Wednesday 25 March 2015
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
North Wales Economic Infrastructure
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mel Stride.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I begin by expressing my sympathy to the family and friends of those who lost their lives in the dreadful air crash yesterday. Airbus wings are made in Broughton, and the thoughts of those at the factory will be with everyone who has been affected by the tragedy.
It is about a year and a half since we had a debate on a similar subject. In some areas, we have seen some big improvements, but in other areas, particularly rail, progress has been limited, to say the least. Despite the title of the debate, our economic region extends beyond north Wales and includes a big proportion of the north-west of England. I want to put on record my thanks to the Mersey Dee Alliance for all its work to campaign for and promote investment in our area.
Manufacturing is key to the region. North Wales and the north-west of England have a population of some 8 million and economic output of some £140 billion. It is the largest manufacturing area in the UK, with more than £25 billion of output. The area boasts some of the top manufacturers not only in the UK but in the world. In my area, for example, we have Airbus, Toyota, Tata, Raytheon, Convatec and many others. I could stand here for a long time naming all the companies that are so important to creating jobs and growth in our area. There are many more on the other side of the border, such as Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port. The patterns of travel show that workers criss-cross the border. Some Vauxhall employees live on the Welsh side of the border, and about 40% of the Airbus work force live in England but work in Wales. The border, to all intents and purposes, does not exist from an economic regional point of view.
The success of our region cannot be taken for granted. Experience has shown us that once-great industries can and do fail. Many companies are truly global, and they have a choice over where to site their operations. If circumstances dictate, as we have seen in many cases, they can up sticks and move elsewhere. We cannot ignore that reality, and it is a danger. Many years ago, Deeside was dominated by Shotton Steelworks, a maker of colour products, which remains an important employer. It is taking on apprentices, and when I visited recently I was pleased to hear about some of the investments and progress that are being made.
The steelworks holds the record for the largest number of job losses at a plant on a single day, when more than 8,000 people lost their jobs under the Thatcher Government. That devastated the whole area. I say that not to make a point about Tories destroying jobs—
All right, then; I will make that point. That example illustrates the fact that no matter how big a company is or how long it has been there, if events turn against it, the impact can be devastating. More recently, UPM paper mill, which I consider to be a benchmark employer—I certainly would not have put it on a list of companies in difficulty—announced that it would be cutting 120 jobs from its 370-strong work force. Why? Because the demand for newsprint worldwide has declined. When the recession hit, people stopped buying newspapers and magazines. Even as we slowly come out of recession, people’s habits have changed and they use the internet more, so demand has not picked up again.
In 2001, Corning Optical Fibre, a high-tech firm on Deeside industrial park with more than 400 employees, closed virtually overnight when world demand for optical fibre suddenly collapsed. So sudden was the collapse that I remember seeing at the factory millions of pounds-worth of equipment that was still in its wrapping and was never fitted. The lesson is that we cannot rest on our laurels.
My hon. Friend speaks of the collapse of investment at Corning. What assessment has he made of the changes that the Conservatives made to the feed-in tariff when they came back into power in 2010? What impact did that have on Europe’s biggest solar panel factory in Wrexham?
Wrexham is not in my constituency, but people who lived in my area worked at that plant, and I saw that it had a devastating impact. One of the worst aspects of the situation was that the company was, I believe, encouraged to take on a lot of employees because it saw growth, but that was cut from under it by the changes that the Government introduced. We cannot simply assume that everything will be good, and we must make sure that we give existing employers the support and encouragement that they need to invest and grow.
We must also look at what we can do to encourage new employers and companies to come to the area. I am not talking so much about financial assistance, but we can offer a high-quality, highly skilled work force and employers can look to grow their businesses. Large employers such as Airbus—with more than 6,500 employers on site, it is one of the largest manufacturing plants in western Europe—have a role in encouraging their suppliers to site themselves nearby. Airbus has been successful in doing so, and we now have about 2,000 employees who work for Airbus’s supply companies. That makes sense for the supplier and the prime, because it is much easier to sort out problems if people can walk or drive across from one company to another than it is if goods are brought in from a long way away or even from a different country.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. He mentioned the fact that some 7,000 people work in the Airbus factory in his constituency. There is another factory in Filton, near Bristol, and 70,000 people are involved in the supply chain. What impact would withdrawal from the EU have on the 70,000 who work in the supply chain of the joint European Airbus?
That would have a massive impact. If my hon. Friend can wait a little longer—I am sure that he can—I will address that point towards the end of my remarks.
I mentioned the importance of a quality work force in attracting new companies to the area. That does not happen by accident; it happens because we train the people who are needed. Coleg Cambria has an excellent record of doing such work. It works with employers to develop training packages that meet their needs, rather than offering, and only ever having offered, an off-the-shelf programme that people can take or leave; I believe that that has been a failing of some further education colleges. Coleg Cambria is good at looking to deliver what employers want. I have talked to companies such as Raytheon, and they are pleased with the arrangement, which includes work placements. The arrangement works well.
The hon. Gentleman rightly praises Coleg Cambria for its engagement with industry, but is it not the case that Glyndwr university in Wrexham has a similar relationship with, for example, Airbus and that such education links across north Wales give the region added value to prospective employers?
It does indeed. I was just about to mention Glyndwr university, which is important. Both further education and higher education institutions have to be adaptable and have to consider how they can deliver the skill base that employers need, rather than just offering courses that have not changed for years. We need such flexibility, which is important.
There are still many hurdles to get over in changing attitudes, particularly towards apprenticeships, and we have to be honest about that. There is still a culture in this country that apprenticeships are done by people who do not go to university, and who perhaps do not have the skills to go to university. In many people’s minds, apprenticeships are a second-class thing to do. I do not hold that view—it is totally wrong—but we have to be honest and admit that people still hold it, and that we have to counter it.
We are light years behind Germany and some other countries where apprenticeships and university are on the same level, and people have the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship that can lead to a university education. Airbus, through the higher apprenticeship scheme, is doing that, but far more employers should be going down that route. It should not be an either/or; people should be able to move seamlessly through one to the other. We are a long way from that. It is no good just talking about the importance of apprenticeships. We have to deliver apprenticeships for people across the gamut of qualifications so that they can move. We will then change the attitude towards the importance of engineering, but we are a long way off that at the moment.
The Deeside enterprise zone established by the Labour Welsh Government offers a great opportunity to create thousands of jobs, but it also creates challenges. The northern gateway project is a major opportunity, and I am pleased that the Welsh Government announced that they will be funding a highway through the site, which will help to speed up growth. I also welcome the £2.2 million investment for flood defences, which are long overdue and are part and parcel of that new site.
There will be other road improvements. Work on the A483-A55 intersection is still ongoing. I recognise that there are major concerns about delays but, if we are honest, the time will never be right for making road changes, which will always cause problems. If someone has a magical solution for making those road changes without causing delays, I would love to hear it. The intersection is a pinch point that needs to be addressed, and I am pleased that is happening.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, rail is the major area in which a lot of work remains to be done. Cross-party colleagues and I recently attended a meeting of the North Wales economic ambition board, in which it presented its case for the electrification of the railway line from the north-west across north Wales. The board pointed out that north Wales has not received any major investment in rail since Queen Victoria was on the throne. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) probably remembers those days, but most of us in this room do not.
The board estimates that electrification across north Wales to Holyhead would create some £400 million in economic growth, help to regenerate areas that have suffered for many years and promote inward investment. If electrification stops at Chester, the board’s evidence shows that there would be a negative impact on the economy of north Wales, and even on the economy in England, too. If the project is to go ahead, we clearly need joined-up thinking to extend electrification for the length of the route. For that to happen, the Department for Transport, the Welsh Government, local government and the train operators need to work together. Although electrification is on the list of infrastructure investment projects and priorities for Wales published by the Wales Office, there is no start date, and the status is “locally supported,” which I presume is code for there not being any money and the project not being on the blocks to go ahead—certainly not in the short or medium term.
I am sure we would all like the electrification to go ahead, but if the reality is that it will not go ahead in the short or medium term, we have to consider what we can achieve on a smaller scale, and whether we can perhaps deliver economic benefit without that massive injection; electrification would clearly be an extremely costly project. The reinstatement of the Halton curve with a more modest £10.4 million investment, which I welcome, will have a positive effect. My hobby-horse, and the hobby-horse of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), is the Wrexham-Bidston line. It would be fair to say that we have been banging on about that for many years. It could offer real benefits, including an improved service with more trains running. Longer term, the line could be electrified and have a dedicated station for the Deeside enterprise zone. The line could make a real difference, because Flintshire has one of the country’s highest rates of people travelling to work by car, which probably tells us all we need to know about how well our rail routes, and probably bus routes, work.
Broadband coverage in the area is improving, although not where I live, but that is probably my fault as much as anything else. We still have a long way to go before we can say that we have cracked it. A number of companies and individuals have come to see me, and they have been told that they have good coverage in their area, but when they started operations they found out that the coverage was actually very poor. It is all very well for the Government to say that 90% or so of people are covered, but that is not the same as saying that 90% or so of the country is covered. Rural areas are particularly badly affected. Broadband is not an optional extra for businesses today; it is not something they can pick and choose. If they do not have broadband, their business will suffer. The way in which we all do business has changed, which is why we have to improve broadband coverage. This is not just about rural areas, because we have not-spots in our towns, too.
Energy infrastructure is extremely important. I do not want to go on a lot about that, because my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) will have something to say on the subject, but I will mention my concern about the viability of Deeside and Connah’s Quay power stations in the longer term. They are older gas stations, but they play an important role in meeting peak demand. They can operate only if they receive the right support to make them viable.
House building is another issue, because if we are encouraging companies to site in north Wales, their employees have to live somewhere. We need more affordable housing, not just to buy but to rent. I applaud Flintshire county council for starting a council house building programme, which is an important step that will help a lot of people. Like many colleagues, I know a lot of families in which both adults are working but cannot get a first step on the ladder. Getting on that ladder is very important in encouraging people to site themselves in the area. We are moving in the right direction, but major concerns remain about our rail network. We are doing better than some areas, but there is room for improvement.
Finally—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has been waiting for this moment—I worry that all that good work could be undone if we put everything at risk by exiting the European Union. That would have a devastating impact on companies in our area such as Airbus and Toyota, among many others. I do not think that they would shut up shop and go the following day, but I worry that we would not see further investment, and then we would see operations starting to go back the other way. Companies such as Airbus are European partnerships, which are a great example of how Europe can and should work. Our European partners—the Germans, the French and the Spanish—would love to have that wing work. Let us not kid ourselves: if we think that they would not push harder for that work and make the case about all the difficulties of us being outside the European Union, we are naive in the extreme.
To believe that we can leave the EU and then establish trade arrangements so that we can carry on exactly as before is as ludicrous. We are not Norway, and even it has to abide by the same rules and regulations to sell its goods, but it does not have a chair at the table when those rules and regulations are being made. The think-tank Open Europe published a report this week that warned that, in one scenario, UK GDP could be 2.2% lower by 2030 if Britain leaves the EU and fails to establish liberal trading arrangements.
On Europe, it is worth pointing out that we have £200 million net going into Welsh coffers from Europe. The Welsh economy would suffer if we were to withdraw, or consider withdrawal, from the European Union.
That is a good point. We hear a lot in the press about what we put into Europe, but we do not hear much about the important work done with money flowing out of Europe to Wales, and the real difference that that makes to people’s lives. That is a real threat, and we should not underestimate the damage that it could do.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing the debate. At the start of his remarks he made an important point when he identified north Wales as not so much a discrete region, as part of the much larger and important north-western economic region. That is extremely important, because I frequently feel that people in Whitehall and—dare I say it?—Cardiff do not understand north Wales’s relationship with the large cities of north-west England such as Liverpool and Manchester.
That is why I echo what the hon. Gentleman said in applauding the work of the Mersey Dee Alliance, an extremely important vehicle for cross-border co-operation. It should be given even more recognition and regarded as a statutory consultee by not only the Westminster Government but the Government in Cardiff on all aspects of economic development in north Wales.
I want to focus my brief remarks on rail transport in north Wales, because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that is an important element of the north Wales economy. I am optimistic. Like him, I attended the event organised by the North Wales economic ambition board and I believe that Members of Parliament of all parties support working towards electrification of the north Wales main line.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned what he called the Wrexham to Bidston line. He is right that hon. Members have debated that old chestnut in this House for many years. The economic case for electrification of that line is probably stronger than ever, but I think that, because we are Welsh, we tend to look at that through the Welsh prism: Wrexham to Bidston rather than Bidston back towards Wrexham.
What has changed over the past few years has been the establishment of two important enterprise zones: one, as the hon. Gentleman said, is in Deeside, but the other is at Wirral Waters in Birkenhead. The Wirral Waters enterprise zone is almost immediately adjacent to the station at Bidston, and those two zones could benefit immensely from being linked by a fast, electrified line, which would put Deeside within easy commuting distance of the centre of Liverpool.
Only a few weeks ago, Network Rail announced proposals to create a new hub at Shotton, which provides an enormous opportunity for hon. Members to press Network Rail and Merseyrail to look again at the prospect of electrifying that important line. That would effectively put those two enterprise zones within a 15-minute commute, which would create enormous synergy. Perhaps we could then speak in terms of extending electrification down as far as Wrexham, for which the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has pressed for many years. However, if we take an incremental approach and initially think about improving that important stretch of line, we will lay the foundations for an enormous boost to the economy not only of north-east Wales but right across the region, from the River Conwy to Ellesmere Port and beyond. The Minister could do well to put that to Network Rail; the time is right. We need to do as much as we possibly can to integrate the north Wales economy even further into the Merseyside economy.
In the next Parliament there will be considerable debate about so-called English votes for English laws. When one has regard to the extent to which not only public services such as health in north Wales but the economic considerations we are debating today are bound up with those across the border and tapped into the north-west economy, one sees that it is essential that whatever arrangements are put in place should give proper recognition to the legitimate concerns of north Wales Members.
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that Welsh Members should be able to vote in the British Parliament on health, education and transport issues?
I have already said many times and I am quite happy to repeat—that is why I started by saying that frequently I think politicians in London and Cardiff do not fully understand the north Wales element—that whenever any such issues touch and concern the interests of the people of north Wales, their representatives should have the right to speak on those issues in this Parliament.
I am very pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say. He makes a very strong point, and one of the best examples of what he is talking about is the Countess of Chester hospital. It was absolutely established not as an English hospital but as an English and Welsh hospital, and its catchment area is Deeside and Chester; it serves Deeside as much as it serves Chester. It would not be viable without Welsh patients, so to look at it as purely an English hospital would be wrong, and he is absolutely right that people outside our area do not understand how that dynamic works.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. In fact, that is a point that I put to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he announced the proposed arrangements for so-called English votes for English laws.
We must have regard to the fact that people in north Wales rely on English services, not only health services but in so many other respects. Our people work across the border, and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, people from the north-west of England work in factories, such as Airbus, Toyota and so on, on the Welsh side of the border. It is essential that people in north Wales should have proper representation in this place whenever necessary.
Frankly, one of the other difficulties is that there has been an unfortunate tendency to equate Wales and Scotland. Wales is a very different place from Scotland. The border of north Wales is highly populated, whereas the border between England and Scotland is not. It is essential that Members from all parties should ensure that, whenever the concerns of people from Wales are debated in this place, their representatives have a full voice in those debates.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for putting this important issue on the agenda today. Like him, I recognise that the north Wales economy is both strong in itself and linked very much to Merseyside, Cheshire and the rest of north-west England. We have businesses such as Airbus, and I echo the condolences that my hon. Friend has expressed following the tragic accident in France yesterday.
We also have Toyota and the companies in the Deeside industrial belt, including the Deeside industrial zone as a whole. Those companies are extremely important, not only for the economy of north Wales but for the economy of north-west England. Potentially as many of my constituents work at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory as work at Toyota’s factory in Deeside, with both sites producing good-quality vehicles.
Large businesses and the commuting population, as well as those engaged in tourism, depend on strong economic infrastructure. I think you will find, Sir Roger, that there will be a great deal of consensus across the House today on some of the key issues on which the next Government—whoever forms that Government—will need to focus in the next five years.
Like my hon. Friend, I will concentrate on three particular areas: rail, broadband, and housing. I will also touch briefly on energy infrastructure.
First, there is rail. There is a compelling case to improve the rail links from north Wales to Merseyside. The right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) made a very powerful speech about the need to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line, and the need for the hub at the Deeside industrial park. That is one aspect of rail and the view on it is shared across the House. It is important that we consider pressing the case for those improvements, because they would not only provide a strong commuting link but meet the objective that my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned, namely taking vehicles off the road. Currently we have congested roads going both into and out of north Wales, particularly at peak times.
It is important that we maximise the benefits to north Wales of High Speed 2 and the link to Crewe. I think that all of us in Westminster Hall today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) who is on the Labour Front Bench, but with the exception of the Minister, met the Mersey Dee Alliance and the North Wales economic ambition board to consider how the next Parliament can maximise the benefits of HS2 for north Wales. The Minister, officials and the Wales Office, working with the Department for Transport and the National Assembly for Wales, need to look at that strategic vision for the next five years, to ensure that we are at the table when key decisions are discussed.
Regarding the link from Crewe, at the moment the Chancellor talks about a northern powerhouse. In my view, north Wales is part of that northern powerhouse, and as north Wales MPs we have to impress upon whoever forms the next Government that they have to engage strongly with proposals to ensure that there is electrification between Crewe and Chester, that there are improvements on the line between Crewe and Chester, and, crucially, that such improvements continue to be made right the way down to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). That would improve access from Ireland through to Chester and the rest of north-west England, through to London, and across the north to Hull and the markets that access to that port would open up, which is extremely important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside touched on the issue of the Halton curve, which is a key link to Liverpool. I am pleased that the Government have invested more than £10 million in that link; we have been pressing for that investment for some months. Again, it is part of what we need to focus on. I share the view of both my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West that we are intrinsically linked with north-west England in terms of our economy, and therefore improving the Halton curve link will improve access not only to Merseyside markets and employment but to Liverpool airport.
We also need to consider how we can maximise the links to Manchester airport. With due respect to my colleagues in the National Assembly, much play is made of Cardiff airport. However, I do not think that anybody from my constituency would ever fly from Cardiff airport, but they will fly from Manchester airport, which is only 40 miles away from where I live in north Wales, and from Liverpool airport, which is only 20 miles from where I live. Currently, the transport infrastructure—apart from my private vehicle—is extremely poor when it comes to accessing both those crucial hubs. We need to build on it. Also, with all these links we need to look not only for tourism benefits but business and commuting benefits.
Let me give one example of a proposal for further infrastructure that would be of great help in five years, on which Network Rail needs to focus. Now, for the first time in the past 12 or 13 years, Flint station has direct links to London, on the north Wales line, through Virgin Trains. Virgin Trains runs several trains an hour that stop at Flint; there is a very strong link. Currently, there are proposals to extend the length of Virgin Trains, to ensure that we can maximise the capacity, linked in to HS2. Flint station will not be big enough to take that extra capacity and in my view we need to press Virgin Trains and Network Rail to extend Flint station, which can be done on platform terms, to ensure that we do not lose out when that extra capacity comes on-stream.
There is a real agenda for rail, which I support and which I think the Government, the DFT, the Wales Office, the National Assembly for Wales, Network Rail and MPs, working on a cross-party basis, need to look at with the MDA and the North Wales economic ambition board.
