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Westminster Hall

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 December 2014

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Benefit Sanctioning

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Wallace.)

It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

During the September recess I organised a community consultation across my constituency. With 63 meetings over three weeks, the consultation raised a wide range of issues. A dominant theme from some of my most vulnerable constituents, and from those in the voluntary, community and faith sector who work with them, was the impact of benefit sanctions. I cite the example of the Cathedral Archer Project, which works with the homeless. The project has been visited by Ministers and is held up as a model of good practice in taking people off the streets and getting them back into society by giving them skills and a home. The project’s work has been fundamentally changed by the response that some of its clients receive when they start—

I didn’t catch it from you, Minister.

Some of the project’s clients, in their first home, will suddenly receive a letter that they either cannot read or do not understand, and they will therefore miss an appointment and find themselves sanctioned, out of their home and back on the streets. They go to the jobcentre and are told, “Go along to the Cathedral Archer Project. They will feed you.” That transforms the role of an important local charity from making a strategic intervention to help people off the streets, into homes and into work to just being a crisis centre.

I am pleased to have secured this debate to raise such concerns directly and to make some practical proposals on how the Government can address the issue. Much of what I have to say is based on the work of Sheffield Citizens Advice, which is a great organisation that provides vital support to people across our city, finds solutions and supports people in complex situations. In doing so, it saves public money by averting crisis further down the line. In May, the organisation’s social policy group produced a report on the experience of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions based on the previous 12 months. I am pleased that the report’s author is in Westminster for today’s debate. The Department for Work and Pensions received a copy of the report when it was published, and it has been in correspondence with Sheffield Citizens Advice. I sent a further copy to the Minister before today’s debate so that we can properly consider its recommendations.

I must stress how helpful it is for such evidence to be gathered and presented so clearly by those working directly with the people affected by Government policy, with concrete recommendations about what can be done to improve the system. I hope the Minister will treat that work by people on the front line as seriously as it deserves to be treated. I make it absolutely clear at the outset that neither the report nor my contribution opposes the principle of sanctioning within the benefit system. Applying sanctions to those who are deliberately not seeking work, who are unavailable for work or who have no intention of working can disincentivise such behaviour and, in combination with the right support and training, can help people on the road to getting a job that provides not only an income but self-esteem, purpose, socialisation and accomplishment, but—and it is a very big but—any sanctioning regime has to be humane. The Sheffield Citizens Advice report clearly shows that there is an increasing number of incidents where the system is neither humane nor—this is important—serving its stated purpose of getting more people into work. In fact, the system is having the opposite effect in many cases.

Some of the stories outlined in the report will be all too familiar to hon. Members. I will briefly share the experiences of a couple of my constituents that are not detailed in the report. One constituent prefers to remain anonymous, so I will call her Mary. She was made redundant from a job as a cleaner, so she had to sign on for the first time in her life. She was told by an officer at the jobcentre that her next appointment with a job adviser would be on her signing-on day. She was told that there was no need to come in and sign on in the morning because she could do it when she came in for her 3 pm appointment. That information was wrong: the job adviser appointment was two days before Mary’s signing-on day. We all make mistakes, but it is simply and clearly not right that Mary, who had gone to the jobcentre for help to find a job, was punished for the officer’s mistake. It was an honest mistake, but it was a mistake, and she faced the consequences. Mary had to borrow money to get by, and I am pleased to say that she is now back in work with a cleaning job, but she got there despite the system, not because of it.

Mary understood what she needed to do, but she was wrongly advised. There are plenty of examples in the Sheffield Citizens Advice report of people who are not clear about what is expected of them:

“Alan was given a 4 week sanction for not actively seeking work. Because of his limited literacy/numeracy skills he had been enrolled for an 8 week course in English and Maths. He thought that as he was taking this course he did not need to complete his work search book for that period.”

That was an honest mistake. The report continues:

“Tony is in his mid 50s and is vulnerable because of his learning disabilities and dyslexia. He can’t read or write. Despite the fact that he gets significant support with looking for work from a local Job Club, he was sanctioned for not doing ‘enough’ jobseeking.”

Another constituent, coincidentally also called Tony, thinks he was sanctioned because the activity on his Universal Jobmatch account was considered too low by the jobcentre. I say that he thinks that was the reason for his being sanctioned because he has not yet been notified of the reasons for the sanctioning. Tony is eager to find employment and has completed an IT course through the jobcentre to help him find work online. He does not have access to a computer at home, so he spends much of the day at the central library waiting for his turn on the computer to show activity on Universal Jobmatch. That is in addition to going to workplaces in Sheffield looking for work, but he has been sanctioned. As a result of that sanctioning, he has been referred to the Salvation Army food bank in my constituency.

The question is whether sanctions are the right response to such situations, and not only because of their impact on people. Will they actually bring about the behavioural change that they purport to seek? Might the sanctions hinder, rather than help, the people who are affected?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. The emphasis should be on how we root out those who are abusing the system. If the sanctions are harder on some people than on others, how do we get a mechanism that will root out those who are abusing the system by not turning up for appointments? When I speak to benefits centres in Northern Ireland, they tell me that a large number of people are abusing the system. How do we get a system that provides a level playing field for all?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. There are people who take advantage of any system, there are people who avoid their tax obligations, and so on. The point I am seeking to make is that if we design a system with the stated objective that he describes—supporting people back into work and taking sanctions against those who deliberately avoid it—we have to measure the effectiveness of the system against its stated objectives. My contention is that the operation of the system is failing that objective, so I ask myself why these seemingly illogical sanctioning decisions are being made.

Coincidentally, last Thursday I was out knocking on doors and meeting constituents, and I knocked on the door of a jobcentre worker. She described to me a range of issues that she faced in her daily work. I happened to mention that we were having this debate this morning, and she immediately responded by talking about the pressure that she and her colleagues felt they were being put under to impose sanctions.

That is a serious point. Indeed, in a survey of staff within the Department for Work and Pensions that was conducted by the Public and Commercial Services Union, 23% of union members surveyed said they had been given explicit targets for referring claimants for sanctions; 36% stated that they had been placed on a performance improvement plan for not making enough sanctions referrals; and 10% said that they had gone through poor performance procedures for not making enough sanctions referrals.

I know that the Government will say that there is no pressure to sanction, but the DWP acknowledges that statistics on sanctions are collated centrally and that local jobcentre managers will be contacted if their performance is out of line with that of other jobcentres. If this is a matter of good management, and no league tables are being compiled and no targets are being set, why is a lower level of sanctions seen as a sign of poor performance by a jobcentre manager?

Turning to how the situation can be improved, I start on a positive note. The Government’s independent review of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions carried out by Matthew Oakley was certainly a welcome step. Although its remit was limited—I will come on to that point shortly— it made some important suggestions about how communications and processes within the JSA sanctioning system can be improved.

I will not go into details, but a key point to take from that review is the lack of understanding between the claimant and the jobcentre. That chimes exactly with what Sheffield Citizens Advice is saying: too many claimants are not being adequately or appropriately informed of what is expected from them in the first place. They are not being informed about what they have done wrong when they have been sanctioned, and how to avoid the situation happening again.

The Sheffield Citizens Advice report chimes with the points that Matthew Oakley made. It says:

“A common experience is that they realise that no money has been paid into the bank first and then later get a letter stating that their benefits have been stopped.”

Will the Minister say what school of behavioural economics that sort of approach comes from? If a jobseeker does not understand the agreement that they have entered into, how does sanctioning achieve its aim, and how can sanctioning serve as a disincentive if a jobseeker does not know what behaviour triggers a sanction?

Perhaps Tony, whom I mentioned earlier and is mentioned in the report, was told that he needed to do more jobsearching, or perhaps he was sent a letter to that effect. That might be the case; I am not clear on that point. However, I know from talking to other constituents that such letters have led to sanctioning when they have not been responded to properly. The problem is that Tony cannot read; he has learning disabilities. He wants to work, but in that context the letter is meaningless, so what is the Minister doing to ensure that jobcentre staff are sensitive to such barriers—the barriers that claimants face in engaging with them? As I have said, it is positive that the DWP has responded to the Oakley review by setting up a specialist team to look at communications, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on the work of that team and outlined exactly what has changed as a result of its work. Will she also address some of the other recommendations in the report when she responds to the debate?

Many claimants tell Citizens Advice that they were not aware that they had been sanctioned until they contacted the jobcentre after finding out that they had no money in their bank account. Subsequent decision letters are often poorly worded, and without a clear explanation as to the misconduct that led to the imposition of sanctions. I urge the Minister to respond to the following proposals to address this issue: the wording of decision letters should be reviewed, so as to provide more detailed information about what led to the sanction, and to give information about the possible knock-on consequences of not responding to the decision letter; a sanction should not be put into effect until the decision letter notifying the claimant has been sent and a reasonable time for it to be delivered has passed; and notification letters should clearly inform the claimant of their right to challenge the sanction, explaining how to do so and, where appropriate, how to access hardship payments.

I say that because the Sheffield Citizens Advice report details how sanctions are often imposed because claimants failed to carry out agreed steps or activities even though many of them face barriers—through language, caring responsibilities or health problems—that mean they could not reasonably have carried out the agreed steps. That is an important point: they could not reasonably have been expected to respond. Other claimants do not understand what has been agreed and, according to the report, jobcentre staff are not aware of the genuine barriers that some claimants face.

I urge the Minister to respond to the following proposals to address this situation. First, jobcentres should make claimants aware that they have a say in the content of jobseekers’ agreements, and that this is a two-way process that should have claimants’ full engagement. It is supposed to be a partnership leading people into work. Claimants should be made aware that they have a right to have the agreement reviewed if they are not happy with the content.

Secondly, jobcentres should take whatever steps are necessary to be certain that all relevant factors that could possibly act as a barrier to work have been taken fully into account when deciding on the content of a jobseeker’s agreement. I have already cited some of the barriers that exist. Thirdly, jobcentre staff should be invited to awareness training about the practical and specific difficulties faced by some claimants; those difficulties may be learning disabilities, mental health issues or language barriers. I make this proposal because the Minister will agree that without workable, reasonable and well-understood agreements between jobcentres and claimants, the process is bound to fail, and if it fails it will clearly cause extraordinary hardship. I visited a food bank that I helped to establish in the heart of my constituency. The increase in the demand for its services is in significant part due to the increase in benefits sanctioning—the same is reported by other food banks across the city.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency, Compassion in Action provides a food bank that covers the whole of Wigan. The charity’s statistics show that 37% of the people who go there do so as a result of being sanctioned. One individual who had gone to the food bank had actually received training for a month with a guaranteed job at the end of it; he had found that job himself. His employer was willing to say to jobcentre staff that he needed the individual there every day that month, but the individual was sanctioned for that month and Compassion in Action kept him fed.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which echoes many reports I have received from the food banks in my constituency. The desperate level of hardship that we are talking about needs to be understood in the House. We understand that food banks provide a weekly food parcel, but when I recently spoke to colleagues at the S2 Food Bank in Sheffield, they pointed out that they were now receiving demand for food parcels containing cold food that would not require heating as people did not have enough money not only for food but for basic fuel supplies. People are living in houses or flats illuminated by candles and eating cold food provided by food banks. That is desperate hardship.

I am deeply troubled by some of the substance of this debate. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government argue that nobody should go without essentials as a result of a sanction, and that they should receive hardship payments. Can he imagine why the evidence on the ground that he is presenting falls so far short of the Government’s obvious intent?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come to that point; often a part of the communications breakdown is people’s lack of awareness of the hardship payments that they are entitled to. The Government have to deal with precisely that issue as part of the challenge.

In the time I have left, I want to stress the inhumane nature of some of the sanctioning I have referred to. It is clear that, if claimants do not understand agreements, they will not keep them and sanctioning will not have its desired effect as a deterrent against non-jobseeking.

On the point raised a moment ago, my experience is that some people without dependents or without other needs do not get hardship payments. In Scotland, we have the Scottish welfare fund—our equivalent of devolving responsibility for hardship payments to local authorities—but authorities were telling people, at least initially, that those who had been sanctioned could not apply for help from it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important clarification. Although hardship payments are available to some vulnerable groups—as I said in response to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), there is a problem even there, and communication is breaking down—there are many groups to whom payments are not available. One recommendation, which the Minister should address, is that access to hardship payments should be given to all householders, not just those in certain defined groups.

Sanctioning is not only ineffective in many circumstances, but deeply damaging. That is particularly the case when it has a knock-on effect on housing benefit and council tax support for those on the lowest incomes. A claimant and their family can soon find that they face rent arrears and that they are unable to pay basic bills. In the case of council tax, non-payment is punishable by imprisonment.

Often, people find themselves in that situation without adequate warning, so they have no time to plan for the shortfall. Emma, another Citizens Advice client mentioned in the report, came very close to losing her home as a result of the knock-on impact of a JSA sanction. Sadly, she is not alone. When margins are tight, the slightest change in income can trigger a downward spiral into deep money problems. The system is not designed for that, and rightly so—how would someone in such dire straits be able to find a job?

The DWP agreed to change its IT software and amend the notification sent to local authorities when a sanction has been applied to allow housing benefit to continue without interruption. Action on that was promised by the autumn, but it is now December. Can the Minister assure us today that that relatively minor change, with the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives of some of the poorest people in our communities, is happening or is imminent?

Will the Minister respond to the report’s proposal that all households, as I said a moment ago, have immediate access to hardship payments to avoid the situations I have talked about? Will financial redress be considered where a sanction is found to have been incorrectly applied, resulting in significant consequences and distress for those involved?

There is much more to be said on the issue, and I have asked the Minister a number of specific questions. I want to end with one point.

Before my hon. Friend finishes, will he tell us whether the research found evidence of people having to resort to payday lenders or loan sharks to get over the immediate problem of a lack of cash? Did that then create problems for them further down the road because they had lost a lot of their ability to pay back those loans, even when they had been wrongly sanctioned?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for the great work she has done as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, along with the other members of the Committee. She is right to highlight the link between benefits sanctioning and payday lending. As she will know, payday lending is a concern to me. With colleagues from all parties in the House, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on high-cost credit.

I have subsequently worked with colleagues on the all-party group on debt and personal finance to push the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce effective regulation of payday lenders, and I am delighted that we have made some progress on that. However, that is only part of the solution. We are dealing with the consequences of poverty—people resorting to payday lenders—but not the causes, and one of the most significant causes is benefit sanctioning. I am therefore pleased that my hon. Friend raised that point.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for being a little late. Is he aware of the evidence from Oxford university, which shows that one in four JSA claimants who are sanctioned leave JSA and that more than half of them do not get into work? Using sanctions to get people into employment has therefore proved ineffective.

I was not aware of that research, so I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. That makes the point powerfully that the sanctioning regime is failing to achieve its stated intention. Even leaving aside the hardships and all the consequences of sanctioning, we still need to look carefully at the issues I have raised because of the failure of sanctioning to meet its stated objectives.

So far, the Government have resisted calls from the Work and Pensions Committee, Citizens Advice and others for a full review of the sanctioning system. I have commended the work of the Oakley review, but that focused only on the practicalities of the current system. I understand the Select Committee is conducting its own inquiry, which I strongly welcome, and I am sure Citizens Advice and many others will engage fully with it.

Why, however, are the Government refusing to address one fundamental question: is the sanctioning system proving effective at getting people into work, which is its stated intention? Why is there no performance evaluation of the system against that criterion? There is no shame in that, whatever the answer—even if it is that, no, the system is not proving effective. However, we need to know the answer as policy makers; if we do not even ask, we are showing enormous contempt for the people whose lives are being dramatically affected. I hope the Minister will give us a commitment on that today.

Order. It might be helpful before we proceed any further if I point out that I intend to call the two Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.40 am to begin the winding-up speeches. I do not intend at this point to impose a time limit on speeches, but, depending on how things go over the next few minutes, I may decide to do so.

One of the things that has troubled me most in my parliamentary career has been when serious allegations have been made about the unintended consequences of benefits reform. In some cases, it is alleged that it has led to people’s deaths.

In the Library brief, I read an article from The Independent about the cases of Mark Wood and David Clapson. Mr Wood died. He had a number of mental health problems and was found starved to death. Apparently, he thought that he deserved only £40 a week, and when a member of his family gave him money, it is alleged that he gave it to charity. Mr Clapson also died. He was a former soldier and a type 1 diabetic. It is said that his benefits were cut. The article says:

“He had no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity card”,

so he could not run the

“fridge where he kept his insulin.”

Those are appalling cases. The DWP has apparently said of Mr Wood:

“The coroner attributed Mr Wood’s eating disorder and food phobia as the likely cause of his death”

and Mr Clapson had not appealed or applied for a hardship payment. In the system set up to help such people, it may well be that unforeseen circumstances arose that led to the deaths of both those men.

The Government explain that the majority of claimants do not receive a sanction and that vulnerable claimants can receive hardship payments immediately if they are sanctioned. It seems to me that in the cases of both Mr Wood and Mr Clapson, there should have been immediate hardship payments, if not a suspension of the sanction in the first place.

