Tuesday 3 February 2015
[Mr Adrian Sanders in the Chair]
Cavity Wall Insulation
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Wallace.)
I am pleased to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I welcome the Minister to her place—I will be posing a number of questions to her at the end of my remarks.
I am able to bring this subject here for debate because of a remarkable woman, Claire Eades, and two others, Pauline Saunders and Dianna Goodwin. That trio of schoolteacher, artist and retired magistrate have shown that those whose cavity wall insulation goes wrong can find it near impossible to obtain swift and effective redress. Quite recently, they set up the Cavity Wall Insulation Victims Alliance, and I have drawn on far more cases from the association than I can report today. Other reported cases are included in the briefing pack for the debate compiled by the Library. I know that hon. Members of all parties will contribute their own constituency cases.
Claire Eades’s parents are constituents of mine. Their home in Southampton suffered badly from wrongly installed cavity wall insulation. Claire ultimately achieved a reasonable settlement after a determined campaign, but her parents are not the only ones affected. Their case exposes the problems with the supposedly independent insurance body, the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency, as well as bad industry practice and total inadequacies in the regulation provided by Government.
The market in cavity wall insulation is worth £700 million to £800 million a year. It has been boosted by Government policy, with some direct Government funding; however, most CWI has been funded by energy companies, which have been required to invest in energy conservation measures through a range of schemes, such as the carbon emissions reduction target, the community energy saving programme and the energy companies obligation. All the schemes differ in some respects but include insulation paid for by energy companies meeting Government obligations. Energy companies that fail to do so can face fines.
Many householders who responded to cold calls, e-mails and adverts and had cavity wall insulation installed had no idea that an energy company was funding that installation. Advertising typically refers to a 25-year guarantee and names CIGA. Doorstep visits and telephone calls typically describe the schemes, wrongly, as Government-backed or Government-funded. I have transcripts of a couple of phone conversations with such salesmen, one of whom, when asked who funded the cavity wall insulation, said:
“Erm, I think it’s the government, and also your British Gas, your Southern Electric, and the other companies. Sorry, it’s only my first week but obviously that’s why they’ve already paid for it and…it’s free on behalf of the government.”
In another case, this time when discussing guarantees, the salesman said:
“Yeah, there’s only a couple of companies which government approves, they’ll give you a 25 year guarantee with the government.”
The transcript goes on:
“‘Sorry, if I had it done would I get a government guarantee?’
‘For 25 years.’
‘What, the government guarantees it?’
‘Yeah, because the government fund it. They don’t fund it, it’s from the tax they’ve taken from you, so they fund it in that way.’”
That is fairly typical of what goes on in the industry.
Even official bodies get it wrong. The North East Lincolnshire council website advises:
“The Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency…was set up by the government to provide householders with an independent, uniform and dependable guarantee. This is a 25-year guarantee that is independent of the installer who insulates your property.”
But CIGA was not set up by the Government, nor is it independent of the installers. When things go wrong, the Government are the first to deny any responsibility or involvement. Government policy is driving much of the market, but the Government are not taking the measures needed to ensure high standards of installation or redress.
The Government have had plenty of warnings. The Office of Fair Trading reported in 2012 that failure to install properly would undermine Department of Energy and Climate Change targets for energy reduction. It recommended that DECC should ensure that there was a single body ensuring effective independent monitoring of installers and installation quality. All there seems to be is a licence; Dianna Goodwin of the CWIVA bought one online for £75.
The Minister is advised by the Green Deal Consumer Protection Forum. At its meeting on 26 June 2014, Ofgem reported:
“Ofgem has noted that there are suspected cases of fraud within the ECO scheme, for example around the installations for hard-to-treat cavity walls. Ofgem was informed of anecdotal evidence of systematic abuse of the technical rules, and investigated. It found that a number of installations were done improperly…Ofgem reported that one of the main difficulties it has is that it cannot engage with the supply chain”—
that is, the installers—
“as its agreement is with energy suppliers.”
At the same meeting the Energy Saving Advice Service reported that it receives about 30 complaints about ECO per week. There have been different schemes, but those elements—poor installation, abuse of the rules, and the inability of Ofgem to act—appear to run through all of them.
Following a cold call, a Mark Group survey of the Eades property took place on 10 June 2010. CWI can go wrong—badly installed or installed in an inappropriate property, it can cause damp penetration and condensation. In 2011 Which? asked eight companies to assess a clearly unsuitable house for CWI. All eight surveys recommended installing CWI. Funnily enough, four were carried out by that same company, the Mark Group, and three by the same person. All four surveys provided different prices even though they recommended the same work and materials.
The Eades’ property is less than 1 mile from the sea and according to an independent survey conducted last year is
“exposed to severe wind driven rain”.
Cavity wall insulation was installed in the property on 10 November 2010. By 4 February 2011, the house had a strong musty smell and significant condensation, and black mould was beginning to form. It is common for problems with CWI to appear more than a year after installation, yet the only routine independent inspection of properties takes place a few weeks after installation. It is required by Ofgem, but it is not to check whether there are damp problems; it looks only at whether energy reduction targets are being met. I cannot know—nor can the Minister—whether the problems I am raising are isolated or the tip of an iceberg.
On 3 February 2012, the Eades sent a letter by recorded delivery to the Mark Group reporting severe condensation. No response was received to the complaint. That lack of response appears to be standard across the industry. In December 2013, two years after the original installation, there was significant water ingress and damp patches were appearing along the length of the south-west-facing wall upstairs and downstairs and from top to bottom of the wall.
A quick look at the part of the Review Centre website relating to the Mark Group shows pages of complaints. For example:
“The installation team from Mark group in their wisdom filled all the air bricks in the property with silicone sealant…causing huge problems with damp. I have complained but had no response.”
“from my experience either I am the most unlucky house-holder in the country, if this is a one-off event, or the whole cavity idea is a big sham which should be investigated by someone other than the industry itself.”
A further complaint reads:
“Do not use Mark group. They filled our walls with non-compliant CWI, as open to the wind driven rain, our properties have been ruined...CIGA’s guarantee up to now is worthless”.
A further complaint says:
“It is now nearly 6 months since they damaged my home and I am no nearer to resolving the issue. They seem to be using delaying tactics in the hope that I will give up.”
And so it goes on, for page after page.
I do not know, however, whether the Mark Group is worse than any other company. It is still approved to do this work. My own encounter with the company was not good, as it made a fatuous attempt to threaten legal action after I retweeted a customer complaint—something I have never come across in 22 years as a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.]
I have some satisfaction in saying that it was at that moment that I decided that I should try to secure a parliamentary debate on the issue.
The Eades eventually contacted the Mark Group via its website. On 9 January 2014, Mr Lillywhite of the Mark Group inspected the property and offered to extract the cavity wall insulation for £2,000. Such double paydays for companies that install insulation wrongly and then charge to take it out again seem to be endemic in the industry. On 21 January, Claire Eades put a review on the Review Centre website, as the report of the inspection in January had still not been received. After further chasing, the Mark Group report was sent by Nathan Dunham. The report stated that the CWI was correctly installed and that the property was at fault. The response that nothing is wrong with the cavity wall insulation and that the damp is caused by something else is standard across the industry. Sometimes the property is blamed, and sometimes the occupants’ lifestyle is blamed, even though the same people have been living in these properties for years without suffering damp problems. It is simply a disreputable tactic. Many of those who take up CWI are older. They live in properties they own, and fuel bills are a major part of their expenditure. Perhaps the industry thinks they are less likely to complain.
On 31 January 2014, Claire Eades gave Mr Dunham of Mark Group a week to supply a date for a CIGA visit. CIGA was established in 1995. Ministers refer to it as independent; indeed, a letter from the Minister in December said:
“CIGA is an independent body”
“an organisation that will clearly be up to resolving issues relating to cavity wall insulation”.
I must ask the Minister what advice she was acting on when she signed that letter.
How independent is CIGA? On 3 November 2014, the directors were: Jeremy Robson, a director of the British Board of Agrément, the National Insulation Association and InstaGroup; John Sinfield, managing director of Knauf, which makes insulation materials; John Card, a director of Domestic and General Insulation Ltd; Brendan McCrea, a director of Abbey Insulation and Warmfill; Walter French, a director of the National Insulation Association; and Ian Tebb, a director of Polypearl Ltd and Tebway Ltd. Michael Cottingham was a director of CIGA between 2008 and 2009 and the managing director of Mark Group from 1991 to 2009. How can an organisation led almost entirely by directors of insulation companies be called independent?
I will return to the case of Pauline Saunders, but I want to read an e-mail she sent about a south Wales neighbour:
“I have just called on a very vulnerable 82 year old widow who unfortunately is in the position that her cavity wall installer has gone out of business and CIGA are not responding to any correspondence regarding this lady’s situation. I have just visited this lady and found her up to her knees in shredded wall paper”—
it was peeling off because of the damp—
“that she is scraping off the wall herself in an effort to save money”.
Even if vulnerable people complain, therefore, they are not guaranteed a reply.
After chasing, a CIGA inspection was carried out on the Eades’s property by a Chris Cuss on 13 February. On 20 February, the Eades wrote to CIGA to complain of a lack of interest on the part of the inspector. On 25 February, a short summary was sent to the Eades stating that the property was at fault, with no mention of faulty installation. The family therefore asked Mark Group for a copy of the original inspection report, which, had it been done properly, would have shown any failures in the property.
On 26 February, Mr and Mrs Eades wrote to John Campbell at CIGA. In a separate case, Dianna Goodwin of Milford on Sea had been copied into an internal e-mail from Mr Campbell, which referred to her, saying:
“She has far too much time on her hands and nothing better to do.”
In that case too, CIGA claimed there was no evidence that the CWI had
“caused or contributed to any issues with water penetration”.
That e-mail was sent from an organisation that, in its briefing to Members of Parliament for today’s debate, says:
“If something does go wrong, CIGA is at hand to put things right for consumers. It exists to protect consumers; they are our number one priority”.
The full CIGA report was never sent to Mr and Mrs Eades, but Claire Eades asked Mark Group for its report and the full CIGA report. The full CIGA report was then sent, and it said:
“the installation of CWI has NOT been completed in compliance with system designer and BBA specifications, the drilling pattern is non-compliant omitting an area of the original external wall within the rear extension”.
The full report would never have been made available to Mr and Mrs Eades had it not been for their daughter’s persistence.
CIGA colludes with installers to suppress evidence of failure and mis-installation. In the Eades case, it concluded, on the basis of no evidence, that CWI had exacerbated a concern regarding damp. It failed to acknowledge that the original Mark Group survey did not identify any pre-existing dampness.
CIGA claims there are historical problems in homes that have always been dry. Mrs Goodwin of Portsmouth was told her damp was caused by property defects and “lifestyle condensation”, even though her home had never previously suffered from damp. Chris Stillwell of Weymouth says:
“I have been left with damp and damaged walls....my flat is uninhabitable and has been ruined…CIGA who guarantee CWI keep trying to fob us off, even though their report states that the insulation used is now non-compliant”.
On 17 March last year, Lloyds, the household insurer for the Eades property, said the damp and water ingress were due to faulty CWI. However, the Eades still faced the challenge of getting work done, because having the CWI installed had invalidated their household insurance policy. They raised their plight with DECC, which said, “Go to Ofgem.” It also said:
“under the 25 year guarantee there should be no cost to the householder”.
DECC must be aware that CIGA conspires to keep details of inspection reports from householders and produces reports that are totally inadequate.
The Eades took their plight to Ofgem. Ofgem took a month to reply and referred them to Citizens Advice. They raised their plight with trading standards, which said, “Go to the citizens advice bureau.” They went to the CAB, which said it could not help and suggested the couple go to trading standards. They finally went back to DECC, asking who was responsible. The DECC reply was very clear: whoever it was, it certainly was not going to be DECC. DECC said:
“The contractual arrangements between energy supplier and third parties are not within our remit”.
For the Eades, this was the first time the involvement of an energy supplier had been mentioned.
A couple of weeks letter, DECC offered further advice: Mr and Mrs Eades—an elderly couple—should get a solicitor. However, on 23 May, there was a breakthrough. Ofgem had managed to establish that E.ON had funded the installation. Claire Eades told me that Dani Hickman of E.ON corresponded directly and appropriately with Mr and Mrs Eades. The involvement of the energy supplier was critical.
The Cavity Wall Insulation Victims Alliance has been in contact with more than 40 victims, but the Eades case is the only one in which the link with the energy company has been established. Ofgem does not hold address-level information consistently and, under CERT and CESP, there was no obligation for suppliers and installers to submit it. Despite that, the Minister of State wrote to me on 9 July, saying:
“Should it be the case that this work was undertaken under CERT, then Ms Eades or her parents may wish to contact the relevant energy supplier if they are unable to resolve the matter with the installer”.
In this case, Ofgem did trace the energy supplier for the Eades, but whoever drafted that letter for the Minister of State must have been aware that it would have been quite impossible in most cases under CERT to trace the energy supplier.
E.ON’s involvement led to an inspection by Knauf. The inspection recommended that the insulation be taken out of the south-west-facing wall due to voids. The internal walls in the extension should also have been drilled out for installation, and there were other failings. The Knauf report was never sent to Mr and Mrs Eades, and it was not intended for them. It was passed to them only by E.ON, which, acting on their behalf, demanded it from the Mark Group.
On 20 June, E.ON commissioned Green Deal Resourcing to carry out thermal imaging, which showed voids. The property is exposed to severe wind-driven rain. The insulation is facilitating the transfer of moisture across the cavity.
Having got that further independent report, the Eades complained to the British Board of Agrément. The BBA is supposed to accredit installers and materials, but it shares directors with CIGA. This is a very cosy network. The United Kingdom Accreditation Service, which is responsible for accrediting the BBA, confirms that householders have no right to see BBA reports on their properties.
On 21 July, the BBA inspected the property. Its report was never sent to Mr and Mrs Eades; it was sent to the Mark Group. It started, “Hi Nathan.” It continued:
“The system hasn’t been installed in compliance with the BBA issued certificate and should be extracted”.
Again, the Eades had no right to see that report. They got it only because E.ON was involved and passed it on to them.
To return to the case of Pauline Saunders of Newport, she finally received £1,750, and the Mark Group removed the fill. The trigger was a BBA report on the property that was sent to her in error. As a result, she was able to establish that it said:
“the property was and is unsuitable for cavity wall insulation and should not have been insulated”.
Without that report, which was intended only for the eyes of the installers or CIGA, she would not have received a payout.
In the end, the Mark Group and its loss adjuster, while still denying responsibility, paid the Eades about £11,000. Let us remember that the Mark Group originally wanted to charge £2,000 to remove the insulation from the property, having already been paid by E.ON for putting it in. How many people will there be who have not managed to pursue things that far? One cause of offence is the fact that even when settlements are achieved, installers still routinely deny responsibility and describe any action as a good will payment. Mr and Mrs Eades had their work done by a company that only does removal. On the occasions when CIGA will pay for extraction, its chosen extraction companies are Dyson Energy Services and InstaGroup, both of which share directors with it, so even when CIGA is finally forced to act, it seems that companies owned by its directors are the ones paid to do the work.
In a note sent to Members of Parliament, CIGA says:
“If something does go wrong, CIGA is at hand to put things right for consumers”.
I can give no credence to that claim. It says:
“If there is a problem with the workmanship or materials of an installation, we will ensure the installer put things right.”
As I have shown, CIGA takes active steps to avoid installers having to put things right. It says that, with regard to the 11,675 concerns reported, it has worked with installers to resolve 80% of cases; in 20% of them it covered the cost of work to the value of more than £2 million. Well, 80% plus 20% is 100%: that is all the cases dealt with. So how come so many people say they cannot get their problems resolved? There is something dodgy.
The obvious question is whether all those householders would agree that the resolution has been satisfactory, or whether they have just given up, accepted whatever they can take, or paid to put things right themselves. Who knows? There is no independent oversight of CIGA. CIGA is judge and jury in its own case, and it is run by the people who cause the problem. It says in its briefing to MPs that it will appoint a consumer champion. It is a bit late in the day, and it is hard to give credence to that. I am pleased that since today’s debate was announced, some of those involved in cases taken up by the CWIVA have had better offers. However, we cannot allow that last-minute action to let CIGA off the hook.
I have several requests for the Minister. I would like a full review of how the industry and CIGA operate. I want her to make a commitment to establishing genuinely independent oversight of the compensation arrangements. I ask her to change the regulatory regime so that the link between each energy company and each property is transparent and registered. Also, crucially, I would like every effort to be made to find out what additional historical information can be established. We must not just rectify problems for the future; we must deal with historical cases. I want the Minister to establish an independent assessment of properties at least one or two years after installation. That is the only way we will be able to understand the true scale of dampness caused by CWI. I also want her to introduce effective regulation of initial sales.
I have no doubt that there is fear in DECC that acknowledging the problems would discredit a key energy conservation policy, but the real danger to the credibility of the energy conservation programme lies in hushing the matter up. Many victims now question the whole idea of cavity wall insulation. Jeff Howell, the respected building correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, believes that all retrofit CWI is likely to cause problems. Is that true? I certainly hope not, and many organisations take a different view, but unless the Minister acts now, those doubts can only grow. We should not allow that to happen. We need an honest appraisal of the technology—where it works and where it does not—and we need effective redress for the victims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Sanders. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), for securing this important debate. The tale I have to tell today is not quite as dramatic as the one he told. Today’s debate of course follows on from a similar one obtained by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) in October.