Rail infrastructure is important but one of the things that we know about the 21st century is that individual businesses, wherever they operate from, depend on good, fast broadband services, and the attendant capacity, to ensure that their businesses grow. Businesses based in north Wales can trade with the world from north Wales if they have good broadband facilities.
Recently, I have received representations from businesses in the north Flintshire part of my constituency, from businesses based in Trelogan and from businesses in Bagillt, which is in the mid-part of my constituency, and they are saying quite clearly that broadband speeds are not up to scratch and need to be faster, and that connections need to be improved. I know that both the National Assembly and the Government have invested in broadband, but it is still the case that only 56% of my constituency has access to broadband and the average download speed is still only 13.1 megabits, which is not sufficient to meet the needs of a 21st-century economy.
Although a number of hubs have been put in place and there have been plans for Caerwys, Flint, Holywell, Mold West, Mostyn, Northop and Pontybodkin, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, to link to the southern part of my constituency, where there are live exchanges, and Halkyn exchange will come on-stream shortly, there are still issues of speed and capacity, and the Government need to focus on them as a matter of urgency. I hope that the Government respond, not just providing figures about broadband, but saying what else is going to be done to increase the capacity and speed and ensure that the businesses in my area have access as a matter of some importance.
My hon. Friend mentioned housing, which might seem to be going off at a tangent in a debate about economic infrastructure, but it is crucial to the development of jobs and prosperity in our area. I join my hon. Friend in expressing great pleasure about Flintshire county council’s investing a record £20 million in the first council housing for many years. Over the next five years it will build 200 homes. The centre of Flint, in my constituency, is currently being redeveloped—200 homes will be put on that site shortly—but there is a need for more. To add a political note, that is why I welcome the national Labour party’s commitment to invest in social housing, if elected in May, with 200,000 homes for rent, because the Assembly will then have the capacity to ensure that Flintshire county council has additional homes to rent. That is an important mechanism to ensure that we have a strong local work force.
Public sector finance going into private sector housing—into social housing for rent—is putting money into the economy through local private sector building firms in north Wales. The firms currently building the properties in Flint are not public sector firms. Private sector firms are growing the economy and building houses, and they will be using bricks, wood, plaster, mortar and equipment made in the private sector in north Wales, which will help generate our economy and add valuable housing stock to make our area attractive and alleviate long housing lists.
Energy infrastructure is equally important. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) will talk about the tidal lagoon in his constituency, which will have a great impact, potentially, on my constituency. I have met individuals in north Wales who want to develop that tidal lagoon off the north Wales coast as part of our investment in energy.
It is also important that we encourage and develop the offshore wind industry in north Wales, although there may be some disagreement on part of this. We have a great ability to engender manufacturing and a strong offshore wind energy industry. As part of the economic infrastructure, we should be looking at how we integrate the energy sector in north Wales. For example, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, there are developments in nuclear; in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, tidal lagoons are being developed; and in my constituency wind farms, both onshore and offshore, are being developed with expertise in our area. Companies such as Kingspan have great expertise in solar panels and the development of that sector. That is all part of a Government partnership to help build, support and develop the alternative energy sector as a whole.
Whoever forms the next Government, there are real issues to consider in respect of rail, broadband and investment in housing, and regarding developing a sustainable alternative energy structure. North Wales is doing well and has a great deal to offer, but it can and should do better. Whoever forms the next Government will have the support of the area’s Members of Parliament, whom I hope will be returned after the election, to ensure that north Wales does better in the next five years.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.
I want to continue talking on themes raised by hon. Members, adding a north-west Wales dimension. I am not only the most western Member here but the only Member from north-west Wales, and indeed the only Member from the centre of north Wales and north-east Wales. I bring to the debate not just north Wales matters, but will mention the important links with the Republic of Ireland.
I want to create a north Wales powerhouse, along with members of my party with whom I have been working during the past few weeks. We want north-west Wales to be not just a place that people go through on the way to Ireland but a location where manufacturing, research and development and various other activities take place. We want north Wales to be the place to visit and the place to work and live.
The creation of a north Wales powerhouse has already begun. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said—I congratulate him on securing this debate—Airbus, which is based in north Wales, is one of the flagship companies, not just in north Wales and not just in Wales, but in the UK and Europe. We must be proud of that. The Horizon project on Anglesey at Wylfa Newydd, which began in 2009, is moving forward and is a business investment in north-west Wales equivalent to the London Olympics in terms of cash. We have heard about Gwynt y Môr, a successful offshore project, and the Deeside enterprise zone. All these projects are helping create what I consider to be a north Wales powerhouse.
We have made great progress on transportation, as has been said. 1997 was a good year for Anglesey, because it was the year the dualling of the A55 across the Isle of Anglesey began. I had one disagreement with the late Sir Wyn Roberts, an Anglesey man, about whether the previous Government had completed the A55 across north Wales. It stopped in Llan- fairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, in my constituency. It is the village with the biggest name, but it is also a village with a big heart and a pioneering area of the UK, where the first Women’s Institute was established 100 years ago this year. The Women’s Institute is an institution born and raised on Anglesey. I am proud of that. The serious point about the A55 not being dualled is that the economy of Anglesey, and the west of north-west Wales, was hampered for some 10 to 15 years until that road was linked.
The link to Ireland is important. Members of Parliament would not be here, and we would not have the infrastructure, if it was not for Irish Members of Parliament lobbying for the old A5 from Dublin to London. When I talk about transportation in this country, I talk about linking the great cities of Dublin and London via the north Wales corridor.
I want to concentrate on three big issues: transport, energy and tourism. These three big sectors of industry need a big, modern 21st-century infrastructure. Anglesey is a strategic location. I will not let anybody say we are on the periphery because, looking at the map of the UK, Anglesey is the heart of the British Isles. It is an equal distance from Anglesey to Scotland, Wales, northern England and Northern Ireland. We are at the centre of it. It is, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, a Cardiff-centric and London-centric view to suggest that north Wales is on the periphery. We are at the centre. However, we have to increase the investment in that area to make the north Wales powerhouse work.
I want to talk about road-rail being fully integrated and about sea and air, which are often regarded as Cinderella modes of transport when we talk about transport, but are hugely important to the UK.
The A55, which is now complete, is a victim of its own success. It is very crowded at times and has pinch points, not least across the Britannia bridge from Anglesey to the mainland. Having been at sea, I came home when the A55 was being built across Llanfair PG. Although the dual carriageway across north Wales was extended and expanded across Anglesey, there are only single lanes across the bridge. I cannot understand why this was not thought through by the then Welsh Office and the Government. This has been a big issue for a long time in respect of north Wales transport. We need ambition regarding a new crossing from the mainland, because, as I said, it is not just for local transport but for Irish transport. One of the biggest boosts to the economy in north Wales has been the Irish economy growing again, meaning that we have greater trade with the Republic of Ireland. I want to mention that later.
We have had some good news about roads. The Welsh Government are investing in a transport hub in my constituency—a lorry park—which will create 37 jobs immediately. With the trade with Ireland increasing, that will be an excellent facility for the port and for north Wales.
On rail, we have to have a vision. I echo what other Members have said about links with Liverpool and Manchester as well as with London and Cardiff. My family came from Liverpool to north Wales some time ago, and in those days people could travel directly from Holyhead to Liverpool without having to change trains. There was that link with Merseyside, predominantly with the seafaring communities and the Irish communities. We need to re-establish that direct link because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, when our constituents go on holiday, many of them do not go to Heathrow and Gatwick; they go to John Lennon airport and Manchester airport. Those are important strategic airports to the whole of north Wales, and we must work together to ensure that we get that link back.
Arriva Trains and the franchise of Wales and Borders are creaking. They are running over capacity. In north Wales, too many people are travelling on too few trains that are too small, and we need to address that. The current franchise system simply is not working. We met Arriva, and it said, “That is all we had written into the franchise.” If we will have private operators and rail infrastructure heavily subsidised by taxpayers’ money, we want to see the companies showing some initiative and investing in the rolling stock. I hope that an incoming Labour Government will look seriously at that, because the franchise system is already outdated. We saw the debacle with the west coast main line and Virgin, where an error in the refranchising cost taxpayers millions of pounds. We need to look closely at that.
Transport on the sea is important; we are an island nation, and we trade with the rest of the European Union and the rest of the world. The port of Dublin is one of the fastest growing in Europe. I had the honour of launching a new vessel, the Superfast X, which will run between the ports of Holyhead and Dublin. It is owned by Stena. The port manager of Dublin and the family of Stena indicated to me that they want to see the link between Holyhead and Dublin as the new Dover-Calais. It has that potential to transport goods and people across the European Union through the north Wales corridor in both directions.
As a former seafarer, I pay tribute to the merchant navy and the merchant fleet that we have. They are a major employer for the future. The Superfast X is registered in Cardiff and flies not just the red ensign but the red dragon. Stena has made a huge commitment to invest in Wales and the port of Holyhead. We should be proud of the seafaring traditions of this country. I pay tribute to the coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, of which I am vice president. We are a mercantile nation, and we should be investing more in cargo and passengers.
Tourism is a massive boost. A large number of people come and trade from Ireland as part of the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside is right: it would be harebrained to withdraw from the European Union when we have such established links with European nations on both sides, whether they are from Dover to France and the continent of Europe or to the Republic of Ireland.
Air links are important. We have an airport on Anglesey that is linked to the capital city of Wales, Cardiff, but we must have more ambition than that. We need the airport to be expanded. Looking not from the south-east of England or even from south Wales, but in a different direction, at the western corridor of the United Kingdom, we should have flights from Cardiff or Cornwall up to Belfast and tourist destinations so that people can link between the peripheral areas of this country. That is the ambition I hope we will have in the next Parliament.
I was laughed at when we talked about a link between Cardiff and Anglesey. I was told that it would not work, but it brings north-west Wales within 40 minutes of Cardiff. Fast flights to Dublin could be made in 15 minutes. That connection would mean that north-west Wales was 15 minutes from one capital and 40 minutes from another. The airport has that potential. Rather than having massive infrastructure projects and growing hubs in south Wales and the south of England, I encourage a future Government, which I hope will be of a different colour, to look at a different dimension so that we can move people through that western corridor.
In my remaining time, I want to touch on two other subjects. The first is tourism. If food and farming are included in tourism, it is one of the fastest-growing sectors of industry in the United Kingdom and the world. It is the fifth largest sector in the world, so we need to develop it. As we are talking about infrastructure, I say that we need rail, road, sea and air links to bring people to destinations. With my local authority, I have been promoting Anglesey as a destination within the United Kingdom. That is hugely important, but we need to have the infrastructure.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned broadband, but we also need to improve mobile phone coverage, because there is very little in some areas. In the past three years, we have been creating the big three in telecommunications. We must be worried about them investing solely in our large towns and cities and forgetting the rural areas, which do not have the strong economic case. I turn that argument on its head: my constituents and every Member of Parliament pay the same costs for mobile phones as those in cities and towns across the United Kingdom. We need to have universal services for the 21st century so that tourists, people working in rural areas and future investors have the telecommunications in rural areas that they deserve.
The second issue is energy. In my constituency, we have a massive proposal on nuclear power with Wylfa Newydd. That will create not only 6,000 to 8,000 construction jobs but 1,000 jobs for life in energy production. The supply chain and skills are absolutely essential for the future. In my constituency, Coleg Menai is training people for the construction phase and apprentices for high-quality engineering jobs in the energy sector. With the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), I recently visited Coleg Menai and saw young people with the aspiration of working in the area.
The hon. Gentleman politically cohabits with a Plaid Cymru Assembly Member. Can he tell us what the current policy of Plaid Cymru is on the development of Wylfa Newydd?
I will stay away from the policies of other parties, because they will be developing their manifestos, but since no Plaid Cymru Member is here, I know that the leader of that party is on principle opposed to nuclear power. In the new alliance of the Green party, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, all three leaders are opposed to nuclear power, which puts future nuclear power in this country at huge risk. I will leave it at that for the moment. I am sure I will have the opportunity to develop that argument over the next five weeks.
I do not only want to talk about nuclear power. A biomass eco park has been announced for my constituency. It will create 500 jobs and is starting next month. That is great for the area. It will bring food production and energy production together on one site. We need to move forward with the large projects. I make no apology for banging the drum for north-west Wales. It is an important area for the United Kingdom and links us with the Republic of Ireland. I am pro-Wales, pro-Anglesey, pro-British and pro-European. My party will be putting that forward at the general election, and I hope we will return a Labour Government to develop the projects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this important debate.
My proudest moment as an MP came in 1999, when I secured access to European objective 1 funding for Denbighshire and Conwy. The map was redrawn after I lobbied my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who was a junior Minister in the Wales Office at the time. Since then, more than £200 million has been invested in economic infrastructure in my county alone. I believe that the same amount has been invested in the county of Conwy, which is represented by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones).
That important injection of investment has helped the economies of Denbighshire, Conwy and the whole of north Wales. It has helped to fund projects such as the £10 million redevelopment of Rhyl harbour; the £4 million Drift Park development on Rhyl promenade; buildings in Prestatyn, such as the one colloquially known as Tango towers; and, 10 years ago, the best European regional development fund project in the whole European Union, the Opto-electronics Technology and Incubation Centre, or OpTIC. All that investment occurred because we are partners with Europe. It will disappear if we pull out.
We have another seven years of European funding to go; possibly another £100 million to £150 million could be pumped into my county and constituency, if we stay in the EU. We will not get that funding if we pull out. Since 2009, the economy of north Wales has benefited from £1.2 billion of European funding. That is a massive amount of money to inject into the economic infrastructure of north Wales. If we leave the EU, not only will we lose that funding, but companies such as Toyota have said that they will pull out. Airbus will not get its future investment. Seventy thousand jobs in the UK depend on Airbus—do we really want to lose them?
In north Wales, there is £800 million-worth of public procurement, what with the police, the fire service, the health authority and local authorities across the region. Public investment from the public sector, which Labour believes in, is helping to prime the north Wales economy. If public procurement is handled properly, the economic multiplier can be seven times what is put in. If public money goes to a local firm with local contracts, employing local people, that money stays in the local community; if it is given to a multinational company, it will disappear, or there will be no economic multiplier.
I am proud of Labour’s public investment and procurement record in Wales. I will give some examples from over the years. Labour invested in Rhyl college. In the past, people who lived in Rhyl had to travel 25 miles to and from Deeside college every day, or 20 miles to and from Llandrillo college—40 miles a day, or 200 miles a week. Labour founded the college in Rhyl, and then Denbigh college was founded, so local people could upgrade their skills locally.
That is in the past, but the Welsh Labour Government are currently investing £35 million in the refurbishment, redevelopment and rebuilding of schools in Denbighshire. Denbighshire county council is also investing £35 million, so that is £70 million overall. The £35 million that Denbighshire is investing is the result of excellent funding over the past 10 or 15 years. In my patch, local Conservatives have criticised that investment in their own local authority. In 1997, investment in Denbighshire local authority was £63 million; today it is £163 million. They have criticised Labour for the investment that is allowing us to build schools.
I recently visited Rhyl high school, which is under construction and set to cost £23 million. The builders, Willmott Dixon, told me that of that £23 million, 60% will be spent within a 30-mile radius of Rhyl. That will localise procurement and maximise jobs, skills and investment in our local economy. I congratulate Huw Lewis, the Education Minister in Wales, for going ahead with that excellent £70 million investment in our local economy.
Energy has been mentioned, and it is key in north Wales. The £20 billion investment in Wylfa is fantastic news—it will mean 8,000 jobs. The tidal lagoon going from Penrhyn bay to Prestatyn will be 28 km long and 11 times bigger than the Swansea bay lagoon. It is set for £5 billion of investment, of which 56% will be spent in Wales.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman on the attractiveness of the tidal lagoon project. It is, of course, a private sector proposal, as he will know.
Absolutely. It is a private sector proposal, and that is good. I am not saying that private sector investment is bad; I am saying that to castigate the public sector, day in, day out, decade in, decade out, is wrong. The public sector has a vital part to play in providing essential services and priming our economy. If it goes ahead, the tidal lagoon project will bring £5 billion of investment, which will help to transform the economy of north Wales, especially alongside the £20 billion investment in Wylfa.
About 10 years ago, I switched on 30 turbines at North Hoyle off the coast of Rhyl. When he was at the Conservative party conference in Llandudno as Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister referred to those turbines as “giant bird blenders”; he then went back to Notting Hill and stuck a bird blender on his house. That shows the Conservative party’s lack of belief in renewable energy. Another indicator of that, from a north Wales perspective, was the changing of the feed-in tariff in 2010 so that the biggest solar panel factory in western Europe, in Wrexham, had to close down.
On transport, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) that we have to see transport connections in north Wales not from a north Wales perspective but from a European perspective, linking Dublin, Holyhead, Manchester, Hull, the Baltic states, Crewe, London and the rest of Europe. We must invest in a strategic trans-European network. We cannot be left as a branch line when billions of pounds are being pumped into HS2, HS3, HS4 and whatever. We need to be a main artery linking Dublin to the rest of Europe via north Wales and Holyhead.
That is so important because £53 billion in trade flows each year back and forth between Ireland and the UK. The principal port is Holyhead, and we want to keep it that way. More trade is conducted between Britain and Ireland than between Britain and Russia and Britain and China put together. That is how important it is. That is how important the transport links are. We must also have electrification, and connections to Manchester and Liverpool airports are really valued—we need a connection right into those airports.
In this very Chamber about 18 months ago, I mentioned a hovercraft connection between Liverpool and Rhyl. We had one more than 50 years ago—the first hovercraft passenger connection in the whole world—and we want to see the project taken up again. We have had some support from a Conservative Transport Minister, and we are looking to the Welsh Government to support the project. A hovercraft connection could bring 200,000 visitors to north Wales each year.
The right hon. Member for Clwyd West mentioned private sector investment. I welcome the excellent work done by councillors and officers in Denbighshire to attract Neptune Developments from Liverpool to Rhyl to develop £30 million or £40 million-worth of tourism infrastructure. The news was reported in the Daily Post some six or seven weeks ago, and it is a fantastic development. We must ensure that the hovercraft lands exactly where the development is going to take place.
I have discussed hard infrastructure, but there is also soft infrastructure: people, and how we treat them. Under Labour, the future jobs fund put 420 young people back to work in my constituency. The first malicious and malign act of this Conservative Government in June 2010 was to end the future jobs fund. The Welsh Government took up the baton and developed Jobs Growth Wales, which has an 80% success rate at getting young people back to work or into training. That is excellent work.
In 2007, I established the Rhyl City Strategy, which has helped to put thousands of people back to work or into training. We need decent housing for local workers. The Welsh Government are pumping £28 billion into west Rhyl to create housing for people to buy. This is fantastic investment from the Welsh Labour Government, but it will all be put under threat if the Tories get in on 7 May.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Roger. Also, given the north Wales connections with the aircraft industry, I add my words of condolence to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends on this sad day after the air crash in France.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing his second debate on the economic infrastructure of north Wales. I also congratulate all right hon. and hon. Friends on their contributions to the debate—a measure of their continued determination, as it is of all north Wales Members, to see north Wales prosper. We have heard excellent contributions from everyone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said it was a shame that he is the only representative of north-west Wales present; no other parties from the north-west are represented in the Chamber. It is a shame that Plaid Cymru Members are not here—perhaps they have something else on of rather more importance.
That, however, is one of the lone party political points that I want to make today, because the debate has not been party political; it has been a constructive debate with an enormous amount of consensus—
I did try!
For all my hon. Friend’s attempts, we were largely consensual.