Why do such decisions get made? First, it is because the state is not an instrument of compassion and kindness. In the end, it is an instrument of rule following and coercion. Something is going on in the system when the Minister’s and the Government’s good intent, which I do not doubt for a moment, goes through a set of rules, procedures, structures and bureaucracies that ultimately leads to some edge cases in which people may even die as a result of the system. Why does that happen?

The other question is why people working within the system allow these things to happen in front of them. I have observed that people with the least are often the most generous, and those who are the closest to human suffering usually feel the most for the people they see suffering, so why do these things happen? I am afraid that I found myself turning to the Milgram experiment, which gave a psychological explanation of why people obey authority. It is just a fact—this has been shown repeatedly—that people will obey the rules far beyond their personal morality regarding the consequences. I ask the Government to think about how the incentives for staff could be changed to allow their personal morality to flourish in the system, so that the small minority of cases that are clearly illogical and wrong never arise.

It has been pointed out that the vast majority of decisions are correct. In the 12 months to June 2014, decision makers considered 1.76 million JSA cases and imposed 850,000 sanctions or disentitlements, but fewer than 15% of those decisions were changed on reconsideration or appeal. Some 15% were changed after review and fewer than 1% after appeal, and that was often because the claimant brought forward new evidence. The problem I am most concerned about is how in the tiny minority of cases where a different decision really ought to have been made, it was not made.

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. He might not be aware of the Select Committee inquiry and the report we published earlier this year that clearly showed that the pressure on Jobcentre Plus advisers to get claimants off-flow—off the books—was such that it was distorting what should happen. He mentioned the rules in society, but the rules and culture being set up within the Department contribute to those tragic cases.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because I was not aware of the report. I will be sure to dig it out after the debate and have a good look at it.

My point is that I do not doubt the Government’s good intent or that the overwhelming majority of the people working in the system do an extremely difficult job that is demanding both on their skills and talents and on their emotions; but I have to ask why it is that in a tiny minority of cases things go so badly wrong. The hon. Lady made a good point about the systems that are put in place. How do people end up feeling incentivised to sanction people whom they otherwise might not sanction? Why do they not notice that someone has a mental illness such as a food phobia and feel able to refer them to help elsewhere? How can that possibly be? I am absolutely convinced that every Member of this House believes not only that we should have an ultimate social safety net, but that there is one there that should be and largely is effective.

I will finish my speech with some obvious suggestions for the Government, which I feel sure they will have considered. First, it is obvious that everything should be clearly communicated to people, taking into account issues such as those the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned, where someone cannot read. It is obvious that a person cannot be expected to comply with rules that have not been explained to them. The rules should be explained simply and people’s understanding of them confirmed. It is not enough sometimes just to send a letter—if people cannot cope with life, they will not open their correspondence. Secondly, how can we expand the capacity of individual members of staff to exercise their personal moral judgment in cases, so that we do not end up with a type 1 diabetic with no money to pay for the electricity to keep the fridge on for his insulin? I suggest that all staff should have a duty to inform claimants of their right to appeal and to apply for hardship payments.

I am absolutely sure that the Government intend to drive people into work, and that is right. If people can work, they should work; it is good for them and it is good for society. I am also absolutely sure that the Government intend to bring hope to people who are without it. I just hope very much that we can deal with all the issues around the edges and set up a system of welfare that works for everyone, all the time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. I want to look at two particular groups affected by sanctioning and how changes could improve their situation. The first group is single parents.

Gingerbread, which supports and campaigns on behalf of single parents, published a report in November called “Single parents and benefit sanctions”, which looked at some of the issues. Its concern is that single parents appear to be more likely than other claimants to receive what is called a “non-adverse sanction decision”, where it is decided not to sanction. Single parents receive such decisions in 41% of cases compared with 32% of other claimants, which means that more inappropriate referrals are being made for single parents. Someone might say, “Okay, they don’t actually get sanctioned in the end,” or, “The sanction is overturned within the reconsideration period,” but it increases anxiety and the difficulty people face while they go through the process. A substantial minority of decisions are overturned not before the sanction is applied, but afterwards, during the initial reconsideration period. In that post-sanction period, 26% of low-level sanctions applied to single parents are overturned, 46% of intermediate-level sanctions—that is very high—and 17% of high-level sanctions. That suggests a relatively high proportion of wrong decisions, which is particularly important for departmental working.

The Gingerbread report also cites a previous piece of research done for the DWP and published in 2013, which looked at lone parent obligations in the period towards the end of the previous Government. That DWP study showed that in getting people back to work, the effects of voluntary and tailored back-to-work support were greater than the effects of programmes based on increasing conditionality. Tailored support had a higher success rate. That is important because it was the DWP that commissioned the report.

If single parents or any other group are to be involved, it is particularly important that the claimant commitment that people are expected to enter into is individually tailored. We are told by Ministers that it is individually tailored, but the experience of many constituents is that it does not appear to take their circumstances into account. There are single parent flexibilities in the system, which allow the conditionality applied to single parents to be tailored to their particular needs, but Gingerbread found that in a number of cases that was not happening. When universal credit is rolled out beyond the 17,000 people currently on it, to the whole of the UK, only one in 12 of the lone parent flexibilities will be carried over in its entirety. Gingerbread is concerned that universal credit makes it less likely, not more likely, that single parents will be protected by conditions that take into account such things as school holidays, school hours and the difficulties of working evenings and nights for lone parents responsible for their children.

Gingerbread makes some practical proposals—it has not just put out a report that says, “This is all awful.” It suggests that at the start of a claim there should be a thorough diagnostic interview with a specialist lone parent adviser—a jobcentre provision that seems to have become less common of late—to give appropriate conditionality; that similar processes should be applied if that particular person is later referred to the Work programme; that if claimants receive a sanction, they are given better information on hardship payments and how to appeal, as mentioned by other hon. Members; and, of course, that lone parent advisers be reinstated.

In a worrying trend, another group that appears to be increasingly affected by sanctions is those on employment and support allowance in the work-related activity group who have been through the work capability assessment and have been assessed as not fit for work at this stage. These people are not expected to be job-ready, but they can be referred to the Work programme if their prognosis is that they will be fit again within 12 months, and people are increasingly being referred. Most sanctions for this group appear to arise from the Work programme experience. The number of ESA sanctions in June 2014 was 5,132, up from 1,091 in December 2012. The rise over that period was steady and it is still going up. Of the sanctions, 431 were for failure to attend a mandatory interview, but 4,700 arose from a failure to participate in a work-related activity, which basically means the Work programme. Many of these people have mental health problems or learning disabilities, so we must ask why this group is being increasingly sanctioned and how effective that can be.

However much some deny it, there is a link between the increasing use of food banks and a decision that has been made about benefits. Some of those decisions involve delays, but a survey undertaken this year by the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Scotland and other organisations found that 20% to 30% of food bank users said that their household’s benefit had recently been stopped or reduced because of a sanction. I do not deny that often there is a backdrop of other, wider problems, as shown by the report. Many people have a background of homelessness, recent marital separation, relationship problems, ill health or bereavement, but it is against that backdrop that sanctions have a particularly dramatic impact, because people in a more stable family situation can more often get help from family members.

Ministers in this Government sometimes give the impression that the growth of food banks is somehow a ploy by anti-Government campaigners to make them look bad, but I genuinely have not seen that before. Had it been a problem during, say, the Thatcher Government, I am sure that we would have known about it and would have been shouting about, so it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

We are not saying that there should not be any conditionality in the system. I was struck by a report by Paul Gregg that was prepared for the DWP before the last election. His fundamental recommendation was that sanctions must be linked with personalised support. In the foreword to the report, he states that there are

“a number of risks associated with conditionality that need be designed out as far as possible at inception”

of the system. The problem is that the risks have not been designed out properly, which is what causes severe hardship among some of those sanctioned; some people are then directed to inappropriate courses or jobs, which do not help them to move forward; and some are pushed outwith the system altogether.

Paul Gregg’s proposals are interesting when juxtaposed with what has actually happened. He recommended that for a first offence, if we want to call it that, there should be a formal warning built into the system. Interestingly, that there should be such a stage prior to sanctions being applied has also been recommended by Policy Exchange, which is far from left-wing. A second offence would result in the

“loss of one week’s JSA”

and a third offence would lead to the loss of two week’s worth. Interestingly, he recommended that after a fourth offence there should be

“be an investigation by Jobcentre Plus…to determine the underlying reason”

and to talk to those who gave the individual support in order to find out what was actually going on before applying “a non-financial sanction”. He thought it would be a small group, but one that had to be looked at in some detail. Those proposals, and the need for personalised support and a much less draconian system than the one applied by the Government, are worth considering.

In conclusion, perhaps the Minister will be good enough to cut out of her reply the usual generalisations about how good work is for people, with which we all agree, and how it is the route out of poverty. Yes, being employed is a necessary part of moving out of poverty, but it is insufficient in many cases. We can bypass that debate because we keep having it and we are not moving forward. No Labour Member and, indeed, few people that I meet in my constituency think that people should not work if they can, but we do have concerns about the system for deciding who is fit for work. Will the Minister concentrate instead on why sanctions referrals and sanctions have increased, particularly in relation to the ESA group? What is her response to the specific recommendations of organisations such as Gingerbread? What is she doing to evaluate whether sanctions actually work to increase the number of people entering employment, which is meant to be the answer? What research has she commissioned to find that out?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate. I was sorry to hear the aggressive tone with which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) concluded, because this debate needs elevating above party politics.

I am proud to represent a constituency that has this country’s fourth most deprived ward, which is where our local jobcentre is sited. Just over the road in Blackpool South is the most deprived ward in the country. Our jobcentre deals with a vast range of highly vulnerable people with complex needs, including mental health problems, learning disabilities and addictions of one sort or another.

The walk from the jobcentre to my constituency office is 30 seconds, and I have dealt with numerous cases involving the word “sanctions” over the past four and a half years. I have seen the ebb and flow and the changing patterns in how the Department for Work and Pensions has sought to deal with the matter. It would be wrong of me not to make the effort to visit the local Jobcentre Plus to discuss why all this is occurring, what is going on and what is lying behind it. What truth lies behind the things that I read in the newspaper about targets and inappropriate sanctions? There is an element of black and white here.

The system has problems, many brought out by the Oakley review, that the Government are now dealing with by accepting the review’s 17 recommendations. However, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that that acceptance applies not only to the sanctions imposed on those participating in the back-to-work schemes that fell within the remit of the Oakley review, but to the two thirds of sanctions that were not covered by Mr Oakley.

It is a fair point that there is a lack of clarity about what people understand they are being asked to do. The welfare state is a complex thing to navigate in the first place, which is why we have bodies such as Citizens Advice. A lot of it can be off-putting.

There have been a lot of references to the citizens advice bureaux, which issued the valuable report mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and provide help to the most vulnerable. Many of those bureaux, however, are under threat as local authorities are hard-pressed and cutting their budgets. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that today’s debate demonstrates the value of the advice and the saving to the state?

I agree entirely. One of my caseworkers also works part-time at the local citizens advice bureau; her experience in the one role helps her in the other, and vice-versa.

What is not made sufficiently clear to all claimants of jobseeker’s allowance is that participation in any activity to get claimants closer to the workplace, whether computer or other skills training, does not invalidate the obligation to continue job-seeking activities. That is often the golden thread running through so many of the sanction cases that come across my desk. That central and essential point is somehow lost on people and, given that it is so central, I urge the DWP to make it much clearer.

What might be driving the ESA issue in particular, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned, is the lack of freedom that Work programme providers have not to refer an infringement on for a further decision. That seems to be building into the system an accelerator of the number of referrals on potential sanctions. I urge the Minister to look at how we can build more flexibility into the system so that Work programme providers may choose not to refer if they deem that the claimant has a good reason.

I was struck by the reference of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central to the number of increasing incidents. We can all argue over the figures—some people cite 4.5 million—and I am sure that we will argue about them in the Select Committee, but the essential point to me is that any change in the welfare state or in any particular benefit inevitably creates confusion for those who have to administer the system and for those seeking to navigate it as claimants.

We have seen tremendous changes in the benefits system in recent years—new benefits coming in and new requirements being placed on claimants, none more so than the claimant commitment—and that has required a great degree of comprehension on the part of many of those applying for JSA. Many have none the less found the new document off-putting. Yes, it is certainly personalised, but it is still a matter of putting ticks in boxes as they apply to the individual, so the personalisation is a little limited. It still requires a variety of boxes to be ticked, rather than being built around the needs of an individual. That still creates problems.

I am also struck by the number of people making the journey over to my office from the jobcentre who say, “I have been sanctioned”, when on investigation no sanction is officially part of the story. To me, that was an anecdotal impression—that people said that they were being sanctioned, but were not being sanctioned—so I was intrigued to read in the Oakley report that DWP research had found that 28% of JSA claimants had said that they had been sanctioned in some way, shape or form. Once the case load was reviewed, it turned out that only 11% of claimants had been sanctioned.

I am not saying that those individuals were in any way seeking to misrepresent what had occurred. Once again, benefit claims can be complex, and the amount that one receives each week can change according to a wide range of factors, such as social fund repayments, late payment of bills or the Child Support Agency—the list is endless.

I am conscious that I am taking a lot of time, so I would like to get through my comments rather than give way. I do apologise.

What interests me is that sanctions appear to be becoming a shorthand for a wider range of issues in the welfare system, all of which undoubtedly need to be addressed. Meanwhile, the issue of conditionality is almost getting a worse name for itself than it should be. Conditionality is not always responsible for all the problems that individual claimants are bringing forward and identifying. We need to drill down to what exactly is occurring.

We obviously have the endless debate about whether Jobcentre Plus employees are expected to hit particular sanction levels. I try to take a pragmatic view. If I am managing a process and I have an outlier branch of my network that is producing figures that I do not recognise, I will of course investigate. I specifically asked my Jobcentre Plus advisers in Blackpool whether that was occurring, and I was assured that it was not. I can only take their word for it, but I understand such concerns. I suggest to those concerned that entering into a potential sanctioning process can often bring out some of those underlying problems—[Interruption.] Was it something I said? I see that the hon. Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) are leaving the Chamber.

On the underlying problems, one gentleman who came to my office had not completed any of his back-to-work activity, but he was then found to be functionally illiterate at the last-but-one stage before he was due to be sanctioned. The sanction was not applied and his literacy issues were then dealt with; Jobcentre Plus employees can use discretion and can already get to the bottom of what is causing some of the problems. I revert to the underlying point of Mr Oakley’s report, which is that the system is not fundamentally broken. He states that quite explicitly. Improvements can certainly be made but, as a system, conditionality is not fundamentally broken.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth made a point about the sizeable numbers exiting JSA totally. I hope that the Select Committee will investigate that important issue, because one of the challenges in Blackpool has been to estimate the size of the black economy. The suspicion is that many people, who until the introduction of the new claimant commitment were able to maintain their job-seeking activity while working in the black economy, could no longer juggle both balls and therefore voluntarily chose to exit JSA. It is a persuasive narrative and I would like the Committee to investigate the extent to which it holds true. Does it depend on the size of the black economy in any particular local economy? What estimates have been made? That is another important issue to be drilled down into.

I want to ensure that other people can speak, so my final point is that, as we have all been saying, conditionality has to be part of any functioning welfare system, but it must be done in such a way that it is also seen to be humane. The Litchfield review of the work capability assessment was always careful to make the point that there is such a thing as institutional justice. People will accept an adverse decision if they have confidence in the process that they have gone through and feel that they have been given a fair opportunity to have their say. The fact that institutional justice is part of the welfare state is an important factor in making it work in the interests not only of those claiming, but of those funding and administering it.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on bringing to the House such an important issue, which concerns me greatly and can have a devastating impact on many people’s lives and on communities up and down the country, including my constituency.

I wonder why “sanction” is used, because the word means “approved”, and people are in fact being disapproved—that is just something to ponder. That sanction may be imposed if a claimant is deemed not to have complied with a condition for receiving the benefit in question. Since October 2012, according to House of Commons Library figures, 1.4 million people have been sanctioned. Sanctions give people a huge problem, as they have four weeks at the very least without any finance—four weeks without the means to live, to put bread on the table or to feed the kids. That is what sanctioning means, and it is unacceptable.

This morning, I had a look on the internet and I found a site that gives some incredible examples of how and why people are sanctioned, and it is worth noting one or two, if not more. The first is the case of an Army veteran who volunteered to sell poppies for the Royal British Legion at a local supermarket in memory of his fallen comrades. He had applied for lots of jobs, including one at the supermarket where he was selling the poppies, but without any success. He was sanctioned for four weeks.

Another fellow got a job interview that was at the same time as his jobcentre appointment, so he had to reschedule that appointment. He tried to do so, but the people at the jobcentre said he did not have a good enough reason for not being there, so he was sanctioned for four weeks. That is four weeks with no food and little electricity, suffering greatly—in 2014, in the sixth richest economy in the world.

In another example, somebody’s relative died during the night, and their partner rang the jobcentre the next day to ask whether they could come in on the following day. Their partner was told that yes, of course they could, but after they went in, they were written to. They replied, explaining the situation in writing, but were sanctioned for six weeks for not replying.