According to Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates, there are about 690,000 remaining “easy to treat” cavity walls in Britain, not including those in exposed locations, or with other issues such as narrow cavities and wall faults. If those were all insulated, the energy bill saving would be about £100 million a year, and the carbon dioxide saving would be about 450,000 tonnes a year. That would be the same CO2 saving as taking about 180,000 cars off the road. We should be clear, therefore, that cavity wall insulation is, on the whole, a good thing, when it is done at the right time, in the right place, in the right properties, by the right people.
Encouragingly, DECC statistics indicate that since 2009 the number of CWI installations has hugely increased across the UK. In 2012-13, in East Hampshire alone, there were 4,986 cavity wall installations, which is welcome—as long, of course, as they were done properly. However, as we have heard this morning and no doubt will again, there are times and places where the treatment is not suitable. For homes in an unsheltered position or exposed to severe wind-driven rain, or whose external walls are poorly built or maintained—with, for example, cracks in the brickwork or rendering—cavity wall insulation can clearly be a liability, as it may attract severe damp.
It is in just such a location that a constituent of mine in Meon Valley is currently experiencing terrible damp problems in his home, subsequent to the installation of cavity wall insulation. In the past several years dampness has begun to occur inside his south-facing walls, which, as he lives on top of a hill, are frequently exposed to driving rain. He tried several remedial measures without contacting the insulation company, none of which, unfortunately, solved the problem, and he was forced to conclude a year or so ago that his cavity wall insulation, installed in 2006, was the likely culprit. He brought the matter to the installer’s attention late last year. Since then, like, I suspect, many people attending the debate, he has been in dispute with the installer, and has requested the removal of the insulation.
This is not a fairy tale, but I am delighted to report that last week, after the debate and my intention to take part was announced, the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency, with which the installer has an agreement to provide a 25-year guarantee, has, after a further inspection of the property, recommended two options to resolve the problem. Hip, hip hooray! What a marvellous thing that is. One option is extraction in the affected area of wall, with the removal of all insulation to minimise the risk of further problems. Alternatively, the work could be redone with a decent damp seal membrane and/or a waterproofer called Haloseal. That is a magical thing, and I am delighted. I have also been informed that CIGA will reimburse my constituent for considerable costs incurred in remedying damp damage and for machinery that he had to bring into the house to extract water from the atmosphere.
That is all welcome and I am grateful that CIGA has reacted so positively to the case, but, despite the assurances, my constituent has very little trust in the industry. The fact is that the insulation should never have been installed as it was in the first place. Obviously, despite fairly well defined circumstances in which cavity wall insulation is clearly not appropriate, it is nevertheless routinely still being installed. According to a DECC review in 2012, there are between 215,000 and 245,000 cavity-walled houses in the UK in an exposed location, which could make them inappropriate for cavity wall insulation. That represents 1% to 1.5% of cavity-walled houses in the UK, so it is by no means an insignificant problem. I understand that my constituency is described as a category 3 area, which means that it has “severe” exposure to driving rain, and that therefore cavity wall insulation may be unsuitable for some properties. That sounds like almost everywhere in the UK to me.
Surely it should not be too difficult for installers to get things right. The CIGA website says that registered installers are required to carry out a thorough pre-installation inspection of the property, so problems should really be ironed out at that stage. It seems that, as most eloquently described by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, there is a need for either much more policing of the scheme or much more rigorous training.
It is a pleasure to speak today under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on securing the debate, which follows on from my previous half-hour debate. I am glad that other hon. Members are taking an interest in the issue. This has been a matter of concern to my constituents for quite some time. I have come across many cases that I will refer to, although I will not go into in as much detail as the right hon. Gentleman did. In such cases, cavity wall insulation has been installed when it obviously should not have been owing to heavy rainfall and the prevailing wind in west Wales.
In fact, my constituency is a category 4 area. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) referred to his area as being in category 3, but much of west Wales is category 4. The map is quite startling: west Wales is coloured deepest blue and that is not a reference to its political leanings. Obviously there are problems there.
As well as having heavy rainfall and being in a category 4 area, we also have many buildings with exterior walls in poor condition, including many older buildings and former council houses that have cracked rendering and, in some cases, rendering that has fallen off. In the case of one former council house—I think it is located at about 1,200 feet, facing the prevailing wind—the brickwork can be seen because large chunks of the rendering have fallen off, but cavity wall insulation was put in. Pebbledash is the common form of rendering in my area. It is effective owing to the level of rainfall, but, as we know, it does crack and I am concerned that, too often, that was not properly taken into account.
My concerns include the assessment of suitability for cavity wall insulation and whether it should be installed at all in wet and windy Wales. I have also looked at the CIGA paper provided for the debate, which has an interesting paragraph:
“As part of the suite of technical guidance published by CIGA, there are strict criteria for assessing the suitability of a particular home for cavity wall insulation. Each home must be fully assessed by a BBA registered assessor before any work takes place, and if cavity wall insulation isn’t the right way forward then the surveyor will tell you.”
That is for a house. I assume that the British Board of Agrément-registered assessors may also look at maps. Anyone looking at the map of my area and large parts of Wales will see, as I said, that it is coloured deepest blue, so they should ask whether cavity wall insulation should be installed at all in any house in the area.
I am also concerned about the standard of workmanship, which I will refer to later on. People have had problems because while I am sure that, if properly installed, cavity wall insulation is very effective indeed, it must be properly installed. I am also concerned about quality assurance, and the arrangements for remedial work and the industry guarantee scheme.
I am also concerned that, in particular, the people who had cavity wall insulation installed believed that that was a desirable, appropriate and trouble-free course of action. They were reassured because, so they thought, it was a Government-backed scheme. How could it be wrong? The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen referred to that earlier. I know that the Government are not directly responsible, but that is the perception, so it is both the Government and the enterprise of installation that face damage to their reputation.
I referred to my debate in Westminster Hall on 29 October when I discussed these matters. I do not intend to rerun that speech, but some points bear restating. I talked about assessments and referred to the Office of Fair Trading’s report, which states:
“Consumer magazine Which?...invited eight companies to assess”—
we know what the outcome was. I am glad that there has been other media interest from both broadcast and print journalists.
I am concerned about workmanship. Apart from cases where CWI has led directly to water penetration, I have also been told of those where it has been installed badly, with areas missing, which has led to cold spots, condensation and subsequent fungal growth. Even when it is proper to install it in a house, there can be problems.
On remedial work, some installers have accepted liability. I have had good relations with one energy company, British Gas, which has taken an interest and acted in certain cases. In some cases installers have accepted liability and returned to redo the work, but the householders are still not satisfied. There is a case that would be laughable if it were not so sad. An elderly lady called me to come to see her former council house. She had had remedial work done on her kitchen wall, but that had not been successful and the damp was back above the window. The case was straightforward, but what stood out for me was that, as I approached the house, I could see the remedial handiwork. The pebbledash rendering had been badly patched, so areas of about 1.5 square feet had no pebbles at all—that could be seen from across the road. The plasterer had achieved something like the appearance of pebbledash from afar by making indentations with his fingers, such was the quality of the remedial work.
In terms of quality assurance, the OFT report also said that
“if poor installation causes problems with damp, these may not become evident until a year or more after installation.”
That is pertinent, given what the right hon. Gentleman said. We need inspections much later on, when problems may have developed. The report continues:
“Monitoring, which is typically done in the weeks following installation, cannot identify these longer-term problems…In relation to regulatory monitoring, Ofgem requires the energy suppliers to inspect 5% of installations and provide a summary of these inspections”.
In the previous debate, I asked whether 5% was sufficient—that is only one in 20. Clearly the review system is not working.
I have come across so many cases in one small town, Caernarfon. I told a few people that I was holding a meeting about this matter in a week’s time and, essentially through word of mouth, about 30 people turned up. It strikes me that the problems are more widespread than CIGA concedes. I think it says such problems affect 2% of the 6 million installations, which must be about 12,000 cases. I am sure that there are more than that.
The industry guarantee scheme has worked in some cases, but other constituents think that it operates at such a high bar that proper redress is prevented in legitimate cases. Both the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen and the hon. Member for Meon Valley made the important point that some of the people who have been afflicted with these problems are elderly or infirm, so they will not be chasing after fancy lawyers because they cannot afford that. They are also not familiar with negotiating their way through officialese. They are fundamentally dissatisfied with the process, but they see no form of redress available to them.
I have a Welsh-national point. CIGA serves my intensely Welsh-speaking constituency and other such constituencies throughout Wales, but, disappointingly, there is not a word of Welsh on its website or in its literature. Other organisations, including commercial organisations, use Welsh as a matter of course and good practice to reach out to customers, rather than not using it and per se shutting them out.
As I said in the previous debate, the name of the local campaign in Caernarfon is “Waliau Du”, which means “Black Walls”, because unfortunately that is what happens: people’s walls turn black. Constituents have complained that the growth of mould has led to breathing difficulties, illness and the worsening of children’s asthma. People also suffer long-term worry about what will happen to their homes and the possible costs of repair. They might not be able to afford such repairs or to clamber into attics to see what is happening and such long-term worry has an effect on physical health.
My constituents subscribed to what they thought—rightly or wrongly—was a straightforward Government scheme. As we have already heard, some were told it was that by installers while others assumed that, as the Government were funding the installation—or so they thought—the system was safe and effective and the installers were operating to an appropriate standard of practice.
The OFT’s 2012 report noted that some people assumed that the installers’ practice was properly regulated and inspected and that appropriate quality assurance measures were in place. Those people feel let down. I believe that somebody—albeit an ill-defined somebody—should take responsibility, and that is what they feel.
My final point supports the points that were made by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen—I support the questions he asked and the points that he raised. I believe that the matter warrants not only short-term remedial action for the people who are suffering, but a further comprehensive review, focusing on the problems that have become apparent over the years and that have been addressed this morning. I think we need to look at this across the piece. It should not be up to individual householders, who would find it very difficult or impossible to take their cases forward. We need a comprehensive review, because at the very least, there is reputational damage as far as the whole idea of cavity wall insulation is concerned, and for energy conservation in general, which is something that we all support, there is also the danger of reputational damage—let alone the damage to the reputation of this and previous Governments. That review should be instituted as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for raising the matter in the way in which he has, and I agree with his assessment of the situation and his request for action. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for their contributions, which seem to chime with the experiences of my constituents. I will set those out for the House and the Minister, along with my own concerns that, as other colleagues have mentioned, there may be more to this than meets the eye. That is the most worrying thing about it. Here is something that is designed to assist people, keep them warm and protect their houses, but it is being handled in a manner that undermines all the principles behind it and is leaving people victimised and feeling that they have had no benefit whatever.
My constituents, Mr and Mrs Haley, brought their case to me. I will be as brief as I can, but it is important to put some of these matters on record, because they fill out what has been said. In my view, they also add significantly to the demand to look into the industry, because if so many cases are cropping up that have common elements, there is a problem.
My constituents had their cavity wall insulation, if it can be termed that, installed in October 2008. The property had been inspected by Eaga Home Services—now Carillion Energy Services—which unremarkably came to the conclusion that cavity wall insulation would suit and benefit the house, and the work was done. On 19 November 2008, a guarantee was issued to say that the work had been carried out satisfactorily. However, the workmen were only at the property for 50 minutes—they said that they could not get down the side of Mr and Mrs Haley’s house because of the dining room extension.
In January 2013, after problems with mould and everything else, my constituents contacted CIGA to say that they were concerned about the amount of mould growth in their house. There had been no problem for the 25 years in which my constituents had lived at their property, but since the cavity wall insulation had been carried out, mould had been growing on the walls and ceilings and there was condensation in the sealed unit double glazing.
A letter came from Carillion to say that it would investigate and resolve the matter. My constituents tell me that in March 2013, the service delivery manager attended
“our property and made a cursory inspection. It was obvious at the time that he was not listening to anything we said to him. He said he didn’t know what was causing the mould growth but it wasn’t due to the cavity wall insulation and there had actually been very little such insulation carried out in our house. This was surprising to us as we were not aware so little work had been done.”
On 19 April, there was a letter from Carillion denying any responsibility.
I have a very thick file of papers here, and the exchange that I have just detailed is the first six to eight pages of it. The rest of it—I am sorry that listeners on radio cannot benefit from seeing it—relates to the two years following in which the matter has not yet been resolved. It is a story of evasion and an inability to act, and of letters going unanswered and e-mails not being cared about. However, all in all, it is about what appears to be a relationship between those providing the service and those supposed to be providing the guarantee to ensure that, actually, nothing gets done. All our experience as MPs tells us that people fight for so long, but then it gets too much and they give up. We have all seen evidence of agencies supposedly acting for the public, and indeed providers themselves, simply making it impossible for people to go on. People reach a point where they have had enough, and if it were not for individuals such as my constituents and others who have been mentioned today, I suspect that the problem would remain buried. The concern that the Minister and the Department should have is: how many more? How many more people have not been able to go through and stick with their case in order to see it resolved?
Let me quote one or two important things. When CIGA first responded to the concerns in January 2013, straight up, it gave the assurance:
“As the holder of a CIGA Guarantee, you have the assurance that any defects relating to materials or workmanship will be resolved in accordance with the terms of the Guarantee”—
not worth the photocopied paper it is written on. Carillion’s response, which I mentioned, read as follows:
“Following the issues which you have raised regarding the condensation at your home, we arranged for the service delivery manager…to attend and assess the concerns you have. The service delivery manager has confirmed that the issues which you are experiencing are not as a result of the cavity wall insulation work carried out at your home. In his opinion”—
the opinion of those who put in the cavity wall insulation—
the cause of the condensation is due to the UPVC windows, as there is condensation in between the panes of glass, which is a sign that the seals have gone.”
Patronisingly, the letter went on to say:
“Condensation is caused when warm air meets cold surfaces; it is most likely to appear on surfaces such as windows, colder parts of walls, around door and window openings, at junctions of floors and ceilings with outside walls.”
Well, there we are then.
Does it not add insult to injury for people, when they have installed cavity wall insulation and double glazing, and they are heating their homes expensively, to be told by installers and others that they should open windows to get rid of condensation? It is an appalling response.
I have been a Member of Parliament for some 28 years, and in a previous constituency, there was a lot of condensation in some parts of the town. It can be a difficult issue, but it is the easiest thing in the world to avoid responsibility for. Whatever is going on in the house is said to be the fault of the householder, and it is difficult to prove otherwise.
If I may, I will finish quoting the letter from Carillion:
“I understand that this may not be the outcome that you would have hoped for. I would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to investigate the issues you have raised.”
I wonder how many people have received a similar letter and thought, “Well, there we are. They know what they are talking about. It must be us; it must be something else.”
However, with the not unreasonable experience of over 25 years living in their house, my constituents were not prepared to accept that, and they responded as follows:
“We do not accept this decision. We have lived in this house for 28 years and have had the windows replaced. There were no problems with mould at any time. Then we had the cavity wall insulation done. The bedrooms, kitchen and living room then started to have mould growth around the windows and on the ceilings. Condensation on the windows became a real problem. When we first contacted the company about the cavity wall they sent out an inspector and he confirmed that there would be no problem to have the insulation carried out. However, when the workmen came to do the job they started muttering about being unable to do part of the house due to the fact that we had an extension. We got the impression that some parts of the house were not insulated. We are in the situation now where the whole house needs decorating but we can’t do anything because of the unsightly growth on the walls. If we had been told at the time that as a result of cavity wall insulation we would experience mould growth and condensation, we would not have gone ahead. Now Carillion seem to think they can just say it is not their problem. We consider it is. If there was a problem in installing the cavity wall we should have been fully informed before work started.”
That is the first eight to 10 pages of my file, which contains some 100 or 150 pages that detail my constituents’ attempts to deal with the problem. To cut a long story short, CIGA has recognised, after an independent inspection of the property, which was very difficult to arrange, that the cavity wall insulation was indeed installed in a faulty manner. CIGA continues to wriggle away from any serious responsibility, however, and it has made half-hearted efforts to get the matter dealt with.
I am not simply concerned about the way in which the case has been handled, although that is pretty bad. A detailed summary of what has been done is full of attempts to contact CIGA, attempts to ensure that people take responsibility and failure to deal with things. Some 16 months after it was notified of the initial complaint, for example, Carillion came back and asked for details of the problem. We see people at the bottom end of the chain being given the usual run-around by those who have power and responsibility.
After some further work on the matter, I came across a freedom of information request made by Ms Dianna Goodwin, from which I will quote briefly. I thought it was a very good piece of work that demonstrated, as the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has said, the close relationship between the guarantee agency and the industry. Without repeating everything that was said about the directors and so on, I will read Ms Goodwin’s conclusion:
“With assets in excess of 16 million pounds, CIGA certainly does have the resources to meet claims under their Guarantee—yet have a strong track record for blatantly ignoring and intransigently resisting claimants. The government set the parameters for this industry and the abuse of the system is just allowed to roll on year after year, unchecked. It is nothing short of a national scandal that this private and patently non-independent company is allowed to function at all, and high time the government stepped in to disband them. Proper and solid arrangements should be made for their Guarantees to be underwritten; also for an obligatory ombudsman service made available for all. What action will the government take please?”