There was a huge amount of agreement in the Chamber about the challenges that face north Wales on the economy and its infrastructural links and what we need to do about energy, transport, rail, road, schools building, housing and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside summed things up when he talked about north Wales as an industrial powerhouse. We have terrific, world-beating companies in all the constituencies represented in the Chamber today. We need to ensure that those companies are nurtured and grow, and that the certainty required in terms of investment is maintained by whoever wins the election in May. Any uncertainties such as those about the future involvement of the UK in Europe need to be eradicated.
Another point made with great force and vigour by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside was the need for investment in education and apprenticeships in north Wales and throughout the UK. The connections that have already been made between companies such as Toyota and Airbus and the local colleges, Coleg Cambria and Glyndwr university, are exemplars for the whole of the UK. We need to ensure that we maintain those connections.
The former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), made an extremely positive contribution on two key points, first, on the vital cross-border links. I agree that too often in all parties our public dialogue on Wales concentrates on the border. We need to get past that. The next phases of devolution must be about greater partnership and integration, acknowledging the fact that companies do not recognise the border in the way in which public policy often does.
The right hon. Gentleman’s points about connecting the two enterprise zones through the Wrexham to Bidston line, making it a 15-minute journey, and about the benefits that can be derived from thinking more holistically about the whole of Deeside and north-west England as an economic powerhouse and zone were extremely well made, as was his contribution about English votes for English laws. I agree with him wholeheartedly that we must carefully guard against short-term political expediency for some parties getting in the way of the vital need for our constituents, in particular in north Wales, to have a say on services and decisions that affect them as much as they affect people in England.
Those points were well made by the right hon. Gentleman and were reflected in the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). He, too, highlighted the interconnection of our north Wales economy with that of the north-west. For example, on HS2, my right hon. Friend made it clear that in order to derive the full benefits for north Wales we need the Crewe interchange to be delivered and real investment in and understanding of the benefits. Crucially, he made a point about the recent rhetoric from the Chancellor about the northern powerhouse—welcome rhetoric and welcome emphasis on the north of England from a Tory Chancellor.
However, recent comments by Ministers in the Wales Office about creating a north Wales powerhouse are perhaps a bit muddleheaded. We need to think more along the lines of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said, that north Wales is in many respects connected inextricably to the north-west and the north of England. When we talk about the northern powerhouse, as I suggest whoever succeeds in May must continue to do, we should be thinking about north Wales as an integral part of it; we should not talk simply about something within Wales, of north Wales versus the south.
My right hon. Friend also made some excellent practical suggestions about the need for better transport links between his constituency and north Wales generally and the airports that serve north Wales—not Cardiff Wales airport, but Liverpool and Manchester. Such points of connection are vital. Other practical suggestions included extending Flint train station in order to allow the new trains to continue stopping there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made a characteristically ebullient and passionate defence of his island, describing it as being at the heart of the whole of the British isles. I would not dare contradict him. He also challenged the Hansard reporters with his excellent pronunciation of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn- drobwllllantysiliogogogoch—they can do it twice now, if they would, please. He, too, spoke about the three key challenges: energy, transport—rail and road—and tourism. The Horizon project on Anglesey is supported throughout the House and it will be an enormous benefit to Wales, with 6,000 to 8,000 jobs in construction, as he said, and a further 1,000 jobs to maintain it. Cross-party consensus in support of nuclear energy in Britain is vital, to the benefit of not only north Wales but the whole of the UK and our energy security in insecure times.
My hon. Friend made two unique points in his contribution, one about our ports, and Holyhead to Dublin becoming as important a connection as Dover to Calais. That is a vision to which we should all subscribe. Cross-party consensus on devolving power over ports to the Welsh Assembly Government is important. I anticipate and hope that his suggestion will be picked up. He was also the only one to mention mobile phone coverage, which is enormously important to modern business. Coverage remains far too patchy in Wales, and north Wales is one of the areas in which we must do more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made an excellent contribution. In particular I highlight his description of the benefits to Wales of our continued membership of the European Union. He mentioned Rhyl harbour, Rhyl promenade and the OpTIC research and incubation unit, which are only three examples of the £1.2 billion of investment in Wales as a result of our membership of the EU. He emphasised the risk to the great companies in north Wales—I have mentioned some, such as Toyota and Airbus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, they would not leave overnight were we to leave the EU, but their continued investment in north Wales and in Britain would inevitably be in jeopardy. The risks to our constituents in north Wales in respect of their security and to the long-term prospects for the economic health of north Wales should be clear to all of us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd also highlighted the excellent work of the Welsh Government in recent years in the teeth of big cuts to their budget— £1.5 billion less and 30% of the capital budget removed. That is part of the picture under the UK Government: according to the National Audit Office, there has been a £15 billion reduction in infrastructure investment. However, despite such problems, as my hon. Friend said, £70 million has been invested in schools in Denbighshire. He could also have mentioned the £64 million invested by the Welsh Government and local government in schools in Flintshire or the £30 million invested in schools on Ynys Môn by the Welsh Government. Such schools are also a vital piece of economic infrastructure investment for our future—perhaps more vital than some of the road and rail projects that we have discussed. The schools projects are a testament to the continued dedication of the Welsh Labour Government to investing in the future of our children in Wales, in contrast to—a final party political point—how the Building Schools for the Future programme was cancelled in England.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion with a brief reminder that we have an election just 40-odd days away now; in case Members had not noticed, this Parliament is coming to an end. There is a vast amount of agreement that north Wales requires further investment. Whoever wins on 7 May, Welsh Members across the House should put their shoulders to the wheel. I am confident that if, as I hope and believe, we have a Labour Government, we will see proper partnership once more between Wales and Westminster—in contrast to the war on Wales over the past few years under this Tory Government—and a proper contribution to delivering economic success and prosperity for the people of north Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this debate. I echo the sympathies expressed by him and others towards those involved in the tragic accident in Europe yesterday.
This has been an excellent debate, which has demonstrated cross-party ambition, hope and optimism for north Wales and its people, public services and economic prosperity. By and large, as the shadow Minister mentioned, it has not been party political; I am pleased about that, because the issue is how to secure the right outcomes for north Wales.
The story of north Wales over the past five years has been quite remarkable. We all know that the UK has the fastest growing economy in the G7, and Wales is the fastest growing part of the United Kingdom. Since 2010—I hope that everyone will recognise this—gross value added growth for the UK has been 6.8%. In Wales, the figure is 8.4%, but it has been remarkably strong in north Wales, at 13.3%. That is a fantastic demonstration of the efforts of everyone in north Wales—the individuals, the private sector, the public sector and the entrepreneurs who are delivering growth have all achieved that quite remarkable figure of 13.3%.
Is the Minister including the Welsh Government in his list of people to congratulate?
Of course—I said the public sector. Everyone has played a part in delivering that 13.3% growth in north Wales. Of course, it needed a stable financial settlement and stable economic platform from which to build it. North Wales has prospered remarkably from those conditions.
The debate has focused on a range of issues, but without question there is absolute agreement among all Members on the interdependence of north Wales and the north of England in general and the north-west in particular. That is key to the area’s future prosperity. The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside picked up on that idea at the outset and focused on the Mersey Dee Alliance. I pay tribute to that organisation; I have met its representatives in my role as Minister and have been hugely impressed with its case. I also pay tribute to the local authorities in north Wales, whichever party runs them; their relationship with the Wales Office is probably stronger than that of the local authorities in south Wales because of their co-ordinated activity and determination to forge a relationship with Whitehall.
Coleg Cambria has been mentioned, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) mentioned Glyndwr university. Those are both excellent examples of using the strength of the private sector in north-east Wales to deliver skills.
And Coleg Menai!
Yes, Coleg Menai as well, although the particular focus was on Coleg Cambria and on Glyndwr university. The university has been through some difficult times over the past year or so. I pay tribute to Mike Scott for his role during that period. He has moved on now, but I recognise his efforts.
Several hon. Members mentioned rail, an issue to which I will return, along with broadband, housing, on which the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) reflected, and energy. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned the importance of tourism, referring to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn- drobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a place famous not only for having the longest place name in Britain but for the founding of the Women’s Institute, an important reason to celebrate it. I will also return to mobile communication.
The common theme, on which I will focus, has been our relationship with Europe. Members have presented doubts and questions about the future of many companies and organisations, and so the continuing prosperity of north Wales, because of the commitment to a referendum on the UK’s future membership of the European Union.
I simply do not accept the Opposition’s arguments on that issue. The evidence is strong and pretty overwhelming. In February, the British Chambers of Commerce said:
“A new settlement for Britain in Europe is essential to achieving our economic ambitions—helping our businesses succeed here at home, and across the world.”
Inward investment to the UK is quite remarkable. According to the World Investment Report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the UK is the No. 1 country for foreign direct investment stock in Europe and is second only to the United States in the world.
I am sure it is not intentional, but the Minister has misunderstood our case. The case is for staying in the European Union. Businesses are telling me that they invested here—Hitachi is one example; its headquarters are here in the UK—because we are part of the European Union. There is a net benefit for us from being in the EU. We want that to continue and are proud to beat the drum for it.
That is a respectable point, but the argument was being made that businesses were not investing because of the EU question. The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his point in the campaign when we have the referendum in 2017, and then people will have the choice.
Let the people decide!
Absolutely, let the people decide. Industries and businesses invest for the long term and would not be investing now if, as the Opposition say, the position of the UK Government was undermining their future plans. That clearly is not the case. Britain is getting 50% more inward investment than either France or Germany, the next two biggest recipients of foreign direct investment. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) specifically mentioned Airbus, but Tom Enders has said:
“Regardless of which decision the UK will make, we are strongly committed to our operations in the UK, which are key to the long-term future of our group.”
The evidence is quite clear, from statements from the chief executive of Airbus to the record amount of inward investment coming to north Wales. Putting doubt about the UK’s role in Europe in the minds of potential investors does not support the economic growth of the area.
Does the Minister not accept that many companies, big and small, will not speak publicly about or get involved in politics—probably rightly—but will have concerns that they raise in private? My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has mentioned some of those concerns this morning. It is incredibly naive to dismiss this issue as if it is not a fear or a threat when it is. It is a serious problem that we have to address.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but even if I accepted it, quite obviously businesses would not be spending and investing sums of money if they had the doubts that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn has shared.
I am sorry that the time has gone in which I could have focused on rail investment. Important points have been made about the Halton curve, the Wrexham to Bidston line and the Deeside and Wirral Waters relationship, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West. Those are really important issues. We must focus on the economic value released by railway investments rather than purely on passenger numbers or environmental benefits. Economic benefits are important, and I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) focused on releasing economic potential in the report to the Department for Transport by the North of England Electrification Task Force.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (Human Rights)
I am pleased that we are having this half-hour debate on the situation facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is an interest of mine as the vice-chair of the all-party group on human rights and as a member of the all-party group on the African great lakes region, to which I pay tribute for the work it has done over many years to increase many Members’ interest in the DRC. In particular, I pay tribute to our excellent worker, Carole Velasquez, who does a great deal to support the group and to ensure that we are effective in raising issues in the House.
I also have a constituency interest, because a considerable number of people from all parts of the DRC have made their home in my constituency. They make a great contribution to the local community and the local economy. They have family connections to the DRC, and they have real-life experience of not only its joys and cultural wonders but the horrors of war and conflict, which have so disfigured the country for so long.
Sadly, the horrors of the Congo are not new. From the time of slavery and occupation, when the Congo was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold of the Belgians, the abuse of human rights and the environment, and the exploitation of the place, have been second to none in the litany of one human’s abuse of another. The European’s sheer racism towards the Congo throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the slavery that went with it, are legendary. If anyone has any doubts about that, I urge them to read the wonderful work by American writer Adam Hochschild on the Congo.
However, we should also recognise the wonderful work done by many people. E.D. Morel exposed the slave trade in the Congo while working as a shipping clerk in Liverpool. The British consul in the area, Roger Casement, was later executed for his part in the Easter rising, but he nevertheless did a great deal to expose what was going on in the Congo.
When independence came in 1961, and Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister, the break-up of the Congo was threatened and military coups took place. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated shortly after taking office, and there has been political instability ever since, with coups and military Governments. However, a great deal of wealth has also been made out of the Congo by international mining companies and timber companies and by some of the world’s biggest agribusinesses. The country has therefore enriched the rest of the world, providing uranium, gold, diamonds and many other minerals; indeed, every one of us who has a mobile phone will, at some point, probably have had one with coltan in it from the DRC. This is a place where the world has made wealth, but that wealth has not, unfortunately, been extended to the people of the DRC. It is important to put these things in a slightly historical context.
I want now to raise four related issues: the conflict in the east of the country; political violence and instability; governance; and what the international community, the UN and particularly the UK can do to improve the situation.
To give an example of how awful the situation is, let me quote Amnesty International’s 2014 annual report on the DRC:
“The security situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo…remained dire and an upsurge in violence by armed groups claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and forced more than a million people to leave their homes. Human rights abuses, including killings and mass rapes, were committed by both government security forces and armed groups. Violence against women and girls was prevalent throughout the country. Plans to amend the Constitution to allow President Kabila to stay in office beyond 2016 prompted protests. Human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition were threatened, harassed and arbitrarily arrested by armed groups and by government security forces…More than 170,000 DRC nationals were expelled from the Republic of Congo”—
Congo-Brazzaville, as it was formerly called—
“to the DRC between 4 April and early September. Among them were refugees and asylum-seekers. Some of the expelled were allegedly arrested and detained incommunicado in Kinshasa.
Little assistance was provided by the DRC government, and as of September, more than 100 families were living on the streets of Kinshasa without tents, health care, food or any assistance.”
The situation and the way people are having to survive are terrible by any stretch of the imagination.
The violence is awful, and we have to look at what the international community is doing. MONUSCO—the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is one of the UN’s biggest, most expensive missions, and its performance, activity and governance are extremely controversial. I have visited the DRC twice, I have spent time with MONUSCO officials and officers and I have heard what people think of MONUSCO. At its best, it can be very helpful and effective. When I was in Goma there was a plane crash, and the MONUSCO officials from India and Pakistan were extremely helpful, effective and good at assisting the victims. At other levels, however, the complaints about harassment and abuse by UN soldiers and about the lack of control over them are very damaging to the UN’s image and to ordinary people’s confidence in the UN.
As time has gone on, MONUSCO’s mandate has changed. The mission has become much more assertive militarily, and many people in the Congo find it a bit hard to distinguish between the UN and anybody else taking on rebel and guerrilla forces such as the March 23 movement. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some indication of the direction in which MONUSCO is moving. I do not underestimate the security difficulties and problems, but there must be an understanding that the UN’s role is not to fight wars on behalf of other people but to bring about peace, security and above all development, so that people can live reasonable and decent lives.
The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development is very active in the Congo and very knowledgeable about it. In a research paper, it recommends that the new MONUSCO mandate should include
“the need to prioritize civilian approaches to protection of civilians”
“improved communication between the civilian and military sections of the mission”;
“the need for improved contingency planning which focuses on the prevention of civilian harm in both the immediate and the longer term”;
“that the Secretary General’s…reporting on the mission includes key indicators against which the impact of protection efforts can be evaluated”;
“that any military operation is accompanied by concrete actions addressing security sector reform…and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration”;
“mechanisms for holding the DRC Government to account for human rights abuses committed by their personnel”,
“additional resources to this end”;
“that consolidation of state authority in eastern DRC must deliver effective protection”.
Those are all sensible, reasonable proposals, and the Minister is well aware of the situation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining the issues so clearly. It is said that 4 million people died in the civil war, of whom 20% were targeted for their Christian beliefs. The hon. Gentleman has outlined the situation as it affects everyone, but does he agree that the DRC Government and the UN should take every action necessary to protect the Christians in the country, and their religious freedom, and is he aware of what discussions our Government have had on their behalf?
Absolutely. Religious freedom is, to me, a basis of normal, decent civilian life, which I think is what my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, was saying. That must be correct. On one of my visits to the DRC I stayed in a Catholic mission, and was impressed with what the people there were doing, and with its ecumenical nature. They extended their hand to other faiths and groups. There is a huge variety of religious persuasions in the DRC, including evangelical Christians as well as the perhaps more traditional Catholic Church and very big Churches such as the Simon Kimbangu foundation. It is an interesting place, and the hon. Gentleman has made an important and valid point.
I had a useful meeting and discussion last week with a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Markus Geisser. He helpfully sent some information about what it is doing. The ICRC first went to the Congo in 1960 and had a permanent mission from 1978 onwards. It has a great deal of experience and is well respected. Because it is the ICRC it manages effectively to reach all parts. Its budget is 63 million Swiss francs, of which 13 million Swiss francs are spent on protection, 41 million Swiss francs on assistance, 5 million Swiss francs on prevention and 2 million Swiss francs on co-operation with civil society. It has a considerable local staff and has issued an emergency appeal for 2015 to help fund its activities in the DRC. I hope that the British Government will respond positively.
I want to draw attention to the question of violence against the individual. I have talked about the number of people killed and forced into exile, and the horrors that go with that. There is a disproportionate impact on women and girls, and to quote again from the Amnesty International report:
“Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls remained endemic, not only in areas of conflict, but also in parts of the country not affected by armed hostilities. Acts of sexual violence were committed by armed groups, by members of the security forces and by unarmed civilians. The perpetrators of rape and other sexual violence enjoyed virtually total impunity.
Mass rapes, in which dozens of women and girls were sexually assaulted with extreme brutality, were committed by armed groups and by members of the security forces during attacks on villages in remote areas, particularly in North Kivu and Katanga. Such attacks often also involved other forms of torture, killings and looting.”
What can the UK and the Department for International Development do? The DFID programme is welcome; it is £162 million for 2013-14, and I hope it will rise in the future. Our programme includes support for such things as the political framework at a national level; key reform processes; work on tangible peace dividends and benefits to communities, particularly in the east; and progress in addressing grievances, perceptions and community tensions. Much of that is valuable and it is important to pursue it. Without the development of civil society, little can be achieved.
I was once on a visit with a delegation in Goma; we had travelled for a long time from Rwanda. When we arrived we visited a women’s centre. It was humbling, to say the least, to be asked to address—in the dark, because we arrived after nightfall, but they wanted to see us anyway—a meeting of 300 to 400 women, every one of whom had been a victim of rape, or multiple rape, and violence. They were doing their best to rebuild their lives. They were trying to get to a place of security and were at least in the centre in Goma. I also visited refugee camps and spoke to a lot of women about what had happened to them there. The violence that had happened to them was indeed rape as a weapon of war.
The former Foreign Secretary, now the Leader of the House, took the issue up at an international summit, and I was pleased that he did and that far more publicity has been given to the fact that rape is used as a weapon of war. I support any funding that we can give to women’s organisations and centres in Goma and other parts of Congo—particularly if that is used to support women to go back to villages and develop economic life, recognising that women are crucial to the peace process. They are, essentially, the builders of communities, and they have a special place in Africa because of their huge contribution to agriculture.
Education is the key—and that includes the education of boys. In Kinshasa I visited what euphemistically passed for children’s homes but were really houses where boys slept at night; they went off in the day to do whatever they wanted, because they had nothing else to do. They had little education or support and hardly any role models. If we do not give the next generation of boys, and the one after that, education and opportunity, the horrors of the abuse of women, and the arrogance of male behaviour in the Congo, will simply continue and get worse. Investment in education is key.
