writing. Members can be assured that my officials will address all the important points that have been made; I apologise if I do not cover them all.
I start by stating the obvious. We are all grateful for the service of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and all those who serve in whatever capacity. We did a survey last year where we looked at why people were joining our armed forces. It was interesting to discover that they did so for the same reasons that people have always joined our armed forces: a sense of adventure and a desire to see new places and experience new things, as well as a recognition of the huge skills that they gain through their service.
We heard mention of Lord Ashcroft’s report. I pay full tribute to the noble Lord for conducting the review on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Lord Ashcroft explored all the difficulties with transitions. It was a very positive report. We know that the overwhelming majority of people have a good experience when they leave service and go into civilian life, but even though the number of people who do not have a good experience may be small, it is nevertheless an important number. The issue affects each and every one of them and their families. We often forget the sacrifices that the families have already made. It is imperative that we ensure that people transit into civilian life as well as they can and that, when they fall on difficult times, we have everything there to support them. We know that the transition does not work out for some people, and it is incumbent on us to do our best for them.
The covenant is, if I may say so, one of the best things that we have achieved in government. We have put it into statute. I accept that it does not have legal force, in that it is not a principle that anyone could take legal action on, but it is very important. I am delighted that it has been signed up to by all the local authorities, apart from those in Northern Ireland. For obvious reasons, there is a difficult situation there, but all the other local authorities on mainland UK have signed up to it. To repeat, it means no disadvantage for anyone who has served or is in service or for their families, and special consideration for those who are bereaved and for those who have been particularly badly injured in service.
We talk about how we are going to enforce the covenant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about its enforcement. We in the national Government have started to deliver on it, the decision about widow’s pensions being a very good example of that, but it is incumbent on all the local authorities, which have signed up, now to deliver on it.
That does not necessarily cost a lot of money. I pay tribute to the extremely good local initiatives that hon. Members have mentioned in this short debate, because it is at local level that we actually do the work. Yes, there is stuff that Government can do, but it is locally that it is delivered. There is a real role for MPs acting in their local area, as a constituency MP, and a real role for councillors. Let us be honest: there is nothing that a councillor enjoys more. Many councillors do not have the sort of responsibility, the ability to make a difference to their communities, that they want to have. That is perhaps a feature of modern life, but councillors really can start to deliver on the covenant. I do not care which political party they belong to. They should be able to say proudly on their leaflets, “This is what we have achieved as an administration” or “This is what I have achieved as a local councillor in delivering on the covenant.”
That is so important, which is why I will write to every leader and chief executive of every local authority to ask them, “Have you or would you appoint an armed forces champion and then will you test all your policies against the document that you have signed up to?” I think that asking those questions and making them see that they can do something without, as I said, having to spend a lot of money will mean that they willingly take up the challenge.
I intend to write to every single local authority, so that will include all the Welsh and all the Scottish authorities; I see no division there. However, I said, after the hon. Gentleman had to pop out of the Chamber, that I know the situation is different in Northern Ireland. We discussed that at length in the main Chamber. It was an excellent debate, and I look forward to my visit and all that I will learn.
I began this part of my speech by talking about Lord Ashcroft’s report, which looked specifically at the transition to civilian life. I think that I can sum the position up in this way; it is certainly a view that I share. It seems a bit perverse to say to someone on the day that they sign up, “We want you now to start thinking about the day you leave. Plan your service accordingly.” An 18 or 19-year-old will have some difficulty with that, but it is the standard that we seek to set. The view that we take is, “You are great when you sign up. That is obviously the case or we wouldn’t take you on. But by the time you come to leave the service, you will be even better, not only as a human being but because of the skills and the other things that we will give you.”
My youngest boy is joining the military next year—he is hoping to be a paratrooper in the Army —but for more than a year now I have been trying to explain that when he chooses the branch of service, he needs to be thinking already about what he wants to do afterwards and to act accordingly, which is very difficult.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has said, as he did in his speech, all the things that I would want to say, so I will not repeat everything; he puts it far better than I can.
I join in the tributes paid by my hon. Friend to the big, national charities. We have talked about SSAFA. That charity is often forgotten, but it is a fabulous charity and does great work. We know the Royal British Legion. I am reminded of a study that it has just done. I am happy to share the results by way of a letter, because I cannot go through all the statistics now. It has done a big survey of veterans, and some of the things in it concern me. I am talking about the rates among veterans of, for example, long-term illness and depression. It says that they are higher, although if we look across the mental health piece, we know that actually our veterans, people coming out of service, do not suffer higher levels of mental health problems than the rest of the population. That does not mean that the issue is not important, but we have to set these things in context, because as the RBL says, there are a number of myths. One is that most people are damaged by their service. That is not true. The majority of our veterans enjoy good mental health, for example. We are told that many are homeless. We have heard the stats; it is only 3%. I know that 3% is still 3% too many, but 3% of London’s homeless population are ex-service personnel.