There is a fellow in my constituency who I have seen three times now; I have also mentioned his case in the House. He is 62 years old. He suffers greatly because of a heart condition and has to go to hospital regularly. He has been sanctioned again. The last time he came to see me he had been living on blackberries, apples and mushrooms from the local field. Is that what we want from sanctioning?

There are two ways to look at this issue. We could suggest that the Government did not mean those sorts of things to happen with sanctioning, and that those cases are one-offs. In that case, we might think they would put them right, but I am not sure they are inclined to do that. They see them as consequences, but I see those people as human beings—not as consequences or as collateral damage, but as human beings, like me and like everyone else in this Chamber. The other view is that the Government are aware of the consequences of sanctioning and are prepared to put up with them.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. He has given some extremely good reasons why people ought not to have been sanctioned. Under the system, if people give a good reason they should be exempt from sanctions, so has he considered why that system has broken down in those cases?

I have given lots of consideration and thought to sanctions. My view, which is not perhaps the view of the party that I am proud to represent, is that sanctions are inappropriate in this day and age, in any way, shape or form. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) that there has to be something in place for the odd person who, as we all know, swings the lead. That does happen, but those people are then put at the top of the agenda, as if everybody was swinging the lead when they are not.

People do not want to be on benefits. People on benefits are not the wealthiest in this world—they are not living a life of luxury but are merely existing. As I have said before, that is not good enough—it really is not. That is not just because of Government policy, but because of a whole array of things. As politicians we have a duty to make sure that we look after the residents of this country.

I have given a few real examples. I have another one: there is a man in my constituency who was sanctioned only two weeks ago. He had got a job, but he was not going to start it for a fortnight; he did not look for any employment after he got it, because he had a job. He was sanctioned because he had not put enough work into finding a job, when he had already found one. That is absolute nonsense. If anyone thinks any different I would be incredibly surprised.

If we look at the class of people who are being impacted by the sanctions, it is the vulnerable and those who are desperate. They are not scroungers, as many people try to portray them—a lot of them are extremely desperate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, a lot of people who are being sanctioned do not have anything to eat, so they are referred to the local food bank. Although the next point depends on the figures we have read and want to accept, there are in the region of 500,000 people attending food banks because they do not have enough food. These are families and single parents—people with kids—who have not got a scrap or a morsel on the table to feed themselves. No one here wants that to happen, so why is it happening?

We hear Ministers suggest that food banks are a great thing—we are all in this together and there is great community spirit in seeing people giving food to people who do not have anything. There is a factory in my constituency where, instead of paying proper wages, they are setting up a food bank. I am getting slightly off the issue now, Mr Howarth, but it is all connected to sanctioning and to the fact that the people at the very bottom are desperate and are looking merely to exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said that the majority of people using food banks are there because of sanctions or delays to their benefits in one form or another. That needs to be looked at.

It is generally accepted that thousands of disabled people are being sanctioned. The group that really concerns me is the mentally ill—there are people who are mentally ill who are being sanctioned through no fault of their own. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) mentioned two prime examples. One was the 44-year-old man living in the Prime Minister’s constituency who starved to death because he had been sanctioned and did not know what the process was. That was in the Prime Minister’s backyard. There was also the case of the individual with type 1 diabetes. Those are just a couple of cases. I say to the Minister that we really need to have a proper look at who is being sanctioned and the consequences of sanctioning them.

I have been involved with the DWP work force for quite some time. Regardless of what might be said today, pressure is being put on people who work in DWP offices and deal with applications to ensure that their targets are as good as those of other offices. Basically, if their individual targets are not good enough, they are brought in to see the manager and are coerced into ensuring that their performances increase in line with those of other people in their section and other sections in other DWP and jobcentre offices. There are unofficial league tables. That will be denied, but I can prove that it is the case.

In concluding, I place on the record my thanks to the CAB in Wansbeck, which does a fantastic job. It is bursting at the seams with people with nowhere to go, no food to eat and no electricity when they get home. The people at the CAB do a fantastic job, although again they are being hit greatly by the cuts. Without them, a lot of people would suffer even more. I have one simple question for the Minister: is there ever any reason here in the UK for depriving people of a means to live?

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it. I also congratulate Sheffield Citizens Advice and Tim Arnold, who produced the report that was the basis of much of what my hon. Friend said. I welcome the thoughtful debate, with contributions on both sides expressing grave concern about what has been happening with benefit sanctions.

My hon. Friend made the point that sanctions have been part of the social security system since it was established. It is right that there should be sanctions for people in receipt of benefits who do things they should not. However, it is clear that the sanctions system has gone badly wrong, that in too many cases it is no longer fair and proportionate, and that terrible damage is resulting from that.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) both mentioned one of the most harrowing cases, involving the diabetic ex-soldier David Clapson, who died, as his sister said, “penniless, starving and alone”, because three weeks after his benefit was stopped for missing a jobcentre appointment his electricity card had run out and his refrigerator was not working, so he was not able to keep the insulin on which his life depended. He died as a result.

That is an extreme case and should not have happened. No one in the Chamber today became a politician to preside over such harrowing events. We need changes to prevent them. I want the Minister to tell us more about the implementation of the Oakley review, whose recommendations were designed to introduce such changes. Such things seem still to be happening at the moment.

Certainly a very large number of jobseekers now feel that jobcentre staff are there primarily not to help them but to catch them out and find grounds for sanctioning them. That has done terrible damage to the reputation of jobcentres. I am sure that the perception is often unfair, but it is very widely held because of the destructive preoccupation with sanctioning. At some point, a major programme of renewal for Jobcentre Plus will be needed. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions was right to make the case that as a first step jobcentres should be evaluated on the basis not of benefit off-flow, with all the perverse incentives that that has created, but of sustained job outcomes—the same measure used in the case of Work programme providers.

There has been some discussion in the debate about the contentious issue of targets for sanctions. I am sure that the Minister will reaffirm in a few minutes that there are no targets for sanctions, but it is clear that that is not how many Jobcentre Plus staff understand the position. Indeed, it is not too difficult to find out why they think that there are targets for the implementation of sanctions. The Minister provided a written answer on 15 October 2013 to my question on whether Jobcentre Plus advisers’ regular personal reviews included discussions of the number of benefit sanctions that they handed out. She confirmed:

“Jobcentre Plus uses advisers’ personal reviews to monitor performance, to inform these they use a variety of performance data, including sanctions referrals.”——[Official Report, 15 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 647W.]

So regular reviews of Jobcentre Plus advisers feature the number of sanctions issued. That is part of the assessment. I am told that the expectation is that advisers should give out at least eight sanctions per month and that if they do not they are usually, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, placed on a performance improvement plan, to help them pull their socks up and get them to give out more sanctions in the future. The Minister may be able to explain the difference between that arrangement and targets for sanctions. Clearly, in practice, targets are set for the application of sanctions by Jobcentre Plus staff, and if they do not meet the expectation they are in trouble.

Dr David Webster, of the university of Glasgow, has just published his latest briefing on benefit sanctions. He tells us that there were an estimated 1.03 million jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance sanctions in the year to 30 June 2014, before reconsiderations and appeals, compared with 564,000 in the last 12 months of the previous Government; so the number of sanctions handed out has roughly doubled. Dr Webster says that JSA claimants are

“sanctioned at the rate of 6.92% per month before reconsiderations and appeals”.

Ministers sometimes say that the vast majority of benefit recipients are not sanctioned, but 7% of JSA claimants are sanctioned per month, and Dr Webster also says that about a quarter of JSA claimants get a sanction at some point during their claim. He also makes the point that ESA claimants were sanctioned at the rate of 1.16% per month in June 2014. Dr Webster comments—and this picks up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore)—

“The DWP has not provided any explanation for the increase in ESA sanctions.”

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of ESA claimants being sanctioned, and it is not clear why.

The number of sanctions is one thing; another issue is their severity. To try to get a handle on that I tabled a series of questions asking for the total amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions in each of the past four years. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), gave a helpful answer on 25 March 2013, with a table showing

“the total amount of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) withheld to the nearest £ million…as a result of fixed sanctions in each of the last four years up to 22 October 2012”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 986W.]

The table showed that in 2009-10—just before the election—£11 million was withheld. In 2010-11 the figure was £43 million, so it quadrupled after the election. In 2011-12 it was £45 million and in 2012-13, up to October 2012—so just for the first half of that financial year—it was £60 million. Therefore, taking the whole of 2012-13, benefit was being withheld at approximately 10 times the rate for the year before the general election.

I have since tried repeatedly to get an update on that figure, and the Minister yesterday provided a written answer in response to my latest attempt. She said:

“The Department has never estimated the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

That clearly is not true, because her answer goes on to refer to the written answer of 25 March 2013, with its reference to the table—so the Department has previously provided an answer to my question. The Minister goes on to explain why her answer does not have a very helpful figure, but I am today tabling a further question to ask whether she will at least do the calculation again, so that we can see what has happened in the intervening period. I have also tried to find out with a written question how many jobseeker’s allowance claimants have been issued with a three-year benefit sanction. Some people have been sanctioned for three whole years—not four or six weeks, as we have heard—in each month since October 2012.

It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber. It is important for us to keep a spotlight on the sanctions regime.

Sanctions have always been part of the benefits system. As Oakley stated, benefits sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers. They are a key element of mutual obligation underpinning both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system. Sanctions help to ensure that claimants meet requirements designed to help to them to move into work. They are only a last resort as part of a wider agenda to help people to get a job and to move closer to the labour market.

Our approach is not to be tougher for its own sake, but to provide a clearer, more consistent and effective incentive to comply. Where sanctions are, how they are set up within the system and how they work are important. Before dealing with hon. Members’ questions individually and responding to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, I will provide some context.

When the debate was arranged, I thought we should look at what was happening pre-2010. A system is always subject to changes, which must reflect what is happening, to make it better and support more people into work. When looking back—this probably answers the question from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—we must consider how sanctions were issued.

There was widespread inconsistency in decision making, with similar cases being treated differently even within jobcentres. We had to ensure that that did not happen so we focused on how to achieve greater consistency and efficiency throughout the introduction of our quality assurance framework. No targets were set and there are still no targets, but when we see variation, whether higher or lower, in the same jobcentre, we seek to ensure that a certain standard is maintained. We would check what various advisers are doing and whether the person concerned needs extra help and support to provide equality. It cannot be right that one jobseeker is treated differently from a friend, colleague or other jobseeker. That is why we made changes.

I also looked at what was happening in 2010 and there were some startling differences. Between 2004 and 2009—this raises a different question, but it is all part of the sanctions system and the extra help given—only four out of 10 British nationals got jobs, but six out of 10 foreign nationals did. We changed that round because it is key that, as well as sanctions, we provide a system that gives the right training, the right support and the right employability skills. In addition, discipline is necessary to maintain a job. All that must be provided. Since we have done that and fundamentally changed the system, nearly seven out of 10 British nationals are getting jobs. That must be seen in the context of the changes since 2010.

I look at the jobs market and what has happened, and at the various quotes. Since 2010, there has been an increase of nearly 2 million jobs. The Opposition said they thought there would be 1 million fewer jobs, but that is not the case. There are nearly 2 million more jobs and at the same time there are an extra 200,000 vacancies, so there are about 670,000 vacancies at any one time.

We must ask whether we have the right incentives in place to get people into work, and whether we are providing the right training, discipline and employability skills for people to get a job. We must look at the issue in the round. There have been significant changes.

On the millions of jobs that the Government claim they have created, the Office for National Statistics says that 1.4 million of them involve zero-hours contracts. Does the Minister believe that the Government are encouraging people into long-term employment by offering them contracts under which they might not make even £1 a week?

The Labour party has already been brought to task by the UK Statistics Authority for talking about a significant increase in zero-hours contracts that did not happen. The contracts began in 2000 as the minimum wage was brought in. We know the number of people on them, and for the vast majority they work. When they do not work, we have not allowed exclusive contracts. We are doing something that the previous Government did not do. We want to ensure that people have a good job—not just any old job, but a job they want so that they have a career and progress. We know that three quarters of the jobs created since 2010 are full-time. I hope that answers the question.

The other key issue—for me, probably the most important thing the Government have done—is that fewer children are now growing up in workless households.

I will not give way. I am setting the scene. I will answer the questions raised, and then I will take some more interventions, but not at the moment.

We know that the best route out of poverty is to have a job and that children born into a household where no one works are three times more likely to be in poverty. This year, we have reduced that number by 390,000. We are talking about poverty, and about support and help for people to get a job and to move forward. The Government have done significantly more than anybody else to support people on their way and into work. That is the background of sanctions and why they exist, and what we must do to meet and match and provide support.

We have introduced the youth contract for young people, with an extra 250,000 extra work experience places, and sector-based work academies. This year, we have seen the biggest fall in youth unemployment—by 250,000—since records began. We are fundamentally turning the lives of those people around, and sanctions are a tiny part of a massive system of support.

The Minister is making a wide- ranging contribution, but I am conscious that she is— unintentionally, I am sure—leaving herself insufficient time to answer my specific questions. Will she meet me and Sheffield Citizens Advice to talk about them in more detail?

What I will do first, so that I do not run out of time, is to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. He referred to various people who did not want their names given but had reasons why they thought they should not have been sanctioned. In many cases, there will have been good reasons for the sanction, but I would like to know what happened to those people.

The claimant commitment is being rolled out to 900,000 people so that the adviser understands what support people need, what journey they need to go on and their individual circumstances, which might mean that they are more vulnerable than other people and need more exemptions or time off because they can work or search for jobs only within certain time frames. That was the point of the claimant commitment and personalising the approach, which we are doing now.

Oakley rightly raised communications, what we were doing and how we could refine the system further. We know what we have done; we have helped people into work. We know what we have done with the sanctions regime, but how do we make it better, which we need to do constantly?

Oakley made 17 recommendations, all of which we have accepted. They include reviewing letters to claimants to ensure that they understand what is going on; work with experts to ensure that communication is better; and work with local authorities to improve communication on housing benefits, to ensure that people do not have their housing benefit stopped unnecessarily, which can make things worse for people. Those recommendations were implemented immediately unless they required substantial changes to the Work programme, in which case they will be introduced as that programme changes.

Assistive Technology Sector

We celebrate the UN international day for disabled people tomorrow and we will consider what help and support the Government should be offering small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises, such as those in the assistive technology sector, in tomorrow’s autumn statement, so it is fitting that we should have a debate on the role of assistive technology and its empowering effects on disabled people in our society.

The UK is the world leader in the assistive technology sector, comprising 1,000 businesses and other enterprises, providing approximately 1,500 products to students with disabilities, helping to employ nearly 10,000 people in education and other connected sectors, and exporting technology across the world. A recent study by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, in partnership with BT and Scope, found that digital technology has the potential to change radically the lives of disabled people, but that they are a fifth less likely to be online than their peers. Scope’s partnership with BT provides disabled people with new opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family and help ease that digital exclusion, which can affect disabled people’s life chances and their state of well-being. That is done not only with new devices, but by adapting existing devices through, for example, developing new apps or open source software or hardware to cater for individual needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this important subject for debate this week. Given the beneficial effect he has highlighted of assistive technology, both for individuals and for our economy, does he agree that it is regrettable that the Government appear to be downgrading their interest in the subject, with their decision no longer to fund the Foundation for Assistive Technology to produce its independent report?

Very much so—I am sure my hon. Friend will make an outstanding Minister for disabled people in a few months, and I look forward to working with her and championing the interests of disabled people. I think—I will develop this later—that what has happened reflects an attitude towards the needs of disabled people which sadly followed on from those terrible remarks by Lord Freud.

What we need from Government is policy that encourages the development of assistive technology, not discourages it. However, the sector feels neglected under this Government, with weaknesses in procurement practices in the NHS, responsibility divided between five different Ministers in three different Departments, and legislation affecting the industry being driven by a fourth Department.

In this debate, we should also thank Guide Dogs for the work that it does in promoting audio-visual final destination and next-stop announcement technology on buses. Many Members have had representations from constituents looking for that form of assistive technology to be installed on all new buses across the UK to boost accessibility, which would remove a barrier that many sight-impaired people experience when seeking to take up work.

Online services such as shopping or banking are vital for disabled people, but lack of accessibility remains a key issue. Most sites comply with accessibility standards, but the Scope study found that some disabled people still struggle to use those services, as codes and standards on websites do not meet accessibility needs. Scope has recommended measuring online services by how responsive they are, focusing on the person not the system, through, for example, examining how long it takes a disabled person to complete tasks online compared with non-disabled users of the same site. If it takes longer for a disabled person to use the service, the service provider must do more to make the site equally accessible. That is where assistive technology can really help.

One of the first Bills I voted on after being elected to this House was the one that became the Equality Act 2010, which creates duties on the Government and those providing services to the disabled, or hearing or sight-impaired people, or people with individual needs in learning, including the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to workplaces, places of study or elsewhere, to allow for the widest possible inclusion of people of talent in our universities, colleges and workplaces.