I am pleased to add my constituents’ concerns to those raised by other hon. Members.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks and for those of the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), who is the pioneer when it comes to raising the matter in the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because an underlying Government policy is driving the size and shape of the market, it is essential that Government take some responsibility for sorting things out? The problems would be bad enough in a free, consumer market with people buying and selling a service, but the market exists on the scale that it does because of the Government policy and obligations on energy companies.
It is quite right that Government should want to ensure greater energy efficiency by carrying out a policy such as this. We all want our homes to be warmer and our energy usage to be reduced, and insulation is a key part of that. It is essential, as the right hon. Gentleman says, when the Government are urging people to have such work done, that there is some sense that it is carried out properly. If things go wrong, the Government must accept some responsibility and work with the agencies that are charged with dealing with the matter to make sure that they are doing so.
Finally, I want to repeat a concern raised by the hon. Member for Arfon, who said that when he mentioned the issue locally, people appeared and said that it had been a problem for them. That is what worries me the most. If the Government want there to be a campaign on the matter by MPs all over the country, the best thing for them to do would be to defend what is happening and just say that they will look into it. If nothing is done, I promise the Minister that she will be back here with a room full of even more MPs, and that will not do anyone any good. Today offers a real opportunity to recognise the pain suffered by so many people and get something done, so that the agency lives up to its responsibilities and the companies involved know that they will be named and shamed for their work. The bottom line will be that consumers and our constituents will get a better service—the service that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I begin by praising my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for securing the debate and for the work that he has done to remedy the cases of badly installed cavity wall insulation in his constituency. As the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) has said, cavity wall insulation, when it is correctly installed in an appropriate property, can offer substantial benefits to home owners. However, as we have also heard, badly or wrongly installed cavity wall insulation can cause serious problems. It is incredibly worrying to hear the examples of complaints and customer ordeals that right hon. and hon. Members have presented. I praise their constituents for their tenacity in attempting to resolve the problems.
I want to make it clear that I do not believe that anyone in the Chamber seeks to deride the insulation industry. Many good people are part of that industry, as I know from personal experience of meeting numerous installers in my constituency and in my Front-Bench brief, and from working closely with them on our energy efficiency plans. However, it is vital that within that industry, consumers are protected. They should always be at the forefront of any work that takes place, especially in connection with any policy promoted by the Government.
The consequences of badly installed cavity wall insulation are significant. Not only will a home owner suffer financially and personally trying to put it right, but, just as importantly, they will not receive the benefits that they should. The Minister and I regularly debate the fact that we have some of the worst levels of fuel poverty and the least efficient housing stock in Europe. Although we disagree on the best way to tackle that problem, I am sure we agree that it is unacceptable when work that is done to improve the quality of our housing stock leads to the sorts of problems that have been mentioned today. The consumer should always be the focus of any energy efficiency work, because consumer behaviour is often as important as putting in energy efficiency measures. Unfortunately, I do not think that that has been a strong enough element of the Government’s approach to energy policy, or indeed of Governments’ approach to energy policy for some time. It is vital, therefore, to ensure that there is adequate protection for consumers and that any issues are dealt with in an efficient and satisfactory manner.
It was concerning to hear the criticism by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen of the Mark Group, which I have visited. It is a major installer in the UK, and usually it is a useful resource in policy in this area. I will certainly discuss with it its response to complaints such as those that he raised. The issues that have been raised today concern me greatly. Data protection laws permitting, I, and, I am sure, the Minister, would like to know more details and consider how the problems can be rectified. I press her to look into that.
Having listened to my right hon. Friend’s speech, it seems to me that there is a clear need to be better able to identify where liability resides for work that has been done, including under the energy companies obligation. There also needs to be swifter redress when complaints are made. It is my understanding that all work carried out under ECO and its predecessor schemes, the carbon emissions reduction target and the community energy saving programme, is recorded centrally. In addition, the bureaucracy for ECO is substantial—I have attacked the Government about the scale of that bureaucracy on several occasions—so I would be incredulous if it were not possible to identify the funding body for each installation relatively easily. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the situation.
Right hon. and hon. Members have raised concerns about the independence and operation of CIGA. That is a particular worry, and I will look into it further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen briefly raised the question of subcontracting, which has concerned me for some time, especially within ECO. There is no limit on the number of times energy efficiency work under ECO can be subcontracted. My right hon. Friend talked about home owners not knowing who was carrying out the work or even being surprised to find out that it was funded by an energy company. During my work in the area, many people in the industry have raised the level of subcontracting with me as a concern. I would be grateful if the Minister could touch on that subject in her reply. Is she happy with the current level of subcontracting, or would she consider placing limits on the level of subcontracting that is allowed? That happens with schemes in other Departments, such as welfare-to-work contracts.
I recognise that there are good operators out there, doing good, honest work, who genuinely care about improving the energy efficiency of people’s homes. I know that that is true, because I have met them. Cases such as those that have been highlighted today are, thankfully, relatively small in number. That is why it is so frustrating that when such cases occur, satisfactory redress is not offered. It would be an absolute travesty if people who need better-insulated homes put off having that work done. That is why the problem of badly or wrongly installed work must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. The evidence provided in the debate suggests that that is not happening at the moment. Despite the relative rarity of cases of badly installed insulation, the examples have become numerous enough to warrant today’s debate and the previous debate secured by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). Home owners clearly need a better response than the one that has been offered to constituents in the cases outlined today. Specifically, on a point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, it cannot be right for companies to charge for remedial work for badly installed cavity wall insulation in homes where it should not have been installed or recommended in the first place.
I praise my right hon. Friend once again for securing this debate and allowing us the opportunity to discuss these issues. I hope that the Minister will address directly the concerns raised, and I am interested to hear her reply. She and I have different priorities and approaches when it comes to policy in this matter, but we both recognise the centrality of improving the UK’s housing stock through better home insulation. The issues raised in this debate are a clear threat to public confidence in that, and it is in everyone’s interests that we seek to rectify them.
I thank the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for raising the important topic of cavity wall insulation and the issue of compensation in cases where there have been problems. I will first comment on the policy generally and then move on to the conclusions from the debate and the specific requests that he made.
As I have said previously in energy debates, this Government recognise that improving domestic energy efficiency is a critical part of our strategy to deliver a secure, affordable, low-carbon energy system in this country. Consumer protection lies at the heart of the Government’s energy efficiency framework. We have built and nurtured strong relationships with a wide range of consumer protection bodies, including trading standards and Citizens Advice, and we are constantly seeking new ways to improve consumer protection.
In December, I personally sent out a joint communication with the chairman of the Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers to remind green deal market participants that it is their responsibility to uphold the green deal framework to ensure protection for all parties. When reports of potential breaches of the green deal code of practice are received, the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body engages with the relevant authorities to investigate and address those reports, which can lead to action taken against the green deal participant, including withdrawal or suspension of green deal authorisation.
The Government set a target of 1 million homes to receive energy efficiency improvements between January 2013 and March 2015. I am pleased to say that we have already met that target and are on course to exceed it significantly; by the end of November 2014, more than 1 million homes had benefited from the installation of energy efficiency measures under the energy companies obligation and green deal framework. Cavity wall insulation has helped create millions of warm, energy-efficient homes in the UK. For many householders, cavity wall insulation is a sound financial investment, helping them save on their energy bills every year. A typical semi-detached household saves approximately £100 a year after the installation of cavity wall insulation.
I apologise for intervening so early, but I have a question to which the Minister may well not know the answer, so this will give her time for a note to be passed forward. She mentioned the possible withdrawal of green deal certification. Does the Mark Group have green deal certification?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his consideration of timing. I will endeavour to come back to him on that point before closing.
Since 1995, uptake of cavity wall insulation has increased significantly with the launch of successive energy-efficient home improvement schemes by this Government and the last, including schemes aimed at fuel poverty such as Warm Front, and those focused on climate change, such as the energy company obligation and the green deal, which enable home owners to install energy efficiency measures, including cavity wall insulation. Between July 2010 and September 2014, 2.27 million homes had cavity wall insulation fitted; of those, 1.7 million did so under Government schemes. At the end of September 2014, 13.9 million homes had cavity wall insulation, or 72% of properties with a cavity wall. Up to the end of November 2014, some 462,103 cavity wall insulation installations were delivered under ECO, or 37.9% of total ECO measures, making them the most popular measure undertaken by households.
I will outline the protections in place for customers who receive cavity wall insulation. The installation of all cavity wall insulation must meet the requirements of the Building Regulations 2000, and the materials used to insulate cavity walls are subject to specific standards and must be certified by a technical approval body. To ensure the quality of installations under the green deal and ECO, installers must undergo a rigorous authorisation process to become authorised participants. Participants must comply with a publicly available specification setting out requirements for the installation of energy efficiency measures in existing buildings and levels of monitoring of those installations, including for cavity wall insulation. Furthermore, under the previous carbon emissions reduction target and community energy saving programme, and their successor schemes, the green deal and ECO, cavity wall insulation measures must be accompanied by a 25-year guarantee.
The green deal framework regulations require a green deal provider to agree, as part of any green deal plan, to guarantee the functioning of the improvements and to repair any damage to the property caused by the improvement. Under ECO and the CERT and CESP schemes before it, cavity wall insulation measures were required to be accompanied by an appropriate guarantee. Ofgem sets out the requirements for those guarantees in its ECO guidance: they must include a mechanism that gives assurance that funds will be available to honour the guarantee; the guarantee should last 25 years or longer; the guarantee must cover the costs of remedial and replacement works plus materials; there must be an assurance framework for the quality of installation and the product used in the installation. The suitability of the framework will be assessed and verification may be required through independent assessment by an independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service-accredited or other appropriate body. A list is available on the Ofgem website with details of guarantees that have been reviewed and are considered to meet the criteria for an appropriate guarantee under ECO.
I will ask the Minister a direct question put to me by one of my constituents. I said in my speech that my area is a category 4 area, and the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said that his was category 3. Should cavity wall insulation be installed in category 4 areas at all?
The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have debated that specific subject in this Chamber previously. My recollection is that mostly it should not have been. We went through the maps to which he referred in his comments, and the concerns that it had been inappropriately installed.
To return to the context of this debate, when the issue was put before the Government, we began conversations with the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency, which as we heard earlier is the largest cavity wall guarantee provider. We discussed the level and nature of existing complaints in order to understand the issue in further detail. The total number of complaints received by CIGA since 2010 is 6,890 and there have been 1.5 million cavity wall insulation installations since 2010, which implies a claim rate of 0.5% since 2010. The total number of outstanding unresolved cases on which CIGA tells me it is working is 171.
I will have to return to that question to give the right hon. Gentleman a full answer. When I conclude my comments, I will address some of his specific requirements, including requesting a meeting between CIGA and my Department officials and me after this debate, and I will ensure that that is one of the questions that we address.
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, the bright spark in all this is that we know that she will take the issue seriously, as that is her reputation, so we appreciate that she is involved. If there are so few complaints, bearing in mind how much work has been done, is there not an even greater necessity for that small number of complaints to be properly dealt with? CIGA cannot complain that it is overrun with complaints, so why should some of them have been dealt with so badly?
That is a very good question, which I will put to CIGA. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will require more content from CIGA than the answers that it has given us so far. CIGA has already said that it will provide us with a list of responses to particular questions raised with it, some of which have been raised in this debate, and I will be happy to share those once they are received.
If a consumer has concerns that cavity wall insulation has been installed incorrectly, they should initially contact the installer who carried out the original work to see whether the issues can be rectified. If that does not resolve the issue, they should contact the guarantee provider. If they cannot locate their guarantee, they can try to contact the guarantee provider directly, which may have a record of their guarantee.
For measures installed under the CERT, CESP and ECO schemes, if there is no effective guarantee in place, the customer can contact the energy supplier that funded the measure originally. If the energy supplier cannot be found via Ofgem, consumers may wish to obtain further guidance from their local trading standards office or seek professional legal advice.
If there is a dispute about a green deal installation and an agreement cannot be reached between the consumer and the green deal provider, the consumer can contact the green deal ombudsman, who will investigate complaints and determine redress. Depending on the type of complaint, the ombudsman will, following their investigation, refer cases to the Secretary of State to determine redress or impose sanctions.
The green deal registration and oversight body has a technical monitoring strategy in place to ensure the full compliance of all green deal participants. Furthermore, Ofgem mandates technical monitoring of installation standards under ECO and the predecessor CERT and CESP schemes, and it requires ECO installers to contract for independent inspections of 5% of all measures installed, including cavity wall insulation, to ensure that they meet the required standards. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said that 5% is inadequate and insufficient. I will consider his comments and speak to Ofgem about whether it is sufficient and come back to him on that issue.
Adding to the list of things for the Minister to come back on, there is also the issue of installations carried out under CERT and CESP. It is clear from Ofgem’s Freedom of Information Act replies that it does not have those data. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) suggested that sufficient paperwork should be held somewhere to enable the match to be made between householders and energy suppliers, even under the two earlier schemes. Can the Minister advise us where that information is held? Will she make every effort to identify that information for each of those historical cases?
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) was right to raise that issue. I will review the regime for the legacy issues now and after the ECO regime expires in 2017. I agree that we need clarity about what happened in the past, and that we must make improvements for the future.
Let me move on to the suitability of cavity wall insulation for different properties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said, not all properties are suitable. The hon. Member for Arfon and I have discussed that issue previously in this Chamber. A dwelling is suitable for standard cavity wall insulation if its external walls are unfilled cavity walls, the cavity is at least 50 mm wide, its masonry or brickwork is in good condition and its walls are not exposed to driving rain. It is important that cavity wall insulation is installed only in suitable homes and to the required standards. Pre-installation surveys are key in identifying suitable properties. Cavity wall insulation is not suitable in homes that are exposed to wind and driving rain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley said.
The British Standards Institution’s regulations offer a step-by-step procedure for assessing properties’ suitability for cavity wall insulation and provide guidance for assessing exposure by looking at topography, shelter and rain spells. Technical certifications—for example, the BBA certificates—state how and where products can be used.
Members who have spoken in this debate have said that they want complaints to be properly handled, however many there are, and their constituents to get proper redress. It is clear that more needs to be done. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen asked about the Mark Group. I can confirm that it is an authorised green deal provider. He requested several commitments from me, and I want to state clearly for the record that my Department and the Government take very seriously the concerns that have been raised about people’s homes. People’s homes are not just an asset or something that costs them money; they are essential to their livelihoods and well-being, which is why we take this issue so seriously.
I will speak to Ofgem, and I will write to it to ask for a summary of the number of complaints it has received and its view on that. I will consider conducting a review. I will consider the case for introducing independent oversight for all guarantees, not only those under CIGA. Concern about the guarantees, their implementation and access to them has been one of the features of this debate. I am concerned about the level of transparency—an issue that has been raised. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen and others said that they were concerned about the independence of the directors of CIGA. I will have discussions with Ofgem about that issue.
The hon. Member for Arfon asked whether it would be possible to return to CWI properties after two years to ensure that the insulation was correctly installed. I will consider putting in place an independent assessment to look at properties two years after installation. I will also consider regulating the initial sales conversation—the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen raised that issue and quoted from various sales conversations. I have listened to the personal stories that Members have put on the record.
The Minister has given us a list of things that she will consider. I agree with the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who said that the Minister will take those things seriously and pursue them. However, the dissolution of Parliament is approaching, and I and others will leave this place. Will she give me the satisfaction of promising to consider these issues and come up with answers before 30 March? It would be a great shame if she were to take this issue forward and, for whatever reason, not to find herself in the same position after the election. It is not unreasonable to ask her, in just under two months, to consider these issues and report back to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that I take this issue seriously and that I intend to get some answers on it. I commit to writing to him before Parliament dissolves to update him on where I am. I will do my level best to get as many answers as possible to address the concerns that he raised. I will start by making the points that I just outlined to Ofgem and asking for a meeting with CIGA to raise those complaints and issues.
On exactly the same point, I reassure anybody following the debate elsewhere that if my hon. Friend the Minister is not able to complete that work and get all the answers in that time, it will be possible to pursue these matters in the next Parliament, if the good people of North East Bedfordshire and Arfon allow it. Therefore, there should not be a break in our concerns. Our constituents can be reassured that the matter will be carried through, even if some distinguished right hon. colleagues will no longer be with us.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Despite my commitment to come back to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen with answers by the end of March, we are unlikely to have fully resolved the serious complaints and issues that have been raised here. I am sure that the future Minister, whoever they are, will continue that work, and I will ensure that it is left in good order for them. However, I hope I will be back in this role.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their comments. I want to reassure their constituents that we take this issue very seriously, and I will continue to take a personal interest in it.
Work-related Activity Group
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders.