As I said when I began, Britain has made a big contribution through DFID. We have sent support and election observers, and I hope that we will send observers to the forthcoming elections. However, I hope that we will take action in this country as well. Coltan does not come from nowhere. Okay, it is a conflict mineral and it is not supposed to be imported because of that. I have deep suspicions that it gets in through Rwanda and possibly Uganda. I have deep suspicions about the export of many minerals from conflict zones, particularly in the DRC. The Congo is theoretically signed up to the extractive industries transparency initiative. It should be held to account on that because mining companies based in Switzerland and London make a great deal of money out of the resources of the Congo, which should go to its people. Oxfam, the ICRC and many others have made enormous contributions to the effort to bring about some sort of peace and justice. CAFOD has made some valuable contributions as to the way MONUSCO should develop in future. It is up to us to take political action.
Finally, I ask the Minister to give what support he can in the case of the imprisonment of one Member of Parliament—not just because he is a Member of Parliament but because he represents something about democracy and freedom in the country. The MP is the hon. Vano Kiboko, who has now been in prison for nearly 100 days. His crime was apparently to raise criticisms of President Kabila, which many journalists and others have done. If we want a free and democratic Congo to develop, it is not up to us to occupy and invade; it is up to us to recognise the appalling loss of life, the horror of many individuals’ lives, and the contribution that the rest of the world could make if instead of taking the profits of the Congo it tried to ensure that they were invested in the people of the DRC.
This is my first time serving under your chairmanship as a Minister, Sir Roger, and it is a pleasure to do so, just as it was when I was a Back Bencher.
I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing the debate and setting out some of the challenges that the Democratic Republic of the Congo faces. He clearly has a deep-rooted understanding of that country through his constituents, his visits and his ongoing, passionate work on its geography and human rights. He rightly emphasised the historical conflicts and the country’s great riches and opportunities, which have not been fairly used, and have certainly not been used universally for the benefit of all citizens of the DRC. I commend him for his work on the all-party group on the African great lakes region, and the secretariat which, as he mentioned, does a great job in working with Members of Parliament in the Commons and the Lords to ensure that the issues it highlights are at the forefront of what we do.
By virtue of its size, population, geography and economic potential, the DRC is important not only as an individual country; it is important to the entire great lakes region and to Africa overall. If it succeeds, it will have a positive impact on the region. Conversely, if it fails, its tragic problems will infect the surrounding areas. Today’s debate covers a number of issues, which I will address, including the political violence in eastern DRC, governance and what the UK and the international community can do. I will also try to address the issue of educating young boys and men on the issue of rape, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the issue of the Member of Parliament who has been imprisoned for an unacceptable time.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo— MONUSCO—which is the UN’s largest and most expensive mission, and one of its longest-standing missions. We hold UN soldiers to the same high standards as British soldiers—standards that are applied by international law. Unfortunately, soldiers sometimes do not meet those high standards, so the British Government should be firm in insisting that they are met. There are education, training and, ultimately, courts of law to enforce them.
It is particularly important that the DRC’s neighbours play a constructive role in the DRC. We continue to urge the region to work towards a full implementation of the peace, security and co-operation framework that was established in 2011. It has been useful in enabling us to see the DRC through the prism of the region, rather than simply through the bilateral relationships with countries such as Rwanda, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Central to security in eastern DRC—and, indeed, the whole region—is the disarmament of the FDLR, following the work with the M23. We are disappointed that the vast majority of the FDLR has chosen not to disarm voluntarily. The international community estimates that 1,200 members of the FDLR still exist in eastern DRC. Those members have chosen not to surrender, renounce violence or submit to disarmament or demobilisation, and at the moment they are not involved in the reintegration process. We must push the Congolese army and MONUSCO to encourage them in whatever way is needed.
The hon. Gentleman asked to what degree the UN forces should be proactive. Some of the threats of proactive activity against the M23 and the FDLR have been effective. It is right that MONUSCO carries out proactive, kinetic activity, rather than just sitting in camp and reacting to situations; that is in line with its mandate to neutralise armed groups, as set out in Security Council resolution 2147.
In January, the Government of the DRC announced that they had started military action against the FDLR. However, the British Government’s assessment is that comprehensive operations are yet to commence. We have reiterated to the Government of the DRC that international expectations remain high. The threat posed to civilians is high, and the threat to the security and stability of the region simply must be tackled. We have emphasised that the FARDC—the DRC army—and MONUSCO must ensure that efforts are made to minimise any impact on civilians; that should be at the forefront of military planning.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the political space and governance. Elections and the democratic transition of power are integral parts of our efforts to build a secure and prosperous DRC. President Kabila has an opportunity to leave a significant and positive legacy. Presidential and parliamentary elections need to be credible, inclusive and peaceful. Crucially, they must respect the will of all the Congolese people. The constitution and the African Union charter on democracy, elections and governance must form a key part of that legacy. The Prime Minister has been keen to put governance at the centre of everything we do through the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the UN, the golden thread, the high-level partnership, and the open working group on the sustainable development goals, which will lead to a successor to the millennium development goals.
On the issue of governance, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly highlighted the issue of Christian groups. Our work on human rights includes the protection of everyone’s right to hold their beliefs. We strongly condemn any violence or attacks on Christian groups in the DRC. As and when evidence of those attacks is brought forward, I will be happy to raise that in the strongest possible terms, as the hon. Gentleman would want me to.
Our human rights objectives in the DRC focus on preventing sexual and gender-based violence and protecting children caught up in violence. The global summit to end sexual violence, held in London in June, showcased the steps made in the DRC to date. I welcome the comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) and his leadership on that issue. He has led on that issue not only in the UK but internationally. When I was at the UN General Assembly last year, people were disappointed that he was moving on from the post of Foreign Secretary, but glad that he retains responsibility for those issues. He has passed the baton, and, from a Foreign Office perspective, I continue to monitor those issues. I am sure they will remain central, whatever Government we have after the general election.
The hon. Member for Islington North spoke about rape. We often talk of rape as a weapon of war, but sadly in the DRC it is also a political weapon. Women who are politically active are often raped multiple times over a period of time and gang-raped as punishment for their involvement in politics. Clearly, that is unacceptable. He talked about the longer term. It is a challenge to look at the long term when so many things are happening in the short term. However, social change and changing social attitudes towards rape and sexual violence is the right way forward. We cannot just respond to crimes. The UK has therefore funded the campaign “Silent No More”—if the hon. Gentleman is not familiar with it, I can send him details of it—which is a very good project and a good example of what the UK is doing to address that issue. It focuses on working with community leaders to help change perceptions and challenge attitudes about sexual violence. It particularly focuses on men and boys. There are a number of other programmes, such as those run by War Child, to help child soldiers who may have been perpetrators of rape in the past to reintegrate into the community and adopt new norms.
There are still accusations that the army, police and security agencies are complicit in killings, rapes and the ill-treatment of detainees. That is clearly unacceptable, and it is one of the key reasons why the DRC is in the formal “country of concern” category, and why a whole chapter in the FCO’s human rights and democracy report, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has seen, is focused on the DRC.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate how seriously the Government take the region. More than 5 million people have been killed there over the past 20 years and, although the DRC has the potential for economic prosperity and opportunity, its GDP is little more than $1 a day. In my few remaining seconds, I want to return to the issue of political detainees, particularly those detained after the January problems. I am very concerned about the narrowing of the political space in the DRC, and about the fact that a number of Opposition MPs have been detained and harassed. I am happy to take up individual cases, if I can co-ordinate with the hon. Gentleman, in addition to what we are already doing. We must do all we can to protect the DRC’s political space, particularly in the run-up to the election, when the constitution must be protected. We must continue to do what we can to end poverty in that area and improve human rights. The DRC should be a strong and prosperous country.
High Speed 2
[Relevant documents: Thirteenth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2013-14, on HS2 and the environment, HC 1076, and the Government response, HC (2014-15) 216.]
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. You may have liked to have been down in this part of the Chamber to speak not exactly in favour of High Speed 2, but I welcome you to the Chair. I also welcome all my colleagues, and I am delighted that so many of them, particularly my Buckinghamshire colleagues and ministerial colleagues, have turned up to listen and contribute to today’s debate on behalf of their constituents, particularly in light of the achievement of having secured this debate. I think I am the last person to secure a debate on HS2 in this Parliament, although I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) is also in the room, as he was the first person in this Parliament to do so.
Tomorrow, the Commons will prorogue, after all Bills have received Royal Assent. However, one Bill will not have received Royal Assent and, uniquely, will be carried over to the next Parliament—the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill. This project is so large—so gargantuan—that it is being carried over into the next Parliament. It is the largest peacetime infrastructure project that we have seen in this country, and it cannot be dealt with in just one Parliament. Unless an incoming Government think again, it will continue very much as it is currently planned. However, I want the Government to think again, no matter what political complexion inherits the government of this country after the election on 7 May.
After six years of opposing this project, the comment I hear most is, “Surely HS2 cannot be going ahead.” That is always followed by a Victor Meldrew moment for constituents, or anybody who learns about HS2, and they say, “I don’t believe it!” What they cannot believe are the justifications claimed by Government and officials for spending such a large sum on a project with such doubtful merits for most of the population and in the vested interests of the few who stand to benefit, particularly those who stand to benefit financially.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing a debate on this very thorny issue for many of our constituents. Does she agree with my assessment that if whoever forms the next Government wish to carry on with this white elephant project, they will have to come back to this House of Parliament and ask for another huge increase in the budget for HS2?
That certainly is a possibility, which I shall refer to later, because this morning we had another adverse report, this time from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. If this project goes ahead as proposed, I think many people will have to suspend disbelief, and the Government’s pockets will have to be even deeper.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way so early in the debate, and I congratulate her on her long-standing campaign on this issue. Does she agree that the £50 billion so far earmarked for HS2 could be spent on infrastructure projects right across the country to everyone’s benefit—to the nation’s benefit—and not solely on HS2, which as she says, has again been scrutinised unfavourably this week?
That is absolutely right. Many of our local organisations got together in Buckinghamshire and named their organisation 51m, because had the money been spent in another way, it could have resulted in £51 million being available in each and everybody’s constituency to spend on our constituents. I believe that on current pricing, it should be renamed 87m, because it is looking more like £87 million per constituency, but I will come to that later.
Thanks to the brilliant economic management of a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has rescued our economy, we have—it is no joke—a solid, long-term economic plan, which is providing the foundations for continuous growth. We need investment in infrastructure and public services, and economic stability against which our private sector can develop and our public services improve.
I hope my right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has joined us in the Chamber and has created these excellent conditions. Will my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) join me in recognising that things will be very difficult for a number of colleagues in government when they face this project going ahead at great cost to their constituents, with cross-party support? It has a distinctly anti-democratic flavour at times.
I am proud of my colleagues who are in government—and should remain in government—who have spoken up and pointed out the failings of this project from within Government, as I did when I was part of the Government. I have had the good fortune of being liberated on the Back Benches, and am able to speak out freely in public. That is not always possible. However, I always observed Cabinet collective responsibility and only spoke on platforms in my constituency. I wish the same could be said of the Liberal Democrats, who seem to have cast Cabinet collective responsibility, and that sort of responsibility for being in government, to the wind. The politics of convenience are not my politics, so I am proud of the part that my colleagues have played. They have been stalwart compatriots in a very difficult subject area for all of us. None of us here is really naturally a rebel, and this is a difficult issue to grasp, as I hope people will appreciate.
By default, HS2 has been part of that long-term economic plan. As the doubts have been growing about it, I think we need to ask ourselves whether this is the best way forward for the honestly held ambitions of Conservatives for this country—or indeed, of any other party. There is only a small chance that the incoming Government will totally abandon the plans, and if they do, it may now only be because they are being held to ransom by a smaller party. Alex Salmond declared that one of his demands as the price for propping up a Labour Government would be to start the high-speed rail link from Scotland to England, before connecting Birmingham to London.
I like and admire many of my Labour colleagues. No prisoners are ever taken by them, and I am second to none in my admiration for the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who has trodden this path with me over five years, but surely even the Labour party, should it be successful, would not want that sort of political blackmail as the hallmark of its term in government.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will, but my next sentence is that I do not want a Labour, or Labour-led, Government.
I just say that if the Scottish National party is so keen, perhaps the Scottish Parliament could pay for it.
There is a lot of support for that on this side of the House. I do not want a Labour-led Government, and certainly not one that will be blackmailed by a smaller party. I want an incoming Conservative Government with a healthy majority to rethink, refine and re-engineer this project before we are locked into the most expensive Procrustean bed in history.
I turn to some of the detail and the increasing problems. On the current plans for HS2 phase 1, there is still no confirmed connection to central London. The Euston proposals have gone back to the drawing board and Old Oak Common just might be the final terminus. That will connect with nowhere meaningful for many years.
My right hon. Friend has been a good friend since 1992 and a doughty fighter on this particular campaign. On the point that she just made, is she also aware that many people in the midlands, while having to put up with HS2 crashing through their constituencies and countryside, were at least offered the chance of going to a railway station, say, in Birmingham in the morning and waking up in the afternoon in Paris or Lille? However, not only does it not connect with London in the way in which we thought, but it does not even connect with the channel tunnel.
That is absolutely correct. There is no direct connection to the channel tunnel, and people, particularly up in the north, have been sold a pup; they were told that they could get to Brussels or the continent much more easily, but that is not going to happen. Also, until we know the outcome of the Davies commission on airports, no connection to any future hub airport in the south-east will exist, and even the Heathrow link or spur has been cancelled. That might gladden the heart of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), for whom I have a great deal of sympathy, but the fact is that the project is being developed in isolation.
Does my right hon. Friend understand the disappointment at not having the regional high-speed trains through to the continent that were promised for Birmingham airport in my constituency? The concept was presented of clearing customs at Birmingham and being able to travel through to the continent, which is now not a possibility.
I know. So many people have been marched up the garden path and marched down again. It is appalling that such deception could have gone on for so long and then gradually fallen away, yet the project still survives as currently envisaged. HS2 has been developed in isolation, with no reference to any strategic and integrated transport plan for future passenger and freight transport across all modes of transport. That is confirmed in the House of Lords report released today.
To derive many of HS2’s claimed benefits, large investments will have to be made even to connect it to the cities that it is supposed to serve. As you well know, Mr Betts, that is the case in Sheffield. The capacity problems that it is supposed to cure have been challenged repeatedly, with Government insisting that we are already full to capacity on the west coast main line, despite their own figures showing differently. I refer to page 46 of “The Economics of High Speed 2”, the report released today, which shows that quite clearly.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for calling the debate. As a regular traveller on the west coast main line, I can confirm that outside peak hours, most trains have many carriages, particularly first-class carriages, that are almost empty. Despite the welcome reduction in first-class carriages on the Pendolinos from four to three, that is still too much capacity that is unused and completely wasted.
I know. A member of my team uses those trains, so I get regular reports and what I am hearing is not surprising. The House of Lords Committee finds the situation incredible, and so do I; and my hon. Friend has just confirmed the position to me, for which I am grateful. The business case has not been updated since 2013, and the cost-benefit analysis, now described by the Economic Affairs Committee as “unconvincing”, is based on an old, outdated set of facts and information.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because it seems to me that that goes to the heart of what this debate should be all about. I have some sympathy for the Government and, indeed, with the reasons that underpinned the launching of this project, because very often one can say that projects of this kind may be long term and one has to look beyond a basic economic case. However, the more it goes on, the more the evidence mounts up that there is in fact no economic case, yet we do not get a proper response.
The economic case was dodgy in the first place and has been challenged by many economists and outside commentators. One of the basic problems was that it was assumed that no one did any meaningful work on a train. That was extraordinary to me. The argument has been fraught with holes since the beginning. I think that even at the current estimate, the Treasury will not be impressed, and in the final analysis it will be the Treasury that holds the purse strings.
Is not the single argument, the single fact, that repeatedly holes the Government’s economic case for HS2 below the waterline that if there were a genuine business case for HS2, we would not need to put in £50 billion of taxpayers’ money, because the City of London would be more than happy to fund it?
The Government always go on about the Victorian railways, but they forget that it was private investors who built the Victorian railways. It will not be private investors that build HS2 or even HS3, as far as I can see. Also, the costings that are still being cited are at 2011 prices. The Department refused to update those figures for me or even for the Economic Affairs Committee in the other place, so the Economic Affairs Committee has recalculated the costs, using the movement in public sector construction contracts since 2011, and its new estimate is £56.6 billion at 2014 prices, because that is the year for which figures are available in order to make the calculation.
There is evidence that the Government did not give equal consideration to alternatives to HS2. The opportunity costs of spending £56.6 billion on one project have also escaped evaluation by the Government. As I said, 51m, so called because that is what each of us would have had to spend in our constituencies if HS2 had not gone ahead, should now be called 87m—£87 million for the constituency of each and every Member in this place. I am sure that if we gave that money to all our constituents, the first project that they came up with would not be HS2.
One thing that is noticeable to my constituents is that they live on an island and they have no benefit whatever from HS2.
I suppose I could say that they are lucky they have no disbenefit from HS2, but that is one of the pertinent points. This railway is being built for the few, certainly not the many.
Even the claims of rebalancing the economy between the north and the south do not stack up. There is clear evidence pointing to London being the real gainer from the project as currently configured, and we are all forgetting the ill fated KPMG report that revealed that many parts of the country would lose millions of pounds from their local economies, because those economies would be hollowed out as businesses were attracted, like a bee to a honeypot, to the line of route.
I am sad to say this to my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I consider to be a friend and of whom I am very fond, but—[Laughter.] There is always a “but” with me. This project has been guilty of unsatisfactory and often callous public engagement with the people and communities affected, disrespect for opposing viewpoints, including those of elected representatives, failure to observe the basic rules of consultation, often perceived indifference towards the environment, and suppression of the reports on the deliverability of and risks posed by the project.
That is not a great track record, if hon. Members will forgive the pun. I will certainly give way now that I have delivered my punchline.
My right hon. Friend is very kind and very generous; she knows me of old. Is it not interesting that one reason why the present Government decided not to go with the original Arup proposal and follow the route, which would have been much cheaper, of an existing transport corridor was that they wanted to go at ultra-high speed, and ultra-high speed trains need to travel in straight lines? However, because of the work of the Department for Transport and the ongoing work of the parliamentary Committee, which has caused a number of changes in the route, we now know that in fact the trains will not be able to go at ultra-high speed, because there are so many changes to the route. They could have followed an existing transport corridor, saving money and the environment.
That is a very valid point, but I have to say that, following the publication of a recent document, we know that HS2 will at least be well designed. The latest document from HS2 is “HS2 Design Vision”. It is not a very weighty document, but there is a long list of contributors, and I learn in it that we will be
“Celebrating the local within a coherent national narrative”.
“Each place and space that is created as part of the system will contribute to HS2’s own identity.
The design challenge will be to develop a coherent approach, establishing uniformity where it is essential while encouraging one-off expression based on local context where appropriate. HS2 seeks to enhance national and civic pride, while also supporting its own brand to support its operational and commercial objectives. It will therefore include many local design stories within one compelling national narrative.”
I am a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and an old marketing director, and that takes even my breath away. I have to say that it is not worth the paper it is written on. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is quite right. The design of the project is coming into question, because there were alternatives that have not, in my view, been properly considered. After six years of the project, since Andrew Adonis first announced it, we were supposed to have a fully integrated, connected railway smoothing northern access to the continent, whisking non-train-working businessmen along at speeds hitherto only dreamed of on a British railway and reducing air travel demand. We learn from recent press coverage that those passengers will be whisked along on luxury leather-upholstered seating in child and family-free carriages. The design vision has, for me, really put the icing on the cake. Is this really what people want? Certainly not the people who have contacted me, not only from my constituency but from up and down the country.