I experienced first hand, as a university lecturer in Glasgow and London for a decade, how essential the support provided by assistive technology to students’ learning experience is. It is a necessity, not a luxury. Many universities have improved greatly the resources available to students with particular learning needs, but it is wrong for the Government to shift the burden more and more on to universities, as the regulations before Parliament on disabled students’ allowances run the risk of doing. Government should work with universities to ensure that more students from backgrounds where there are special learning needs can prosper in higher education, not wash their hands of responsibilities to promote and deliver inclusive education under the Equality Act and article 24 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Although the regulations on disabled students’ allowances would apply only to students and universities in England, they would have effects on UK-wide supply chains for companies involved in assistive technology manufacturing and development. That is something that, as a member of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, I am extremely concerned about. All Members of this House should be concerned in this week of all weeks about additional costs for disabled people that could cause additional hardship for a section of the community which already feels that more acutely than many other people.

To be fair, the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities—I thought perhaps he was going to reply to this debate—responded to a strong, evidence-based argument earlier this year, when he decided to postpone the changes to disabled students’ allowances until 2016. He knows that the National Union of Students provided strong evidence showing that half of disabled students get their assistive technology through funding they receive through DSA, compared with only 8% of non-disabled students relying on allowances.

I hope that the Minister for Skills and Equalities will respond in a similar way to the representations that have been made on the regulations before Parliament. Regulation 10 of the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 changed the law to provide that DSA is only available in respect of expenditure on a computer minus a contribution by the student of £200. With 78% of disabled students surveyed by the NUS reporting owning a laptop, rather than an iPad, desktop computer or a MacBook Pro, it is effectively a tax of £200 per student on laptops payable next September for new students who qualify for DSA.

Many students are working long hours as well as studying at university, because for them, every penny counts. A look at any price comparison website will reveal that many popular brands of laptop computers are available for less than £200, but would not now qualify for DSA grants under those regulations, placing the obligation either directly on students themselves or on strained university budgets under this Government. Either universities will have to make the financial commitment themselves in pursuance of their duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, or affected students will face the additional costs for equipment that is vital for them to be able to study properly.

It is grossly unfair that the Government have proven to be so out of touch in drawing up the new rules and bringing in a £200 laptop tax, even though the average expenditure per student has fallen over the past eight years. I urge them to take the opportunity presented by this debate to reflect again, or the Government who were the authors of the pasty tax and the granny tax will have a further problem with their legacy by inflicting an unfair £200 laptop tax on thousands of students with disabilities or acute learning needs who are beginning their courses next September.

Even more extraordinary is the Government’s position in the explanatory memorandum to the regulations, confirmed in parliamentary written answers to me by the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, that the laptop tax would have no impact on business, charities or the voluntary sector. The views expressed to me by the assistive technology sector—by individual companies and by the British Assistive Technology Association—have been somewhat different from the complacent attitude shown by the Minister. It is striking that the Minister believes that the imposition of this new laptop tax would have no impact on the ability of students with disabilities or particular learning needs to attend university. That is not the view strongly expressed by the National Union of Students. There has been no answer from the Government about how the laptop tax would be paid or collected. It is the case that 83% of students purchase their laptop through their DSA payments and 98% of students told the NUS that that was the source of their funding for acquiring supportive software.

We have no details about what support the Government will provide to universities in cases in which a student faces particular financial hardship. We have no clarity on what will happen in the case of postgraduate students who would be eligible for DSA but no other financial support. We have no information about the Government’s plans for bulk purchasing, which they have previously floated as a solution to the problem that they have now got themselves into.

The Prime Minister once said that we should judge a Government by how they treat the most vulnerable. Disabled students have all the talent in the world and contribute billions of pounds in tax revenues to the economy when they graduate. They deserve a Government who are on their side, not acting against their interests with a £200 laptop tax being sneaked through the House without a substantive vote.

Assistive technology companies are one of our new economic success stories in manufacturing, contributing £55 million a year in tax revenues to the Exchequer. The 21 small businesses directly involved, some of which have been scathing about the lack of proper Government consultation and engagement on the proposal, and the wider supply chains that they support deserve better from Government than this. I urge the Minister to use the opportunity presented by the debate this week to reflect on what is right for disabled students and our universities, to support our small and medium-sized manufacturers in an important industrial sector and to scrap the laptop tax before it causes further financial hardship to thousands of disabled people across the country.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) on securing this debate on a subject about which he is clearly very passionate. He is of course right to say that it is the responsibility of a fellow Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who unfortunately had another commitment today, which is why I am responding to the debate. It is fortuitous, therefore, that I have two advantages in coming to a subject on which I am otherwise not an expert. First, my Parliamentary Private Secretary is my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has a great and equal passion for support for disabled people to make the most of their abilities and to be offered as many equal opportunities as it is technologically feasible to offer them in their lives. Secondly, by a bizarre coincidence—I was not even aware that I would be responding to the debate until quite recently—I spent yesterday evening, after returning home from voting in the House, filling out a disabled students’ allowance application form for someone in my family who has acute dyslexia and dyspraxia and scotopic sensitivity. I did not even know what that was until he told me, but it means that he is in a position to apply for some support with his studies. Therefore, although I am not an expert, I am entirely sympathetic to the cause raised by the hon. Gentleman and advocated passionately and consistently by my hon. Friend.

I entirely accept that this country is lucky in the range of businesses, charities and social enterprises that are active in trying to help disabled people to maximise their potential and gain access to all the opportunities on offer in education and employment. We are lucky in the range of innovation that is taking place—much of it is driven by this country—in improving technologies, inventing entirely new technologies and, as the hon. Gentleman said, creating adaptations to existing technologies that make them more accessible to people.

The hon. Gentleman’s core point, of course, is a direct attack on a proposal that the Government have brought forward on the disabled students’ allowance. He makes his argument with great passion, but as Members of his party and, even more, Front-Bench Members of his party ever do, he entirely fails to address the fundamental issue: the budget deficit, which remains very high and was the largest ever seen in peacetime in a western country, and the level of expenditure on the disabled students’ allowance in the years since this Government came to office. An increase did not take place only under the profligate chancellorship and premiership of the soon-to-be former right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). A growth in expenditure has taken place under this coalition Government, who are pledged to try to bring the budget deficit down. To be clear, expenditure went up from £87.8 million in 2009-10 to £125 million in 2011-12. That is not the record of a penny-pinching or parsimonious Administration who are seeking to deny support to disabled people, or to withdraw access to technologies that would assist them. That is the record of a Government who are doing everything in their power to support vulnerable people but who nevertheless need to find economies.

I am afraid that I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman had his go and I am now responding to his very full speech.

This is the challenge we face: how do we continue to support disabled people in gaining access to education, employment and all the other opportunities of society while nevertheless ensuring that expenditure does not continue to increase by so great an amount? Disabled students’ allowance expenditure has increased by more than 30% in the space of less than three years and that is simply not sustainable.

Fortunately there have been further reforms—also opposed by the Opposition—to the state of university finance. Those reforms have dramatically improved the financial position of every university in the country by giving them access to higher tuition fees, funded by a system of heavily subsidised student loans. Universities are now in a dramatically different position from the one they were in when we came into government in 2010, so to expect them to make a contribution out of their broader, much improved resources to support disabled students is entirely reasonable.

Universities are benefiting from the tuition fees paid by those students; they are direct beneficiaries of the funding provided by those students; so to expect universities to play some part in discharging the responsibility to those students—not the whole part, because the Government will continue to play an important role and the disabled students’ allowance will continue to provide a great deal of the necessary support—by means of a further contribution is entirely reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman would have much more chance of making a persuasive case if he had an alternative plan for how to stop the growth in a budget that has increased by 30% in less than three years. If he came forward with such a plan, or indeed if any Labour Front-Bench Member on any area of government activity came forward with any plan to save any pound of public expenditure—we have not heard such plans from him, or from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in her area of activity, or from any Opposition Front Bencher—it might well be possible to look again at the Government’s proposals. However, until we hear such a plan, it is incumbent on him to explain why it is unreasonable for us to expect universities to make a greater contribution to the support for disabled people that we all passionately believe in.

Sitting suspended.

Wessex Route Study (Passenger Capacity)

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate on the Wessex route plan, Mr Streeter.

In 1996, when the railways were set free from Government control, it was assumed that we would need to manage their decline. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Privatisation stopped what had become a gradual decline. Passenger numbers on our railways have more than doubled since then, going from 750 million to 1.6 billion journeys a year. There has been a 60% increase in freight, too.

Passenger numbers on routes in and out of Waterloo have doubled since privatisation to 220 million journeys a year. Waterloo is Britain’s busiest mainline station, with over 100 million passengers a year. It has more passengers than Heathrow airport, yet Waterloo is the only major route into London that in the past 30 years has not had money spent on it to make sure that it can cater for the record numbers of people using it every day to get to and from our capital and to and from work. Waterloo uses track layout that was designed for steam trains in the 1930s, which was when the last very big investment in infrastructure on the Waterloo route was made.

Why the delay? Why has no money gone in there? It is because decisions about redesigning the route were put off, because they were too complicated and nobody came up with credible solutions. Even when the last Government set sky-high house-building targets for the south-east, the infrastructure investment was not there for the railways to match that growth. In my Basingstoke constituency, the then council called for the highest possible levels of house building, with 13,000 homes built in Basingstoke in the last 15 years alone, but again, there were no solutions on rail and no solutions on transport for residents. What that means for my constituents and those of right hon. and hon. Members here today is increasing overcrowding, not only at peak times, but throughout other points in the day. Passengers now regularly stand for the 50 minutes between Basingstoke and London at peak times, but late-night trains, such as the one I got last Monday that left Waterloo at 10.20 pm, are also full to capacity, and weekend services can see that sort of extreme overcrowding, too. Just to remedy the existing overcrowding, we would need 20% more space on our trains. Passenger numbers are forecast to grow by another 40% in the next 30 years, so now is exactly the right time for a radical redesign and a radical solution for the future.

As rail becomes the overcrowded option, so our roads have to take more of the strain. The knock-on effect is chronic congestion on the M3 and other roads in the local strategic network. I very much welcome this Government’s approach of investing in our roads, and in Basingstoke we have had £20 million allocated to alleviate some of the worst problems of road congestion, but Basingstoke residents are still paying the price for the past under-investment. As the now leader of the council, Councillor Clive Sanders, has made it clear:

“Investment in the railways is vital if Basingstoke is to thrive economically. Connectivity and accessibility are key factors affecting growth.”

We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, and we have seen this week that this Government are not going to do so. Their commitment to investing in infrastructure is clear for all to see, and the national infrastructure plan launched today is designed to ensure that investment in roads and rail is made part of our long-term economic plan for the country.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Network Rail and the alliance for their hard work in producing the Wessex route study, published just last week, because I believe that, for the first time, it offers a way to get the extra capacity that the Wessex route so badly needs. I know that there are many competing demands for Government spending, but I believe that a strong case can be made for the Wessex route to be a priority of future Government investment.

The main line out of Waterloo serves the most important economic area in Britain. It brings workers into London and serves businesses throughout the south-east. My constituency of Basingstoke is part of that, and our growth in new business was double the average of the south-east last year, with growth expected to continue at a rate of between 4% and 6% in the next year. Basingstoke has seen some 1,000 new businesses formed in the past 12 months, and our draft local plan could mean another 13,400 homes being built in the next 15 years. Along the length of the main line out of Waterloo, thousands of new homes will be built. It is estimated that that will result in 60% more train capacity being needed by 2043—equal to an extra 37 trains an hour into Waterloo on the main line in high peak hours.

More train capacity is needed the entire length of the Wessex route in Hampshire. In the words of Andrew Finney, the president of the Hampshire chamber of commerce:

“The market leading status of the Port of Southampton is threatened by a lack of rail capacity for cruise passengers and rail freight. In linking Coast, National Park and Capital visitor attractions, the route simply has to grow to maximise future tourism opportunities.”

Others have added their voice to calls for that investment. Mr Geoff French, the chairman of the Enterprise M3 local enterprise partnership, has said:

“Good transport communications have always been an important part of Basingstoke’s and indeed all of the Enterprise M3 areas’ development and economic success. Today these transport links are more congested and under greater pressure than ever before. That is why the current Wessex Route Study by Network Rail is so vital…rail capacity improvements are needed urgently.”

The economic case for investment in the Wessex route is strong. It is a compelling case that will support the long-term economic plan for our country. Doing nothing is not an option for Basingstoke, it is not an option for the south-east and it is not an option for the British economy.

As in our road strategy, we need to tackle the problems in the short term and the long term. The route into Waterloo already has more trains on it than any other in the country, with one train a minute arriving at Waterloo across its three routes at peak hours. That is all done on signalling that is 30 years old, as many of my residents can attest, thanks to the delays that they experience. By comparison, Thameslink is investing more than £7 billion to achieve the same frequency of services on modern signalling. In the short term, we will need to squeeze extra capacity from the current rail network, using the additional 150 carriages recently ordered to increase the length of shorter shoulder peak services from Basingstoke into London, to help people to spread their journeys through the day. However, longer trains will also be needed for late-night and weekend services, as well as adjustments in the signalling.

In the long term, the Wessex route study identifies that the additional capacity that is most required is inwards from Basingstoke and Guildford. I think the plan offers a real opportunity of a step change and real solutions. It is now out for consultation and I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to submit their thoughts as part of that consultation.

My right hon. Friend is making a very cogent case on the need for extra investment in the routes into Waterloo, but she should not forget the importance of linking large urban centres outside London. The Wessex capacity study talks, for example, about the routes between Portsmouth, Winchester and Basingstoke, and Portsmouth, Southampton and Poole. Those are important centres economically, they are important centres of business, and they are residential areas, too.

As I would expect, my hon. Friend makes the very important point that the Wessex route plan covers not only the main line, but all the surrounding areas. He is absolutely right to say that investment in this plan will yield even greater benefits than those that rely on the main line. If we took forward some of the recommendations in the Wessex route plan, that would be important not only for those of us in that part of the country, but for people throughout the country.

Bigger, faster trains are needed on the Wessex route. When we examine the situation in some detail, we can see that the problems that we are experiencing are akin to some of the problems the airline industry has had to consider in recent years, which led to the development of the Airbus A380. We should be looking at how we can develop longer, faster trains for our route in the long term.

The Wessex route needs to be the Government’s priority for the rail industry’s control period 6. We need to make good the under-investment of the past. In the short term, technical ingenuity will squeeze in some additional space for our local residents, who are suffering some of the worst train overcrowding in the country, and extra carriages at shoulder periods will help, but there will be no real solution in the long term without a significant plan of investment in both the hardware of the route and the vehicles that travel on it. Those bigger, faster trains will help the M3 corridor to continue to provide the power that the British economy needs. We need to ensure that businesses continue to want to locate themselves in the M3 corridor, because the people whom we represent rely on businesses seeing our area as an attractive place in which to locate and providing jobs for them and their families in the future. That certainty and economic success help to ensure that our constituents have the jobs that they need and economic prosperity for the future.

I very much welcome the opportunity afforded by today’s debate to put that message very firmly on the agenda of the Government as they look at their investment in rail in the future. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming here today and listening to the debate and to right hon. and hon. Members who have taken the opportunity to come and lend their weight to the case for prioritising the Wessex route.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on securing the debate, which is very timely in the light of the document that was published earlier this week, or perhaps last week, if I have got the timing right. However, the principal reason why I wanted to speak in the debate is that when I received my copy of the document, it took me some time to find any reference in it to anything west of Salisbury.

As you will be aware, Mr Streeter, historically this was the main line, as far as Exeter, to the south-west. It was certainly the fastest and most direct one. It is only in relatively modern railway times, since the Great Western line took over as the principal route, that it has fallen into decline. However, with the renaissance of the rail industry that the right hon. Lady mentioned, it faces similar pressures to railways all over the country. It faces similar and very welcome increases in passenger numbers, and that is not just about people travelling between Exeter and Waterloo. This line is a favourite of retired people and students, because it has rather competitive pricing compared with the First Great Western line. That is an element of competition that I am sure everyone here agrees can only be a good thing. Although the journey times are a little longer as a rule, people can get cheaper prices, so it is a very popular line, not just with people for whom it is convenient—those living in the constituency of the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who may be speaking in a few minutes—but with people from Exeter and people visiting Exeter from London and the south-east.

The line is a vital lifeline on the sadly increasing number of occasions when our main line, the Great Western line, is incapacitated, usually through some act of nature at the moment. In the past two or three winters, we have lost our connectivity on the main line for considerable periods and, as you will know, Mr Streeter, that has had a very damaging impact on the economy of the south-west. The alternative rail access provided by the Wessex line from Exeter to Waterloo has been incredibly valuable, although there was a week or so last winter when we had no connectivity at all because the line between Yeovil and Exeter was also blocked. I cannot remember whether that was because of flooding, landslides or trees, but the route suffers from resilience and vulnerability problems, which I shall discuss in a moment. I remember one famous weekend when I was coming back from my constituency and I was literally stranded. I always take my bicycle on the train between Exeter and London, and I had to put it in a taxi from Exeter all the way to Yeovil to get to the nearest train station. That, admittedly, was a rare event, but it helps to explain the sense of vulnerability and isolation that we have in the south-west, with these two fantastic but ageing and in-need-of-investment rail connections.