This is the sixth Westminster Hall or Adjournment debate that I have had on employment and support allowance. I have always acknowledged that the roots of some of the issues clearly lie in the introduction of ESA in 2008, when my party was last in government, but whenever such changes are made in practice we need to be ready to evaluate their effect, monitor their impact and make any further changes that might be required. One of the issues that has come to the fore as the system has rolled out is the experience of claimants who are awarded ESA and placed in what is called the work-related activity group. Claimants in the WRAG receive £101.15 per week and are required to attend regular interviews with a Jobcentre Plus adviser. Those in the other ESA group, the support group, receive £108.15 per week and do not have any conditionality placed on them. The third group consists of those who are declared fit for work and have to claim jobseeker’s allowance with all its associated commitments.
I still think that ESA is a step forward from the previous system. Under incapacity benefit, people were either found fit for work and claimed JSA, or given unconditional financial support. Under the new system, financial support is given while at the same time support can be given to keep people close to the labour market and in the best position to return to work at some point in the future. The work-related activity group, however, has evolved significantly and I will highlight three broad areas of concern: the sort of claimants being placed in the WRAG; the quality of the support provided; and the restrictions on receiving WRAG and the reduction in value of the payments.
I have long believed that many people who should be placed in the support group are instead in the WRAG. One constituent explained to me that once she had been placed in the WRAG she received a letter asking her in for a work-focused interview. The letter was mainly about what would happen to her if she did not attend, which made her anxious. In the event, the interview was short and the adviser agreed that she was in no way ready for work activities and told her that she need not come back until the outcome of her appeal to be in the support group, which she eventually won. Other constituents have been told that they need not return for a year. One was told that she certainly did not need to return for some considerable time when she attended the work-focused interview with her oxygen tank. Parkinson’s UK told me that some of its clients are being placed in the WRAG despite the fact that Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition that will not improve over time.
On the one hand, such outcomes—especially if people are told, “We don’t need to see you for another year”—can be a relief for some claimants but, on the other hand, that makes a mockery of the idea of ESA being about moving towards employment. People might sit in the WRAG for long periods, and at least one of my constituents, with whom I am in fairly regular contact, has been in the WRAG throughout the time that I have been an MP, since 2010. She was first assessed in 2009 and is still in the WRAG in 2015.
One of the conclusions that my hon. Friend and I reached as part of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiry was that the work-related activity group was too wide and trying to do two contradictory things: to give support to people who are not fit for work without being in the support group; and at the same time to move those who might be fit for work closer to work. Those two different aspects of the WRAG meant that it became the default for everyone who either was now not fit for work, or definitely could not work in future. The group is too wide and too unwieldy.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for that contribution. I will come on to this in more detail later, time permitting, because the situation we are in now is important. If we end up with a default group and people in it for a long time, one of the questions that has to be asked is, how much further have we progressed from where we started?
One of the problems seems to be that different rules or practices from those for people previously on incapacity benefit are being applied to new claimants. The new claimants who go into the support group may be placed there without a face-to-face assessment. In some situations people are having a paper-based assessment and, if people go into the support group, that might seem acceptable. The WRAG, however, has a detrimental effect on income and circumstances, which I will come on to, so if people go into that group because of a paper-based assessment, they will not have had the opportunity to explain more fully their particular circumstances. That might seem a rather strange thing to say, given the debate about there being too many assessments—I have been part of that myself in my Adjournment debates—but it is important that we get things right.
The Select Committee called for the rules to be aligned, so that no claimants could be placed into the WRAG without having an opportunity to explain their particular conditions and their impact to an assessor, but the Government in their response of November last year refused to accept that recommendation. I hope that the Minister has had further thought and might want to reconsider.
Between 2008 and 2014 about 30% of new claimants with Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis were placed in the WRAG. Of those, some 5,000 were given the prognosis that they were unlikely to return to work in the longer term. The Select Committee recommended that all claimants with such a prognosis be allocated to the support group, not the WRAG, but the Government’s response was disappointing, stating that “with the right support”—which I will go on to say is not there—
“that person might be able to return to…work”.
The Government also consider that individuals might be able to adapt to their condition or that advances in treatment might become available. If someone goes into the support group, however, regular reassessments are carried out, so even if claimants were able to adapt successfully or treatments became available, that would be picked up. On its own, therefore, that is not a good enough reason for placing people in the WRAG.
That leads me on to the quality of support. When ESA was first introduced, the intention was that Jobcentre Plus would provide the support, but since 2010 the number of disability employment advisers has declined, meaning many ESA claimants receive no more than two face-to-face interviews per year or, in the experience of some of my constituents, sometimes fewer. Many are now referred to the Work programme, with numbers increasing significantly following the October 2012 decision to expand the range of people referred from those thought able to return to work within three months to those thought able to return within 12 months. Concerns about the Work programme are well documented, but it is particularly inappropriate for those incorrectly placed in the WRAG.
A constituent of mine was placed in the WRAG and referred to Work programme contractor A4E, but her only activity was to search for jobs on the internet, despite the fact that she has complex regional pain syndrome and would have been unable to take up any job offered. She was given little help with how her particular condition might be alleviated or supported, or about what contact she would require with employers to make that happen. Rather, the result was that her treatment was disrupted and her condition exacerbated. Indeed, recent analysis, quoted in the Select Committee report, found that only 5% of claimants from the WRAG who were placed in the Work programme have moved into sustained work since 2011, against a target of 16.5%.
A few months ago, an evidence-based review of the work capability assessment, the test for deciding whether people are eligible for benefit and which group they go into, examined whether different descriptors would work. Part of the process was to ask expert panels to look at the WCA outcomes. Interestingly, they identified that, of the claimants who were found fit for work, 83% would require, on average, two or three adjustments to be able to undertake employment, 50% would require flexible working hours, and 24% would require a support worker. That was a review of fit-for-work assessments; those requirements are likely to be even more necessary for those in the work-related activity group. Such support just is not happening through the Work programme.
I do not have a particular view on whether support should be provided through Jobcentre Plus or a contractor or other provider, but in addressing these concerns it is important that provision is not forced upon people who cannot benefit from it, and that those who can receive it get it in a form that is applicable to their needs and local circumstances. In that respect, I strongly support the devolution of responsibility and finance for the Work programme to local authorities, as many specialist local providers offer a much more effective and personalised service to those with health problems or disabilities.
As my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, there is a major flaw at the heart of the system, which explains some of the problems. The work capability assessment is trying to be a test of both eligibility for financial support and how close people are to being able to work. At the outset, there was in fact a further assessment called the work-focused health-related assessment, which was intended to explore the difficulties and obstacles that people would face in returning to work—that is, after eligibility for benefit had been determined, issues such as the obstacles to and distance from employment would be looked at.
In July 2010, the work-focused health-related assessment was suspended for two years on the grounds that it had not delivered the intended outcomes, although it seemed somewhat early to make that judgment as it was barely 18 months since the introduction of the benefit as a whole. In 2013, it was suspended for a further three years to await evaluation of the Work programme and universal credit.
The WFHRA, as it came to be known, was actually suspended before any existing incapacity benefit claimants had even been migrated on to ESA. It was that group in particular that would have benefited from some kind of assessment of their current and future barriers to work.
My hon. Friend is correct. There is no sign whatever that any evaluation was made that showed that it was not working. Do we need something better than the WCA to measure the obstacles and propose support measures? The answer must be yes. Does that necessarily mean two tests? I do not know—perhaps, or perhaps not—but it should be looked into properly so that we can decide how to deal with the issue. Scope, a leading charity in this field, has suggested replacing the WCA as a whole with a distance-from-work assessment to assess support needs rather than medical capacity.
The third issue that I want to address is the fact that the Government have both reduced the value of ESA payments to those in the WRAG and placed restrictions on its receipt that have significantly changed the character of the benefit. Although the value of payments to people in the support group has been uprated by inflation in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, payments to those in the WRAG have been subject to uprating by only 1%. Those in the WRAG are subject to the overall household benefit cap, whereas those in the support group are not. The Government justifies those differences on the basis that people in the WRAG are better placed to move towards the labour market, but I do not think that that is how the original architects of ESA would have envisioned the WRAG working. Under incapacity benefit, most of these people would have been given unconditional support, so it is wrong that the fact that they now receive some level of support with a view to an eventual return to work is being used as a stick to push them to get a job sooner than they are able.
The sorts of changes I have described have fed into the media perception that people in the WRAG are in reality fit for work. For example, on 1 April 2013, the Daily Mail ran a story under the headline “Just one in eight on sickness benefit is truly too ill to work”. It reported that of nearly 1.5 million new claims assessed for ESA since 2008, 837,000 were found fit for work and 232,000 were
“deemed by doctors to be too unwell to do any sort of work”—
that is, they were in the support group. It then said that
“a further 367,300 were judged able to do some level of work”,
which was clearly a reference to the WRAG and implied that such claimants were not truly too ill to work. Actually, the whole point of the test is to say that at this point in time they are deemed unfit for work.
A related change was the decision to time-limit the receipt of contributory ESA to one year for those in the WRAG, on the basis that they are likely to get better anyway and so will be in less need of the benefit than people in the support group. However, in contrast to incapacity benefit, ESA was designed with regular reassessments in mind, so were there to be any improvement and therefore lost of entitlement, that should be determined through the process of reassessment, rather than an arbitrary one-year time limit. Such a limit particularly affects people who have been in work for much of their life and therefore made their contributions, but who may, for example, have a working partner—possibly earning only part-time wages—and so reach a position in which they receive no payments whatever.
Another issue is that the letters that people receive to tell them about changes in their circumstances are very unclear. One former incapacity benefit claimant came to my surgery last year after he had received a cryptic letter from the DWP. He understood it as saying that he would continue to receive benefit, but became concerned several months later when he learned that his benefits were due to stop in a few months’ time. It turned out that he had been placed in the WRAG but was time-barred from appealing the decision. I hope that the Government’s proposed review of all ESA-related communications will address such issues. My experience is that people are still receiving letters that are hard to interpret. They tell them that there has been a change in circumstances and perhaps that there will be a slight change in the amount of money that they will receive, but they do not make it clear why, which of the ESA groups they are in, and the overall implications. It is important that people are given the information that they need in order to take the appropriate action.
In conclusion, it is worth quoting the Select Committee again, which concluded:
“The WRAG is by far the most problematic of the three ESA outcome groups.”
I know that it is likely that many of the policy changes that I have mentioned have been driven by financial considerations, and I do not necessarily expect the Government to change all their positions in the remaining few months of the Parliament. Nevertheless, I would like to think that these matters are under consideration and that there is a real attempt to overcome some of the problems and issues that I have mentioned. For example, good communication should not be beyond the bounds of possibility, even in the dying days of this Parliament. That could save money in the end, because if people understood what they were being told they would be much more likely to take the appropriate steps.
It is profoundly unfair that people in the WRAG seem to be shouldering a disproportionate burden in reducing the deficit, and I hope that whichever party or parties are in government after the election take a different approach. No claimants should be placed in the WRAG without a face-to-face assessment, and only those able to benefit should be referred to the Work programme, if it continues—I hope that it can be improved considerably, or devolved so that we can use the specialist providers with which we have all had contact and that do such a good job. Ministers must acknowledge that those in the WRAG are currently too ill or disabled to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing the debate and raising these important matters. I will come to her point about communication later, but there is common ground there, and I hope to update her on that. We may not agree about some of the policy changes, but it is very welcome that we agree that we should communicate clearly and put in place plans to improve communication.
I think that the hon. Lady acknowledged this in her speech, but to be clear, the policy intent of the work-related activity group, as well as that of employment and support allowance more generally, remains as it was when it was introduced by the Labour Government in 2008: to help people to return to work wherever that is possible. We know that there are generally health benefits from working and work-related activity.
The hon. Lady mentioned people with progressive conditions. I touched on this issue when Dr Litchfield published his final report. If they are arguing that the diagnosis of a progressive condition such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis effectively means that someone should go into the support group, with the assumption being that they will probably never work again, some of the groups that represent those people should think about that, because it has a lot of consequences for how we treat people with progressive conditions. It kind of sends a message to employers that if someone gets diagnosed with one of those diseases, they should just be sacked because they cannot contribute anymore, even though some of those conditions are progressive over a long period of time. We have to think about how we treat people with those conditions.
Clearly, there will be a point in a progressive condition when someone is perhaps not able to work, and perhaps not able to work again, but we should not assume that the diagnosis of a progressive condition automatically means that someone in the support group is never able to return to work. That would send out some unhelpful messages that those groups—when they are not arguing about whether people qualify for benefits—do not themselves argue. They argue that people should be able to remain in the workplace while they can, and should be properly supported in that.
I point out to the Minister that the reason why people are claiming this benefit at all is that they have fallen out of the work force. Often they have been through a period with their former employer in which they were trying to stay in the work force. We are not necessarily dealing with people who will find it easy to work under any circumstances.
I accept that point, but employers vary in their ability to deal with people with health conditions and disabilities. Some are better than others. For example, we know that some employers retain almost everyone in their organisation who develops a mental health problem, because the employers can deal with that effectively. Some employers, however, are not good at dealing with that. The only point I was making was that the diagnosis of a progressive condition should not mean that we automatically assume that the person will go into the support group. The other thing is that there are many conditions in which the symptoms fluctuate. It may be that someone has to have a more flexible work regime—sometimes they can work and sometimes they cannot. All I am saying is that it can be a little more complex, and a progressive condition should not automatically trigger a diagnosis-based referral to the support group.
I accept that point. There are of course people in the support group who do permitted work. I think that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East was arguing that it was somehow inappropriate for those diagnosed with progressive conditions to be put in the work-related activity group and expected to undertake some form of work-related activity. I was simply making the point that it does not follow that putting someone with a progressive condition in the WRAG is inappropriate, and that they should automatically be in the support group. That was the only point I was trying to make.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East made a good and sensible point—she raised this at my Select Committee appearance last week, and I promised that I would respond to her—on some of the communication. Letters that say to people that they are not expected to return to work—I cannot remember whether it said “indefinitely” or “ever”—are not very well worded. We are looking at all our communication. We have a freeze on IT changes until we do the cutover from Atos to Maximus, but once that is out of the way, we will change the wording on the assessor recommendation. The hon. Lady made a good and reasonable point in the Select Committee session last week; the wording as set out does not accurately reflect the position.
The hon. Lady also raised the point about the work capability assessment generally. We will respond to Dr Litchfield’s report in due course, but he said that the WCA was not a perfect assessment, and I would not pretend that it was. He also made the point, however, that there is not a magic alternative assessment that can be pulled off the shelf. As the hon. Lady knows—I think she remarked on this in her speech—a number of experts looked at whether there was an alternative way of assessing people’s need for benefits and for support to move into the workplace, and there was not a magic solution there either. That demonstrated that the WCA is a pretty good assessment. I would not pretend that it is perfect, but it is probably the best that there is. One thing Dr Litchfield suggested is that we give the WCA a period of stability, so that it can settle down, rather than continuing to make changes to it on a permanent revolution basis.
The hon. Lady also discussed whether we should be able to refer people to the work-related activity group without a face-to-face assessment. As we said in our response to the report—I think this blends the two slightly contradictory points that she made—we should not have unnecessary face-to-face assessments. Decisions are made on the basis of the papers without a face-to-face assessment only if the decision maker believes that the information in front of them is clear and provides sufficient evidence to make a decision. The person about whom that decision is being made will not always agree with the outcome, which is why they can apply for a mandatory reconsideration, and if they do not agree with that, they can appeal.
In cases where the decision maker is clear that there is sufficient evidence to make a decision, having an unnecessary face-to-face assessment—an assessment that, in other cases, the hon. Lady is not a fan of—is not an enormous step forward. She will know from the statistics we publish that the average length of time to complete a mandatory reconsideration is 13 days, and we complete three quarters of them in 30 days; that is not an enormous barrier put in the way of someone having their case looked at again and then being able to appeal the decision if they think they need to.
I have certainly come across cases where the decision made on a paper-based assessment turned out not to have used all possible sources of information. That did not come to light until a later date, and that is one of my concerns about the process. People can be placed in a detrimental position, both financially and in terms of the conditionality they are expected to follow.
I think the hon. Lady’s point, which is perfectly good, is that we need to ensure that we make accurate decisions using all the information, that we get the information in the first place, and that we have properly explained to the claimant what information we need. She is right that we should make those decisions accurately, but that does not in itself suggest that making those decisions on the papers is wrong where there is sufficient evidence to do so. Saying that everyone has to have a face-to-face assessment when there is sufficient evidence is not a good argument. The fact that there are some cases where someone might not have made a good decision does not in itself invalidate the system. It is inevitable; however brilliant the system, there will always be cases where someone does not agree with the outcome, and is successful either on a mandatory reconsideration or on an appeal.
The hon. Lady referred to the communications that we send out. In Dr Litchfield’s fourth review, he recommended that we look at all the key ESA letters and forms to ensure that they are in plain English. The main ESA50 form has been reviewed and will be issued later this month. The decision letters are on a later time frame. The ESA260 form, which notifies someone of the decision in the first place, was revised last October. I looked specifically at the point on contribution-based ESA and the time limit because I know she is concerned about that. If someone is getting contribution-based ESA, it is clear that that is what they are getting. It is clear that that is time-limited, and that the time limit does not apply if they are in the support group. We are starting to do that work, as Dr Litchfield recommended, to improve our communications. There is more to do on that, and the hon. Lady is right to highlight that.