The list of detractors grows daily. In addition to the Lords report published today, we can count the Environmental Audit Committee, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute of Directors, and numerous local authorities and outside commentators. Last week, I wrote to the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility to ask him, as part of his remit to assess the long-term sustainability of the public finances, to carry out a review of the impact of HS2 on budgeted capital expenditure and Department for Transport expenditure. Should I be fortunate enough to be returned to the House by the electors of Chesham and Amersham after 7 May, I hope that I will receive a detailed response from Mr Chote that may enlighten us more.
Many detailed questions are posed in the Lords report, all of which need to be answered before the project goes any further. I think that the Minister should consider some specifics, particularly if he is willing to rethink the project. The rebalancing of wealth between north and south is an admirable objective. With a family who came from a steel firm in Sheffield, I know that better than most, as do you, Mr Betts. However, would it not yield faster and more effective results, as I have often said, if cross-Pennine connections were prioritised before any London-Birmingham link? Before starting on any link from Birmingham southwards, should we not wait for the Davies report on airport capacity in the south-east and plan accordingly? More importantly, should we not commission a major strategic transport plan across all modes of transport, with particular reference to the modern and emerging technologies of smart motorways, driverless cars, driverless trains, super-Maglev and vacuum tube trains, to say nothing of the increasing power and use of high-speed broadband and satellite communications, which were raised by the Prime Minister today in a tremendous Prime Minister’s Question Time?
We in the line of the route have always had to make other plans. We could not simply oppose the project; we had to make contingency plans in case it went ahead. In this day and age of politicians outbidding each other to be greener than green, how can we plan for HS2 to destroy parts of 41 ancient woods and damage a further 42 that lie near the construction boundary, to say nothing of the destruction of the area of outstanding natural beauty and the historic sites that lie in the path of the monster?
Convinced, if the project goes ahead, that the destruction of the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns can be avoided—and with my support, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—Chiltern district council, Buckinghamshire county council, the Chilterns conservation board and Aylesbury Vale district council commissioned a new, independent report to consider a better and viable alternative to the Government’s route through Buckinghamshire. The report will be published tomorrow and presented here, in Committee Room 19, at 4 o’clock, and I invite the Minister and other hon. Members to attend.
The main conclusion of that study is that a long tunnel for the transit of the Chilterns by HS2 is technically feasible and would protect the designated landscape of the Chilterns AONB and the green belt. The second conclusion is that that would offer a better alignment. The details have already been shared with HS2 Ltd to give it time to consider the study before the local authorities appear before the Select Committee, and I commend the report to the House. Accepting that option would save time and money, because such environmental protection would reduce the number of petitioners, lawyers’ fees and the time that people spend scrutinising the legislation. It would avoid some of the last-minute, knife-edge decisions that are being forced on people before they give evidence to the Select Committee. Giving evidence to a Select Committee is a daunting prospect even for a politician. It is really daunting for a layman who has an emotional investment in the proceedings, and who risks losing their home and habitat.
We should also question whether we should let HS2 Ltd continue to spend and enter long and expensive contracts when the project has not yet cleared all its parliamentary and political hurdles. The questions that I have had answered recently leave no doubt about the fact that HS2 Ltd is recruiting more and more people on higher and higher salaries. According to reports in the press, some 18 executives are paid more than the Prime Minister. I do not know whether that is true; I do not believe everything that I read in the press. However, it is alarming to think that such highly paid people are contracting on a regular basis—I have a list of the contracts—when they have not been given the clear say-so by this House or the other place.
I believe more than ever that a pause and a re-evaluation are necessary before the die is cast and we have no option but to plough ahead. I will conclude shortly, because I know that many other people want to speak. I hope that the Members who are allowed to speak will be those along the route who have a real interest in the matter because their constituencies will be particularly affected. I hope that the speakers will not simply be, as always seems to be the case, those who habitually support the project from afar. Before I conclude, I want to raise some compensation matters, because we have all had to make plans on the basis that the project would go ahead. As many hon. Members know, the lives, properties, businesses and futures of many of our constituents have been blighted by this project. They have lived through five years of sheer hell, or, as I have dubbed it, shire hell. Some—the lucky ones—have sold, and they have usually accepted offers of less than their properties are actually worth. Some have moved on. Some have had their health severely affected. Some have died. Some have taken the compensation on offer.
It was only this year, after five years, that the compensation for my constituents and “the need to sell” scheme were finally settled. People are still battling with complex bureaucracy, form-filling and unacceptable questioning. I have the distinct impression that lifestyle judgments are being made about people who apply for compensation. It should be none of the Department’s business what lifestyle anyone chooses to pursue. The decision should not really depend on what other assets they have, because it is the asset in question—usually their home—that is affected. The Department should accept the need to sell without making onerous demands for personal details.
I wholly endorse what my right hon. Friend is saying about the “need to sell” scheme. Do her constituents feel the frustration that is felt deeply in Ickenham and Harefield about the fact that the current compensation proposals take no account of blight associated with construction? When we are dealing with huge construction sites that will be in operation 24/7 for up to 10 years, that is a very real problem.
I agree entirely. I have been talking for too long. I was hoping to finish earlier than this, but I have been generous in giving way, so I have not been able to cover all the points that I hope others will cover. When I did the fly-through, which is a bird’s-eye view of the whole line of the route, it showed clearly what would happen after the line had been built, but it failed to take into account what would happen in the wider swathe of agony that would be cut through our countryside. That has to be explored in far more detail.
I hope that the Minister will confirm when he responds that absolutely no lifestyle judgments will be made, and that no such extra hurdles will be placed in front of people who are quite rightly applying for compensation. We have a residents’ commissioner, Deborah Fazan, who has sat since 2011 on the exceptional hardship scheme committee. I have tried to meet her twice, but she has resisted. She says that she needs to play in on the wicket, talk to HS2 and so on. I would have thought that she probably knows enough about it, having sat for so many years on the exceptional hardship scheme. She is supposed to be independent, and I hope the Minister will clarify her role because she is paid by HS2 Ltd and has not yet met me. I do not know how my residents access her or bring their points to her, and I certainly do not know how to access her, so will the Minister help? There is an old expression, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and I hope that her being paid through HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport does not compromise her independence. I have argued for an independent ombudsman, which should have been put in place and would have provided a better service.
HS2 has taken over many lives, and none more so than those of our colleagues who serve on the Select Committee. I praise the Committee’s work. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and all members of the Committee have worked assiduously and, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), I am keen that the Committee’s recommendations are upheld. If there is an unsatisfactory response from HS2 Ltd to the Committee’s assurances and recommendations, they should be followed up, with the possibility of petitioners reappearing before the Committee, if necessary. I do not want the Minister to pass the buck to the Committee, because that is not correct. The Department for Transport should retain a deep and detailed involvement in all matters.
As I am thanking people, I want to mention the Clerk, Neil Caulfield, and all the officials of the House who work with him and have given sterling service to us all. Without doubt, it is a difficult job at the best of times, and it is a terrible job when dealing with people who are so anxious, angry, aggressive and upset and who feel threatened. Those officials have done a fantastic job in liaising and perhaps repairing some of the damage done during the early contact between officials and people in our constituencies.
My Conservative district council, Chiltern district council, and my Conservative county council, Buckinghamshire county council, have been absolutely superb. I want every Conservative district councillor who has stood shoulder to shoulder with me on this to be re-elected on 7 May, rather than those Johnny-come-latelies who suddenly decided, after their manifesto contained three high-speed rail plans, that they were against this one. We are not falling for that, I am afraid.
As many hon. Members know, I also want to thank HS2 Action Alliance, including Emma Crane—she has provided me with valuable and excellent legal advice—Hilary Wharf and Bruce Weston, who are well known to everyone here. I also thank the Chiltern Ridges Action Group, the Residents’ Environmental Protection Association and, particularly, the Woodland Trust, which I first worked with in 1992 to save Penn wood in my constituency. Penn wood was the first substantial woodland bought by the Woodland Trust, which has stood full square with us on the environmental case throughout. I thank Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside and the Chilterns Conservation Board. I particularly pay tribute to Steve Rodrick, who has just left the Chilterns Conservation Board, but I hope he will come back to give evidence to the Select Committee on our behalf. I also thank the Chiltern Society, the Wildlife Trusts and, particularly, the Country Land and Business Association, which helped on some complex matters.
I pay particular tribute to my parliamentary colleagues, starting with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras. He will be a great loss to this House. He may not be of my political persuasion, but I have found him easy to work with. He has not veered from a difficult path, and he has been a steadfast companion on this route. I, for one, wish him and his wife very well. I hope we will see him again. I hope that he will not completely depart these buildings and that he has a further contribution to make.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who, with the right hon. Member for Buckingham, has been the mainstay of trying to get some changes to this project. Having ministerial colleagues here today is important because it means they are as one with what is being said here and would like to see changes. I hope they will work again from inside the Government to get the changes to this project that we want—their working from outside the Government would serve no purpose whatever.
Any fool can spend money, and there is great appetite for what the Department proposes to spend on HS2, but as Conservatives we know that spending money wisely is what matters. On the penultimate day of this Parliament, in which the Conservative-led Government have shown that they have governed the country responsibly, restored our reputation for good governance and been the architect of our economic renaissance, will the Minister please listen to the many voices raised in good faith to question HS2? Will he not only fully publish all the information available to him but undertake a re-evaluation of the worth of this project? Saying, “We might not have got this absolutely right,” is the hardest thing to ask any Minister to do, but it would be the right thing to do before spending a king’s ransom on a white elephant.
Several hon. Members
Before I call the first speaker, I will set a time limit of four minutes. Hopefully, most people who have indicated that they want to speak will be able to do so.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate. In the short time available to me, I will focus on an issue of great concern to my constituents. The Hoo Green to Bamfurlong spur would be the whitest of white elephants. Building it would destroy two villages in my constituency, Culcheth and Hollins Green, and inflict serious environemtnal damage.
The case for the spur has now been seriously undermined. The spur results from a perverse decision to join the west coast main line north of Warrington, rather than north of Crewe. The original cost of the spur was estimated to be £800 million, which has now risen to £1 billion. HS2 justified that cost, as opposed to the £750 million original estimate for joining the west coast main line south of Warrington, on the grounds that it would otherwise have to do a great deal of work to Crewe station. That has now fallen apart because, after the Government accepted the recommendations of the Higgins report, Crewe will now be the main transport hub for the area.
There is no justification for not joining the main line near Crewe. The costings given for that were, to say the very least, dubious. The average cost works out at £22.9 million a kilometre. That sounds a lot, but it is only 28.6% of the cost of building the line elsewhere, which includes building a huge viaduct over the Manchester ship canal, bridges over the motorways and big embankments running through the village of Hollins Green. The costings simply do not stack up.
The second part of the case against the spur is the economic damage that would be caused to the villages of Hollins Green and Culcheth. The line would destroy a business park just outside Culcheth, with the loss of 500 jobs. The knock-on effect would mean that the village of Culcheth and all its businesses not only lose business from those people but lose outside trade because three of the four main routes into the village would be closed during construction, possibly causing many businesses to fold. Culcheth is a large village that relies on trade from outside coming into its shops and restaurants.
Similarly, a viaduct on Hollins Green would bisect the ancient parish of Rixton-with-Glazebrook and destroy businesses in the area, and the prospect has blighted homes, yet the Government cannot give us the figures. In other words, the economic case is being made without making the case for the damage caused to the economy elsewhere. Warrington will not benefit from this part of the line because it will not get a station. Nor is there a knock-on effect elsewhere in the constituency, which, as one gentleman said to me, might have justified what is happening. We have the pain, but we do not have the gain. In fact, we would probably end up with a worse service from Warrington than we have now, given that we already have one train an hour to London and one train an hour to Glasgow. We can get to London in just under two hours on a direct train.
I say to the Minister that the case does not stack up. The Government have not looked at the whole economic benefit, and they need to save £1 billion of public money by abandoning the spur.
My constituency has both the pain and the gain, having the first station outside London as the proposals stand.
I request again that the Minister look at a tunnel on the approach to the interchange station at Birmingham International airport. At present, a flyover will be needed over the west coast main line at the height of the tree line, which would be visually very intrusive in the village of Balsall Common. If a tunnel could be constructed under the existing airport terminus, there would be no need for an overhead railway, which would add significantly to the journey time of those coming from London to take an aircraft from the airport. A tunnel would leave the surface free of the rigidity of the railway tracks and, importantly, preserve some of the precious green belt around the villages in the Meriden gap.
Compensation for the construction works is important. Judging by the environmental statement, we shall be a building site for the next five years, but there is no compensation scheme for the construction works. The scheme relates to the tracks, but many of my constituents will be severely affected by the construction works, as will country lanes around villages in the area, including Diddington lane and Kelsey lane. Currently, however, there is no help with that.
Hon. Members who have used the M40 will know that junction 6 is a nightmare because of the combination of the airport, the national exhibition centre and the west coast main line. Just making some improvements to the junction will not be enough when we have a high-speed rail interchange. A two-junction solution is required. I urge the Minister to reject proposals for a motorway service area south of junction 6 to go ahead before the development of High Speed 2. If an interchange station is built north of the junction, it is obvious that the motorway service area should be incorporated there.
I could not deal with this subject without touching on the opportunity to do really good biodiversity offsetting. It is not good enough to plant a few trees along the track. As the Country Land and Business Association says, that is a poor solution for some of the best and most valued farmland. I recommend that the Minister look at the proposal from Birmingham university and Arup to significantly regenerate the Tame river valley in east Birmingham and the Blythe and Cole valleys in my constituency, in line with the Government’s natural environment White Paper and using the national ecosystem assessment and the work of the Natural Capital Committee. Then, at least, we would have a lasting legacy at landscape scale, which we would be able to tell our constituents was providing proper protection for the environment.
I particularly wanted to commend the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), who is leaving the House. She travelled to Brussels with me the other day to visit the environment directorate-general to look at what more we could do to protect the environment. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend would venture an opinion at this stage, but I think it is important that we look at perhaps declaring the Chilterns a Natura 2000 site.
I also commend the work of the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, as well as the Committee’s work in highlighting the weaknesses in the environmental compensation and in the analysis of HS2’s environmental impact. That has highlighted the opportunity we have to do things such as create Natura 2000 sites in some of the worst-affected places. We can never replace ancient woodland—that is a given—but we can calculate the value of our natural capital and do something sufficiently ambitious to compensate for its loss, even if the regeneration and restoration take some time.
I would like to finish by commending the work of the parish councils and residents’ associations in my constituency on the action they have taken to highlight the project’s impact on them—as I said, we have the pain and the gain. I also commend the work of Solihull council in drawing the Government’s attention to the need to rework the cost-benefit analysis of the tunnel from Berkswell to Birmingham International airport so that it takes full account of what could be achieved not only to benefit the environment and the community but to improve transport access and, therefore, to achieve a better outcome.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for her kind remarks about our co-operation and for thanking the various bodies concerned.
Today’s report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee batters great lumps out of the case for HS2. The Committee did not ask any questions that we have not been asking for the last five years. HS2 had no satisfactory answers before, and it apparently still has none.
I want to draw attention to the situation in my constituency, which is the most affected by the proposals. The proposals involve the demolition of the homes of about 500 people and would leave about 5,000 people living next to Europe’s biggest building site for the best part of 15 years.
Under the original proposals, HS2 was going to knock down Euston station and rebuild it, incorporating a further 75 metres to the west to provide space for everything, including the new high-speed line. Originally, that was going to cost £1.2 billion. Eight months later, a revised estimate of £2 billion was put forward—the figure had gone up by just £100 million a month. Apparently, £2 billion was too much, so the scheme was cut back, which would have given us a rather elegant lean-to shed for HS2 at the west side of Euston station, at a cost of £1.4 billion. That is what was in the Bill that came to the House of Commons. By the time it got here, however, we were told that that was not going to be done any more and that we would go back to the vast new scheme. The detailed proposals for that scheme were supposed to be available in October last year. Recently, in meetings with local people, however, HS2 has admitted that it has no such proposals and that it is going back to the lean-to shed version, which will now cost £2.6 billion. Who would put £50 billion on a racing stable that produces rubbish like this?
We were told that a supposed connection to the channel tunnel link would bring all sorts of benefits: people would be able to get on a train in Manchester and go to Paris. We told HS2 that that was not a workable proposition, and even the Institution of Civil Engineers said it was not, but no, HS2 persisted—and then the connection was abandoned. One explanation was that HS2 had come across “unforeseen factors”, including the need to “widen the route”. Now, anybody who starts an engineering project without realising that they will need to widen the route if they add some lines really is not fit to be put in charge of spending £50 billion.
Is my right hon. Friend—I will call him that—aware that the completion of Birmingham New Street, including a new department store, has been delayed by a year and a half because of construction problems? Who is doing the project? The selfsame people who are supposed to be designing the new Euston HS2 terminal.
I should add, Mr Betts, that the people who have been making those preposterous estimates, coming up with ludicrous proposals that will not work, are all very well-rewarded consultants. I believe that they have already had three quarters of a billion pounds in fees, so hard-working consultants are doing rather well. As far as I can see, the only train that has actually moved is the consultancy gravy train.
I advise people that if we want to benefit the cities of the north, the answer is to invest in the cities of the north and their immediate transport requirements, rather than spending what it is now believed will be £7 billion on a full-scale development of Euston. Will Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester benefit from an investment of £7 billion in Euston? Euston certainly will not benefit, and I do not think anywhere else will.
On a point of order, Mr Betts. Would it be possible at this point, as this is possibly my right hon. Friend’s last speech in the House, to record our appreciation of his service over many years, particularly to his constituents, and his devoted service to the national health service, from which we have all benefited?
Of course, that is not a point of order for the Chair, but the Chair’s inability to comment on it should not be taken as disagreement with it.
This will be my last speech in Westminster Hall, but I hope to catch Mr Speaker’s eye tomorrow for a final time. It is fitting that my speech today should be about HS2, because it has been a core matter for many of my constituents and other Hillingdon residents for the past few years. We have experience in my constituency of another great project going through—Crossrail. We have not really had any confrontation or controversy on that, because it brings obvious benefits to the people involved.
To refer back to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), I want to mention that the Select Committee’s work is exemplary. It has been sorting out problems and has been helpful to petitioners; but it has been given a difficult task. I do not want to dwell on constituency points; I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) will have an opportunity to talk about them. I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham about the process being undemocratic, because we have had a vote in the House. The problem is that only those of us who will be affected by the project have looked into it in detail and realise why it is so flawed. There are exceptions, but many other people have not had that benefit, and do not have to look at the issue. If we could get that message out to more people, more of them would realise that it is a waste of money.
I shall miss my right hon. Friend in the House. He has made a fantastic contribution and has been a good friend on HS2. I was talking to his potential successor and exchanging views on HS2. The view is that, as with Crossrail, ’twas best put underground totally, across the piece; then there would be a lot less disruption and perhaps it would attract more love and affection, like Crossrail. May I also say that I did not say the process was undemocratic; I just said that the Bill has not gone through all its stages in the two Houses, and it is unwise to extend contracts before we have completed our scrutiny.
My right hon. Friend alluded to my putative successor—if the electorate are so inclined. I have had conversations with him, and although Mr Boris Johnson is a shy and retiring fellow he is keen to take up the cudgels on behalf of my constituents and Hillingdon residents, on fair compensation, tunnelling and many other things. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has been tireless in his work on HS2. It is a great shame that I will not be working with him any more in this place. However, I expect to be on the front line with my placard, as a latter-day Swampy.