We can find one or two mentions of the line west of Salisbury in the document, which are welcome, but I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will be able to reassure me that justified as all the investment is in the south-eastern portion of the line, east of Salisbury, this line will also receive investment. It performs a vital function, not just for long-distance travellers but increasingly for commuters in the Exeter area. We have growing and thriving communities. We have a new town, Cranbrook, just outside Exeter, which is getting a new station. We have growing villages and market towns—Feniton, Honiton and others—in east Devon and they have irregular services at the moment. In some cases, that makes it incredibly difficult for people who would like to use the train to commute to and from Exeter for work to do so.

Devon county council, along with the other local and regional partners, has come up with a visionary transport vision for the area, including something called the Devon metro, which would involve significant improvements and upgrading of the access routes in and out of Exeter by rail. This route is one of the most important. I do not have the figures with me, but I would not be at all surprised if a large number of people commuted every day to Exeter from the growing and thriving settlements in east Devon, but they have, as I said, very irregular services, which tend to finish early in the evening and do not always start early enough in the morning.

I shall explain what we desperately need on the this bit of railway west of Salisbury, which over time has been reduced largely to single track. That is the main problem. With a single-track railway, we cannot run services as frequently as we can on a double-track railway; we need passing places. There are a few passing places, but not enough; we need more. Just a few more passing places at strategic points would enable this railway to run trains more quickly and regularly. At the moment, it is difficult to combine a regular service from Exeter to Waterloo with local stopping services servicing the villages and towns that I have referred to, but we need both. With the huge growth in passenger numbers that we have seen in recent years, and which are projected to grow even more in future, and with all the public transport policy from all political parties urging and encouraging people to use public transport where possible, not just for climate change and pollution reasons but for reasons of chronic congestion in cities such as mine, we need those rail routes to function properly as commuter routes, as well as the leisure and long-distance routes that operate at the moment as an alternative to the Great Western line.

I say to the Minister, “Please, when you respond, don’t ignore the south-west.” I say that as chairman of the all-party group on rail in the south-west. The document unfortunately does not mention anything west of Salisbury in its opening pages or headlines. We have to look rather hard in the 180-plus pages to find anything at all about the line west of Salisbury. It is a very important line that has a great future.

I would like some reassurance that the proposals in the document will help Devon and enable Devon county council to deliver its vision for a Devon metro public transport system around Exeter. It is a fantastic, sustainable vision for transport around Exeter, and it is exactly the sort of thing that a forward-looking, visionary Minister, such as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), should support. I look forward to his addressing it in his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is a fellow former chairman of the all-party group on cycling—I propose to say something about bicycles in a moment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on her choice of subject and on the way in which she made her case. My constituents are further west than hers, but they share an interest in increasing the capacity from Basingstoke to Waterloo. I commend her on the commitment to her constituents that she has shown in leading the campaign to drive up the quality of the service from Basingstoke to Waterloo.

As my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Exeter both said, this is a timely debate, as the Network Rail-South West Trains alliance route study has just been published for consultation. It is a good example of how the public and private sectors can work together for the benefit of customers by taking local ownership of a problem and producing a collaborative solution. It is a thorough document running to 159 pages.

To put the debate in context, nearly 20 years ago I went on the first privatised train service from Twickenham to Waterloo. It was at 10 past 5 in the morning on Sunday 4 February 1996. The franchisee was South West Trains, which has retained the franchise. A fare dodger joined us, thinking that the train would be sparsely populated. Sadly for him, there were 100 journalists and 10 revenue protection officers on the train, so his crime was swiftly detected.

I mention that journey to emphasise how the context has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. Before privatisation, the only sources of investment in Wessex rail services were British Rail and the Government. If there was pressure on Government spending, the railways had to bear the pain. Nowadays, HMG are not the only source of investment, although I commend the Minister on the deal his Department has done with the Treasury. We now have rolling stock operating companies and train operating companies, which can invest in station improvements and service development using private funding.

We have also created a railway operating industry, which we did not have before. We have bus companies, airline companies and shipping companies. Train operators from overseas bid for franchises, thereby driving up the quality of the service for rail passengers. That was simply not possible when British Rail had a monopoly. The new system keeps the franchise holders on their toes.

Since winning the franchise some 20 years ago, South West Trains has done much to build on what it inherited. Crucially, it has increased services. We now have two trains that run at off-peak times to Andover. It has also increased capacity, which I will return to in a moment. There has been significant station investment at Overton and Andover, where we have a new newspaper and coffee shop, a refurbished waiting room and a new ticket office. I commend the regular surgeries that South West Trains holds in the House, at which Members of Parliament can discuss issues on behalf of their constituents.

However, South West Trains has become the victim of its own success, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke explained. It has attracted more people to the railways, and there are now serious capacity issues. My constituents who return home in the evening often have to stand from Waterloo to Basingstoke because of the pressure on capacity. For those who travel in the morning from Andover, by the time the train reaches Whitchurch and Overton it is often standing room only. There is enormous pressure on seating at off-peak times—for example on Sunday evenings when university students are returning. As my right hon. Friend said, that problem is likely to become more acute. There is a forecast 40% volume growth over the next 30 years. Andover, like Basingstoke, is growing fast, with major expansion towards the east of the town, and both Overton and Whitchurch are likely to have more commuters.

The west of England line will be a vital lifeline when the A303 is dug up. As we heard yesterday, there will be a major improvement at Stonehenge, which I suspect will cause disruption, so people will rely on the west of England line. As the right hon. Member for Exeter said, it is a vital artery to the south-west, and it was the only rail connection during the bad weather a few months ago.

The problem at the moment is the massive constraint on capacity between Basingstoke, Woking and London. That is the key issue addressed by the timely Wessex route study, which rightly takes a long-term view of what needs to be done. I strongly support the measures to speed up journey times and increase capacity on the west of England line from Basingstoke to Salisbury by electrification and investing in faster and better rolling stock. The study proposes possible solutions, including running double-deck trains to Basingstoke and increasing some line speeds to 125 mph—something available for more than 40 years on other lines, such as the Great Western railway line.

If possible, we would like more carriages during the off-peak period. Often, the trains to Andover have three cars, which are under pressure. I would have thought that more rolling stock was available. Ticketing technology should be utilised. I would like to be able to print my ticket at home, which one can do on some lines, but at the moment one cannot do it on that franchise. I hope that in due course travellers will be able to swipe in and out at both ends of their journey.

One needs to keep an eye on the balance between first class and standard class to ensure that there is not over-capacity in first class and congestion in second class. We need to keep an eye on provision for bicycles—I am sure the right hon. Member for Exeter agrees. The most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of making a journey is to bicycle to the station, go by train and bicycle at the other end. To do that, the trains must have the capacity to carry bicycles. I hope that will be a provision in the franchise.

We need a rail link to Heathrow from Woking station. There was a proposal, which I think was called air link, when I was in the Department that is now graced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). In the study, it is now called the southern rail access to Heathrow. A lot of travellers from the south-west want to get to Heathrow. At the moment, they must get off at Woking and catch a bus. It would be much more convenient for them to simply get on a rail link to Heathrow. I think the track is there for most of the journey, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that that remains a priority.

There are some local issues on which Kit Malthouse, who I hope will be the next Member of Parliament for North West Hampshire, and I are campaigning. There are real constraints on car-parking capacity at Andover, Overton and Whitchurch stations. There are proposals for a two-storey car park at Andover, which is urgently required. We also need more capacity at Whitchurch, where land is available to the north of the station. There is a proposal for a private operator to provide a passenger service from Andover to Ludgershall, perhaps on a steam train. It is supported by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), a fellow Minister in the Department of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. The Ministry of Defence has kept that line working—it is not used very often. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will smile on a proposal to have a privately-run steam train on that branch.

Finally, I want to underline the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We have done as much as we can with the existing infrastructure, and we now need a step change to increase capacity. The study offers a way forward. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will smile on it and commend it as the right way forward.

Like other Members, I congratulate my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), on securing this debate. It is about an issue that she and I have discussed more times than we care to remember, and I have a feeling that we will talk about it many more times over the months and years ahead.

Today’s debate is a great success, not least given my right hon. Friend’s brilliant speech. Often in this House, we talk about things that are declining and problems in this country, but debates about the railways start with a great success story. As my other neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), correctly said, South West Trains is the victim of its own success, and that could be said of the railway industry across our country.

I do not wish to speak for too long, although time seems to be on our side—I want to hear from the Minister—but I want to make a couple of points. My right hon. Friend said that we must watch first class carefully. I completely agree; I have thought that for a long time. We have all seen surplus capacity in the first-class carriages. The TOCs need to watch that closely. I have often wondered whether the idea of first-class provision on our railways is an anachronism in the modern age, but maybe that is a debate for another day.

For my constituents travelling to and from Winchester, the issue is all about capacity. I have stations at Micheldever, Shawford and Chandler’s Ford in my constituency, but the vast majority of travellers, some 4.5 million a year, use Winchester railway station. Thousands commute from Winchester to London, primarily, each day.

I echo others in mentioning some of the success stories for my station and my service during this Parliament, which have been significant. A £3.5 million scheme brought the new decked car park to the station. I say to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, that it is very good and very welcome, but we should watch the lighting inside, which has to be right or there will be serious and legitimate safety concerns. We have excellent new cycling facilities. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on cycling, I was pleased to see those facilities come online.

We have a fantastic new footbridge at our railway station. When I became a Member of Parliament, people had to get taxicabs from one side of the station to the other, which was ludicrous. We now have wi-fi on many services leaving Winchester, which is brilliant, and we have made real steps on late-night safety around our railway station with the opening of a ticket office so that people do not have to go through the dark side gate. South West Trains—I do not apologise for pressing it again on this—knows that it needs to do better on that.

I am a regular commuter, and I receive feedback from constituents. The reliability of services on South West Trains is very good, and I get good feedback from people in that respect. That is not the issue on which I want to focus today. As others have said, the issue is with the lack of seats on the 6.31 am, the 6.48 am, the 7.5 am and the notorious 7.18 am—standing with one’s face in an armpit is probably one of the best outcomes for which one can hope on that service—out of Winchester into London. That is what really hurts my constituents.

A constituent who knew I was hoping to speak in this debate sent me a note saying that the key issue is obviously overcrowding on the early-morning services into Waterloo: “With ticket costs increasing year on year, and with little discernible increase in seating capacity, insult is being added to injury.” The Wessex route study, which I welcome very much, confirms that and neatly illustrates the current chronic undercapacity of services from Winchester. He said, “This is not news, Mr Brine,” and I completely agree. He talks about adding insult to injury—a standard season ticket between Winchester and London costs £5,500 a year, which is, next to their mortgage, the second biggest outgoing for many of my constituents. They are entitled to a seat for that money.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that First Great Western has reduced the number of first-class carriages on its trains from three to two? That is a very good idea, although were South West Trains to follow suit, would he urge it not to lose the only quiet carriage in first class? I never go there myself because I am always in standard class, but I have had complaints from a number of people in the south-west who now have to put up with a lot of noise, as well as paying quite high fares.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have spoken many times about some of these issues on the all-party group on cycling. Yes, the number of carriages should be reduced where there is a surplus, but I was making a wider point about whether it is morally correct to have first-class and second-class carriages on the railways.

On the subject of the so-called quiet carriage, some of my constituents—and probably some of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents—would find the idea of a quiet carriage laughable. Even though there are big signs on the windows saying that the carriage is a quiet carriage, many people seem not to notice. I have heard many mobile phone conversations in the quiet carriage during my travels, so the railways may need to do some education work.

I was talking about the cost of a standard season ticket for my constituents, which is huge. It actually costs more to get a season ticket from Winchester to Waterloo than it does from Southampton to Waterloo, even though we are nearer London. South West Trains is well aware of that issue, and I wish it would address the situation. Part-time season tickets are a nut that we have failed to crack, and I would be interested if the Minister had a comment on that issue. Smart ticketing is a coming issue, and I believe I am right in saying that it requires some sort of change at parliamentary level. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that situation.

High demand for peak commuter services to Waterloo from all our constituencies is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, expected to increase dramatically over the years ahead. She coherently set out the housing development in her area; in my area our local plan, which is almost complete, is for 12,500 houses in the district over the next 20 years. Two thousand houses at the Barton Farm site, which is but half a mile from Winchester railway station, have been given the go-ahead in the past few years. I bitterly opposed that development. Yes, there will be a new primary school on the site, and there will be other infrastructure improvements from such a big development, but a brand new mainline railway station will not be built for my constituents as a result of that development, so something has to change and something has to give.

Southampton airport is a very short train ride from my constituency. Passengers going to and from that airport come through my railway station, and air passenger projections are only expected to grow. People relocating from London to places such as Winchester are welcome, and we enjoy having them. They come because of the “cheaper” housing in Winchester—everything is relative in life, but housing is certainly cheaper than in west London. They come to Winchester for the good schools, the great quality of life and the fantastic Christmas market that we have right now, but they want to commute back into London. They have every right to expect that they should be able to do that, and many contact me to say that they are horrified at the cost and the standing that they have to endure.

There are things that we can do, and others have mentioned some of them. The national infrastructure plan published yesterday has some very good announcements for my area. As I said in the House, the improvements to junction 9 of the M3, on which I campaigned for many years, are incredibly welcome. The smart motorways technology around junctions 10 and 14 are also a welcome investment in our motorway infrastructure for my constituents. Credit to the Minister and his Department for doing that. I thank him on behalf of my constituents.

There are things that we can do as a city. One of the core corporate priorities of Winchester city council is to reduce the daily outward migration from the city for work, which is why the council is so keen to redevelop Station approach, to keep top-quality employers such as Denplan and to attract other big, quality employers, all of which reduces the necessity for people to travel to London every day. It is important that should happen. Those are all things that we can do, but we cannot control all of them. The issue is about capacity.

The key constraints for passenger services are highlighted in the study, which states:

“the layout of the Waterloo throat restricts the number of services that can access the platforms at any one time; the layout at Clapham Junction does not allow all trains that currently pass through the station to stop there”.

The study continues:

“A further constraint on the ability…to accommodate passenger growth is the capacity of some station car parks”.

We have gone some way in that respect, but many other places have not yet done so.

Capacity is the issue. I admit that I was sceptical about the local enterprise partnerships, but they are part of the solution, as is Hampshire county council. Winchester Action on Climate Change sent me a brief ahead of today’s debate and, judging by its name, it is keen on railway travel, as am I. The organisation makes some positive contributions, and it will be responding to the route study in due course.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke talked about a significant plan of investment, which is exactly what is needed—now really is the moment for that. Ahead of this debate one of my constituents said to me, “A lot of the discussion points in the Wessex route plan are very big-picture and will take a long time, cost a lot of money and need a lot of political and stakeholder buy-in. What can we do in the short term?” I place one point on the record for the Minister’s consideration—I know he likes to muse on these things. As a temporary solution, could we make greater use of Victoria station for trains coming in from the Wessex area? I leave that idea for him to ponder.

You will be pleased to know, Mr Streeter, that I have nearly finished. First, however, I have some questions for the Minister. I know that St Pancras and all the investment there are very much on Ministers’ radars, but is Waterloo on the Minister’s radar? I do not know whether it is, but it needs to be.

I may be able to deal with that point now, so that we can settle the issue. Waterloo is absolutely on our radar. Further improvements will be made in terms of platforms coming into Waterloo, but I want to go a little further, as the Rail Minister for the day. I think we should take the lead from King’s Cross and St Pancras when it comes to the look and feel of some of our major stations. On that basis, we could do a great deal of work at Waterloo. I will ask officials to discuss the matter with the relevant people in the same spirit as my hon. Friend has shown.

That is a fantastic response, and my colleagues here will be pleased to hear it. Today must be the start of the conversation. The document is an excellent starting point, and we will all respond to it, as it has been suggested we must. As a group, Members from Hampshire are happy to see the Minister at any time to help push this conversation forward.

Do the Government have a view on double-deck rolling stock, which is mentioned in the document? Clearly, there are lots of historical issues to do with bridges, which sometimes make that particular issue challenging, but does the Minister have a view?

We have had a good document, a good start and an excellent debate. I am glad to hear that Waterloo is so firmly on the Minister’s radar. However, we really have done as much as we can on car parking, wi-fi, cycle parking, foot bridges, the wonderful new concessions at Waterloo and making things nice for the traveller there. In many ways, that is the icing on the cake, but we now need to go back and work on the cake—that is about the infrastructure and the routes in and out of Waterloo. That is where we need real help and real change for all our constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on securing this timely debate. She spoke persuasively about the discomfort many of her constituents face, the inconvenience experienced when services are inadequate and the unacceptable numbers who have to stand on their daily commute and even in the evenings and at weekends.

I would like to take this opportunity to say how welcome it is to face the Minister for the first time. In May, I had the pleasure of travelling through his constituency on the line through Spalding. I know that he is familiar with Nottingham South, because he was a councillor in Wollaton for many years. I am sure that at some point he would be glad to hear about the excellent work his Labour successors are doing in the area.

The Wessex area suffers from serious overcrowding and other capacity constraints. The 07.32 service from Woking to London is reckoned to be the most overcrowded commuter train in the country. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) described the uncomfortable commute he and his constituents face from his area. The route study itself says:

“Standing is commonplace from Woking and Basingstoke”,

and those are clearly not the only parts of the route that are affected.