On the Work programme, which the hon. Lady referred to, it matters what time period one looks at. It is perfectly fair to say that in the first year of the Work programme, only one in 24 of the people claiming ESA moved into work, but up to the end of June last year, one in 10 ESA claimants had had at least three months of work within the first 12 months of being on the Work programme, which is a considerable improvement on its initial period and above the minimum performance level of one in 14. We want to improve the one in 10 figure, but she should acknowledge that the Work programme has improved its performance for this group of claimants. It has got a lot better, but we want to continue to improve it.
On the specific case that the hon. Lady referred to, an employer should have dealt with adaptations and hours of work through reasonable adjustments. On the issue to do with support workers, people can get support through the Access to Work programme. It is about ensuring that someone who goes through the Work programme has—
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I would like to talk about respiratory disease, which affects one in five people in the UK, is responsible for about 1 million hospital admissions and costs the NHS almost £5 billion a year. It is also the third biggest cause of death in the UK. It is the poor relation compared with the investment that goes into tackling the other four big conditions. To put that into context, in 2012, respiratory disease killed 80,000 people—that does not include lung cancer, which killed an additional 35,500 people.
The UK also has the highest mortality rate for respiratory disease among the OECD nations, double that of countries such as Poland and Germany and treble that of countries such as Estonia and Finland. Sadly, the worst thing about those statistics is that many of the deaths would be preventable with the right care. I understand and welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State that he is making it a priority for NHS England to prevent people from dying prematurely from respiratory disease. His ambition is to make us one of the best in Europe for survival rates by improving prevention, diagnosis and treatment. That is a very big statement and a huge aspiration when we are talking about reducing respiratory deaths in this country by almost two thirds.
I want to focus my remarks predominantly on asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—known as COPD—which together affect almost 6 million people in the UK, including me. I am chairman of the all-party group on respiratory health. With the support of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, we conducted an inquiry into respiratory deaths in an effort to help the Government and the NHS to understand why so many people are dying from these conditions and what can be done to prevent that. I am grateful to the other members of the all-party group for their support, and for the amazing contributions that we receive from patients.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work as chairman of the all-party group. What does he make of the NICE evidence that about a third of the people who are receiving treatment should not be, while there is such a lot of undiagnosed asthma? That seems very odd.
My hon. and learned Friend makes an incredibly important point, to which I will return later. The information that has come out of NICE is sadly testament to the complacency that we see regarding the effects of respiratory disease, and to how some professionals and patients treat the condition, ultimately resulting in those patients’ deaths.
Contributors to the all-party group’s report include health care professionals, charities, patients, families and professional organisations, as well as a range of other people who contributed both written and verbal evidence. I will read the story of one of those people a little later, but first I want to look at chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is an umbrella term for a set of conditions that includes bronchitis and emphysema. Combined, such conditions kill more than 30,000 people a year in the UK—around 5% of all deaths in the UK from all causes. A COPD patient’s journey is often punctuated by multiple exacerbations, which are sudden worsenings of the symptoms, often triggered by external factors such as infection and problems with air quality, that often lead to hospitalisation.
To put it into context, people suffering from COPD exacerbations are the second most common cause of emergency hospital admissions in this country, the biggest being ischaemic heart disease, which is effectively coronary heart disease—heart attacks and strokes. It is estimated that COPD leads to 94,000 admissions a year, with cold weather often a major contributory factor. The direct costs on the NHS are more than £800 million a year, so COPD is causing a huge problem in terms of the costs for the NHS and the impact on individual patients. One of the worst statistics that the all-party group’s inquiry came across was that 50% of people who are admitted to hospital with severe COPD die within four years—once it has reached the stage of their being admitted to hospital, they sadly have a life expectancy of four years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this debate. Does he agree that there is a real problem with undiagnosed COPD, which is contributing to those hospital admissions? People are presenting for treatment only when they are in crisis.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In fact, we believe that more than 2 million people in the UK have COPD but are completely undiagnosed. The British Lung Foundation has done a great deal of work to try to raise the profile of COPD. It has also done a great deal of work on pulmonary rehabilitation with its “Breathe Easy” groups, which help people who are suffering from COPD to access support networks and improve some of the scarring and problems that they have with their lungs. A recent study of more than 39,000 COPD patients showed that more than half had symptoms for six to 10 years before the diagnosis was made—my hon. Friend’s point is powerful—and 42% had has those symptoms for up to 15 years before being diagnosed.
I want to tell the story of Neil, 50 years old and from Norwich. He was continually misdiagnosed by doctors despite being at high risk of lung disease and showing signs of the condition throughout his 30s. By the time he was finally diagnosed, he had lost most of his lung capacity.
Neil was a long-term smoker who worked for many years in cold and dusty conditions. When he was younger, he visited doctors regularly and had breathless attacks that sometimes required emergency treatment in hospital. However, he was never offered a lung function test by his doctor, and he felt that his smoking habit was used as a reason to dismiss his symptoms and not investigate them fully. At the age of 39, he finally managed to see a specialist in the hospital, but his symptoms led doctors to think that he had asthma.
When a doctor told him the extent of the scarring and damage already done to his lungs, Neil decided to quit smoking on that very same day. He also cut back on some work to improve his working conditions. Five years ago, he developed two bouts of pneumonia. His health deteriorated: he felt constantly breathless and could barely walk 50 feet. Even at that stage, Neil was not given a lung function test or information about how to manage his condition; instead, he was told that he could expect to recover soon. He was forced to give up work completely and his wife Wendy had to start caring for him.
Eventually, a doctor told Neil that he had COPD. He had lost 70% of his lung function by the time he was told that he had COPD. He was able to speak to a specialist nurse at his local surgery who took the time to work with him and got him referred to pulmonary rehabilitation, and he became a member of one of the British Lung Foundation’s “Breathe Easy” groups, which are support networks that help people with COPD to come together to improve their conditions and exercise levels, to move forward and to improve themselves all round.
Neil can now talk quite a bit, and he speaks at length about his condition. He has decided that everyone who attends a “Breathe Easy” group becomes an expert on respiratory health and care. Fortunately, his experience was positive in the end, but he had lost 70% of his lung function before he was diagnosed with COPD—that could have been done five or 10 years earlier. Sadly, Neil’s story is a classic example of what is happening right now in GP surgeries and hospitals throughout the country. People have a right to know if they develop such a condition, and they must believe that they will receive the treatment that they want and deserve when they come forward with it.
A big Public Health England awareness campaign is due to take place in the east of England, involving a breathlessness exercise. I did it myself last year in Stevenage—although I would urge Members not to look at the photograph on my website that shows me taking the test because it was a bad hair day and it is an odd photograph—and the nurses were able to tell me that I had asthma, which is very well controlled. Throughout the day, they diagnosed a number of people with COPD, asthma and a range of other respiratory diseases. Had that bus not turned up in Stevenage and those volunteers had not been given those tests, a large number of those people would not know that they had a respiratory disease. Fortunately, the campaign will be rolled out across the whole of the east of England, so I hope that the Minister will visit it and identify whether it is a positive thing that could be rolled out throughout the country.
The NHS health check for those between the ages of 40 and 74 does not include a lung function or respiratory disease test, but 13% of all people over the age of 35 already have COPD. A lung function test should be included because, as my experience on the breathlessness bus in Stevenage showed, such a check would pick up large numbers of people, enabling them to get the care that they need. They will then be able to push on with their lives, instead of having to wait 10 years and only being told, when they are admitted to hospital with the possibility of dying within four years, that they might have COPD.
I am passionate about the need to improve basic care for people with asthma, and I join Asthma UK in highlighting the seriousness of a condition that affects 1.1 million children and 4.3 million adults in the UK. The sort of headlines that we saw last week, which were referred to by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), are unhelpful when we know that too many people are complacent about asthma. Every 10 seconds, someone in the UK has an asthma attack. Every single day, on average, three people die in the UK from an asthma attack. The national review of asthma deaths, which was led by the Royal College of Physicians, suggests that two out of three of those deaths are preventable.
That review by the Royal College of Physicians was the first such review in this country. It was begun in 2012 and lasted a year, and it was published in May 2014. It found that 57% of people who died from asthma were not recorded as receiving specialist care 12 months before their death; 47% of those who died had a history of hospital admissions; and 21% had attended A and E within the previous 12 months. A written asthma action plan is a step-by-step guide to managing asthma and provides individuals with guidance on what to do if they have an asthma attack, but only 23% of the people who died had an asthma action plan, so more than 75% did not have one.
The Royal College of Physicians found that many asthma deaths could have been avoided had staff received better training. In fact, the expert panel found that 46% of such deaths could have been avoided had the existing asthma guidelines been implemented. The review also found evidence for both over and under-prescription of reliever inhalers, the blue bronchodilators. On average, someone should receive 12 inhalers a year; a number of people are receiving far fewer than 12 and, among a variety of other figures, some are receiving up to 50 inhalers a year. Just from the number of prescriptions, we can identify the target audience of people who will be seriously at risk of dying from an asthma attack.
The statistics and the all-party report both make it clear that too many people are not getting the basic levels of care and that there is great variation in the standards of that care across the country. It is essential that clinical standards are followed consistently. I have asthma myself, so I understand that the condition is complex and variable and should be taken seriously. People with asthma should continue to use their inhalers routinely and ensure that they attend their annual asthma review, at which they may discuss their diagnosis, medications and written asthma action plan.
Last year, more than 1 million people who have asthma did not turn up to their asthma review. I did, because my wife, my mum and my asthma nurse all gang up on me and force me to go every single year. They almost insist on me having my flu jab twice a year. In Parliament, I normally host a session for people with respiratory conditions to have their flu jabs each year. Unless I provide a picture of myself receiving the needle at that session, I am required to have another at my GP’s surgery in Stevenage. So I have to smile at the camera while the lady enjoys stabbing me with a needle—I am sure she takes a little longer than she should. I do that every year.
Let me tell the House about my experience of asthma. I was diagnosed with it when I was eight, and I am now 38 years of age. The Minister will be shocked and disappointed to know that my treatment has not changed in 30 years. The experience at the doctor’s that I had when I was eight is exactly the same as my experience now, except that nowadays I see an asthma nurse, whereas then it was a doctor. The asthma nurse takes the time to go through my peak flow monitor with me, and she weighs and measures me—I think I get shorter every year, and a little heavier—but in effect that is what the doctor was doing when I was eight, although then I was getting slightly taller, if slightly heavier too. The reality is that things have not changed at all.
I was one of those children who was diagnosed with bronchitis from the age of about five until I was eight. The doctors thought, “Oh no, it hasn’t gone in three years, so he must have asthma”, so I was given my inhalers. If I turned up to the doctor’s and said, “I have got this or that”, they would say, “Are you using your inhalers?” I would reply, “Yes, I am using my inhalers.” They would say, “Why don’t you take your blue reliever inhaler”—they call it a Ventolin bronchodilator—“a little more?” That would be my treatment. I have not had antibiotics, but if I were younger, they might have given me a two-week course of them and told me to come back if whatever it was had not cleared up. In effect, that is what I got when I was eight and what I get now when I am 38. That is why we have the highest rate of respiratory deaths among the OECD countries—the treatment for asthma for people at GP surgeries up and down the country has not really changed. It is exactly the same.
There has been some progress. I am delighted to report that after a campaign of three and a half years by myself, other Members of Parliament and Asthma UK, for the first time we can now have asthma inhalers in first aid kits in schools. It took us three and a half years, which is ridiculous, because those inhalers are prescribed medication, which could not simply be given out by a teacher.
My hon. Friend might be aware that before I came to this place, I was a receptionist for a GP. One of the biggest problems that parents find is that they do not have two inhalers prescribed at the same time for their child, so that one can be kept at school and one at home. That is one reason why we need to ensure that all schools have an inhaler for use in an emergency.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I suffer from that myself, so I have an overnight bag in Parliament in case we get stuck here until 4 or 5 in the morning, and it has an inhaler in it. I had to get that inhaler off my dad, because I could not get another one off my own GP. I am a Member of Parliament, but I could not get myself an extra inhaler, so I am not sure what chance a child has of persuading an extra inhaler off the doctor, which his mates will probably just play with. I understand such problems, which is why I said earlier to the Minister that the treatment for asthma has not really changed in the 30 years that I have had it. There has been progress and good news—a number of children will not now die of asthma attacks in school over the next five to 10 years, because those inhalers are in first aid kits. Instead of a mate lending one, it will now be a matter of simply getting it out of the first aid kit, which is good news.
We are seeing great examples of innovation and high-quality asthma care throughout the country, with health care professionals working tirelessly to improve outcomes. They are looking for a cure for asthma. There are centres of excellence, such as the Royal Brompton hospital in London, which provides life-saving specialist care for people with severe asthma—I hope I never have to visit the place. The UK has some of the best asthma researchers, changing the way we think about the causes of asthma. In my constituency thousands of GlaxoSmithKline scientists are working on managing the condition of respiratory diseases on a daily basis; they are leaping forward with the ways in which we can manage such conditions. I thank them all for their brilliant work.
I am sure the Minister is aware that we have some recommendations and questions for him. Shockingly, the NHS does not track its own performance on asthma care. Despite asthma being one of the most common long-term conditions in the UK, no robust data are available. We would like to see a national clinical audit for asthma. Will the Minister commit to supporting such an audit and raise the matter with NHS England? An audit has the potential to stop people needlessly dying from asthma attacks, to improve the quality of life for people with asthma and to reduce costs for the NHS significantly. Such audits are already well established for other long-term conditions such as diabetes.
There should also be greater investment in asthma research. Research into the treatment and care of asthma and other lung conditions is chronically underfunded compared with other conditions such as the other four big killers. The amount of money committed to researching asthma simply does not match the burden it places on the NHS. In spite of that, amazing breakthroughs are taking place and there is potential. Asthma UK is working with the European Asthma Research and Innovation Partnership to establish a new fund to research and develop asthma drugs, with the ultimate aim of finding a cure for asthma. Will the Minister meet me and Asthma UK to explore how the Government can support the European innovation fund?
A variety of asthma research demonstrates that many people have allergies. Of those who have asthma, 50% are more than likely to have some kind of allergy that causes an asthma attack—we call them triggers. We do not have the lung function or capability that those without asthma have, so we have to learn quickly what our triggers are and avoid them. One of my triggers is pets, so although I am 38 I have never had a pet, which is quite sad.
We would also like to see written asthma action plans. The Secretary of State for Health has made a positive commitment to ensuring that every asthmatic has a written asthma action plan, so will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have in place to achieve that commitment? Once someone has an action plan it helps to reduce the seriousness of their attacks, because they learn quickly to manage their own condition. It is a serious condition, and people have to work on improving things such as their peak flow. There are bits and pieces that doctors and asthma nurses do with asthma sufferers—we compete with ourselves to try to improve in our asthma action plan.
We believe that there should be world-class asthma reviews containing key components; that is an item that came up in the national review of asthma deaths. It could result in a nationwide improvement in asthma. A variety of organisations are ready to help to develop the idea and work with the Department of Health and NHS England to make it a reality. The national review found that many asthma reviews did not include key components—only 27% of people had their asthma control assessed, only 42% had an assessment of their medication use and only 71% had an assessment of their inhaler technique. People are using their inhalers in a variety of ways, and could be losing between 40% and 60% of the medication’s effectiveness if they are using them incorrectly, yet almost 30% of people are not being assessed on an annual basis on how they use their inhaler. That could reducing the effectiveness of their medication.
We would like the Minister to support the creation of a world-class asthma review and to encourage NHS England to get on and actually do it. We know that NHS England is working on an improvement programme for children’s asthma, and we would like him to commit to continuing to resource that project into 2015-16. We have already seen significant successes in secondary and tertiary care for children.
It would not be a debate on asthma without a call—I have to declare an interest here—for free prescriptions for those with asthma; all asthma sufferers would like that. People suffering from many other long-term conditions receive free prescriptions for their inhalers, but asthmatics do not. If asthmatics do not take their inhalers they end up in an A and E facility receiving oxygen, normally after an ambulance crew has transported them there, giving them oxygen on the way. That costs a huge amount of money.
My final point is that smoking is a contributory factor in more than a third of all respiratory deaths. The health impact of smoking on asthma sufferers is enormous, so I personally call on the Government to get on and do all they can to push forward standardised packaging for cigarettes as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this debate.
Our respiratory health can be affected by many different things. I want to talk about an aspect that we often do not consider: allergic reactions that affect our breathing and can lead to a fatality. I will tell hon. Members a story about the eating of peanuts. I was unaware of the effects of actions that we take for granted on people who suffer from a peanut allergy until I spoke to my constituent Natalie, and I want to share her story with Members today. In Natalie’s own words:
“The last time I went in to anaphylactic shock it took about 3-5 minutes to make itself known—with each reaction this time will get shorter”;
that is what she has been told.