The House of Lords report sums things up well:
“The cost-benefit analysis for HS2 relies on evidence that is out-of-date and unconvincing. The Government needs to provide fresh, compelling evidence that HS2 will deliver the benefits it claims.”
The Government must make the case, if they are so convinced, and give the evidence for it. Finally, as I have been encouraging the Government to dig tunnels in my constituency, and have had some success, I caution them not to dig a hole for themselves.
I believe that the case for HS2 is so overwhelming that it is not a question of why we are doing it, but why we are not doing it quicker, although I realise that people would not get that impression from the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on obtaining the debate. She is a doughty fighter for her constituents, and no doubt had she achieved her ambition to represent Manchester she would have been just as doughty a fighter for HS2 as she is against it now.
Reading the report of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and listening to the debate have made it clear to me why this country is so appallingly bad at major infrastructure projects. How many new arterial routes have we had in this country in the past 40 years? The answer is one—leaving the country, as part of an international treaty: HS1. The real reason we need HS2, going both west and east of the country as it gets further north, is that the motorway system is clogged. The M1 and M6 are congested a great deal of the time. The west and east coast railways are often congested and are reaching their limits. There is not enough capacity on the rail system for freight. HS2, with the investment of possibly £50 billion, will free up capacity on all those systems. People say that alternatives have not been looked at, but do they believe that there is any possibility that we will build new motorways west and east of this country? There is simply no chance. HS2 is the only way to free up that capacity.
Certainly some things can be improved in this country. It is interesting, in terms of both cost and speed, that on the high-speed route from Tours to Bordeaux the civil engineering work on 200 km of line was achieved—started and finished—in two years. There is a lot we can learn, to lower the cost and improve the speed of what we do. The arguments are big.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given that London is the finest city in the world, or certainly in Europe, its gravitational pull—its social, economic and cultural traction—means that the faster people can get there, the quicker they will do so? It will just draw in talent and money from the regions. The big beneficiary of HS2, if it goes ahead, will be London.
The Transport Committee is in favour of HS2 and has not been quoted. The experience from French cities is that it depends on how much effort a city makes. I expect that the creativity of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield will produce an experience much like that of Lille, where there has been real economic benefit.
I want to support the hon. Gentleman’s point. The history of Japan presents a salient experience. Far from producing a gravitational pull to the centre, what it has done is create a gravitational pull to where the high-speed rail has been built, on parkway stations.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will finish with two quick points. Hon. Members have said that we should focus on east-west links in the north of the country, but actually it is much more likely—this is already happening—that we will get those links if we have a strong north-south link.
Finally, people have quoted the cost-benefit analysis, but the House of Lords Committee did not look at its own evidence well. Professor Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, said:
“A moment’s reflection indicates how weak such techniques are when it comes to deciding how much infrastructure to provide. For infrastructure typically comes in systems, not discrete bits. Choosing what sort and level of infrastructure to supply is not a marginal decision. It is often about one system or another. Marginal analysis—as the core of cost-benefit analysis—has little obvious to offer.”
High Speed 2 has a great deal to offer to both the north and the south of the country.
Order. For all the speakers before the Front-Bench Members come in, I will have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. I am sorry.
Thank you, Mr Betts. I shall be as brief as I can. I have always recognised that infrastructure projects come at environmental cost. They cannot be done without that. My constituency has had the M4, the M25 and the M40 built through it, which has caused a lot of environmental damage, but ultimately, those roads are appreciated and used.
I also recognise that the fact that my own constituents may not directly benefit is not an argument for saying that the cost to build HS2 should not fall on them. However, the point that I have always been worried about is that the project is highly speculative. I have always given my colleagues in Government the benefit of the doubt. To work out a precise economic case is difficult and perhaps in 40 years’ time people might turn around and say, “This was an inspired choice.” However, I would have expected that, as the project proceeded, a greater volume of evidence would have emerged to support the Government’s economic case, yet the very contrary is the case.
Every passing month sees a new report come out that casts doubt on out-of-date figures and, indeed, on the basic premises on which the project is based. That troubles me very much. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government will do to counter that argument, because that is what got them through Second Reading. Without that answer, it seems that their case is undermined.
I will turn to the detail. When the project was proposed, quite astonishingly the Colne valley, which lies in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) was described as an area of “dug gravel pits.” In fact, it is an essential amenity that is used by hundreds of thousands of people on the edge of London for recreational purposes. It includes: a number of sites of special scientific interest; wonderful water parks; leisure facilities; river walks; otters in the river; and just about everything that could possibly be wanted in terms of biodiversity within 15 miles of the centre of London.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that when the gravel pits were once mentioned in a discussion, I pointed out that in fact the Norfolk broads were man-made as well? Nobody would dispute that they are worth keeping.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, they are similar to the Norfolk broads in terms of recreational amenity.
I was told at the start of the project that it would never be possible or economically viable to tunnel under the River Colne because that would cost in the region of £1 billion more than a viaduct—I remember that figure being given. By last month, we were told that, because the viaduct will cost so much, the true differential is a mere £185 million. In the great scheme of the £50 billion- plus we are talking about for this project, that seems to be something that the Government really ought to consider, given the damage to the environment not just for the local community and residents but for all the other people who come to make use of this recreational area. That same point could be made about the tunnel under the area of outstanding natural beauty, but I will focus on the Colne valley because of its importance not just to the local community but to the residents.
I am very grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the Heathrow spur would effectively not go ahead. That removes a great deal of potential blight from my constituency and it is quite clear that it was not needed. However, parts of the bits of the junctions and other infrastructure still remain in the Bill, which worries me about the potential for blight. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the necessary steps will be taken to ensure that such potential for blight is removed from the Bill.
I give my right hon. and learned Friend that reassurance now.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. That will be well received in my constituency.
Finally, we have heard a lot about compensation. The package has changed and been improved, but I still find something very odd about a situation in which we have a need-to-sell basis for getting a full market value for compensation for those people living outside the immediate areas close to the track, yet if they do not go through the paraphernalia of need to sell—I suspect that some cases will be done, I am afraid, by requests that may have a sleight of hand—they will not be adequately compensated. That cannot be right. I know the origin of the compensation system in this country, but it is antiquated and it is time that we moved away from it. We are actually forcing people to move, because otherwise they will not get the compensation that they need.
With those points in mind, I look forward to the Minister’s response. However, I come back to my original point. The Government really will have to counter the growing volume of evidence that the project has serious flaws in its concept.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I have spoken on HS2 on previous occasions in the House and I remain of the view—in fact, it has got stronger—that is wholly unnecessary and ridiculously expensive. The figure of £50 billion is talked about quite a bit, but Hansard on 5 March shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) drew attention to evidence presented to the HS2 Committee that
“hidden costs will raise the overall cost of the HS2…to £138 billion”. —[Official Report, 5 March 2015; Vol. 593, c. 1062.]
That is a massively higher figure. My contacts in the industry suggest that that figure is perfectly justifiable and some say that the real figure would be even more.
Even if things are expensive, I would still support them if they are the right thing to do, but this project is not. I made a written submission to the House of Lords Committee to set out my views in more detail, which is available on the internet. I have spoken on them before, but let us get the first nonsense of HS2 out of the way first of all: that must be Euston. It is the wrong station in the wrong place. The last place that a business traveller from Birmingham or whatever who wants to get to the City or Canary Wharf wants to arrive is Euston. They would want to get to somewhere linked on to Crossrail to get through to those places, and not have to struggle with their laptop and wheelie case from Euston on to the tube and then the docklands light railway to get to Canary Wharf. That is a nonsense.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Is he also aware that a business traveller from the Birmingham area first has to get to Birmingham New Street and then, with all their baggage, has to walk across Birmingham to get to Curzon Street station, only to end up at the wrong station—Euston? As I said earlier on, any hope of getting directly to France has now evaporated.
I am not yet a Privy Counsellor and I do not suppose that I ever will be, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about Curzon Street was absolutely right; I was coming to it myself. In my submission to the House of Lords Committee, which was titled, “Sensible alternatives to HS2”, I gave three specific alternatives that would cost a fraction of that amount but solve all the problems that HS2 might supposedly solve.
First, I suggested the electrification of the Birmingham Snow Hill line, via Banbury, to London. It currently goes to Marylebone or Paddington, but it could easily be linked—the tracks are already there, so all it needs is a bit of track work—to Crossrail going in both directions. If we had an electric train from Snow Hill in the middle of the Birmingham business district that went direct to Canary Wharf at 125 mph, someone could work on a laptop without changing trains and I bet that train would beat HS2 if otherwise that person had to get to Curzon Street and then get two tube trains at the London end. HS2 is a complete and total nonsense, but that suggestion would provide wonderful extra capacity.
That would also allow travel direct to Heathrow from the centre of Birmingham and it could be linked through from Leamington Spa on to the west coast main line, so we could have Birmingham airport linked to Heathrow airport with a direct, 125 mph, one-hour service. They could almost be hubs or satellites for each other. There could be trains from further north—from Manchester—coming down the west coast main line, joining the Banbury line and going directly from the centre of Manchester to Heathrow or Canary Wharf. It is possible for a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the benefits that the alternatives to HS2 would bring to other parts of the country that probably explain why there is a majority against HS2 in every region of this country, according to the opinion polls, even in the north-west, where people are most enthusiastic about it? Even there, the divide is 43% to 39%.
My right hon. Friend has spoken wisely, as always.
Will the hon. Gentleman bring his remarks to a conclusion, please, so the Front-Bench spokesmen can respond?
My second alternative to HS2 is to upgrade the east coast main line. It needs to be four-tracked at Welwyn with an extra viaduct, a flyover at Peterborough, a flyover at Newark and four-tracking in various places, so that there can be non-stop services from King’s Cross to Edinburgh in three and a half hours, which was done on a test run in 1990; indeed, that test run was slightly faster than is being proposed with HS2. [Interruption.] Not a problem.
Finally I will propose what I have proposed before, which is the GB Freight Route. That is a dedicated rail freight line, to carry lorries on trains from the channel tunnel to every major region of Britain, using old trackbed and under-utilised lines, without causing any environmental or planning problems. The details are included in my paper here, which I have submitted to others from time to time.
Those three alternatives together would cost a tiny fraction of what it is proposed HS2 will cost and would be infinitely more useful. Indeed, the freight line would pay for itself.
I will leave my case there. I would love to speak for longer; I can speak for another two hours unaided, if you wish, Mr Betts, but I have probably said enough.
I will not aid the hon. Gentleman in that course.
I ask the hon. Gentleman—Nick Hurd—just to keep his remarks to two minutes. I am sorry, but the Minister needs to have time to reply to the debate.
I shall do my very best, Mr Betts.
I wholly endorse the view that we need more evidence and less assertion when considering the case for HS2. Like others, I come to bury HS2, not to praise it. My personal opposition to the current HS2 plans is based absolutely on the impact that HS2 will have on my constituency. The Minister is well aware of that impact. He is a good man. He has been good enough to come and see for himself that the disruption to thousands of residents in Ickenham, Harefield and west Ruislip will be immense, and these are places where people choose to live because of their relative tranquillity and semi-rural nature. There are no direct benefits to the area from HS2, and yet the future we are being asked to accept is one of major construction sites for 10 years, unbearable increases in the movement of heavy goods vehicles on key artery roads that are already clogged, huge soil dumps, a viaduct across the stunning Colne valley, electricity feeder stations, and the risk of losing Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre, which is known locally as HOAC and which is a superb facility enjoyed by 20,000 young people a year.
I could go on, but beneath those headlines is a dense thicket of problems, concerns and unanswered questions, and HS2 still does not have an answer to some of the biggest problems. The future of HOAC remains uncertain, as all relocation options are complicated. As for the chronic problem of traffic on Harefield road and access to the A40, we are just told that something will be worked out with the council at a future date. It is not good enough.
There is a solution and it is the “t” word. I began arguing for a tunnel extension back in 2012, alongside my right hon. Friends and neighbours: my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall); we will miss my good friend, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, dreadfully. Hillingdon council, residents and MPs are now all working alongside each other to make the case for a tunnel extension.
HS2 is unwilling to assess the viability of such an extension. Hillingdon council has produced a report that shows it is technically feasible and can be done for more or less the same price as other projects. This is my ask of the Minister: can we please pressure HS2 to give this report a serious response, which gives us a detailed breakdown of its costs for the viaduct and its estimate of the Hillingdon costs, so that the Transport Committee and the public can have a view on two reports and the case for extending the tunnel across the Colne valley, which would solve so many of the problems in my area? We must literally bury HS2 and protect the area, and if we do not, I am afraid that I cannot support HS2 in the future.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing the debate. She has been a doughty opponent of High Speed 2 throughout this Parliament, and while we have found ourselves on opposite sides of that argument, the tone of these debates has been constructive. I hope to continue in that spirit today.
HS2 has been improved through this House’s scrutiny, and I am sure that process will continue after the election. I speak in this debate in support of HS2. The project was first announced under the last Labour Government, and, if anything, the case for HS2 has grown stronger since then. Record passenger growth has continued. Data from the Office of Rail Regulation have recently shown that there were 430 million journeys between October and December last year, an increase of almost 7% compared with the same quarter in 2013. That growth has continued through periods of disruption and even through a recession.
As a consequence, the railways are reaching the limits of their capacity, and nowhere is that more keenly felt than on the west coast main line, the busiest and perhaps the most complex mixed-use line in Europe. Network Rail has warned that its capacity will be exhausted by 2024, and as demand continues to grow, that day of reckoning could come even sooner.
We cannot forget the money that has already been invested in the line, whether for electrification, the ingenuity of tilting trains or the ill-fated and hugely disruptive £9 billion modernisation programme of recent years. Just a few years on, we have already exhausted all the additional capacity that that investment brought us and we are still no nearer to achieving speeds above 125 mph than we were 50 years ago, when British Rail started to plan the advanced passenger train. Once the Norton Bridge area works are completed, the scope for further infrastructure improvements is limited.
The consequences are simple: we cannot continue to force every grade of traffic to compete for scarce paths without impairing passenger services. We have only to look at the 2008 timetable changes, which enabled more fast trains to London at the expense of commuter services in the west midlands, to see that. I have visited places south of Stoke where services were withdrawn during the modernisation programme, and residents have been told that the stations cannot be reopened because paths have been reassigned. Although those capacity constraints are most acute on the west coast main line, they are also felt on other trunk routes, including the midland main line and the east coast main line.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way because I have very limited time; I am sorry.
It is sometimes said that we should just upgrade what we have, and of course we need to invest in the existing network, but the delayed and over-budget Great Western works are showing just how difficult such upgrading can be in practice. Opponents of HS2 are rightly concerned about costs and it is vital that taxpayers get the best value for their investment, so it should be a great concern to us all that the estimated cost of electrifying the Great Western main line has more than trebled, from £540 million in 2011 to more than £1.7 billion today, and the price is still rising. As Lord Adonis has said, it is like performing open heart surgery on a Victorian railway. Let there be no mistake: tracks may have been relayed and signals may have been upgraded since the Victorian railways were put down, but almost all our alignments are inherited from an age of slower traction, and almost 200 years later they have given us compromises.
It may be asked, “What is the alternative to HS2?” The truth is that the alternative, if it can be called that, is to prioritise the needs of one passenger against another. It is to make fast trains compete with commuter and freight services, and to spend even greater sums to extract diminishing returns from our eccentric and increasingly sclerotic network. To my mind, that is no alternative at all. It would lead to a meaner, less socially accessible and more London-centric railway. We urgently need new capacity and HS2 is the right project to provide it.
A number of concerns have been raised, both outside and inside this House. Much has been said about the project’s costs and it is certainly true that there was a loss of focus on costs after the election. That is why Labour successfully amended the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 to enforce a much tougher scrutiny regime around the project’s budget. I will add that after the investment in High Speed 1, in Crossrail, in Thameslink and in Reading station, HS2 is a welcome commitment to building world-class infrastructure in the midlands and the north, and not just in London and the south-east.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way, because I have such limited time and I want the Minister to be able to respond to points.
We cannot and should not ignore environmental concerns, and I am grateful for the briefings and constructive dialogue that I have had with groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Woodland Trust. Unlike the current Mayor of London, we do not dismiss legitimate environmental concerns raised by people who live along the proposed route of HS2, and we want the environmental benefits of HS2 to be enhanced through an early commitment to decarbonising the electricity market. We also want to ensure that the concerns of community groups are looked at, and that disruption is mitigated wherever possible.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am so sorry, but I am not going to; there is limited time.
We need to make sure that we get the route right. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will want to record their gratitude to our colleagues who sit on the phase 1 hybrid Bill Committee, who have approached their task in a spirit of fairness and determination. As the right hon. Lady said, we thank the Clerk, Neil Caulfield, and the other staff who support the Committee.
It has been said before that if HS2 is about capacity south of Birmingham, it is also about connectivity north of it. The reality is that many of our cities have relatively good links to London, but poor links to each other. For example, travelling from Nottingham to Leeds can take more than two hours at present, but with HS2 it could take as little as 40 minutes. Across the country, HS2 holds enormous potential to reinvent the quality of our connections between Birmingham and Manchester, the west and east midlands, the midlands and Yorkshire, and beyond, as high speed services run on to other lines. We will achieve those aims only if HS2 is planned as a fully integrated component of our existing network. I hope that that objective will be vigorously pursued in the next Parliament.
It has been a true honour and a privilege to serve in the shadow Transport team. HS2 is an important part of the brief and I am glad to have had the opportunity to make what I hope is a final contribution only in this Parliament in support of this essential project.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate on HS2, a scheme that affects a number of constituencies on its line of route, not least Kenilworth and Southam. I note that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) is in the Chamber.
I am tempted to go as far as to endorse everything that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said. Certainly, a project of this type, which is going to be constructed over a number of years, needs wide political support across the spectrum. Therefore it is good news that we have such a lot of agreement on it.
Of course, there has been considerable interest in HS2 throughout the country. When the scheme was last debated in Parliament, on Second Reading in April 2014, the support for it was clear: 452 votes in favour to 41 against. It is patently obvious that, with the west coast main line reaching capacity, something needed to be done. It is no good saying to those using this service that they must grin and bear it while we do nothing, watching our infrastructure grind to a halt and stifling economic growth.
Comments have been made about the report published yesterday by the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee. Although I have enormous respect for our colleagues in the other place, I most heartily disagree with their report. The case for HS2 is crystal clear. It will have a transformational effect, supporting growth in the north by improving connectivity, freeing up space on our crowded rail network, promoting regeneration, boosting local skills, generating tens of thousands of jobs and helping secure the UK’s future prosperity.
Will the Minister give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am not going to give way. I have so many points to cover in a short time.
It is a vital part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, strongly supported by the northern and midlands cities, alongside our plans for better east-west rail links confirmed in the northern transport strategy last week.
We have been fully transparent about the project. HS2 will deliver more than £2 of benefits for every £1 invested, and the economic benefit of the project is clear. The strong support of MPs is shared by—
Will the Minister give way?
Not at this time.
He should give way to me.
I will give way this once.
I am grateful to the Minister. However, I do not know how he can say, “We have been fully transparent about the project”, when he has not published any of the Major Projects Authority’s reports and we cannot get up-to-date figures on the project.
My right hon. Friend has tabled 355 parliamentary questions for the Department on HS2—
Good, I am doing my job.
And we have given her comprehensive replies to those questions. The report that she refers to is, of course, an historical report that is out of date. We are working on much more up-to-date information.