Waterloo is the busiest station in Britain and has the second highest number of train movements on the network. The region has vital freight links, especially from the port of Southampton to the midlands and the north. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, it also provides an important alternative route to the south-west and vital local connections for his constituents.

The Wessex route study is a sobering reminder of the challenges the region faces. According to Network Rail, a 20% boost in capacity is needed to address just the current levels of overcrowding. To meet expected growth in demand, a further 40% increase in capacity is needed by 2043. The question is how that additional 60% can be found.

Would the hon. Lady like to reflect on why we we already have a 20% shortfall in capacity? The former Labour Government encouraged so much demand and so many houses were built in the area, but there was simply no investment in the rail or road networks to make that house building sustainable.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention, and I will set out in due course some of the issues around investing in the railways to meet demand.

There are some short-term steps that can be taken toward the 60% increase in capacity that is required. I am sure that, like me, the Minister is regularly lobbied—perhaps he is not, as he is only the stand-in Rail Minister today—on the need to extend trains that are formed of fewer than 10 carriages or even 12 carriages. Substantial investment has gone into rolling stock over the last 15 years, and I am proud of the last Government’s decision to fund the removal of unsafe, slam-door coaches from the region. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) deserves credit for the steps he took when he was Minister of State for Transport to bring together the train operators and manufacturers to hammer out a solution, which, just a few years earlier, was thought impossible.

There are routes where more carriages could be added and more trains run. As the report makes clear, however, the increase in capacity could be as little as 3% on some routes in the Wessex area, and some sections of track have reached the effective limit of their capacity on current signalling systems. We cannot pretend that there are easy solutions. Network Rail is clearly exploring all the options, including, as the hon. Member for Winchester said, the possibility of running double-decker trains for the first time in Britain since 1971. In that case too, however, there are significant obstacles to overcome.

I would like to focus on two points: first, the need for better planning of investment and the co-ordination of infrastructure improvements with orders for new trains; and, secondly, the rising cost of living for passengers who have faced fare rises of 20% in the last four years. In some cases, the prices of season tickets have risen even faster, and fares are, of course, set to rise again in January.

The Wessex area is one of the busiest on the whole network in both passenger numbers and the frequency of trains. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the railways have seen a spectacular increase in the number of passengers over the last 20 years. They now carry the same number of passengers as in the 1920s, on a network that is less than half the size. That growth is probably not a result of privatisation; it has happened because, under 13 years of the Labour Government, there was record public investment in our railways. We could contrast that with the early 1990s. Network SouthEast had a major rolling stock order cancelled, even though it would have provided new trains. Instead, the industry saw job losses and 1,000 days without rolling stock orders. It took Labour to intervene to get rid of those unsafe, slam-door, mark 1 coaches. Let me just give an idea of the scale of that spending commitment. Some £500 million had been spent on the South West Trains area by the early 2000s—the same amount that was provided to the entire Network SouthEast sector under the previous Conservative Government. I am very proud of Labour’s record of investing in the railways, and I am delighted that investment has continued under the current Government.

In the context of long-distance Wessex services, the study notes:

“Capacity has failed to keep pace with rising demand.”

It is clear that, in the long term, significant infrastructure improvements will be needed to accommodate more passengers and more trains. Although new services could be run today, they would come at the expense of reliability.

It is worth dwelling on some of the language used in the Wessex document. I think it is fair to say that the Wessex route study was not intended for a wide readership, but passengers should be aware of the decisions being taken about their services and of the potential impact on the quality of their journeys. Options are being considered even though they could adversely affect other services. Also, frankly, the English could be plainer. When the option of running more trains is raised, the route study says:

“At this level of network utilisation, further measures are likely to be required to ensure the service can be operated punctually and reliably”.

Of the Windsor line, it says:

“Increasing the overall level of service into London Waterloo to 20 tph”—

trains per hour—

“on the Windsor lines may have a small negative impact upon the overall level of punctuality and reliability”.

On the option of adding two more long-distance services an hour, it states:

“Additional performance mitigation measures may be required”.

Punctuality on South West Trains is already below the national average. It would be helpful if the Minister explained what exactly the effect would be on existing trains if infrastructure improvements were not made.

Of course, the plans also require the purchase of new trains: 72 new passenger trains are required in the peak by 2024, and 156 new vehicles are required by 2043. There is also the possibility of running specialised double-decker trains from Waterloo to Basingstoke and Southampton. I am sure that passengers would welcome the increase in the number of seats, but the challenges of raising and widening bridges and tunnels on the route are likely to be significant. There have already been too many decisions about rolling stock that have not been co-ordinated with infrastructure changes. The technical challenges of the proposals in the document show up the need for a proper long-term rolling stock strategy that will bring together decisions about procurement and infrastructure investment.

Does the hon. Lady agree that we are uniquely well placed within the rail industry to do some of the things she has mentioned, because the South West Trains and Network Rail alliance is the bringing together, as far as possible within the legislative framework, of track and TOC?

I think that the deep alliance on the Wessex routes provides interesting opportunities, although there is much talk in the industry about the fact that, although it sounds good, what it will deliver is not clear. We really need to break down the fragmentation to make sure there is symbiosis between the planning of infrastructure and the procurement of rolling stock, which of course falls outside the alliance.

We also need to plan ways for the rail network to benefit from major projects, which, as the report states, include High Speed 2, Crossrail and, potentially, Crossrail 2. I am glad that HS2 Ltd is finally hiring an experienced operations manager to plan the options for integrating HS2 with the existing network. It would be good if the Minister updated us on the progress that has been made with that appointment. Crossrail 2 in particular could benefit the Wessex area, because some local services could enter the proposed tunnel at Wimbledon, freeing capacity at Waterloo. Whatever the Davies commission recommends, we want better rail links to Heathrow, Gatwick and regional airports such as Southampton. We need to know that that planning work is already under way and that decisions about allocation of that capacity are made fairly. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that point.

As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) said, it is also important to strengthen links between towns and cities outside London. For example, off peak, the Basingstoke to Portsmouth train runs at only 32 mph. Proposals for a faster Brighton to Bristol service are welcome, but, again, passengers will want to know the implications for existing local services.

The five-year control periods have been an important mechanism for funding the railways with a degree of certainty. A project that was due to be completed in control period 5 was the conversion of the Southampton to Basingstoke line from third-rail to overhead-line electrification, a project that could bring significant cost savings. It was included in the Government’s 2012 high-level output specification statement for this control period, but the route study says that conversion is intended

“between Basingstoke and the docks at Southampton at some point during CP6.”

There has been uncertainty about the wider electrification programme, with reported cost increases of at least £500 million, so will the Minister confirm today that the Basingstoke to Southampton project has been delayed?

Finally, but most important, passengers face ever-increasing travel costs, even when commuters are unable to board trains at stations and thousands are forced to stand every day. As the hon. Member for Winchester noted, some people’s season ticket costs almost as much as their mortgage. Fares have risen on average by 20% since 2010, even though wages have risen by only 5% in the same period, and they are set to rise again in January. Ministers’ decision to restore “flex” after the election has led to some fares rising even higher than the supposed cap. A season ticket from Basingstoke to London now costs £724 more than it did in 2010—an increase of 21.6%. There is evidence that “flex” has been used unfairly to target commuters who have no choice but to travel by train. The Government evidently agree, at least in principle, because they scrapped the “flex” for 2015—for one year only. I will finish by asking the Minister whether he will bring relief to commuters in Wessex and the rest of the country by implementing a real cap on fare rises, and scrapping “flex” completely.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to be Rail Minister for a day! It is not the first time, as I have already performed once in that capacity, but I am delighted to do so again, particularly in response to the Adjournment debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller). I congratulate her on securing it.

My right hon. Friend has once again shown that she is a great champion of the interests of the people of Basingstoke. She has also brought to the Chamber’s attention some wider issues, which I shall attempt to address in the limited time available. Should I not be able to get to all the matters raised by hon. Members—and there were many—I shall certainly write to them with details afterwards.

I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said:

“The centre of every man’s existence is a dream.”

It was that spirit that led to the creation of this country’s railways; without the vision and the dream, the reality would not have happened. That spirit, vision and passion for railways is needed at the core of future policy. Of course utility matters, but we must not be constrained by facts. We must have a big view of what railways can be, and what we can achieve. I shall attempt to imbue all that I say today with that passion for what railways can be.

My right hon. Friend made it clear that we are going through a railways renaissance. She was right to highlight the doubling in passenger numbers and to say that the prophecies of the prophets of doom at the time of privatisation have been frustrated by the response of the railway industry and passengers to the opportunities provided by rail travel. I was grateful that she brought that to the attention of the Chamber.

Across Great Britain, railways are playing an increasingly important role in economic development, are they not? When we speak of travel and transport, we need to speak of well-being as well as the economic effect, although the economic effect is not inconsiderable. Rail links people to their homes, jobs and recreational pursuits. That is particularly true across the south-east commuter network, including the Wessex route. As my right hon. Friend said, passenger numbers have doubled across the country in the past 15 years, and the Wessex route is no exception.

It might be helpful to begin with if I were to explain that Network Rail’s Wessex route encompasses the long-distance routes of London Waterloo to Portsmouth, Southampton, Weymouth, Salisbury and Exeter. It also serves the north downs line, linking Reading and Guildford to Redhill and Gatwick airport. It is therefore a vital component of the railway network, transporting millions of commuters into London and providing essential links to Gatwick and Southampton airports. I promise the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that I will deal with the south-west part of the network, as I attempt to address the range of matters raised in this important debate.

South West Trains operates about 1,700 services a day, and about 222 million passenger journeys were made on its trains last year. In Basingstoke station alone, there are more than 5 million entries and exits a year. In debates such as these, I like to offer Members rather more than a litany of what we have already done and to give them the prospect of what we intend to do. I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke today that South West Trains is currently developing plans for improvements to the forecourt of Basingstoke station. Those works are yet to be guaranteed, but, if approved, they will start next year, with an estimated value of £30,000. We want to make the station as attractive as it can be and that work on the forecourt will do just that.

Crowding on services to Basingstoke and other destinations along the south west main line to London Waterloo, the UK’s busiest railway station, is, as my right hon. Friend said, a continuing challenge. One might say that it is a well-known issue. Ensuring that there is enough capacity on trains is one of the highest priorities for passengers and it is one of the key issues that we are tackling head on. The matter has been raised by a range of speakers in the debate, including my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). I am pleased and extremely proud that the Government have pledged more than £38 billion in support for the rail industry in England and Wales over the period 2014 to 2019. That massive investment will significantly contribute to improving the capacity and quality of the network, which is seeing such a big growth in demand.

I will return in a moment to another aspect of what my right hon. Friend raised. She is right to say that, in anticipating capacity demand, we need to look across government at the effects of other policies: the consequences of our plan for growth and the relationship of that with transport and travel—rail travel, in particular. In that spirit, she will be happy to hear that the investment I described includes a significant commitment to the South West Trains network.

It may be helpful if I explain to my right hon. Friend and other Members the process for delivering capacity improvements, because that was raised by both my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. Essentially, it is a two-stage process. In the first instance, it is necessary to tackle the issues that constrain the suburban network in order to create the extra platform capacity at London Waterloo station. That will allow the industry to address the mainline capacity issues, which will benefit my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, her constituents and other constituencies. As I pledged earlier, in providing that extra capacity at Waterloo, we will also look at the style and character of that station. In a sense, we raised the bar at St Pancras and King’s Cross and people now expect the look and feel of London stations to match the best. We can do more in those terms at Waterloo.

In September, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), announced the latest capacity enhancement to be contracted with South West Trains. As part of plans to provide capacity for an extra 24,000 peak-time passengers each day, 150 new vehicles are being manufactured by Siemens to be put into passenger use by the start of 2018. However, the hon. Member for Nottingham South—as she said, I know her constituency well—made a good point in saying that we need to ensure that our policy is coherent. We need to be certain that the changes we make to rolling stock are integrated with the other necessary engineering considerations. I will ask officials to look afresh at that to ensure that we are pulling together all the necessary decisions in the way she proposed.

On the introduction of the new fleet, I should say that existing trains will be cascaded, which will provide some additional mainline capacity, including one additional peak service from each of Basingstoke and Woking. That is in addition to the extra 108 carriages that are already starting to arrive and are being put into passenger service, to increase capacity each day by 23,000 at peak times. A similar cascade is also adding capacity to a number of peak mainline services that are not already operating at maximum capacity. That issue was raised during the debate and it is very much part of our thinking.

During the same period, Network Rail will carry out major enhancement and renewal works in and around the Waterloo area at a cost of several hundred million pounds. The signalling system that covers much of the suburban network needs to be renewed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire said. As part of that project, a new turn-back facility will be created so that an additional four services can operate at peak times from Hounslow to Waterloo.

By 2017, Network Rail will have carried out works to bring the remaining four platforms at the former Waterloo International terminal back into full operational use for scheduled domestic services, restoring a vital piece of the south western route infrastructure to domestic use. The availability of those extra platforms is essential to the plans to extend platforms 1 to 4 at Waterloo. Those platforms serve the main suburban routes and, once extended, they will be able to accommodate 10-car-length trains. That will remove the last constraint that has for many years hampered plans to increase mainline suburban capacity beyond trains with a maximum of eight cars.

All that takes time, and considerable effort in planning, to minimise impact on passengers. That point has been made and I recognise that people will have concerns—these are major engineering schemes and, as they are implemented, we need to ensure that disruption is minimised. There will be some disruption, however, so we have made it clear to the south-western railway that it will have to deliver high-quality communication to its passengers about what that will mean to their daily journey as it makes its plans.

However, I have every confidence that the long-term capacity uplift will be warmly welcomed by passengers and the prospect of better services will make short-term disruption more acceptable. My experience is that, when people know where they stand, they can adjust their arrangements accordingly, but it is important that we get the information out. I will endeavour to ensure that Members in affected areas are informed of the changes at the earliest opportunity so that they can act as one of the conduits for the dispersal of that important information. We will look at other mechanisms as well.

I understand that, even with this investment, some of the capacity issues on the main line remain and that that is a source of some frustration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and other Members. I therefore turn to the process for securing further investment in the railway.

To begin with, it may be useful to explain that major investments in the railway are funded on the basis of five-year funding cycles known as control periods, as hon. Members have mentioned. We are currently in control period 5, which began earlier this year and will run until 2019. During this control period, the Government are providing Network Rail and the rest of the rail industry with more than £16 billion to upgrade and enhance the networks in England and Wales. It is from that funding pot, known as the Government’s rail investment strategy, that many of the capacity enhancements I have already referred to will be financed.

The right hon. Member for Exeter asked specifically about services to his area. As he knows, although the rest of the Chamber may not—you will know this, Mr Streeter, given your local expertise—Exeter has two routes to London. The great western line is being upgraded during control period 5. That will include a number of resilience improvements, but I will ask that they are considered closely again to take account of some of the points that he made. The second route, via Salisbury, enjoys less demand and has less capacity. I think, however, that the route study needs to consider longer-term options to increase capacity, with more passing places and options for electrification of that route. As a direct result of this debate and the right hon. Gentleman’s overtures, I will ensure that we look at that closely and communicate those thoughts to him.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, speaking with all the expertise from his own involvement in this Department as a distinguished Minister many years ago, before I entered the House—I was going to say “when I was a child”, but that would be something of an exaggeration—raised any number of fascinating matters. I will make all kinds of commitments to him, because if one is the Rail Minister for the day, one can do just that. The civil service will be shaking in its boots as I make this speech.

Ongoing developments for cycle space provision should be part of all franchises, in my judgment, and from today they will be.

The business decisions of train operators on the issue of first and standard class balance has been raised by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. We need to ensure that we make best use of space on trains. That use will vary from time to time and I do not want to make any prescriptive judgment, but discussion of that issue needs to take place regularly, based on a proper analysis of use. If, as has been described, some carriages are empty and others are full to the point of bursting, we need to respond to that situation.

The argument about Heathrow southern access was a really good one. We need to have a new study on that issue, which should begin this autumn and which should be published as soon as possible, ideally—indeed, at the latest—by early next year, and we need to consider what more can be done.

On the issue of car-parking capacity, it is important that we identify demand and sites for car parks, and I am more than happy to commit to working with local councils to do that. Perhaps we just need to drop a line to those local authorities to remind them of our willingness to have that kind of dialogue, particularly where we know, from Members across the House, that there are pressing problems. There is a history at certain stations of parking issues, so perhaps we can initiate some new thinking on that.

When they think of railways, everyone thinks of Stephenson; some, with a more curious turn of mind, think also of Hodgkinson; and all romantics—such as you and me, Mr Streeter—think of Jenny Agutter and John Betjeman, do we not? We think of “The Railway Children” and Betjeman’s advocacy of the romance of rail. To that end, I would be very happy to facilitate contact with Network Rail to allow the steam train that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who has ministerial responsibility for rail, has pressed for. Indeed, the case for that train was amplified today by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire. Let us allow this to happen, and in that spirit let us look again at the historic estate. We have many old railway stations, some of which could be brought back into use. We also have many glorious signal boxes; more of them should be listed. Let us once again be bold and ambitious to have our dream of the romance of rail, and turn that dream into a reality.