“I had some warning signs first. I always get a spot on my lip and an itchy tongue, so we went to buy some Piriton and on our way back I went in to anaphylactic shock. First I was just coughing—very weak coughs—and I think that lasted for a few minutes though I am hazy on the whole night. Then what I call ‘phase two’ moved very quickly, it felt like there was a lump in my throat, which it probably was as I was told later that I had hives (Urticaria) on my windpipe and this is what causes anaphylaxis. ‘Phase three’ moved even faster. I had to sit on the pavement as I couldn’t walk any further and I was trying to take control of my breathing. We rang the ambulance somewhere around phase three—I didn’t have an epi-pen because we didn’t know I was anaphylactic—the ambulance arrived very quickly but I was really light-headed by the time they arrived, I couldn’t see anymore and everything was white. My chest was so tight and it was so difficult to get any air in…it feels like being crushed by an elephant and only being able to breathe through a tiny straw. The ambulance men helped me up and gave me the nebuliser like what they give to asthmatics and by the time we got to the hospital I was feeling much better.
If I did have an epi-pen it would have given me around 30 minutes before the ambulance arrived but the reaction can start up again after the adrenalin wears off.”
As a result of that incident, Natalie came to me with a suggestion that I hope the Minister will take on board. She told me that on many occasions she has been in a pub where there are peanuts on the bar or has walked past peanut vendors in the street, and although that does not send her into full anaphylaxis, it makes her chest very tight and she has to remove herself. Some people have suggested to her that she should take antihistamines, but with the amount of allergens around that would not be wise, as if she accidently comes in contact with allergens, any antihistamines she has taken would block the warning signs and give her much less time.
Street stalls vending peanuts and pubs providing peanuts for their customers are things we take for granted and assume are harmless. Many people do not realise that simply being near peanuts can have a devastating effect on someone’s health. Will the Minister join me in calling for wider education and publicity about the harmful effects that being near peanuts can have on some people’s respiratory health?
Rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and other Members who have contributed have talked about the most serious incidents and life-threatening situations. I want to say a few words about mild asthma, of the sort that can affect someone playing sport. If we are talking about campaigning about asthma awareness, there are quite a lot of people who are not going to die because of their asthma but whose lives are spoilt by it.
My own experience is that when I was young I was a keen rugby player. I could play rugby, but after a match I was always wheezy. It never occurred to me that that was because of a medical condition, but I was talking to my doctor one day, when I had been playing rugby for years—I was in my teens at the time—and he said, “Actually, we can help you with that.” He gave me an inhaler and told me to take a puff before I played, and my life was transformed. There was no more wheezing and I improved; I was able to play rugby much better, and was able really to enjoy it for the first time. There must be a lot of people in the country who have not really realised that they have asthma, as it is undiagnosed.
My first point is that in making people aware of respiratory conditions we are talking not just about saving lives but about improving the quality of people’s lives. I am told that there are any number of top sportsmen who have the same condition of mild exercise asthma.
My hon. and learned Friend makes an interesting point. This is a problem not just for elite sports players and those who participate in sport regularly, but for those who are not active enough, or not taking part in any physical activity. They tend to look for reasons not to take part in those activities and being a bit wheezy, for some, can be a convenient excuse.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is easy to see this issue as 1 million hospital admissions and the third highest cause of death, without also looking at the huge effect on other sufferers. We know that 5.4 million people are being treated in the UK for asthma, and I rather share the view that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, in saying that a third of people have no symptoms at any particular time, may be making a slightly complacent comment. By the time I was in my late 20s I had no symptoms at all and I no longer needed to use an inhaler to do sport. However, when I had a problem one year with flu, they came back. It is a variable condition, and that can be underestimated.
Kay Boycott, the chief executive of Asthma UK, said:
“Asthma has many complex causes, which is one of the reasons why it is sometimes difficult to get a definitive diagnosis. It is also a highly variable condition that can change throughout someone’s life or even week by week, meaning treatment can change over time.”
One of the great lessons to learn is that we need to monitor regularly for asthma. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage made a particularly important point about attending the asthma clinic for the test.
The Royal College of Physicians recently made a point about variability and how asthma can suddenly deteriorate. As it said, there are different kinds of asthmatics: brittle asthmatics who can move from having no wheeze to severe problems; others for whom it appears just in the early morning; and others for whom it disappears for a period. We need more research and a campaign on awareness.
I apologise for being late for the start of the debate. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that variability is one of the key problems with asthma? From hon. Members’ contributions, it is clear that each of us who suffer from asthma have different experiences of it. One of the biggest challenges, which has been brought home by the medical advice I have been given by doctors over the years, is never to underestimate asthma. One of the problems is that so many long-time sufferers think that they are in control, and that their medication is on top of it. He talks about the condition being variable for people with mild symptoms, but it can be a killer. A key part of the campaign that all of us want to support is about ensuring that people have regular check-ups and do not ever take asthma for granted.
That is exactly the point that I was coming on to make. It would be a mistake to assume that because NICE found that one third of the people it looked at had no symptoms, those people could heave a sigh of relief and forget about asthma for ever. People—as I did—can have periods when they are symptom-free, but they still need regular reviews to ensure that it does not come back or suddenly get worse.
The Royal College of Physicians identified major avoidable factors in two thirds of cases where people died, which were about the constant monitoring and attention to detail that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage mentioned. It did not cite all the evidence, but it seems that there are two unstable types of asthma that are often resistant to treatment and that can be a contributory factor. We need more research, awareness and knowledge that it is a variable condition, and that people should therefore not make assumptions or be complacent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing the debate. I commend the work that he and the all-party group on respiratory health do to raise awareness of these important issues in Parliament.
It cannot be denied that care for respiratory health conditions demands far more attention than it currently receives. Asthma, after all, is one of the most widespread and pernicious conditions around, and takes up a huge amount of resources in our health service. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We need to ensure the proper use of inhalers. My eldest son is asthmatic. He certainly has regular asthma reviews, and my wife and I, like the hon. Gentleman, try to ensure that such reviews are never missed, because they are so important.
The amount of research time that asthma gets is not proportionate to the scale of the problem, and routine asthma care simply is not up to scratch. The hon. Gentleman made that point well; the fact that he has been receiving pretty much the same treatment for the past 15 years speaks volumes. Respiratory disease is the third biggest killer in the UK, but the risk of conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma is perennially underestimated. The rate of deaths from respiratory disease in the UK is around three times that in Estonia and Finland.
Like the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), I get wheezy at sport. That has nothing to do with being asthmatic; it is more to do with my fitness levels. However, he made an important point that awareness of asthma, in the medical community in particular, is crucial. In 2010, I was very ill. My GP diagnosed asthma and prescribed me inhalers, which made me much worse because I was not asthmatic; I had pneumonia. That highlights the real need for the GP community to understand the specific needs of patients and whether asthma is prevalent, because some medication, as I found out to my detriment, can make people much sicker.
We have not touched on smoking to any degree, but we need to reduce its impact on respiratory health. That is a key factor. Patients need to be supported by clearer links being made between smoking and the start of respiratory disease, and there needs to be easier access to effective smoking cessation services and implementation of appropriate tobacco control measures.
There is, of course, a general awareness of the dangers of smoking. Needless to say, many have accepted the associated risks, but many have not. Two thirds of adult smokers took up smoking as children, so alongside measures to help people to quit smoking, we need to support those who have quit so that they do not relapse. We need to reduce exposure to second-hand smoke, and we should focus on protecting children and helping them not to take up smoking in the first place.
Around 10 million adults in Britain—about 20% of the population—smoke. Every year, smoking causes around 100,000 deaths. It is a major driver of health inequalities. Smoking rates are markedly higher among low income groups. I was pleased to see that the APPG report recommended the urgent implementation of standardised packaging for cigarettes, which Labour wholeheartedly agrees with. An independent report by King’s college London found that it was
“highly likely that standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking”.
I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), on her commitment to introducing plain packaging; I hope that the Minister present today will join her in the Lobby and encourage his colleagues in the Cabinet and on the Back Benches to support the measure. Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph only last week suggested that as many as 100 Conservative MPs planned to vote against the measure. Will the Minister support the measure and, if so, will he encourage his colleagues to do the same?
There are other measures that the Government could implement to reduce rates of smoking. Tackling the problem of toxic second-hand smoke, for instance, is crucial. It can pose terrible challenges to children’s health because of their smaller lungs and faster breathing, and the risks are increased in the confines of a car, for example. It is staggering that every year, second-hand smoke results in about 300,000 GP visits and nearly 10,000 hospital admissions among children.
That is why I was proud of the sterling efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) in getting a ban on smoking in cars through Parliament. More than 430,000 children every week are exposed to second-hand smoke in the family car, so when the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a ban, it was a great moment. However, the onus is now on the Government to act according to the wishes of the House, and to make the measure law at the earliest opportunity. I call on the Minister to commit to taking that step.
I was pleased by the proposals in the all-party group’s report for more joined-up asthma care. As part of Labour’s 10-year plan for the national health service, we have proposed a joined-up approach to long-term care, with patients being given more say in their care plans and more control over their data, so that that they can make more informed choices. That would be particularly pertinent to conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, where a bad flare-up can prove life-threatening. Patients with such conditions should have more say in their care pathways. COPD exacerbations are the second most common cause of emergency hospital admissions, so it is clear how important it is to ensure that people can prevent complications where possible.
Clearly, there is some way to go on cutting rates of smoking and giving people support to stop smoking. However, it is also our responsibility to give people the option to influence their own health care. Hospitals provide advanced care, which often cannot be provided anywhere else, but swift developments have meant that lots of care that could previously be provided only in hospital can now be provided in the community. That is a huge leap forward. On the whole, the most deprived are admitted to hospital more often, not because of a higher propensity to fall ill, but because of the inadequacy of community services.
For example, with forms of COPD, most medical professionals firmly believe that good self-care can provide an incalculable benefit to patients. Those who know exactly how to administer their own long-term care tend to live longer and experience less pain, anxiety and depression. They also enjoy a better quality of life because they are more active and independent.
That bears on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in many ways, carers have an important role as well? When someone encourages a person to take their medicine on time, or to go to their annual review, that is important. Carers are often unsung.
I absolutely agree. Carers have an important role in how we integrate health and social care, and we should never underestimate the role they play in providing care for close relatives and friends. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right.
It is only with integrated care that complications can be spotted earlier and hospital admissions potentially avoided. Regular reviews with a patient’s health care team, including information-sharing with other parts of the NHS, can make all the difference. However, there is also a lot to be said for the provision of far more advice and help to those caring for people with COPD.
Labour has said that it will guarantee a single point of contact for people with complex physical and mental health conditions—somebody with the authority to get things done. We will also establish the right to a personalised care plan, developed with the individual and their family, tailored to personal circumstances and not restricted by service boundaries. Patients with conditions such as COPD will also have the right to access peer support and advice from others learning to manage the same condition, which could prove helpful.
I commend the hon. Member for Stevenage on his hard work in advancing the cause of those with respiratory health conditions. Irrespective of the general election outcome, which is largely out of the control of all of us, this issue must be an absolute priority for whomever forms the Government in the next Parliament, and I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment from the Labour party that, if we find ourselves on the Government Benches, it will be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
Let me start by thanking and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for securing the debate and highlighting this incredibly important issue. His leadership of the all-party group is to be commended, as is the report it produced under his chairmanship last year. I also acknowledge his successful advocacy of his town of Stevenage as a life science cluster and hub—I can testify to that as the Minister responsible for life sciences.
The all-party group report identified a number of key areas for action, which colleagues have eloquently highlighted this afternoon. They include implementing the outcomes strategy for COPD and asthma; investing in medical research; improving awareness and diagnosis; better case finding; and ensuring that the NHS work force, from top to bottom, have the right skills to treat people with respiratory disease. If time allows, I will attempt to give detailed answers to my hon. Friend’s specific questions. If I am defeated by the clock, perhaps I could write to him. I very much look forward to meeting him in due course to pursue these issues.
Before I turn to those questions, perhaps I could say a few words about the scale of the challenge we face and what the Government are doing to confront it. The seriousness of the challenge posed by respiratory illnesses must not be underestimated, and it will not be shocking news if I say that it is accepted that they have been treated as something of a poor relation in many ways. They affect one in five people in the UK, they are responsible for about 1 million hospital admissions a year and they are the third biggest cause of death in the UK.
As the report from the all-party group’s inquiry into respiratory deaths said, UK death rates from respiratory disease compare poorly with those in other developed countries. In 2010, the UK had a higher rate of respiratory deaths than any other country in the OECD. The Government acknowledge that that situation is simply not acceptable, and we are working hard to improve it. Let me say something about how we are doing that.
The NHS outcomes framework for 2015-16 sets out the Department’s priority areas for the NHS and includes reducing deaths from respiratory disease as a key indicator. It also highlights the need to reduce unplanned hospital admissions due to asthma. In addition, the Government’s mandate to NHS England sets out the requirement for it to improve outcomes in a range of areas. That includes preventing premature deaths from the biggest killers, including respiratory disease, and supporting people with long-term physical and mental health conditions.
We published our “Living Well for Longer” document in April last year. It sets out the health and care system’s ambition to reduce avoidable deaths from the five major causes of death, which include respiratory disease. We set the ambitious target of making England among the best in Europe, to which end there is a lot to be done.
The Department has supported a number of initiatives to help to improve outcomes for people with respiratory disease. In July 2011, we published an outcomes strategy for people with COPD and asthma in England, setting out six high-level objectives to improve outcomes in those areas through high-quality prevention, detection, treatment and care services. The Department also supported the publication of a good practice guide on services for adults with asthma in 2012.
In addition, NICE, for which I have ministerial responsibility, has published quality standards for COPD and asthma, setting out the markers of high-quality, cost-effective care. Their implementation will raise the standard of care that people with such conditions receive.
In the Department of Health, I have responsibility for research. I am proud to say that the National Institute for Health Research has increased funding on these issues by 50% in the last five years, from £16 million in 2009-10 to £24 million in 2013-14. I accept that there is more to be done, but that is a significant start. The NIHR is investing nearly £22 million over five years in three respiratory biomedical research units. The NIHR clinical research network is setting up, and recruiting patients to, nearly 200 trials and studies in respiratory disease. That is some indication of the work that the NIHR and the Government are doing to prioritise this issue.
The Department has collaborated with the national review of asthma deaths, which examined the circumstances surrounding deaths from asthma from 1 February 2012 to 30 January 2013 and reported on its findings in May last year. The lessons learned about the factors that contribute to asthma deaths will inform the NHS about what constitutes good care and encourage the development of appropriate services for people with asthma. NHS England is supporting clinical commissioning groups to improve out-of-hospital treatment for those with asthma by giving doctors more control over the commissioning of asthma services and improving information links between GPs and hospitals.
I am delighted that last week NICE published draft guidelines on the diagnosis and monitoring of asthma. They are out for consultation, and no doubt the all-party group will have comments to make. Roughly 1.2 million adults in the UK may be wrongly receiving treatment for asthma. The guidelines set out the most effective way to diagnose asthma, and how health care professionals can help adults, children and young people control their symptoms better. The draft guidelines stress that to achieve an accurate diagnosis, clinical tests should be used as well as checking for signs and symptoms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage described how for too long innovation has been lacking in the diagnosis and treatment of the diseases in question. I am delighted about innovations that are coming. The guidelines recommend that health care professionals should ask employed people how their symptoms are affected by work, to check whether they may have occupational asthma. Other guidance is currently in the pipeline, including clinical guidelines on the management of asthma, consultation on which will start in April, and guidance on the diagnosis and management of bronchiolitis in children, which is due to be published in May.
Importantly, NHS Improving Quality, in collaboration with PRIMIS, has developed the GRASP suite of primary care audit tools to help GPs improve the detection and management of COPD, in addition to two other long-term conditions, atrial fibrillation and heart failure. All the GRASP audits, including GRASP-COPD, are funded by NHS IQ, and they run on all clinical systems and are free to use for GP practices in England. Like the other toolkits in the GRASP suite, GRASP-COPD contains a case finder, which helps GPs to identify the number of patients who are at risk of COPD or who have items on their electronic record that suggest possible COPD. It also contains a management tool that compares current management of diagnosed COPD patients with NICE guidelines.
The shadow Minister mentioned smoking, which is an important issue. It is welcome news that the number of smokers is down to its lowest ever level, which means fewer deaths and fewer people living with the disabling consequences of smoking, such as COPD. However, about 8 million people in England still smoke, and it is right that we maintain a commitment to effective tobacco control. Ministers are clear about wanting both to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and to help those who smoke to quit. That requires action on a range of fronts, nationally and locally, as with so much in the public health arena.