There is strong support from the Transport Committee, which backs the strategic business case and is confident that HS2 is the only practical way significantly to increase rail capacity. Indeed, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is a member of that Committee. One of its conclusions in a previous report states:
“Having reviewed the revised business case for HS2 and the KPMG report on regional economic benefits we remain convinced that the project is justified. Capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line cannot be ignored and nor should demand be controlled by pricing people off the railway. Alternatives to building a new line will themselves be costly and disruptive and their benefits could be relatively short-lived if demand continues…as forecast. Only a new line can bring the step change in capacity which is required.”
The Committee agrees with the Government and the Opposition.
Demand for long distance rail travel has doubled in the past 15 years and without HS2 key rail routes connecting London, the midlands and the north will soon be overwhelmed, stifling growth in towns and cities across the country. There is also latent demand for more rail freight, for which no paths are currently available on the west coast main line. It is crucial that we press ahead with delivering HS2 on time and budget. We remain on track to start construction in 2017.
The Bill is now before the hybrid Bill Committee, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), which has already heard petitions relating to about half the route of phase 1. In the nine months it has sat, it has heard almost twice as many petitions as the Committee on Crossrail heard in its 21 months of sitting. Clearly, there are many petitions yet to hear, but I am sure the whole House would want to thank my hon. Friend and his Committee for the seriousness and diligence with which they have gone about their important role of ensuring that the project strikes the right balance between being sensitive to the needs of affected communities and the environment, and the long-term needs of the country as a whole.
Of course, the scheme has undergone particular scrutiny in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. I take this opportunity to thank her for so assiduously ensuring that her constituents’ voices are heard. I note how much she has achieved, including helping to move the line of the route further south through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty in 2011, to avoid an aquifer, and extending the tunnel in her constituency. The scheme now boasts over 13 km of tunnel under the Chilterns. Indeed, of the overall kilometerage in the Chiltern area—there is 20.8 km of line there—46% is in bored tunnel, 12% in green tunnel and 28% in cutting. Therefore 86% of the route in the AONB is below ground level or in a tunnel. I think my right hon. Friend has made a tremendous contribution to achieving that for her constituents. This demonstrates both the Government’s commitment to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and the hard work of my right hon. Friend. This is an example of how passionate she has been in working hard for her constituents.
I will deal with some questions raised. I will not be able to respond to them all, so I will write to the hon. and right hon. Members I cannot reach. Hon. Members mentioned the independence of the residents’ commissioner and the residents’ charter. The commissioner will report findings directly to Sir David Higgins and will not be part of the standard staff structure. The direct link and the publication of the commissioner’s quarterly report will ensure that concerns and issues can be aired and addressed in a timely manner. The residents’ charter and residents’ commissioner’s report will be transparent. That transparency provides the best guarantee of independence.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) raised a valid question about the phase 2 spur. We are currently reviewing and assessing those decisions. No decisions have been taken yet on either Crewe or the spur.
Will the Minister give way?
I only have two minutes to go, so I really must come to a close.
I shall briefly talk about the economic impact and the fact that we are not taking money away from other infrastructure investment. We are investing £73 billion in transport from 2015-16 to 2020-21 and £57 billion in other projects.
In terms of the economic case, I draw the House’s attention to a report in The Times today, which states that HSBC—I do not think it is our favourite bank at the moment—is going to relocate 1,000 workers to Birmingham:
“The bank already has three sites there employing 2,500 people, and some of those will move to the new building that it has its eyes on, not yet erected, on a site near Centenary Square in the city centre.”
The article mentions the
“ever improving transport links”
“including the planned HS2 fast trains bolstering a road-rail network crowned by Spaghetti Junction on the M6”,
which it states has added to its appeal. So this is already having an effect on encouraging employers to come to the area.
In conclusion, HS2 is about helping Britain to thrive and prosper. Although tough decisions have to be taken, they will be responsible decisions in the interest of making a better, stronger Britain. We understand that a scheme of this magnitude cannot be built without having some effects on the environment or communities, but as I have set out here today, we are going to great lengths to ensure that the impacts are mitigated wherever practical, particularly in areas with ancient woodland. I repeat our pledge that there will be no net environmental loss. We will make sure that this is done in the most sustainable way for any major infrastructure ever built.
Homelessness (Crisis Report)
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, in this important debate. Homelessness remains a blight on our society. Its causes are complex, but it often happens due to a combination of family breakdown, mental ill health and substance abuse. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and society has a responsibility to care for the homeless, who are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to visit, work with and support two homelessness charities in my constituency: New Direction and Braintree Foyer. Both are run by the Salvation Army, which does an incredible job across the country to provide support for the homeless. I also thank Braintree district council for its swift response in providing housing for those individuals who suddenly found themselves homeless following the tragic fire at the shelter at Ben’s Café in Braintree last month.
There are many excellent homelessness charities up and down the country, including Shelter, Centrepoint, Homeless Link, St Mungo’s, The Passage, Barnado’s and others. There is also the incredible generosity of the public at large, who donate time and money to support homelessness charities. I spent this past Christmas at Crisis and was especially impressed by the support it gave to London’s homeless. I was equally impressed by the thousands of volunteers who gave up their time to help out. Outside of the London Olympics, Crisis has the largest army of volunteers. Once I leave Parliament, I intend to focus my time on better understanding the issues surrounding homelessness by working with Crisis and other homelessness charities with a view to doing whatever I can to provide support, not only by working directly with the homeless, but by working with the leading homelessness charities to see how we can work with the Government to reduce, if not resolve, the blight of homelessness in our society.
Having spent some time with Crisis, I think it is worth outlining to the Minister and Members the state of homelessness in England by reviewing the issues outlined in Crisis’s “The homelessness monitor”, which was released recently. Notwithstanding a number of important initiatives by the Government and the Mayor’s office in London to tackle homelessness, the figures unfortunately continue to rise. Official figures indicate that 111,960 people in England made a homelessness application last year. However, according to recent research by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the real figures are considerably larger—280,000 individuals approached their local authorities last year seeking homelessness assistance. Homelessness prevention activity alone constituted some 228,000 cases in 2013-14, which was 12% higher than in the previous year and 38% up on 2009-10.
The ending of an assured shorthold tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness, accounting for 29% of cases. That is most pertinent in London, where it accounts for 38% of cases. The number of people rough sleeping has also risen. In London alone, 6,508 people slept rough at some point during 2013-14. That figure has doubled over the past six years. English street count figures for 2014-15 were 2,744, which is a 14% rise on the year before and a 55% increase over the past four years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important topic. It may surprise him to learn that Cornwall is second only to London in the number of people rough sleeping and in the number of people living without homes. Does he agree that we should praise the Government for how they changed the rough sleeper count? I have been involved with homelessness charities for a great deal of my life, and I saw that the old system under the previous Government precluded people from having an accurate measure of the number of people rough sleeping. At least we now have a much better handle on and understanding of the numbers. That will enable us to make appropriate resources available, so that local authorities and others can help those people into homes.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Later in my speech, I will come on to some of the good initiatives by the Government and the Mayor’s office to address homelessness, but first I will outline the numbers, and unfortunately the reality is that the numbers are rising.
“The homelessness monitor” noted that there has been a continued growth in returner rough sleepers in London, and that is a matter of concern. One possible factor in that is the cuts that many local authorities have made to their Supporting People budgets. Those cuts mean that people who leave the street do not get the support they need to sustain accommodation in the long term.
Turning to some of the key causes of homelessness, people become and stay homeless for a whole range of complex and overlapping reasons. Solving homelessness is about much more than putting a roof over people’s heads. Anyone can become homeless, but certain individual factors make it more likely, including relationship breakdown, leaving care, substance abuse and physical and mental health problems. A recent report for Crisis on the experience of single homeless people found that almost half of them had experienced mental ill health, drug dependency, or alcohol dependency, or had served a prison sentence.
Structural factors also play a major role. The continued shortage of housing and the ongoing effects of the economic recession are major drivers of homelessness. The welfare and housing systems have traditionally acted as a buffer between unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Government reforms, particularly cuts to housing benefit, are eroding that safety net. In particular, housing benefit has been cut by around £7 billion. Also, housing supply has not kept pace with demand for many decades. In total, almost 137,000 new houses were supplied in 2013-14—well below the estimated 232,000 required to keep up with demand. More and more people rely on housing benefit to pay their rent. Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the proportion of renters in work and claiming housing benefit doubled from 7% to 14%.
Notwithstanding a very tough economic climate, the Government, much to their credit, have invested £20 million in the homelessness transition fund, which supports 175 voluntary sector projects for single homeless people. The fund also supported the national roll-out of the “No Second Night Out” initiative. Indeed, “No Second Night Out” has been successful in supporting many new rough sleepers in moving off the streets. Some 67% of the rough sleepers worked with were taken off the streets after the first night that they were found to be sleeping rough, and the majority of them did not return to the streets once helped.
Furthermore, the Department for Communities and Local Government introduced the gold standard programme, which is a set of best practice principles for local authorities to sign up to, designed to drive improvements in housing options services. DCLG also invested £13 million in the Crisis private rented access scheme. Since the creation of the scheme, 153 voluntary sector-led projects have helped 9,320 vulnerable people into accommodation, with more than 90% maintaining tenancies for at least six months. Much to their credit, the Government changed the methodology used for local authority rough sleeping counts to make them more accurate in tracking annual trends, which I believe is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was making. The Greater London authority and the Government have invested £5 million in the world’s first homelessness social impact bond, which helped to deliver better outcomes for 831 of London’s most entrenched rough sleepers.
I praise the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and his team at City hall for their work on tackling rough sleeping in the capital. The Mayor’s rough sleeping group, which includes local authorities, DCLG, the Home Office, charities and the police, leads on and co-ordinates the wide-ranging work to tackle rough sleeping throughout our capital. The Mayor invests about £9 million in rough sleeping services every year. Launched in April 2011, the flagship “No Second Night Out” service has helped more than 6,000 new rough sleepers. Around three out of every four rough sleepers now spend only one night outside. The Chancellor and Mayor recently announced that £5 million will be made available to “No Second Night Out”, putting the initiative on a more permanent footing.
However, support for single homeless people remains a challenge. Single homeless people who are not considered to be in priority need for housing can be turned away when they approach their council, with little help and no solution to their housing needs. Single homeless people should be given advice and assistance, but Crisis’s experience and research shows that, too often, that does not happen.
Crisis recently conducted a mystery shopping exercise, in which eight formerly homeless people visited 16 local authorities to examine the quality of advice and assistance that they provide to single homeless people. In well over half the 87 visits, the help offered was inadequate. In 29 cases, they were simply turned away without any help or the opportunity to speak to a housing adviser, despite the mystery shoppers portraying individuals in very vulnerable situations, including someone who was forced to sleep rough after losing their job, a young person thrown out of the family home, a victim of domestic violence and a person with learning difficulties.
Crisis wants all political parties to make a manifesto commitment to reviewing the support given to single homeless people, so that no one is forced to sleep rough and all homeless people get the help that they need. I draw the Minster’s attention to the St Mungo’s Broadway manifesto for the 2015 general election, which identifies many of the key problems surrounding homelessness and the priorities for the next Government to address regarding homelessness.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way a second time. Is he aware of the Children’s Society’s work in this area? The Children’s Society looks after vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds. It has told me that more than half the youngsters in that vulnerable age group who go along to local authorities are rejected. They are not properly assessed or given support, and some are labelled as intentionally homeless. In addition to the excellent work done by Crisis, the Children’s Society’s work draws us to conclude that there is a severe need for a proper review in the next Parliament of what local authorities are doing to implement their statutory responsibilities to conduct proper assessments.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Along with many homelessness charities, the Children’s Society has done a lot of work focused on young people. That 16-to-24 age bracket seems to feel the brunt of homelessness. They are the people who are not served enough. With a little more focus on and support for that age range, I hope that the next Government will commit the resources necessary to address the problem.
Beyond the issue of single-person homelessness, the Government must support individuals with complex and multiple needs. There needs to be an increase in the number and type of health services—including mental health and drug and alcohol services—available to homeless people at hostels and day centres. Tackling issues such as drug and alcohol use requires an holistic approach that considers the specific needs of homeless people. As well as treating addiction, recovery services should provide help with housing—stable accommodation is vital for treatment and recovery—skills and work.
On welfare reform, housing benefit acts as a vital safety net to keep people who fall on hard times in their homes. However, cuts to housing benefit have, unfortunately, been a contributory factor to recent increases in homelessness. As my hon. Friend said, there are particular problems for younger adults, who are limited to receiving the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit. The rate has always been calculated in such a way that it does not reflect the real cost of tenanting a shared property. Although the Government’s intention is that the lowest 30% of the private rented market should be available to people on housing benefit, research by Crisis showed that as little as 2% of shared accommodation was actually available and affordable to benefit recipients. The calculation of the shared accommodation rate should be reviewed to ensure that it meets the real cost of renting shared accommodation and does not leave young adults at risk of homelessness.
Furthermore, there are indications that the current sanctions regime is not working to support more vulnerable people into work. Instead, sanctions are increasing people’s risk of becoming homeless, leaving them struggling with debt and without enough money for food, rent or heating. Sanctions disproportionately affect homeless people, with many facing obstacles—including mental and physical health problems, a history of domestic violence and poor literacy and IT skills—that make it harder for them to meet their work-related conditions. From November 2012 to March 2014, 13% of sanction decisions were overturned, which suggests that a large number of people are being sanctioned incorrectly. That must be addressed, and work should be undertaken to ensure that the right decisions are made first time.
Finally, there must be a significant increase in the number of genuinely affordable homes being supplied each year. Crisis is a core member of the Homes for Britain coalition, which is calling on all political parties to commit to ending the housing crisis within a generation and publishing a plan laying out how they will do so, within a year of taking office.
I end by thanking Crisis again for all the work that it does towards ending the blight of homelessness in our society. The crisis of homelessness is not just for Christmas; it is a problem that must be addressed 24/7, 365 days a year. When I leave the House at the end of the week, I look forward to beginning a new chapter in my life, working with Crisis and other homelessness charities to try to tackle this blight on our society once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) for securing this debate on such an important issue. I want to recognise his work, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), in support of local charities. Their contribution to the debate raises the profile of homelessness and ensures that it remains in the public’s consciousness. It is important to the Government, and tackling homelessness and rough sleeping remains a key priority for us. At the beginning of this Parliament, we made available some £500 million. As a direct consequence of that contribution to tackling homelessness, we managed to prevent some 700,000 people from becoming homeless.
There is no doubt that being homeless affects every aspect of a person’s life. No one should be in such a frightening situation, especially not some of society’s most vulnerable people. Quite often, individual life circumstances create the situation, so it is important that the Government put in place prevention measures and attempt to help such individuals and mitigate the situation.
A housing crisis could happen to anyone at any time. The lucky ones have the resilience to cope with it and, perhaps, the resources to get back on their feet. However, that is of course not always the case. Some vulnerable people struggle to find their way out and become trapped in the cycle of homelessness. As we have seen today, the consequences can be severe. I know that both my hon. Friends have dealt with cases as Members of Parliament and sought to help. I appreciate that. Every MP will have similar experience. Homelessness is not a partisan issue, and I would appreciate a cross-Government response to put in place the right resources to address these vulnerable people’s needs.
The Minister is right to talk about vulnerable people, young ones in particular, and to say that cross-governmental work is required. In the next Parliament further changes to housing benefit will be considered, especially on shared occupancy. Does he agree that just as we are exempting care leavers, because we understand their particular vulnerability, we should also consider exempting young 16, 17 or 18-year-olds who present to local authorities as homeless, so that they have the best chance of getting supported accommodation and the necessary support to get themselves back on their own two feet and participating fully in society?
There has been great debate about some of the challenges we face on the benefits bill, and a future Government will deal with that, whichever party comes to power. My hon. Friend and I, and others, will make a powerful case on the grounds that she has just mentioned.
For those vulnerable people, the services provided by local authorities and voluntary sector partners are a lifeline. I recognise the hard work and dedication of so many people, for whom this is not just a job; it is a vocation. I have been to see individuals who give an enormous amount of time to provide support and care to those vulnerable people.
Housing supply is an important factor, and I reassure colleagues that that is another key priority. We should be proud of what we have done to deliver some 217,000 affordable homes in England since April 2010. That includes £19.5 billion of public and private investment through our affordable homes programme, which will deliver 170,000 new homes by the end of March this year, in a few days’ time. Over the next five years another £38 billion of public and private investment will provide a further 275,000 new affordable homes between 2015 and 2020. Over the next Parliament, we will therefore build more new affordable homes than during any equivalent period in the past 20 years. We should be proud that we have sought to ensure such provision. A lot remains to be done, but bearing in mind the economic circumstances, it is important that we have made that commitment.
I will say a few words about statutory and youth homelessness before coming on to Crisis, which my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree discussed. Despite the difficult economic circumstances, statutory homelessness is significantly lower than it was during its peak period under the previous Government. I do not want to paint an over-rosy picture—we should be realistic about where we are—but the Government have maintained the strong safety net, protected in law, to ensure that families and vulnerable people have a roof over their head. The Government have therefore increased investment in homelessness services over the lifetime of the Parliament, including the £500 million I mentioned.
We have done much to support homeless people. Recently I addressed and listened to members of the Youth Homeless Parliament, who met here in Westminster. Many spoke with passion about their circumstances. Such a dialogue between users of our services, charities and Members of Parliament can shape the services. As a direct consequence of engagement that I have had, a new £15 million fair chance fund will affect the lives of some 1,600 homeless and NEET—those not in education, employment or training—18 to 25-year-olds. It is about targeting money at specific groups.
Another vulnerable group that we wanted to help were those suffering from domestic violence. A £10 million package was initiated for them by the Prime Minister, who wanted to intervene to ensure that we had sufficient capacity to stop refuges closing, and adequate local authority provision to protect vulnerable victims of domestic abuse and their families. Some 148 areas across England will benefit from that resource, which will be rolled out over the next two years.
With violence and abuse, one of the issues for many young people, unfortunately, is that they are forced to return to the area where they are from in order to get housing, even though that is the very environment in which they suffered the abuse. It would be good if the Government had a little more flexibility, in particular when dealing with young people subjected to a violent upbringing. The authorities should not have to say to them, “The only place you can get your housing is back where you suffered abuse.”
Our local authorities have an obligation to ensure that such children, very young people in particular, are safe. My hon. Friend is right: they should not be placed back where they might be vulnerable. He makes a good point, and I am sure that over the coming weeks and months he will continue to make the case, and that he will shape policy.
As the Minister with responsibility for homelessness, I believe that one area that was neglected for many years was single homelessness and rough sleeping. We should be proud of what we have done about rough sleepers through, for example, “No Second Night Out”, and to ensure that the public are involved. The public want to participate, and we have given them some of the mechanisms necessary to do so. They should be proud of their contribution and the amount of it.
I appreciate that time is running out, and all the responses that the Minister is giving. For a young male between 16 and 24, it is particularly difficult to get any form of housing. That is a challenge, and although I understand why it is challenging, we need to address that. If we do not find support and housing for that group, it might unfortunately lead to greater problems further along in their lives.
I only have a few minutes left, so I will pick up on a couple of issues, the first of which is about breaking the cycle that single homeless people find themselves in. How do we get them into employment, if that is possible? How do we give them a stable home to build their lives on?
One of our interventions has been to work with Crisis, which my hon. Friend has mentioned several times. We provided some £14 million of funding to Crisis to enable it to run a project providing access to the private rented sector, which has been a real success. The idea is to help some 10,000 single homeless people to access and sustain privately rented accommodation by 2016. We know that 90% sustain such accommodation for at least six months. It is about giving continuity to those individuals. It is important that we get provision right, and that we give those people who have been trapped in a cycle the opportunity to get themselves away from abuse, drugs and alcohol, putting them in a safe environment so that they can build their lives again with support.