My right hon. Friend talked about the capacity issue. Of course, his area will benefit from the commitment to increase capacity at Waterloo during the period between 2014 and 2019, and from proposals to “grade separate” working junctions in control period 6. I will come on to that in a moment, because it is important to say first that the process for identifying possible investments and upgrades for the next control period—between 2019 and 2024—began recently. As such, there are opportunities for my right hon. Friend, other Members and the public in general to contribute to this process and to influence the Government’s next rail investment strategy.

When these drafts are issued, it is important that right hon. and hon. Members understand that they can play a part in shaping the final outcomes. When I last spoke on railway matters, I emphasised that these things are not set in stone. The whole process is by its nature consultative, and drafts should not be deemed to be the final word on these matters, but instead a catalyst for fresh thinking, with right hon. and hon. Members playing a vital role in the process.

I return to the specific part of the railway under discussion today. Network Rail recently published its draft Wessex route study for just that kind of consultation. It highlights the network constraints in the area of Basingstoke, which include a mix of speed limits and the confluence of several lines. Due to its location on the south-west main line, Basingstoke suffers from the convergence of several routes further up the line at Woking, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke suggested.

For those reasons, two of Network Rail’s emerging priorities for the next control period are, as I said earlier when dealing with my right hon. Friend’s questions, to “grade separate” the junctions at Woking and Basingstoke. For the benefit of those Members who do not speak in railway terms, as I myself did not until very recently, that term refers to the lifting, via a bridge, or dropping, via a tunnel, of a track over or under another, which means that trains moving in one direction do not get in the way of trains going in the other direction, preventing some of the frustrating stopping and starting with which many rail travellers are familiar.

In addition, the draft route study sets out options for the possible introduction of double-decker trains between Basingstoke and London; such trains were mentioned earlier in the debate. Although they are a common sight in other European countries, they have not really appeared on the British rail network, partly due to the height of some of our Victorian tunnels and bridges. As I have said, because I value the historic estate I would not want to see those tunnels and bridges being disregarded. Nevertheless, while the introduction of double-decker trains would necessitate the adaptation of the network, Network Rail is of the view that they may be a viable option on certain lines, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend and her constituents would relish the chance to lead the roll-out of such exciting technology on their line, becoming early beneficiaries of the additional capacity that it would bring.

Let me reiterate that these ideas are some of the emerging views for control period 6. The draft route study has been articulated and published by Network Rail, based on the information available to it at the time the route study was published. Indeed, the document acknowledges that the dominant issue is the need to provide sufficient capacity in peak periods, and consequently it has focused on developing choices to address that issue where needed, such as options to increase peak main-line capacity through use of new technology and “grade separated” junctions.

To that end, Network Rail is working with Transport for London, local authorities along the route and other stakeholders better to understand their views on these matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke eloquently and clearly outlined the other pressures that are likely to affect capacity. I know that she is concerned that the housing growth that is planned in and around her constituency will have a dramatic impact on that demand-supply balance.

I want my right hon. Friend to know today that I understand that concern, and that the Government appreciate the point she made about the importance of ensuring that wider policies are fully taken into account when capacity on this line is being planned. The case she has made has been heard by the Government and will be built into our further considerations.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is generous with his time. It is incredibly reassuring to hear what he is saying, because at this point in time it appears that house-building levels are not taken into account when future capacity is determined, and indeed that capacity is more likely to be determined by the number of new jobs generated in London than by the number of houses being built in my constituency, or indeed in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). We need to make sure that this issue is taken into account, so that we can ensure that the proper increase in capacity on the line is put in place now.

My right hon. Friend needs to know that Basingstoke, North West Hampshire and Winchester are never far from my mind, and that they have been brought to the forefront of my mind today. As a result of this debate, I will ask my officials to take into account the views she has articulated and to make it perfectly clear that—in a proper, joined-up and coherent way—we consider some of the effects of growing population and the likelihood of that growth increasing demand for rail use. It would certainly be a fitting tribute to her and to the debate she has stimulated today for me to deliver that fresh thinking for her, which is precisely what I will try to do.

I think that the issue of ticketing was raised by my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned it as well—and I am open to further consideration of the options, in terms of technological changes, that would speed up the ticketing process. I am also mindful of what my right hon. Friend said about fares. My commitment on fares is very clear.

On ticketing, I specifically mentioned part-time season tickets, which constituents constantly raise with me. It is a smart-ticketing issue, but is that solely down to the train operating companies or is there a regulatory issue that the Government need to intervene on before part-time season tickets can be made available? Perhaps he will write to me on the subject.

I will write to my hon. Friend about the detail, but my view about all these things is that there should be a dialogue between the Government and the operating companies, because there we need lines of accountability for all public services to Government and, through the Government, to this House. When hon. Members raise such issues, it is important that there are means by which they can be communicated to the people who make the decisions. It is right that we have that dialogue, and I assure my hon. Friend that that will take place.

We understand the issues about housing and why my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke introduced this debate, and we understand the implications of her argument. Responses to the consultation will, as I said, feed into the final version of the Wessex route study, which is due to be published next year. That will then help to inform the Government’s priorities for the next rail investment strategy for the period 2019 to 2024.

Finally, as I reach my exciting peroration, may I explain that as well as looking at potential funding priorities for control period 6, the Wessex route study is looking at much longer-term funding priorities for this route? I spoke about vision and dreams. We should be ambitious for this route and, in looking ahead to 2043, we need to think about long-term changes to supply and demand and about rail travellers’ changing expectations, including considering increasing capacity—extra tracks—on key sections closer to London or, indeed, Crossrail 2. Again, on those matters of longer-term funding, all hon. Members and all interested parties are encouraged to respond to Network Rail’s consultation before 17 February next year.

My right hon. Friend has done the House a great service in bringing these matters before it. The Government are wholly committed to the railways and to rail investment. We published our investment strategy for roads yesterday. That, and our approach to rail, is indicative of a breadth of thinking and a long-term approach in respect of a transport strategy that is, I think it is fair to say, unprecedented in its ambition. It is right that we should think in those terms, because infrastructure and investment only serve economic purpose—they feed the common good—by adding to individual and communal well-being. To that end, my right hon. Friend made an important contribution—

I am interested in the Minister’s comments about the need for long-term vision and certainty. There has been a remarkable lack of long-term vision on the issue of fares. When his Government were elected, they were talking about raising fares by the RPI plus 3%, and we had announcements taking it down to RPI plus 1%, then to RPI. I am sure that is incredibly welcome for the hard-pressed commuter, but it does not give any certainty either to operators or to passengers. His scrapping “flex” for 2015 is welcome, but why is not there a long-term commitment to scrap “flex” altogether, to take the pressure off people who have had 20% fare rises in just four years?

Again, Chesterton said that how you behave when you lose determines how long it will be before you win. The hon. Lady’s thinking about fares may herald her party’s eventually winning: it will not be for many decades, but it will happen. It is absolutely right that she presses me on this issue and, because I am the Rail Minister for today, I make this commitment: fares will not go up by more than inflation. I will also commit to something else, which will cause some excitement in her constituency, which I know well, and feel that I owe it this obligation. We are committed to electrifying the midland main line between London and Sheffield via Nottingham. She knows the difference that will make, as someone who, like me, travels regularly on that line.

What a great debate this has been. It has provided an opportunity for hon. and right hon. Members to advance the interests of their constituents in the context of that bigger vision of the significance of rail. This debate has shown that the party divides in this place are small compared with our shared commitment to do our best by the people we represent.

Sitting suspended.

Textile Manufacturing

It is very good to be here before you today, Mr Streeter. I am not his personal assistant, but I feel I should offer the apologies of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who most people know would want to be here today. Unfortunately, he cannot be here. He sent his apologies to me, which I felt I should pass on.

Allegedly, Mark Twain once said something along the lines of rumours of his death being greatly exaggerated. Based on my experiences over a long period of time—it has certainly been my experience as an MP for the past four years—I can strongly confirm that rumours of the textile industry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Not only that, but the industry is alive and thriving. Coming from Bradford, I have seen the high quality of the manufacturing work taking place across the whole of the West Riding.

That might seem an odd point to begin on, but it is important for me to say it, because even many of those living in Bradford, where so many good things are going on, have a false belief that textile manufacturing in Bradford and the West Riding is a thing of the past. It is true that 11,000-odd workers no longer pour out of Manningham mill, also known as Lister’s mill, or Salts mill. The huge volume of production that once made Bradford the wool capital of the world might have gone, but scouring, carding, dyeing, spinning, weaving and finishing still take place to the highest standards. From Huddersfield to Keighley and across to Pudsey and Shipley, companies are not only still producing yarn and cloth, but doing so with great success. Such firms as Abraham Moon—if one is mentioned, Hainsworth and Laxtons and everyone else has to be mentioned—are producing for Dolce & Gabbana, Paul Smith and Burberry and doing exceptionally well in growth markets across the world, in Japan, Europe and America.

It is of course not just about wool, much as I would love to spend all day talking about it. I forgot to put my Campaign for Wool badge on, but it is in my bag. Reshoring or onshoring is beginning to happen on a large scale, as “Made in Britain” once more becomes a sign of real value and a badge of quality. That is good news. UK retailers such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer with its “Best of British” range have been falling over each other to announce plans to bring back production on an ever increasing scale. Volume manufacturing will never return to its previous scale—the cut, the make and the trim will always be cheaper in the far east or Turkey—but there does seem to be a successful future at the premium end of production, where short lead times reduce the risks of markdowns for retailers. According to the manufacturing advisory service, one in six UK manufacturers have brought back some production from overseas in the last 12 months, and that process continues apace.

A further consideration is the ethical and sustainable dimension of much overseas production. We all know about the Dhaka factory collapse, which should have sent a sharp reminder to many UK retailers about the full cost—not just the financial cost—of some overseas sources of production.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to the House today. He and I have both purchased the Yorkshire suit. Does he agree that if anyone wants to support textile manufacturing in Yorkshire, one of the best things they can do is buy a Yorkshire suit, the brainchild of Mr Yorkshire himself, Keith Madeley? It uses material from Yorkshire, is manufactured in Yorkshire and is of the highest possible quality.

I hope that that intervention results in a significant discount for the hon. Gentleman on the cloth. I should find out what he paid. The fabric is available in lengths of cloth for women, if they should want to make up a suit. We are all selling here tonight.

It is all good news for the industry, but that creates significant challenges, particularly in the availability of skilled labour. A high proportion of the sector’s skilled work force is nearing retirement age. I have been to Haworth Scouring, which deals with 100 tonnes of tops a week—large-scale work is still going on. A gentleman was working in the sorting area and, were the business to lose him, it would lose one of the only sources of that skill across the whole area. That is how near we are to losing precious skills. On that same visit, it was good to see a young apprentice learning the trade from scratch and helping to provide the much needed next generation of skilled people who are required for the industry’s continued success.

I too congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He mentioned Abraham Moon, which is in my constituency. It has just spent £3 million on expansion, but it needs a skilled work force to meet demand. Does he agree that we need to put greater emphasis on apprenticeships, so that such mills can succeed?

Absolutely. With another hat on, as a member of the Education Committee, we are exercised by the problems of careers advice and ensuring that there are real careers for people, not only in textile manufacturing, but in manufacturing and in business. We need to ensure that fantastic jobs are available. Many parents will not even know that they exist, and one important part of the debate is making more people aware of them.

I wish I was able to say that in my area we have had a massive increase in the number of jobs available, but the reverse is true; we have lost 15 or 16 factories over a number of years. Even now, however, we still have people with the skills to be involved in the factories and to take the opportunities. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that with the opportunities available in Yorkshire—in Bradford and elsewhere—direct contacts should be made with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to ensure that job transfers can take place and that those skills are retained?

Absolutely. One of the big difficulties that the industry faces is that it is not pharmaceuticals, the automotive industry or aerospace, where big companies can provide supply chains in local areas, which feed the skills back through to the big companies. In textiles, it is a lot of small businesses. Even the big mills exist without long supply chains, which would provide skilled jobs that offer that continuity. It is a serious issue, but do not despair. Many of the things I am saying on the potential for reshoring and bringing back production from abroad apply to other constituencies.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on his work with the all-party group on textile manufacturing. As he knows, there are 62 textile firms in Huddersfield, employing thousands of people. We are proud that the green jacket worn at Augusta by the winner of the Masters golf tournament is made in Huddersfield. Soft furnishings in the White House are made in Huddersfield. The crimson upholstery on Boris’s new Routemaster buses is made in Huddersfield. Talking about skills, the company that produced that fabric, Camira Fabrics, is working with the Entice Project to employ new apprentices. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the way to get the new skilled work force moving up? Will he join me in congratulating—I am proud of this—the 4,200 new apprentices in my constituency since 2010?

This is all excellent news, but how many people really know about it? It is a good news story of which more and more people need to be made aware. There are particular implications for energising parents to go out and find something other than the traditional route for their children and to discover the other options that are available. It has the potential to inspire young people into a manufacturing career.

As John Miln of the highly successful UK Fashion & Textile Association said:

“Volume manufacturing may never come back but there is significant interest in what we do make and whether we are able to grow it”.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to growing it everywhere. That is the big challenge we face. In addition to all that I have said about traditional textile manufacturing, the global technical textiles industry is growing at four times the rate of home and apparel textiles and now includes medical textiles, geotextiles, agrotextiles, protective clothing, textiles for the automotive and aerospace industries, construction textiles and many others.

Returning to John Miln’s comment, the big questions are how we get the sector to grow and what future it has. All that I have said so far is really good news and many miles away from the era of closure after closure, but at this time of great opportunity what strategic support are the Government giving to textile manufacturing? Back in 1998, after representations from clothing trade associations and unions, John Battle, a Minister at the then Department of Trade and Industry, encouraged the formation of the textile and clothing strategy group to consider in detail the issues and challenges facing the sector. It was recognised that the industry made a major contribution to the UK economy and that a strategic approach was necessary if it was to improve its competitive position. A report called “A National Strategy for the UK Textile and Clothing Industry” was produced and, as its name suggests, it provided the basis for a collaborative plan for the future development of the industry.

The purpose of today’s debate is to ask the Minister whether a similar plan exists today. I am aware of many worthwhile initiatives, and he may refer to the textile growth programme, about which I certainly know far more than I did an hour ago, after speaking to the project director, Lorna Fitzsimons. She told me about some of the fantastic investments that are being made through the programme, but I am interested in finding out whether there is a national strategic plan that underpins such initiatives and where the sector fits in with the Government’s overall industrial strategy.

I concur with what my hon. Friend says and congratulate him on securing the debate. I agree that the sector needs a strategic vision, but will he reaffirm his welcoming of the Government’s textile growth programme? It has so far engaged with 68 companies in Lancashire, eight of which are based in Pendle and two of which have benefited from £200,000 in grants and are now on target to create 104 jobs. I agree with what he says about the strategic vision, but the textile growth programme is delivering for many companies across the north of England.

Absolutely. I hope to meet the programme’s project director next Tuesday in my constituency, but I already know the extent of the programme’s success from previous conversations.

However, a programme or initiative in itself does not amount to a national strategy, which is the point that I am trying to make today. Textile manufacturing is not a priority sector. There is no longer a textile team within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The manufacturing advisory service and UK Trade & Investment are working together as part of the “Reshore UK” initiative, which is considering how to bring production back to this country, but the initiative is not specifically for the textile industry. Again, where does that fit in with the overall strategy? I am concerned because the industry is fragmented, which has been a weakness over the years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we need support for the textile industry’s supply chain? Burnley is home to a company called, which is one of the biggest online fashion retailers in the country and perhaps Europe. Its problem is that it buys 70% of its products in the UK and yet the supply chain is not supported by the Government in any way. The aerospace and automotive supply chains receive Government support. Does my hon. Friend agree that to help the textile supply chain would create hundreds of jobs and stop a lot of this country’s imports?

That is exactly the point. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does as the apprenticeship tsar. As has already been indicated, apprenticeships have developed fantastically over the past few years, but they need continuous pushing so that parents, children and young people see them as a viable alternative to the traditional academic route—although apprenticeships do of course contain academic provision.

I am concerned by the fragmented nature of the industry. I worry that it may be overlooked as other manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and the auto industry dominate Government thinking. If that were the case, it would be a shame and it would be wrong. It would be good to hear today that the value of clothing and textile manufacturing in its widest forms—I mentioned technical textiles—is understood by the Minister. Beyond that, it would be good to know that the sector features in the Government’s long-term plans for the growth and development of the UK’s manufacturing base.

May I conclude by referring to the new all-party parliamentary group textile manufacturing that was formed last year? We already have the successful all-party fashions and textile group, and the aim is not to duplicate its work but to provide a clearer focus and concentration on UK textile manufacturing. It is still early days for the new group, but we are looking at our work programme, in which the textile growth programme will certainly feature. We will report back on that in the new year when the all-party fashions and textile group’s major report is finished. I hope the Minister will take an interest in and see the importance of the new all-party group and that he may find the time to visit us to discuss Government support for textile manufacturing in this country.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) not only for securing this important debate, but for his chairing of the all-party group or textile manufacturing, which he worked so hard to set up as a champion for the sector. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members and hon. Friends for their contributions.