There is no simple, single solution. However, we are taking action. We introduced a package of measures in the Children and Families Act 2014 aimed at protecting young people from tobacco and nicotine addiction and the serious health harms of smoking tobacco. We have also laid regulations to end smoking in private vehicles carrying children, a measure that I am particularly proud of. Subject to parliamentary approval, those regulations will come into force in October. We are changing the law to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s and have consulted on draft regulations. We will implement the prohibition of proxy purchasing of tobacco by adults on behalf of under-18s, and we will bring forward legislation for the standardised packaging of tobacco products before the end of this Parliament. For the avoidance of doubt, I support that measure, and I shall urge colleagues who care about health to do the same. In 2014-15 Public Health England ran two major campaigns: Stoptober 2014, a nationwide 28-day quit event in October, and the current health harms campaign to prompt attempts at quitting. Public Health England is also running its breathlessness campaign, to raise awareness of the importance of breathlessness and respiratory disease more generally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage raised several questions, which I want to address. I particularly want to pay tribute to Neil from Norwich, whose story he shared with us, including the extent of his suffering with COPD and asthma. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) mentioned the importance of wider allergy risk, and I am delighted to say that I recently visited a centre of excellence at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, which is pioneering a new method for detecting and treating allergies. It is an area of immunotherapy in which this country leads. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) made important observations about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage asked about the importance of a national clinical audit. I could not agree more about the importance of properly measuring and tracking performance. He knows that I am passionate about doing that across the system. NHS England is considering it in this area, among several potential new areas. I will highlight its importance in Parliament, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is responsible for public health, and I urge the all-party group to do the same, through our offices and independently.
I have provided some answers to the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage asked about research funding. We have increased the funding by 50% in this Parliament. However, I urge him to raise the matter directly with the National Institute for Health Research, and to continue campaigning in Parliament.
We support the work of the European Asthma Research and Innovation Partnership, and although it is clearly a matter for the competence of the EU, I assure my hon. Friend that the Public Health Minister and I, and the Department, will do anything we can to support the application. As for the creation of a world-class asthma review, NHS England is currently working to ensure that everyone with a long-term condition has a personalised care plan and that treatment for asthma and COPD improves. The Public Health Minister and I will make clear the levels of parliamentary support for that, following this debate.
Finally, my hon. Friend asked whether we could include lung function in the NHS health check for those over 40. Requests for such additional content will be considered by the NHS health check’s expert scientific and clinical advisory panel. I will happily make representations after the debate. I am sure hon. Members know that the Public Health Minister tenaciously advocates pursuing public health measures such as those on respiratory disease, including in the Tea Room, and she will take the matter seriously.
I will conclude, Ms Dorries, within the time that you mentioned, by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage. On this issue, as well as on other life sciences issues, he has brought together the views of Members of different parties. Ministers will take the points that have been made, and we will do all that we can in the short time available in this Parliament to ensure that they are properly addressed by the relevant agencies.
Housing Targets (Pudsey)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am grateful to have secured this debate, which is very important for my constituents. All hon. Members think their constituency is unique and special, as I certainly do. The Pudsey constituency is made up of many individual towns and villages that have a history dating back centuries. All have their own unique identity and are blessed with being close to one of the busiest and most successful cities in the north—Leeds—and being a stone’s throw from the beautiful Yorkshire dales countryside. What makes living in Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough enjoyable is the countryside that acts as the natural green lungs between the communities, helping to preserve their real sense of identity.
Every part of the constituency, however, has seen significant change over the past 15 years. Where once stood mills and factories, we now have thousands of new houses. As a consequence, the issue of planning has always been high in the minds of local people. All those extra houses have brought real problems: roads such as the A65 and the ring road have become notoriously congested; schools have such high demand that it is difficult for some parents to get their children into their local school; and doctors’ surgeries have got busier and busier.
My hon. Friend has been a persistent campaigner on this subject for his constituents, for which I commend him. With regard to the A65 and the schools in his constituency, does he agree that the proposed developments in Menston right on the edge of his constituency, which will be a disaster for that village, will also have a massive negative effect on the A65 that his constituents use and on local schools? Children living in those developments would go to Guiseley school.
My hon. Friend is right. I am trying to get across that these issues affect not only my constituency; planning applications in his constituency will also have a severe impact.
Just as we thought that things could not get any worse, we are now facing a new onslaught. Like many councils across the country, Leeds city council is currently developing its local plan. The core strategy sets out the council’s housing target. To my amazement and that of my constituents, the council has set the target at a staggering 70,000 houses during the next 16 years. In doing so, the Labour-run council has all but adopted the housing figures from the now-defunct regional spatial strategy, which is an unacceptable prospect for me and my constituents. As a base for that target, the council has used Office for National Statistics population growth projections from 2008. Those data are clearly out of date and inaccurate. More recent data, such as the census, show that growth has been some 43% less than predicted, which presents the first anomaly in the target.
Additionally, the council has based housing numbers on a large explosion of jobs in Leeds, which is good news. However, the council predicts that all the people who fill those jobs will need housing in Leeds, which, in an age of commuting, is clearly nonsense. Currently, only 66% of people who work in Leeds actually live there. Why else would Leeds railway station be one of the nation’s busiest? And why else would trains arriving at stations just within the city’s border, such as Guiseley, Horsforth and New Pudsey, be so crammed if so many people working in Leeds were not from neighbouring areas?
I attended the core strategy examination with Conservative councillors and community groups to argue that the target was too high and was based on outdated and flawed data. Sadly, our case fell on deaf ears and the target was approved. Since then, I have been warning that such a high target will pose a real threat to our green belt, which we will see, now that the council is seeking to identify the sites it needs for housing, but even I could not have foreseen how bad the threat would be.
On 4 January, the council announced a range of sites across the city that it is to consider for development, and there are sites in every part of my constituency. Shockingly, the majority of sites are in the green belt: fields on Ings lane that separate Guiseley and Menston; fields along Coach road that buffer the border with Bradford; and land in Rawdon along the Southlands estate that abuts important woodland. There are also the fields along the A65 from Rawdon crematorium down to the notorious roundabout at Horsforth, and land off Owlcotes road, Gain lane, and Rodley lane.
I recognise the need for house building, and across the city of Leeds there are masses of brownfield sites that need regenerating, particularly in the centre. An ambitious plan was proposed by Leeds sustainable development group for the south side of the city to transform old, derelict sites into good housing, schools and a park—in effect, creating a garden city. That is exactly the sort of development we should surely be encouraging, particularly given the excellent transport links, but again that proposal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in Leeds, against the backdrop of facts and figures, the Labour-run council has shown scant regard in destroying our constituencies? My constituency of 41,000 houses is now expected to take 12,500 extra houses, and he rightly points out that there are huge swathes of brownfield land that should be used ahead of the green fields and green belt. Is he struck that this is just political menacing at the expense of people’s lives?
I certainly agree. When it was set up, the whole point of the green belt was not just to preserve our natural environment; it was also to encourage regeneration. I am worried that sites in the city centre are being neglected. Worse, at the examination hearing we challenged the developers to be more ambitious and to adopt such an approach with city centre plans, but their response was simply, “It is not viable.” Is that an acceptable excuse? Are we instead to destroy our green belt and to let such brownfield sites fester, just because the developers say so?
The usual accusation of nimbyism will be bandied about, but that is most unfair. As I said at the start, we have seen every bit of every brownfield site in my constituency used: the High Royds hospital site; the Silver Cross site; the Springhead mills site; the gasworks in Yeadon; the Brook Crompton site; the electricity site; the Cornmill estate in Horsforth; the Broom Mills site in Farsley; the Newlands estate at Farsley Celtic; and the Waterloo road and Cemetery road developments in Pudsey. Those are just a few of the developments, and more are being built or planned. Some 550 houses have been proposed for the Riverside and Clariant sites in Horsforth. Our community has had to cope with the effects of the building of thousands of homes, so this is not nimbyism; it is about wanting sustainable development. Because of the use of all those brownfield sites, in many areas all we have left is the green belt, and building on that is simply not on.
Of course house builders want these sites—they are easier to build on and they are often in areas where the house builders will make the most profit—but the green belt in this area is special. We are not talking about scrappy bits of land; the green belt forms part of what is special and unique in our area—the rural fringe of a city that sits on the borderlands between the south Pennines and the dales, as we saw so effectively during the Tour de France. Green belt sites are important green lungs between our communities that help to keep the identity of those communities. They are used by walkers, horse riders, mountain bikers and farmers, and of course they are important for wildlife and heritage: bats, barn owls, deer, woodpeckers and historical medieval crofts and tofts
I have real fears, and members of the community are rightly angry. They have accepted brownfield development, and they now fear losing the green belt. In Aireborough alone there will be a further 1,600 houses, 79% of which will be on the green belt. A common complaint that I hear from residents is that they feel that planning is something that happens to them, but they have decided to take advantage of the new opportunities that have arisen. Organisations such as Aireborough neighbourhood forum, Rawdon parish council and Horsforth town council are working incredibly hard to develop considered plans that make the most of what we have, encouraging enterprise and building on the history of entrepreneurship that is the legacy of our area’s past. However, Leeds city council is throwing that away as it steams ahead with its ridiculous housing target, which is among the highest in the country and poses a threat to the unique nature of our area.
A complaint from many local bodies is that they are not being listened to. They feel that whatever they say is ignored, which causes more frustration, as the targets are also dictating the development of proposed conservation areas. In Nether Yeadon, the area proposed has been reduced from what independent specialists such as English Heritage suggested, because the site allocation is dictating the designated area. Surely it should be the other way around.
I pay tribute to all the residents who have engaged in the process: John Davies and Jackie Schmelt in Rawdon; Nigel Gill and the residents in Yeadon; Jennifer Kirkby, who has been working with the Aireborough neighbourhood forum; Clive Woods and David Ingham of the Civic Society; the Horsforth campaigners; the Farsley residents action group, which is fighting to protect Kirklees Knoll; Briony Spandler and Martin Fincham, who are working hard in Rawdon.
I have some questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. I have heard time and again that building on green- belt land should be allowed only in exceptional circumstances. My constituents want to know what constitutes exceptional circumstances. Is meeting a housing target an exceptional circumstance? If not, where is that clearly stated, so that we can present our arguments? How can neighbourhood plans be developed when the council plan is at odds with local views? How does that fit in with localism? How can he reassure my constituents, who have put in hours of work, that they are not wasting their time?
The green belt methodology has five criteria: checking unrestricted sprawl, preventing the merging of towns, safeguarding the countryside and preventing encroachment, preserving character and assisting in regeneration by recycling derelict land.
The picture that my hon. Friend paints of his area is repeated across west Yorkshire. As he knows, we too have a Labour-run council in Kirklees that is going against local wishes and not listening to local people. Localism is not working in our areas.
I agree with my hon. Friend on the brownfield-first policy. I know how much time he spends knocking on doors in his constituency and meeting local people. I find that there are many empty properties that could be redeveloped and brought back into use as family homes in the middle of communities. We need to work on that side of things and use existing properties for local people.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The last time I looked at the figures on the number of empty homes in Leeds city alone, it added up to around 14,000. If we add the 20,000 or so planning permissions that have been granted, that is more than 30,000 opportunities to create properties for people, so let us get that system right before we start demolishing our green belt.
I have outlined the five criteria in the green belt methodology, but in the Leeds city council site allocation, item 5—the crucial bit about assisting in regeneration by recycling land—seems to have been removed. The reason cited is that it is in the core strategy. Is that right and proper? It seems very convenient.
We have also heard lots from the Government about the need for infrastructure. Improvements are being made to notorious roundabouts in the constituency, and new railway stations are being built, but those are solutions to problems we are facing now as a result of building over the past 15 years. Any further development will make those problems return. What does the Minister consider to be adequate infrastructure, and should that not be in place before we start building new houses?
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow, but does he agree that we are in a ludicrous situation? His local authority and mine are next door to each other, wanting to build more and more houses in our constituency. At the same time, the west Yorkshire combined authority is putting all the infrastructure spending into the Labour heartlands, starving our areas of the infrastructure that they need to support the housing that it wants to impose on us.
I could not agree more. Anybody who travels along roads in my constituency or my hon. Friend’s will know how horribly congested they are. The A65 is probably one of the most notorious in the country. That is a result of all the housing built before. If the plan goes ahead and all that green belt is lost, the situation will get much worse.
Should not the guidance on how to determine housing need in an area be more detailed in order to stop rogue targets? Should it not be clear so that we do not have different sorts of target all over the country? They should be based not on aspirational demand but on realistic need.
I could talk for a lot longer; I emphasise that I have merely scratched the surface. I have not touched on the fact that we face a double whammy from the Bradford city council targets that will be announced. However, I want to relay to Members the anger and frustration over the fear that such areas are in danger of losing their identity. We need sustainable and realistic housing targets and regeneration decided by planning, not developers. If we had those things, we would be able to preserve the green and beautiful countryside of which Leeds used to be so proud in calling itself the green city. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to help me and my constituents to stop the destruction and prevent, as Briony Spandler put it so well, our green belt from being turned into grey belt.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate and outlining some key issues for his constituency. I know that he has fought hard on them; he has lobbied me heavily and invited me to his constituency. I was pleased to meet some of the residents whom he mentioned.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about the high housing requirement in the Leeds core strategy. I know that the issue is of considerable importance to him and the local communities that he represents, and it is a subject that we have met to discuss. I am acutely conscious of the impact that planning decisions have on local communities and our wider overall environment, as well as on the investment and growth that our economy needs. That is especially true of housing. It is important not only that we deliver the houses that this country so desperately needs but that they are designed to a high quality and, as hon. Friends have outlined, put in the right places.
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, given Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on specific proposals or plans. None the less, he has raised some important issues relating to the Government’s approach and reforms, and to what is going on locally in Leeds. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public consultation, sets the framework in which decisions are taken, whether locally by the planning authority or at appeal.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the level of development planned for in Leeds city council’s local plan. Plan making is always challenging, as it involves difficult decisions about how an area is likely to, should and can develop in the future. Local authorities rightly have the power to make such decisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said—if I remember his words correctly—that his local Labour council is just not listening. Fortunately for our democratic system, residents can do something about that when the time comes. Local plans do far more than set housing numbers; they establish areas that it is necessary to protect and set out how development will be supported by appropriate infrastructure.
One problem faced by my constituency is that the Labour-run council has decided to play games. Rather than putting the 5,000 houses required in just one area, where they can be built with proper infrastructure, it is giving us death by a thousand cuts by building only 200 or 300 houses in each village. Each village will eventually join up, but absolutely no infrastructure will have been added. I urge the Minister to look closely at that. If councils are allowed to get away with that, our communities and infrastructure will be absolutely destroyed.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, and that is one of the reasons why I am keen to move forward and get areas to do more work and develop more neighbourhood plans. Those plans have been admirably championed by my hon. Friends, because they enable local communities to make decisions about infrastructure. Infrastructure is potentially an environmental constraint, and local authorities should look at it to ensure that their housing delivery is appropriate when considering the local plan and planning applications. I will return to that point in a moment.
The national planning policy framework is clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, not development at any cost or anywhere. The framework was introduced after the abolition of the unpopular, top-down regional strategies. It sets out a clear approach to enable local planning authorities to determine the overall housing requirement for their area. Although I appreciate that the housing need in Leeds is still high, Leeds city council’s plans aim to deliver 3,660 homes by 2017, in comparison to the regional strategy’s target of 4,300.
I fully appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey about the housing data on which the Leeds core strategy is based. As he rightly said, the first step is for local planning authorities to prepare a strategic housing market assessment to assess their full housing needs, and to work with neighbouring authorities where housing market areas cross administrative boundaries. That assessment should be based on facts and unbiased evidence, and it should be unfettered by policy. It should also identify the scale and mix of housing and the range of tenures that the local population is likely to need over the plan period.
I fully acknowledge the concern that Leeds city council based its assessment on the 2008 household projection figures, rather than the lower 2012 projections, which were based on the 2011 census findings. Furthermore, on examination, the inspector recognised that concern and others expressed about the council’s approach, so they inserted a requirement for the local authority to monitor evidence regarding housing need. They agreed to a lower housing requirement for the first years of the plan—the number will be stepped up in later years—to enable people to keep an eye on the plan. My Department will publish updated household projection figures shortly, which may influence future housing need.
That is true, but the figure is going up to 4,500 new houses a year in years 3, 4 and 5. There is real concern that at that point, developers may have put in planning applications that will release those sites, and it will be too late. Does the Minister agree that we need an early review of the housing targets in Leeds?
It is difficult for me to comment on a particular local plan. More generally, if there is clear evidence that things are changing in an area, it would be appropriate and sensible for the local authority to conduct an early review. That is as far as I can go.
As my hon. Friend said, identifying housing need is only the first step of the process. Once the need has been assessed, the local planning authority must prepare a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about the availability, suitability and likely economic viability of the land to meet the identified housing need over the plan period. It is expected to take into account the policies of the framework, including the environmental constraints.
National policy is clear that planning must take into account the different roles and characters of areas, and recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside. Policy also states that to promote sustainable development in rural areas, houses should be located where they will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities. As my hon. Friend and others have said, and as I know from my visit to his constituency, much of the countryside is rightly loved and cherished by local communities.
The green belt is a legitimate constraint on development. It is listed as an environmental constraint within the national planning policy framework. That answers my hon. Friend’s question about whether a housing target is a special circumstance for developing on the green belt. The Government attach the highest importance to protecting our green belt. The new guidance that we published in October re-emphasises that importance. We are clear that green belt boundaries should be established in local plans and should be altered only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan process of proper consultation and independent examination. If Leeds city council undertakes a green belt review, it will need to present robust evidence to the planning inspector and not come unstuck at examination for not doing the proper background work, as did Ashfield district council and Solihull metropolitan borough council.