Only a minute or so is left, so I want to put on record my thanks to individuals in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We should not ignore the fact that in the DCLG we have a huge wealth of knowledge—and it is not isolated knowledge that simply sits inside the Department; it is about outreach and understanding the complex issues associated with rough sleeping and homelessness. The Department can be extremely proud.
We should also recognise what local authorities, including the Greater London authority, do. Westminster’s Councillor Robathan has been leading on homelessness and, bearing in mind the complex issues in the borough, she should be applauded, as should Richard Blakeway at the GLA, who has been leading on the issue for some time. We should also say, however, that some authorities are not getting it right. I look to the GLA and other strong local authorities to offer leadership and direction to the weaker authorities that have not always picked up their responsibilities.
I am sure that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government will participate on the issue in future. I hope that Members will ensure that homelessness and rough sleeping stay in the public consciousness, and that the next Government provide an equally responsible response.
Princess Royal University Hospital
I am grateful both to you, Mr Betts, and to the Minister for agreeing to my proposition that I speak for 10 minutes and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who is equally concerned about these matters, may speak for five minutes; the Minister will have the prerogative of the usual arrangements for ministerial responses.
The reason I have raised this matter is that in south-east London generally and in Lewisham in particular we have been around this course before, and know exactly where it wound up then. I will be candid from the off: I am deeply suspicious of the whole process currently being embarked upon by Monitor and of the involvement of the Princess Royal university hospital at Orpington and King’s College hospital trust. I hope the Minister will be able to provide me with some assurances that will assuage my fears about this matter.
I will explain why. On Tuesday 24 July 2012—hardly a day that will live in infamy, but one that certainly remains clear in my mind—we had a meeting at the Department of Health with the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley). My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East was there, as were Members for constituencies in the boroughs of Greenwich and Bromley, including the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I see that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is in his place today; I cannot remember whether he was also at the meeting, but other Members certainly were. The meeting concerned the future of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust, which then consisted effectively of the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich, the Princess Royal university hospital in Orpington, which I chose as the title for the debate today, and Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup.
Members for constituencies in the boroughs of Bexley, Bromley and Greenwich were quite rightly invited to that meeting. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East and I were both invited, even though Lewisham hospital was not part of the South London Healthcare trust. No one else from south-east London—no Members for constituencies in Lambeth or Southwark—was invited or present, although, strangely enough, they were included in the later stages of the discussions by the current Secretary of State for Health after Mr Matthew Kershaw, the trust’s special administrator, had made an initial report. His report essentially looked at the considerable downgrading—some would say the destruction—of Lewisham hospital as the answer to the problems at the Princess Royal, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary’s hospitals.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was talking about the fabled meeting in July 2012—two and a half years ago. When the Secretary of State and the trust special administrator said that the answers to the problems of the then South London Healthcare NHS Trust did not lie within its own boundaries, I knew that what they had in mind was effectively the evisceration of Lewisham hospital. For reasons that have eluded me for decades and more—I used to be on the health authority of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, and the district health authority for Lewisham and north Southwark—various elements of NHS London have always had Lewisham hospital in their sights. There was once a plan for there to be only four accident and emergency and general hospitals in south-east London: St Thomas’, King’s, PRUH and Queen Elizabeth; there was no room for Lewisham. I do not know why the various NHS powers think Lewisham is such an encumbrance. The service it provides to its residents and the pressure it relieves from the other hospitals around south-east London are proof positive of its value.
The morning of 5 March dawned—I was quite delighted about that, because it was my birthday. At 9.25 am, I received an e-mail from Monitor, explaining that,
“Monitor is opening an investigation at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to find a lasting solution to long-standing problems at the Princess Royal University Hospital…The regulator is concerned that some patients are waiting too long for A&E treatment”—
nothing unusual there. Not one of the hospitals in south-east London—not St Thomas’, over the river, not PRUH, not Queen Elizabeth, not Lewisham, not King’s—is currently meeting the 95% targets for seeing attendances at A and E, so that is not surprising. The e-mail went on to say,
“and routine operations…the trust is predicting a deficit of more than £40m this financial year. This deterioration in its operational and financial performance follows the unexpected costs of making urgent improvements to the quality of care at the PRUH.”
Well, Princess Royal was taken over by King’s College hospital as a consequence of the trust special administrator’s recommendations, and that is the problem it has run into.
When the trust special administrator was appointed, the Secretary of State said in a statement to the House:
“The trust is losing well over £1 million of taxpayers’ money a week, which means that vital resources are being diverted from other parts of the NHS.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2012; Vol. 552, c. 3WS.]
The difference between the £1 million a week then and the predicted £40 million a year at PRUH alone now clearly demonstrates that the trust’s special administration process did not address the right problems. Clearly, the problem was predominantly at Princess Royal.
Queen Elizabeth is now part of a very successful partnership with University hospital Lewisham, and it is doing quite well. It is not without difficulties, but that is the case for any organisations that come together under difficult circumstances. However, it is making progress in clinical and financial affairs, and is well on the way to building a solid and reliable NHS entity in our part of south-east London. That demonstrates that the entire TSA process was substantially illegal, because as we know, the High Court—and subsequently the Court of Appeal—found the trust special administrator’s recommendation with regard to Lewisham hospital, and the current Secretary of State’s stubborn refusal to accept anything other than those proposals, to be illegal. The Secretary of State did not have the powers he assumed he had and could not reorganise in the way that was suggested. He even had the hubris to try and test it at the Court of Appeal, which found similarly that that was the case. Thankfully, sense prevailed at that stage and he left it there, deciding not to waste any more taxpayers’ money by going to the Supreme Court.
However, the Government introduced an amendment to the Bill that became the Care Act 2014, giving them the power that they thought they originally had to do whatever they liked by appointing a trust special administrator. This is where we come to the key worry about the future of Princess Royal and King’s. It is not just about the services that are provided there, which are critically important to all the constituents of Members here today, but about the fear that Monitor, using the powers that the Government put into that Act, will try to engineer another back-door reorganisation involving Lewisham hospital. As I say, that was originally declared illegal, but Lewisham could be dragged into it by other means, so the Government can achieve what they originally meant to achieve and were stopped from so doing.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Do I gather that his principal concern is the impact on Lewisham, and not the fact that Monitor is looking at accepted issues at the Princess Royal and King’s? From his point of view, it is the Lewisham dimension, rather than what it is necessary to do at the Princess Royal. Am I right in that?
I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. Clearly, financial management is an important part of running the NHS. Everybody knows that, whether it is in our part of south-east London or more broadly.
I totally agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. My worry is that the Secretary of State negated the bill. It was wiped clean, and £44 million is a huge amount of money in the very short time that King’s has apparently been mismanaging the PRUH.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I do not think that would be King’s view. I hold no particular brief for King’s college hospital, other than the fact that I had a heart bypass there a few years ago, so I owe them my life. However, beyond that, I have no particular indebtedness to them. I know that there is a strong feeling that it was misled about what taking on the PRUH would actually mean, and the operational and financial consequences.
I accept that point.
That is very gracious—characteristically so—of the hon. Gentleman. I have four points to make briefly: three are questions, and I would also like an assurance from the Minister.
First, I would like an indication about the time scale. How long will Monitor take to report and what is the process following the report? Who will get to review it and how will it be taken beyond that? Secondly, what are the requirements/benefits and the consequences of what Monitor and the letter I received from King’s later that day—5 March—say, which is that the legal powers that Monitor possesses are needed to underpin the changes that are necessary to King’s foundation trust and the PRUH? Thirdly, how much consultation will there be with other providers and commissioners across south-east London outside King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust? Finally, I want an absolute guarantee that University hospital Lewisham and Queen Elizabeth hospital Woolwich, now the Lewisham and Greenwich trust, will not be adversely affected by any decisions that Monitor makes.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) on securing the debate. I also thank him for sharing his time with me so that I can put on record my concerns about the challenges facing the Princess Royal and other hospitals in south-east London.
When I first learnt about the Monitor investigation into the PRUH a few weeks ago, I was worried, like my hon. Friend, that we might be witnessing the start of another process that would end up with Ministers or NHS officials wanting to close Lewisham’s full A and E. I was worried because, as he has said, we have been here before. Problems in a neighbouring hospital trust, of which the PRUH was then a part, resulted in NHS bureaucrats casting around, on the look-out for ways to save money.
It is understandable that my constituents might be suspicious about the latest investigation, given their experience a few years ago with the trust special administration process, which, as we all know, had at its heart an ill-judged and illegal attempt by the Government to close services at Lewisham in order to sort out problems at the PRUH and the Queen Elizabeth hospital.
The Minister may tell us today that this process is entirely different, but it would be helpful if she could set out exactly what the process is limited to, the time scale of the process and what change could come about as a result of the investigation. Is it about giving King’s and the PRUH more money to adequately provide the services that are needed? Is it about changing leadership at the hospital or providing specific types of support? When the investigation is concluded, how will local people know what has been proposed? Will we, as local Members of Parliament, get a copy of Monitor’s full report? Could another trust special administration process be triggered?
I am keen to get answers to those questions. Although we successfully fought the Government’s proposals for Lewisham hospital last time around, the Government have since changed the law. They can now use a rushed and chaotic process to force service closures at any hospital in the country as long as they deem the neighbouring hospital trust to be failing. Given that cynical move by the Government, it is little wonder that among my constituents there is considerable anxiety that the proposals to take services away from Lewisham will rear their head again.
I tell the Minister, for the sake of clarity if nothing else, that the people of Lewisham are adamant: no matter what the problems in neighbouring hospitals are, our full accident and emergency and maternity departments are essential local services that we cannot do without. I am not saying that everything is perfect, but when there are such huge pressures on the system, such as those we saw in the winter, my constituents are right when they say to me, “Just think how much worse it would have been if they had closed Lewisham.”
There are enormous pressures on London hospitals, and the situation is getting worse. At the PRUH, according to the chief executive’s January board report, one in four people who attended the A and E there in December were not seen within four hours. The latest weekly figures for both the PRUH and Lewisham hospital show a much lower percentage of patients seen within four hours than this time three years ago. We know that the PRUH is heavily reliant on nursing agency staff because of recruitment difficulties. That has resulted in an overspend on its staffing budget. I could list other problems, but time is short.
Suffice it to say, the system is under increasing pressure, and that has happened on this Government’s watch. When I first stood to be a Member of Parliament five years ago, the NHS hardly ever came up on the doorstep. It now comes up time and again. When I get an e-mail from a constituent telling me about their elderly neighbour being left waiting hours for an ambulance to turn up, waiting hours on a trolley to be seen in A and E and then waiting hours to be given a bed, I know that something is seriously wrong with our health service.
Will the Minister give us her honest assessment of the state of hospital services in south-east London? Will she set out exactly what her Government are doing to resolve the problems and give us categorical reassurance that the latest investigation into the Princess Royal hospital is not just another attempt to come after services in Lewisham?
I say now to colleagues who understandably are concerned about local health services and have rightly raised concerns on behalf of their constituents that if I cannot cover some of their questions in the next 12 minutes, I will undertake to write to them in the remaining days of this Parliament, or to ask someone else to write to them, so that we can try to give them some reassurance.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on raising her concerns. Taking my cue from what was said previously, I start by paying tribute to all those working in London’s NHS—in those hon. Members’ constituencies, in mine and right across London—for their dedication and commitment to providing first-class services to those in their care at a time when we know that the system is, in places, under pressure.
As we have heard, after consulting with the trust, its commissioners and the London strategic health authority, the then Secretary of State instituted the special administration process at South London Healthcare NHS Trust in July 2012. He was guided in making that very difficult decision on the basis of the clinical interests of local patients, with advice from the NHS medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh. The decision was also based on the fact that there was no clear option for restoring the trust’s finances while maintaining the quality of services to patients. It was clear at the time that doing nothing was not an option. Not resolving the issues at the trust would have carried a high degree of risk. It would have meant that the trust would not meet the London-wide clinical quality standards and that £1 million a week would continue to be diverted from front-line patient care into funding an unsustainable deficit.
The trust special administrator looked extensively at whether there was an option within South London Healthcare NHS Trust to solve the problem. He invited expressions of interest from other people who might run the hospitals in the group, but no one was able to come forward with a proposal that would solve the problem within the existing footprint of the trust. Indeed, there were no proposals that would not have involved neighbouring health care economies.
The long-standing clinical, operational and financial problems at South London Healthcare NHS Trust led the trust special administrator to recommend that Princess Royal university hospital be acquired by King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. The associated hospital sites in Bromley—Beckenham Beacon and Orpington hospital—were part of that transaction. I must say for the record that the transaction agreement was signed by all parties and no information was withheld from any organisation.
At the time, South London Healthcare NHS Trust was the most financially challenged in the country, with a deficit of £65 million per annum. Repeated local attempts to resolve the financial crisis at the trust had failed. Millions of pounds were spent on paying for debt rather than improving patient care for the local community in south-east London. The trust special administrator was clear that long-standing problems at South London Healthcare NHS Trust must not be allowed to compromise patient care in the future. That is why, after careful consideration, the Secretary of State accepted his recommendations, including that the PRUH be transferred to King’s.
The new expanded trust is one of London’s largest and busiest teaching hospitals and plays a key role in the education and training of the next generation of medical, nursing and dental students. King’s has acknowledged that it has been facing a number of pressures that have had a bearing on its performance. The challenge of integrating and transforming the performance of the PRUH, combined with a significant increase in emergency in-patient activity, has, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge described, adversely affected the trust’s operational and financial performance. A key aim of the trust’s five-year strategy is to restore its traditional high levels of performance, in particular by returning to achieving its emergency department and referral to treatment waiting time targets.
Monitor has concerns that some patients are waiting too long for A and E treatment and routine operations and that the trust is predicting a deficit of more than £40 million in this financial year. The regulator is undertaking its investigation to find a lasting solution to long-standing problems at the PRUH. Monitor is concerned that the trust’s operational and financial performance issues post the acquisition of the PRUH have not improved in line with expectations. In particular, some long-standing financial and operational performance issues at the hospital have continued post acquisition.
May I say this on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who cannot be at the debate? He and I would want to put on the record the fact that there have been areas of improvement at the Princess Royal and at Orpington, particularly in terms of patient experience scores, which have picked up considerably. On the point that my hon. Friend the Minister just mentioned, we are especially concerned at the prospect that has been raised that the full financial picture may not become available to King’s until after the acquisition. It is very clear—I hope that the Minister can assure us on this—that the Monitor investigation is intended once and for all to get to the bottom of, the root of, the financial difficulties that this trust suffers. May I also say that I welcome the appointment of the noble Lord Kerslake as chairman of the King’s trust? He will bring considerable credibility and rigour to that process.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will say more about Monitor’s role, but it is very much in line with what he said and I hope to give him the assurance that he seeks.
Monitor has been working with King’s, local clinical commissioning groups, the NHS Trust Development Authority and NHS England since the acquisition and has worked more closely with the trust recently to get a better picture of the challenges that it faces. However, Monitor has decided to take the new, formal action because King’s has not been able to tackle its challenges on its own. Monitor considers that continuing to work with the trust through more intensive and formal engagement will help to drive the necessary changes.
I want at this point to highlight the fact that, following a formal investigation into a suspected licence breach at a foundation trust, Monitor does not have the power to direct non-foundation trusts, nor does it have the power to direct neighbouring foundation trusts unless they themselves are in breach of their licence. The range of actions available to the regulator range from informal action—for example, requesting further information—to formal enforcement action, including the imposition of additional licence conditions.
Where appropriate, Monitor seeks to encourage the whole health economy to work together to reach a locally owned, consensual solution, which is very much in line with the NHS “Five Year Forward View”. Monitor has said that it recognises that King’s has been working hard, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has said, to improve the quality of care provided at the PRUH. However, through its close work with the trust, Monitor has discovered that achieving the necessary financial and operational turnaround at the PRUH will be a greater challenge than was initially anticipated. Therefore, the regulator has decided to open a formal investigation as part of the regulatory process, which will enable it to use its legal powers to underpin the changes that the trust needs to make. The investigation will help Monitor to decide what resources and support King’s needs to enable it to deal with its financial problems and reduce waiting times for patients. Monitor will announce in due course the outcome of the investigation and whether it will take any further action. There is no statutory time scale for the investigation, because it depends on the scale of the issues encountered. I am sure that all hon. Members would want those issues to be looked at thoroughly.
May I just confirm that that means that Lewisham hospital will not be touched by Monitor? Lewisham hospital was a successful hospital before the last investigation, and it appears to be a successful hospital now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I have just made clear for the record what Monitor’s powers are and are not. I hope that that gives Members on both sides of the Chamber greater clarity than they had when we started. Monitor is in the process of concluding its investigation. It will announce in due course the outcome and whether it will take any further action. Key findings and any next steps will be announced by means of a press notice. Colleagues from Monitor are here in the House, and I would like to put them on notice that I expect—I am sure that they also expect this—Monitor to engage fully with local Members. Clearly, we are entering a more tricky period from that point of view, but on the other side of the election I expect there to be full engagement with local Members, particularly as the solution lies, as I think it will in other health economies that are challenged, in the whole local health economy coming together to understand how to work through the problems. That is laid out in NHS England’s “Five Year Forward View”.
The Minister talks about further support that may be available to King’s and the PRUH when Monitor has concluded its investigation. Will she give some examples of the form that that support may take?
If it is acceptable to the hon. Lady, I will write to her to provide some clarity on that. It might be helpful, for example, for Monitor to give examples from other investigations of the sorts of things that it undertook and the changes that it requested through the formal process. I will write to her with some examples to give her a sense of that. I have sought to give a degree of reassurance to Members, and I hope that I have managed to do so.
I detect that the Minister has almost concluded her remarks, and I will not have the opportunity to intervene once she has sat down. I am grateful for what she has said, and I will look at the Official Report most carefully. I would be grateful to be copied in on any information that is sent to other Members.
I would like to make another point, out of courtesy, as much as anything else. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst welcomed the appointment of the new chair of King’s trust, Lord Kerslake. May I put on record a huge vote of gratitude to Sir George Alberti, who is standing down as the chair of the trust, for the service that he has given to King’s and the health service more generally?
That is entirely appropriate. I detect a desire among Members from all parts of the Chamber to work towards a better future for the health economy in their local areas. At the end of the process, we want sustainable, excellent services that offer the quality of care that we would wish for our constituents. Although there is not much time left in this Parliament, I undertake to look at the Hansard record of the questions asked by both hon. Members, because the topic is so important for their constituencies. If there is anything I can add to my remarks by way of clarity or response, I will get that to them. Monitor has heard me put on the record my desire for Members of Parliament to be kept fully involved and engaged with the process once we are through the small matter of the general election.
I believe that this is the last Westminster Hall sitting of this Parliament. In the minute that remains, I would like, on behalf of hon. Members who are present and the many hundreds of others who have spoken in and attended our second debating Chamber over the course of the Parliament, to thank you, Mr Betts, and, through you, all your colleagues who have chaired our debates. I thank all the staff of the House, the Doorkeepers and all who have attended and participated in those debates. I have apparently clocked up 50 debates while I have been a Health Minister, many of them in Westminster Hall. It is apparent to me that Westminster Hall serves an important purpose in allowing us to debate important matters, particularly those of the nature of the subject that we have discussed today. On behalf of all Members of Parliament, I thank all the staff and everyone who supports Westminster Hall in its duties.
Order. For the last time this Parliament, the sitting stands adjourned.
Question put and agreed to.