There is also the issue of the number of veterans in prisons, and I shall deal with some of the very good points made by my friend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) in his excellent speech. We think that 3% to 7% of prisoners are veterans, but I heard the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave from his extensive experience in his own constituency.
I want to give a quick mention to Help for Heroes. It does a fabulous job, but when I go, as I have gone, to Tedworth House, I can see that it is a place that could take more people. I want us to get into the position whereby someone who is being medically discharged from service has the opportunity to go to Tedworth House, so that it can put them in the very place that the hon. Gentleman wants them to be in before they leave service. I want people, if they do hit troubles, bad times and all the rest of it, to have somewhere to go back to—an organisation to go back to that can then pass them on to a local charity.
The figures that I cited were not actually from the local area. They were from the rehabilitation advisory service, which works closely with the veterans project. The work involves going into prisons and talking to people; it is not just a case of writing to someone and saying, “How many veterans have you had here?” It is good evidence, and we gave it to the Minister’s predecessor.
I am very grateful. I would very much enjoy having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further. I pay tribute to the work that he does and the knowledge that he has brought to this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked specifically about veterans’ accommodation. There is £40 million of LIBOR funding for that. Nine out of the 16 projects that have been successful have been announced; a further seven will be announced next month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There are schemes to support veterans involved in the criminal justice system. I was really interested in the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Blaydon. I have always been resistant to the idea of veterans courts, but he has begun to convince me. Certainly I am going to keep an open mind on it; he has persuaded me to keep my mind open to it. The danger, I am told, is that many of those who have served say, “Why should we be seen as something different or special? We do not need our own court.” My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke addressed that argument. My experience in the Crown court was that when a judge knew that someone was serving or had served, they took that heavily into consideration before deciding whether to pass a custodial sentence, because they recognised the sacrifice and the duty that the individual had performed by serving in one of our armed services.
In the time that remains, I want to deal with the some of the points that have been raised. In particular, I want to talk about mental health, which always comes up, and I know that it concerns so many people in this place and outside it. I give full credit to the charity Forward Assist, which the hon. Member for Blaydon has mentioned and of which, I believe, he is a patron. He brings to the debate insight and understanding. I think that the charity is a good example of how we should deliver on the covenant, namely through local delivery by a good local charity that knows the people who need help and knows how to go and find them. Knowing how to find such people is one of the big problems.
I have confidence, and I hope I am not overstating it, in where we are now. We have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford about Cyprus. We know that in respect of people who were involved in Afghanistan in the theatre of war, our armed forces have really woken up to mental health. As a society, we have woken up to mental health, and much of the stigma has been removed from it. In our armed forces, the rather macho attitude of “We do not talk about these things. Be a man and get on with it,” has given way to a much healthier attitude to mental health. It is seen much more as part of general health. People look after their weight, and they look after their head at the same time. Looking after their mental health is part of being fit for service. We are building resilience and we are encouraging people to talk about mental health. As the hon. Gentleman has identified, people go to Cyprus from Afghanistan, where they go through a period of decompression. They are encouraged to be open and to talk.
It is hugely significant that our former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, chose to become president of Combat Stress when he retired, even though he had many charities to choose from. That shows that people are no longer afraid, and no longer feel that it is some sort of slight, to talk about mental health. People recognise how important it is that we get it right, and a lot of good work has been done. I am concerned about people—they are mainly men—who served in previous combats, such as Iraq, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, who did not have many of those facilities and do not come from that generation of service. I fear that they have slipped through the net. They may end up in trouble or in a bad place, and they may feel that there is nobody to support or help them.
That is where the fabulous local charities come into play, because they have the ability to scoop up such people at a local level and get them into the right place. In my constituency, there is a fabulous local charity called Forces in the Community, which is looking at schemes with the local police. If the police pick up someone who is drunk, misbehaving, or engaged in low-level crime and they discover that that person is a veteran, they do not go through the normal process of giving the individual a caution. Instead, they look sensibly and intelligently at doing things differently by, for example, placing the individual with an organisation such as Forces in the Community. If, for example, someone has a problem with drugs or drink, if they are homeless or if their marriage is falling to pieces, they are put together with local organisations that can help them. In such a way, we can deliver what we should be delivering for all our veterans.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned vaccinations in Iraq, and I will take that issue away and deal with it. Mr Bayley, I think I have enough time to talk quickly about the career transition partnership—
Two minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about the partnership, which offers transition and employment support for up to two years pre-discharge and two years post-discharge. From 1 October next year, the career transition partnership contract will include all service leavers. I hope that that is good news.
I fear that there are all sorts of other questions that I should have answered and matters that I should have dealt with, but I am running out of time. I thank all who have contributed to this debate. As I have said, it could easily have taken up 90 minutes, and probably more, and we should have such a debate. I have certainly learned a lot, and if I have missed anything, I will write to my hon. Friends and cover those points in better detail than I have done.