Our protection of the green belt also extends to planning decisions. Most types of new buildings are inappropriate for green belt land and are, by definition, harmful to it. Such developments should not be approved except in special circumstances. Each planning case has unique facts and a unique context, and it must be determined on its own merits, so we cannot create a list of special circumstances. However, our planning guidance makes it clear that unmet housing need, including need for Traveller sites, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friends that timely and robust infrastructure provision is vital to delivering sustainable development. Local authorities must focus on that issue. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of development and the need for infrastructure to support development are material considerations in deciding whether individual applications for development are appropriate.
My hon. Friend the Minister has expressed the problems that my constituency faces in a nutshell. Effectively, by looking at green fields rather than the green belt, Leeds city council is going to double the size of every village in my constituency and join them up. We need a special circumstance to allow us to redistribute the green belt around those villages to maintain their unique identity. That is where Leeds city council is failing.
My hon. Friend puts it succinctly, and I am sure that his residents will be hanging on those words. Leeds city council has a duty to do what is right for its area, and it should be listening to its residents to ensure that it protects the special environment where they live and which they enjoy.
When I am out visiting communities and speaking to constituents, I hear widespread support for the need to provide more housing. That sentiment has been expressed in this debate. However, that support is often swiftly followed by concerns about where the houses will be built, and understandably so. We love our countryside. The Government have therefore handed local councils the responsibility for planning to meet the local needs, but meeting our housing goals cannot justify approving the wrong development in the wrong location.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and my other hon. Friends have expressed their frustration about the fact that Leeds city council is reviewing green belt boundaries to meet local housing needs. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his constituents will continue to make strong representations to the council and will express their views about where new housing should be, as the site allocations document is prepared. I know that my hon. Friends will do that loudly, clearly and correctly.
The Government expect councils to utilise brownfield sites, and we aim for 90% of those sites to be developed by 2020. We are putting in hundreds of millions of pounds to fund their development. We are making it clear to councils that we expect them to develop brownfield sites first and protect our country’s green belt.
Time Stamps (Foreign Exchange)
I am most grateful for the extra three minutes, Ms Dorries.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of the time-stamping of all customer transactions in the foreign exchange markets. Time-stamping would prevent points from being skimmed off for the profit of the bank or the dealers, which is robbing customers of millions of pounds every year. In other words, it is facilitating theft. We must time-stamp foreign exchange transactions so that the rate at which the contract was made can be authenticated.
I first came across this issue a quarter of a century ago—it seems a long time ago—when a young trader came to me and said that dealers at the bank he worked for were skimming off points on trades on his account for their own profit. That, he thought, was a disastrous, dangerous practice, and amounted to theft from his clients’ accounts. He raised the issue as a whistleblower, and was fired in consequence. He first took the issue to the Securities and Futures Authority—a precursor to the FCA in the alphabet soup of authorities that regulate the financial industry in this country. In a letter to him on 4 September 1991, it said:
“Our own enquiries have confirmed the correctness of the view expressed by Mr Souliotis”—
that is the dealer—
“that although the opportunities for such malpractice appear to be many, the way in which the market operates and the audit trails…make the detection of such abuses altogether more difficult. Our enquiries continue however…To this end, we remain in discussion with the Bank of England.”
The buck passed to the Bank of England, and there it stopped and has remained stopped for 25 years. All attempts to end point skimming by imposing date stamps have been stopped by the Bank of England. Why? What it is doing I do not know, but it has effectively been facilitating theft and creating an atmosphere in which theft is easy and possible, and appears to be sanctioned.
I took the dealer, Mr Souliotis, to see Eddie George, who was then the deputy governor of the Bank of England. Mr George said several things. First, he said that the Bank had conducted a full inquiry. Secondly, he said that point skimming was not happening and the Bank could not find evidence of it. Thirdly, he said that banks as a whole would be too anxious to preserve their reputations to allow such a practice to go on—they are their own best guardians, in other words. Eddie George was wrong on all three counts.
When I took up the issue again under the previous Government, I looked into the inquiry done by Eddie George. The then Governor, Mervyn King, wrote to me on 26 August 2012 to say that the Bank’s investigation into the allegations had not taken place. He said that all the Bank did was ask the American Express bank—for it was they—to investigate itself, which it had. Not surprisingly, the American Express bank came up smelling of roses. Its reply to its self-investigation was, “No such thing has happened. What a terrible thought!” Mervyn King told me that the Bank had not conducted any interviews with any traders from the American Express bank.
After my meeting with Eddie George, I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate in the House. The then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Anthony Nelson, while denying the accusations, told me after the debate that the Treasury knew the practice went on, but could not produce any evidence on the scale of it or who was doing it. I want to help them produce that evidence of point skimming off clients’ accounts by making date stamps a requirement.
That was where the matter rested, 25 years ago; the bank denied the thefts, the Treasury could not find evidence and the practice was apparently condoned. It has certainly continued since that time; it has come to the surface in the United States. The practices in America are much the same as ours. The two markets are similar and the traders are behaving in the same kind of fashion. The same practices go on in both foreign exchange markets.
The first piece of evidence from the United States is that in 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted an undercover operation—a sting, in other words—called “Wooden Nickel”. The US attorney for Manhattan, James Comey, who is now the head of the FBI, uncovered in that investigation rigged currency trades in some of the best of the Wall street banks—the biggest banks. The operation led to 47 indictments, most of which led to convictions. Mr Comey said that
“a troubling thing was that similar rigged trading had been defrauding banks for as long as 20 years.”
I could have told him that.
The second piece of evidence from the States came in 2011, when the state employees’ pension fund in Virginia began a billion-dollar lawsuit against the Bank of New York Mellon, alleging overcharging on foreign exchange transactions for the pension funds. That overcharging included a charge of $135,000 on a $12.5 million trade. The proper rate would have been $6,250. They were given a fake rate and there was no possibility of chasing that up, because there were no time stamps on the transaction. The lawsuit went on.
With that evidence, I thought it necessary to raise the matter again in this country. I went back to what is now the FCA and spoke to Clive Adamson, the director of supervision. As a man from a banking background, he should well know what was going on; he was accustomed to doing banks’ public relations. The FCA told me:
“We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that mispricing of non-negotiated FX transactions is taking place in the UK.”
That was after the American evidence and despite the fact that foreign exchange trading works exactly the same way in the UK and the US. It is a huge market in the United States, with $5 trillion of exchange transactions daily, but the FCA denied the possibility that the same practices could occur here. On 18 March 2014, I took the issue again to the FCA, and Adamson’s view that it was not going on here was unchanged.
On 18 June 2014, with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie), I met Paul Fisher, the Bank of England’s executive director of markets and co-chair of the sub-group of the G20’s Financial Stability Board, which is looking at structural reform of the foreign exchange markets. We were told that time stamps are not a priority for the Bank of England or market participants. Presumably, the market participants that were consulted and said that time stamps are not a priority were the banks that have been so busy rigging foreign exchange rates that they have been fined more than £2 billion for rigging processes. The banks are obviously trustworthy witnesses on this account when they say, “No, this is not going on. Time-stamping is not necessary.” Those who were not consulted were the pensioners whose funds have been ripped off by this practice of skimming off points on trades that cannot be audited, because no one knows what time they took place. The Bank of England did not speak to pensioners or anyone else who had been ripped off. It seems to have no concern to protect pensioners either. The statement that this practice was not happening in the UK and was not a priority for the Bank of England is total rubbish and untrue.
Time stamps on trades allow auditors to compare the prevailing prices to the price in the trade when it was made. Time stamps allow the customer to know that he is getting the proper rate, because he can check the prevailing rate at the time. A time stamp allows someone to know whether a fair price has been applied to a specific trade and whether it has been done properly for the customer. It is an important and easy reform. It is easy to introduce; there is no difficulty about it. When banks trade foreign currencies among themselves—they are called interbank transactions—they use time stamps. They do not trust themselves, so they use time stamps, but they do not use time stamps when they are trading for customers, so they can rip the customers off. That is what this debate is about.
When shares are bought and sold, the transaction is time-stamped. In the United States, as a result of an amendment to the Government Securities Act in 1993, a time stamp must be used when Government securities are bought and sold. I do not know what the case is with gilts here, but trades in gilts should certainly be time-stamped. When someone buys a Starbucks coffee, it is time-stamped, yet they cannot time-stamp foreign exchange transactions for the benefit and protection of the customer.
Why is the financial industry exempt from time stamps on its foreign currency transactions for clients and why is the Bank of England supporting it? The practice is bad and disastrous. Why are customers left exposed to what amounts to the virtually invisible mispricing of trades that allows points to be skimmed off and makes thefts so easy? Why, when it is so easy to impose time stamps and therefore to know what is happening? It mystifies me. I cannot see the motive behind it and I cannot see the reason for resisting time-stamping for the two decades for which people have been making the argument for it.
Interestingly, Liam Vaughan, a Bloomberg journalist, has shown how things operate without time stamps. He was told by two former employees of Goldman Sachs who were on its foreign exchange alpha team in New York that when a salesman receives an order from a customer, often by e-mail, he executes it and waits to see whether the market changes. If the market goes up, he charges at the higher rate and keeps the difference between the price that was actually paid and the rate charged to the customer; in other words, he skims off. The former employees said that that can make as much as 30 pips on a €10 million trade into dollars—that is, 0.3% of $13.6 million goes to the traders in points skimmed off, unless there are time stamps to show at what time the trade was done.
One can imagine the consequences of very few points—just a few pips—being skimmed off on lots of trade in a market worth $5 trillion a day in the United States. It is no wonder that the dealers do not want to time-stamp the transactions, but it is annoying that the Bank of England—the guardian of probity and regulator of markets—is stalling on the issue and talking of “ongoing reviews” that have been ongoing for 20 years and achieved nothing. Why is the Bank of England doing nothing? It is negligent and shameful that it should behave in this fashion.
I am not interested in prosecuting the lovely banks; I love the banks. I am not proposing that they should be prosecuted for past crimes, because official inaction has given them the green light to commit this kind of theft. However, I want time stamps so that we will have an audit trail and point skimming will be so risky that they will stop doing it. We are now considering, nationally and internationally, reforms of the foreign exchange markets, and the G20 Financial Stability Board is considering the issue. It is essential that, as part of that consideration, we put time stamps at the head of the agenda and stir the Bank of England out of its lethargy. I hope that the Minister will not ask us to wait and see, because my plea is that we should get on with it immediately.
On 8 September 1991, Clifford Smout, who was head of banking supervision policy for the Bank of England, wrote of foreign exchange skimming:
“The existence of such abuses is difficult to prove in a fast moving area such as the foreign exchange market”.
But I am providing a way in which they can prevent it and get convictions; why are they taking so long to do it? My plea is for us to get on with it: let us have time-stamping on all foreign exchange transactions for clients of the banks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing this debate on the incredibly important subject of foreign exchange manipulation. He will have been as disgusted as I was to learn about the benchmark rigging that has gone on in financial markets and the various tales of banking misconduct that have shocked and disgusted everyone. I assure him that I do not think that the Treasury or the Bank of England are naive in their determination to weed out bad practice.
By way of background, the foreign exchange market underpins the global financial system. It enables international trade in goods and services, cross-border investment and monetary policy, so it is critical to ensure that it is well functioning and fair for the benefit of countries, businesses and consumers. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the UK is the largest single market for foreign exchange trading. In 2013, more than 40% of global foreign exchange trading took place in the UK, supporting an enormous number of jobs and enormous investment in this country.
The foreign exchange market is one of the most deep and liquid markets. It has contributed to efficient wholesale markets in which the turnover can be as high as $2 trillion a day in the UK alone. However, it is vital that all end users can benefit from the market, so we welcome the growth of specialist foreign exchange providers that compete with existing banks for the foreign exchange business of smaller businesses and retail consumers.
On tackling market misconduct, we expect firms operating in foreign exchange markets to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. Where they do not do so, we will take action to prevent and punish bad behaviour, as shown by the recent enforcement actions taken by the Financial Conduct Authority against five banks. The attempts by some banks to manipulate certain foreign exchange benchmarks were totally unacceptable and disgraceful. The Government and the regulators have taken tough action to punish such behaviour and prevent such scandals from happening in the future. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Serious Fraud Office has opened criminal investigations into certain types of market misconduct, and those investigations are ongoing.
First, the Government established the FCA with a specific remit of focusing on the conduct of our financial sector. Secondly, we have laid before Parliament a statutory instrument to extend regulation to the key foreign exchange benchmark: the WM/Reuters London 4 pm closing spot rate. The manipulation of that and six further financial benchmarks will be a criminal offence from 1 April 2015. Thirdly, we have established the fair and effective markets review to conduct a comprehensive and forward-looking assessment of how wholesale financial markets operate, to help to restore trust in those markets in the wake of a number of recent high-profile abuses, and to influence the international debate on trading practices. The review will examine in particular how the wholesale fixed-income, currency and commodity financial markets operate. It will provide recommendations on how the fairness and effectiveness of such markets can be improved.
The Government recognise that market structure and transparency play an important role in making markets more effective. Although the foreign exchange market is predominately an over-the-counter market in which transactions occur bilaterally between market participants, over the past 10 years it has been at the forefront of the electronic trading revolution. The electronic trading side now accounts for more than 60% of foreign exchange trading in spot markets, which has brought significant improvements in efficiency and transparency to market participants.
The use of electronic trading is most prevalent in the wholesale market, however, so it is right for us to consider whether the process of technological development has gone far enough to improve the fairness and effectiveness of markets, or whether we need to take further steps. The principle that how a transaction will be priced should be understood by market participants at the time when they enter into the transaction should always apply.
To deal specifically with time-stamping, the hon. Gentleman argued that if firms were required to provide time stamps for foreign exchange transactions that do not occur at the time of any agreement to enter into such a transaction, it could bring additional transparency to the market. He is of course right that time-stamping would prove the point at which the trade was done. High-quality record keeping is integral to how all financial services firms, including foreign exchange dealers, should organise themselves and operate, so I agree that it is important for firms to keep appropriate records of transactions with clients.
Time-stamping, however, presents some practical challenges. First, the key one is that market participants can use the time stamp only if they have access to a data feed of foreign exchange market prices, but such reference data are not publicly available other than at significant cost. Furthermore, as transactions are undertaken bilaterally, there is no central market for all foreign exchange transactions, so any consolidated tape of transactions would capture only a part of the market. The price of such transactions would also not necessarily be directly comparable. In foreign exchange, the price of each transaction may take into account a range of factors specific to that transaction, such as assessments of creditworthiness.
Secondly, when the foreign exchange dealer acted as agent, market participants would need to understand how the transaction had been priced to understand whether they were charged accurately. The interbank rate cannot be expected to be available to all market participants, for example.
Thirdly, when the foreign exchange dealer acts as principal, it could be argued that what is more important than a time stamp is access to a range of competitive quotes, which indicates that the issue of time-stamping transactions needs to be considered in the wider context of market structure and competition.
Clearly, the main purpose of a time stamp would be to create an audit trail for a market participant to detect mispricing of foreign exchange transactions. We should be clear, however, that if clients were misled about the pricing of foreign exchange transactions, such an act would be fraudulent.
I will talk a bit more about the fair and effective markets review, which I hope will give the hon. Gentleman some comfort.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but the difficulties that she has posed are not insuperable—they can be overcome. A time stamp is easier with electronic trading than with other forms of trading, but it should be used in all kinds of trades, because if there is a time stamp the client has the ability to look at the price range that day. The client might not know the total trading, but he can look at the price range and see what time the transaction was made, so he will know whether he was getting a fair deal and a proper price. That is the important thing—to put the knowledge in the hands of the consumer. The difficulties can easily be got around with a will to do so. The question is, why has the Bank of England been allowed to drag its feet on the issue for so long? Why not put that in straight away?
All I can do is repeat what I said, which is that the interbank price is one price, but that will not be the price for a retail investor, such as someone going on holiday or a small business. If we time-stamp a transaction, we will have to have the specific price of that transaction at a given time, and that information is simply not available. For the time stamp to be useful, we would have to know what the market was at that precise time. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out himself, a few basis points make a world of difference to the profits for the trader, so if one were minded to rig the price for a consumer or a business, even a sizeable one, and to commit fraud, even a time stamp need not prevent the fraudulent activity, simply because it would be difficult to pin down what the actual price should have been.
The Government established the fair and effective markets review so that careful analysis of the fixed-income, currency and commodity markets could be undertaken. Part of the review will be to consider whether there should be further regulatory tools available in foreign exchange markets, including whether there is a need for further criminal sanctions. The review will also consider the market structure and whether it can be improved through regulatory intervention or market-led action. Obviously the Government cannot prejudge the outcome of the review, but those conducting it will be well aware of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and will be taking his views into account. The Government will consider the recommendations of the review once it reports in June and will provide a response.
In conclusion, the time-stamping of transactions needs to be considered in the context of improving the overall fairness and effectiveness of the foreign exchange market. Foreign exchange markets are by their nature the most global of all the financial markets, so a consistent international approach to their regulation is essential. Where action is warranted, the UK should definitely lead the way in calling for and delivering it. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman of our commitment to ensure a fair and effective foreign exchange market—one that protects the customer while keeping the UK’s leading position internationally.
Question put and agreed to.