The manufacturing of textiles at scale has a long and proud history in the UK that goes right through the industrial revolution and the industrial development of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the east midlands and elsewhere. Today, it plays a leading role even in my constituency in Suffolk, where Gurteen, a company set up in the 1700s and still run by the same family, continues to thrive making high-quality clothing mostly from wool. I pay tribute to the firm and its work in the industry. Over time, much of the UK’s production moved overseas, and the numbers involved in manufacturing fell. It is true that an impact was felt from the switch to lower-cost countries. Nevertheless, in 2013 the textile manufacturing industry contributed £2.4 billion gross value added in the UK, and 60,000 jobs.

The hon. Member for Bradford East asked what our strategy was. We are clear that the textiles growth programme, which several hon. Members mentioned, is a crucial part of the overall strategy. He asked what our goal was. Our goal is to support the textiles industry to grow and expand here in the UK and, in particular, to support companies that are thriving through supplying high-end, niche products. He mentioned especially the technical textiles sector, which is growing fast internationally and in which the UK is at the cutting edge of research. We can benefit from that so that we are also at the cutting edge of some of the production.

On the specific question of an overall strategy, of course the textiles growth programme is an important part of it. We have been clear—I have been very clear—that where an industrial strategy is required and demanded for a sector, we should work with the sector to develop one. If that means that we need to expand what is already available, I look forward to working with hon. Members to achieve that.

The textiles growth fund has invested millions to support the development of textiles capability and to capitalise on the reshoring mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Reshore UK, which is our overall scheme through UKTI to support the reshoring of jobs back into the UK, is gathering pace. It provides support for companies that are reshoring jobs in all sectors. That is best done on a cross-economy basis, because many companies that sent production overseas now want to bring it back, often so that they can have shorter supply chains, with shorter distances, and maintain a tighter grip on quality than is possible when exporting jobs. They face many of the same issues in lots of sectors, whether textiles, high-value manufacturing or other areas.

The overall target of the textiles growth fund is to create or safeguard a further 1,000 jobs and to leverage in private sector investment on a ratio of 3:1. By the end of October more than 60 grant applications had been funded, with total project value in excess of £25 million. The projects are expected to fulfil the jobs goal and to create at least 70 apprenticeships, demonstrating the money behind the Government’s clear objective of supporting UK textiles manufacturing, in particular high-quality manufacturing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the skills shortage, which is an important issue. In Bradford, including his constituency, unemployment has fallen by 27% over the past year, according to the claimant count; in Huddersfield, it is down by 29%. Those are good figures, but with a tightening labour market, we are getting increased reports of skills shortages. The broader reforms to strengthen and improve education in the UK are an important part of the answer, but not an immediate one, because it takes time for children who are benefiting from an improved education to come through, so the importance of on-the-job training and apprenticeships cannot be overestimated.

On skills, however, we are improving our support to ensure that it is more focused on what employers need. Employer-led trailblazers are paving the way by writing new standards for apprenticeships, including in the textiles industry where standards are being developed in fashion and design to ensure that we capture the high-end market, although not in the manufacturing of textiles, which might be an area that we wish to address. As with industrial strategy as a whole, the invitation is open to sectors to approach and work in partnership with the Government to develop the apprenticeship standards required.

As I asked in my intervention on the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), is the Minister aware of the skills that we have available in Northern Ireland since the closure of many factories? Will he agree to contact the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to see whether some of those skills could be transferred from Northern Ireland to that area where there are vacancies at the moment?

Yes, I work regularly with the Northern Ireland Executive, including Arlene Foster, on such issues. We should take up the question of the transfer of skills. Northern Ireland’s apprenticeship reforms are similar to our own, and we share the thinking about the need to ensure that the skills taught are the ones that companies need. The same direction of travel is being taken in Northern Ireland, so I will take that point away with me.

The employer ownership pilots are about putting funding for skills training directly in the hands of employers. The Huddersfield and District Textile Training Company has a multimillion-pound project that includes a textile centre of excellence to help to improve skills and, again, to ensure that we in the UK are adding to high-value manufacturing in textiles and in other areas, because we recognise that that is where we can add value and create the highly paid jobs that we want to see.

In addition, through the local response fund, two textiles projects have been approved in Manchester. For example, the north-west’s NWTextnet was awarded £75,000 for dynamic portfolio management to achieve integration of new product development with reshoring manufacturing capacity. Again, that is trying to drive up the skills in textiles production into the high-end, high-spec skills, which is where we see the UK market.

We therefore have a clear strategy. If further work needs to be done, I am up for that, and the Government are clear that we want to work with the sector to ensure that we get the benefits at the high end, where the UK can add the most value. We need to deliver on the skills and the supply chains; we need to put the support in place where it is appropriate to spend taxpayers’ money, which is usually best defined as where the companies are themselves willing to participate side by side with us, so that we can support the textiles industry, much as we are doing in many other industrial sectors. We need to ensure, as the hon. Member for Bradford East said, that “Made in Britain” is a highly esteemed badge of high quality. We need to build the small and medium-sized businesses in the textiles sector so that we can bring them together.

It is no surprise that of the brands that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, where UK textiles in fashion play an important part, he included the top-end brands that are among the most demanded and most expensive, because that is where the UK can add value, reshore jobs and ensure that such jobs are high quality. If we can turn that from a summary of what is happening on the ground into a strategy for how to make textiles strong in the UK—how to make an optimistic future—in Bradford, Huddersfield and throughout Yorkshire, Lancashire and the east midlands—the traditional heartlands of the UK textiles industry—and indeed in Northern Ireland, we will take an historic and proud industry and ensure that it continues to generate jobs and prosperity in the UK for many years to come.

Anti-freeze Products (Protection of Animals)

When MPs stand up to speak, it is traditional for them to say that they are delighted to give a particular speech, but I can honestly say that on this occasion I am not delighted to be here. I would rather not be discussing this issue at all.

We have had a traumatic summer in Sherwood. Calverton, a village in my constituency in Nottinghamshire, has to our knowledge suffered the loss of at least 22 cats due to poisoning with anti-freeze. Most of those losses were in the month of August, and people tend not to use anti- freeze in the middle of a heat wave; it is something they consider using at this time of year, when their car could become frozen. However, anyone malicious who wants to cause harm to animals—wildlife or cats—can use anti-freeze intentionally to cause an enormous amount of devastation. The product can also cause that devastation accidentally.

I am grateful for the support of Nottinghamshire police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in trying to catch the perceived perpetrator of those poisonings. At this moment in time we are no closer to catching an individual who may be acting maliciously in that way, but we are working hard to educate the public in and around Nottinghamshire and to make sure that people are on the lookout for anybody doing something suspicious or inappropriate.

I will outline the issue. Anti-freeze contains a product called ethylene glycol. It tastes quite sweet to small animals, and to mammals in particular, but it is extremely toxic when consumed even in small doses. Once EG has been consumed it is difficult to prevent the animal from dying because it is so toxic. It forms very small crystals in the kidneys, leading rapidly to kidney failure, then death. The moments between consumption and death are very traumatic for the animal, and owners of pets—cats or dogs—see unpleasant symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhoea and extreme stomach cramps. Indeed, it is one of the worst ways in which a pet can lose its life. The trauma that that causes families and individuals, particularly families with small children who have become attached to the family pet, cannot be overstated.

We might think that such poisoning is a rare occurrence and that Calverton’s loss of 22 cats is a one-off—some individual in the village is causing trouble, but it does not happen anywhere else. Well, to my surprise that is not true. After putting our issue on social media and in the local press, I was inundated on Facebook and Twitter with messages from people all over the country who are experiencing similar issues and are concerned that their pets have been injured in that way. Cats Protection told me that it has been monitoring the media since November 2012 and is aware of 1,197 reports of such poisoning elsewhere in the country. That equates to 50 deaths a month, or more than a cat and a half—if we could have a cat and a half—a day suffering that terrible trauma. That sends a simple message to us as a Government: we have to do something to help and to try to prevent that from happening.

A lot of the debate on forums and on social media is about a product called Bitrex, which makes products such as anti-freeze very bitter and unpalatable. Bitrex makes anti-freeze so unpalatable that one very small taste or sniff would prevent an animal—and we are not just talking about cats and dogs; it could be hedgehogs or other small mammals in our countryside—from consuming it at all. If someone was malicious enough to try to mix such a product with chicken or tuna, the bitter taste would remain in the anti-freeze and, we hope, would prevent a pet from consuming it.

I ask the Minister and his Department for four specific things. First, will he explore the mandatory inclusion of Bitrex in anti-freeze for purchase in the UK? It is possible to buy anti-freeze and other products that already contain Bitrex, and some reputable retailers sell only those anti-freeze products that contain it. However, other retailers sell the quality products but also a cheaper version, at 50p less per bottle, next to them on the shelf. We should look seriously at making manufacturers include Bitrex in all anti-freeze products available in the UK.

I also urge the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who can ask the manufacturers of such products—anti-freeze screenwash and also anti-freeze for radiators—to look at manufacturing alternatives that do not contain ethylene glycol. There are products out there available for purchase that do the same job but do not contain that toxic chemical. Of course, they are more expensive, which can mean retailers are not over-enthusiastic about stocking them, but that price is worth paying if we can prevent animals from suffering in the way that they currently do.

Thirdly, we should encourage better labelling on bottles, so that members of the public are aware of how toxic anti-freeze can be to small mammals. If someone is draining their radiator, or it springs a leak, and it is filled with an anti-freeze product, they should be informed about how toxic the product is to animals. I have been told by professionals that if a cat were to walk through a spillage of neat anti-freeze, get it on its paws, then go home and lick its paws clean, that would unfortunately be enough to lead to its death. Fourthly, and just as importantly, we should educate the general public so that we are all aware of the issue.

I do not intend to detain hon. Members much longer. The message is very simple: this is an enormous problem that leads to a great deal of trauma, not only for the animal but for those people who lose their pet in this way. I implore the Minister to encourage his Department to look at the issue seriously. I pay tribute to Blue Cross for Pets, Cats Protection and the RSPCA for their support on this issue. I am sure that this will not be the last occasion on which the Minister hears about the topic but I hope that in the near future we will be able to save pet cats, dogs and small mammals from suffering this most traumatic of deaths.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on raising awareness of the problems that can arise from the misuse of anti-freeze products, especially at this time of year. As he said, he takes no joy in having to come to this Chamber to raise the issue. I completely understand that the death by poisoning of such a large number of cats in Calverton has caused immense stress to the families involved. Every one of those 22 cats would have been a loved family pet. The situation is made all the worse by knowing that, as he pointed out, death by poisoning by this particular product is quite painful—that will have caused a great deal of stress to the families concerned.

I understand that the RSPCA is investigating the case and that a meeting was held recently with police and villagers to discuss the issue. The cause and circumstances, as my hon. Friend pointed out, are not clear at this stage, but the high number of deaths in one village during the summer suggests something more sinister than a simple accident.

It is important to recognise that deliberate poisoning is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and is punishable by a fine of up to £20,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment. I do not know why anyone would want to poison cats deliberately by using anti-freeze, but there have been such instances in the recent past and they have been dealt with using the full force of the law. For example, in July a man was convicted of using anti-freeze to poison five cats and was fined £1,600. In April, another man received a 12-week suspended prison sentence for poisoning a cat with anti-freeze. As my hon. Friend said, it is too early to know whether the poisoning in Calverton was intentional or accidental.

Constituents have come to me when their cats have been the victims of anti-freeze poisoning, and I have met representatives of groups such as International Cat Care. I have also met Marc Abraham, the television vet who ran the successful Pup Aid campaign. They all say that this is a problem and that many cats that die of this poisoning are not identified as such.

I have tabled written questions about this issue. The Government say that the fact that alternatives are on the market that would not kill cats and that there is a focus on better labelling is enough to stop people from accidentally poisoning cats. However, as the Minister just said, some people are poisoning cats deliberately and those things will not stop them.

The hon. Lady makes a good point and I will come back to it. Ultimately, if anti-freeze included a bittering agent and if that deterred animals from taking anti-freeze in any circumstances, that still would not deal with the problem of people deliberately setting out to poison cats and other animals. They would simply find a different weapon of choice. We must recognise that and be very clear first and foremost that when deliberate poisoning takes place, that is a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and we should prosecute accordingly.

I am pleased to hear of the £20,000 fine and the six months’ imprisonment, although I am not sure that they are high enough. There are products on the market to deter cats; some squirt jets of water or emit a sound wave that distracts cats. There is no excuse in any way, shape or form for causing an animal harm when there are products that move them on or send them to a different property.

I could not agree more. The deliberate poisoning of cats is indefensible. It is a crime and should be punished as such.

It is too early to tell whether the poisoning was intentional in the case in my hon. Friend’s constituency. To avoid accidental poisoning, it is vital that people are careful when handling and storing poisonous products, particularly around children and animals. They should be especially careful when pouring poisonous liquids, which can spill easily. As my hon. Friend said, it does not take much anti-freeze to get on the paws of a cat and become hazardous. Anyone using products labelled as hazardous or poisonous should read the manufacturer’s instructions before using them and take note of the warning labels.

Anti-freeze and windscreen de-icer are a necessary part of our everyday lives, particularly at this time of year, but people must take great care when handling and disposing of them. Poisonous liquids that have spilt on the ground may seem innocuous, but animals, whether domestic or wild, may find them attractive, or at least be curious to try them.

A third phenomenon that I have been made aware of and which has the potential to cause poisoning—my hon. Friend did not touch on this—is that some people may be using anti-freeze in their garden water features to stop them freezing up in winter. There are reports of that and internet chat forums discussing whether that is sensible. It could result in animals, whether pets or wildlife, being inadvertently poisoned. We do not know for sure whether that is a cause of poisoning, but it could be; that caused me some concern when investigating the matter ahead of the debate.

Anyone in doubt about whether a household product is particularly toxic to animals should consult their vet or ask the RSPCA or groups such as Cats Protection. Many organisations provide helpful advice on their websites about animals and anti-freeze, and that is to be applauded. Their role in raising public awareness is important.

In common with most chemical products supplied for domestic use, anti-freeze is covered by the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2009—the CHIP regulations. They are being replaced from the beginning of January 2015 by the EU classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures regulation. The CHIP and CLP regulations require suppliers of dangerous chemicals and products containing those chemicals to give information about the potential hazards to their customers. That is usually provided on the packaging.

Ethylene glycol, which is the chemical causing the problem, is the main ingredient of most anti-freeze. Manufacturers must label the product as a health hazard, which means placing the exclamation mark pictogram, which is replacing the current black “X” on an orange background, on the label. They must also include the following risk and safety phrases: “Harmful if swallowed” and “Keep out of the reach of children”. The regulations are enforced by local authority trading standards and are the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, an agency of the Department for Work and Pensions. The product is clearly labelled “Harmful if swallowed” so there is no excuse for people who use it inappropriately. They should take great care in how they handle it.

The classification of ethylene glycol, and hence the legally required hazard warning, is determined by its toxicity to humans, so it would not be appropriate to impose a stricter warning. However, the regulations allow manufacturers of anti-freeze to add supplementary information on the label as long as it does not contradict the legally required phrases and is placed separately from them. It would be possible for the labels on anti-freeze to warn about the particular risk to pets, for example, and to make it clear that it would not be right to use it in garden water features. That might be a step forward. Many domestic products for use around the home can be harmful to animals and measures to control them must be proportionate and targeted.

My hon. Friend called for manufacturers to be required to add bittering agents, such as Bitrex, but some people who have followed the debate closely have asked whether that would be effective. Cats Protection, which he cited, wrote to the Government earlier this year pointing out that although some people have called for the addition of a bittering agent to anti-freeze, research in the United States has cast doubt on whether it would be entirely effective and suggested that it would not necessarily deter children from ingesting it.

Cats Protection also said that the same research had shown that ingestion of ethylene glycol by dogs and rats tended to be influenced more by a motivational state, such as hunger, rather than by its sweetness. Adding a bittering agent is not necessarily a solution in itself, but it is an interesting suggestion and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight it.

I would encourage manufacturers to consider the case for adding bittering agents on a voluntary basis. I am aware that at least one high-street retailer—Halfords—already includes Bitrex in all its branded products. However, I understand that adding ingredients could cause problems related to, for example, the effectiveness of the product and it may have some impacts on the vehicle. The debate is not straightforward, but I would nevertheless encourage manufacturers to consider what my hon. Friend has said today.

Finally, to come back to a point made earlier, we have to bear in mind that if the case that my hon. Friend mentioned involved deliberate poisoning, no amount of bittering agents or caution by people using anti-freeze would get away from that fact. If that happened in the Calverton case, it is very important that we have a rigorous investigation and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

We have had an interesting discussion. I will draw this debate to the attention of my noble Friend Lord de Mauley, who is the portfolio holder for these issues, because my hon. Friend has raised some important points and made some very interesting suggestions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.